I can no longer be silent.
Over the last several weeks we've been transfixed as one after another story of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse has unfolded.
I've tried alternately to put myself in the position of the women who have spoken out and the men who have been accused of abusing their power. I cannot pretend to comprehend the emotions of the victims nor the motives of the perpetrators.
I've never been in the position of feeling threatened or violated by someone who was using their power to cross the line of demarcation between a professional relationship and the intimately personal space of my body or mind. So, I cannot, with any shred of integrity, claim to fully understand what it must feel like to be in that position. However, I am equally at a loss to understand how anyone, especially someone in a position of power and authority, can violate those same boundaries.
I can't speak to the accusations against any one person. I don't know any more than what we've all been told. But what I do know is that we are collectively, and finally, speaking out about the importance of drawing lines that should never be crossed, especially in the workplace where power, position, authority, and trust form the bedrock on which we base so much of our self-esteem and worth and on which we build our lives and careers.
Silence Is Not An Ally
I've been fortunate enough to earn the mantle of leader from those who have put their trust in me. I know I am far from alone in taking on that trust as a near sacred responsibility to treat those same people with respect.
So, let's be crystal clear about one thing, while as a society we may have avoided the conversation of exactly where to draw those lines, there has always been a responsibility that each of us has had, as leaders or otherwise, to individually make a conscious and unwavering decision as to where those lines exist in our own lives. To not do so is to forsake our own personal integrity and conscience for a license to embark on a slippery ethical and moral slope which leads in only one direction, downwards. Lies, deception, betrayal of trust, are all waypoints on that path, but for anyone in a position of power to use that advantage to sexually intimidate, harass, or assault a coworker is near the rock bottom of that slope.
I cannot say #MeToo, but over the years far too many women I've been close to have shared with me their own experiences and encounters with men in power who crossed or attempted to cross the line and take advantage of that imbalance in power. In some cases it was bullying and in others outright abuse, but in all cases it was men who felt that they were justified in drawing the line in shades of gray so that they could easily traverse it with impunity. It is nothing less than an utter perversion of the privilege of power.
However, I've just as often been witness, and sometimes party, to the societal aversion to draw those hard lines and instead reinforce the wrong behaviors.
There was the grand jury case for sexual assault that I was once on in which many of my fellow jurors refused to indict because they felt the victim should have known better. I can still vividly recall leaving the grand jury room, on our lunch break, and walking past the accuser as she was seated in the hallway on a wooden courtroom bench. She looked at the floor trying not to make eye contact with us as we filed past. A grand jury only needs a majority to indict. The majority never materialized. I'm still haunted by the image of her blankly gazing downwards in silence.
The girlfriend who shared with me how her boss had repeatedly made sexually suggestive comments and advances towards her without any sense for the impact it had. I couldn't begin to comprehend what it felt like or how someone could do that. She was 21, it was her first job, she was terrified at what might happen if she spoke up. She felt her only choice was silence.
The first board of directors I was on, which after just three meetings ended up discussing how to settle an accusation of sexual misconduct to just make it go away before its volume became a problem. Silence.
Silence is rarely an ally of the truth.
If you're reading this and saying, "No, this doesn't apply to me. I'm silent because I'm not part of the problem." Then let me be clear. This isn't just about whether you are an abuser, harasser, groper, or perpetrator. The overwhelming majority of people are not. It's about whether you see the abuse and tolerate it. It's about whether you listen to the stories of the courageous women (or men) who come forward and dismiss them. If we do so, then we are complicit. As 19th Century British philosopher John Stuart Mill famously said, "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
So, while it's tempting for you or I to raise ourselves above being part of the problem, the degree to which any of us have turned a deaf ear to or sat by silently while witnessing someone else in a position of power approach or cross that line is, in fact, the biggest problem.
As I listen to the voices of the women who are no longer silenced I celebrate their courage. Because of them our daughters and sons will have that much greater license to speak out.
What is acceptable in an organization or society is a collective agreement on where the behavioral boundaries are drawn. And there are boundaries here that are long overdue in being defined and openly talked about--boundaries that form a solid line of demarcation between what constitutes the privileged use of power and its predatory abuse.
It's about time we lifted the silence and collectively found the courage to draw that line.