This is the first of three posts on how the #Me Too Movement is changing of the law of sexual harassment. First, I’ll address generally the difficult nature of preventing such behavior. Second, I’ll summarize and comment on changes to Vermont Law on this subject. Third, I’ll describe and comment on the federal response.
Preventing Sexual Harassment is a Complex and Difficult Problem
People seem to think that–like Trade Wars–making good public policy is easy. It isn’t. The central problem is that it is hard to anticipate how changing policy will affect behavior.
When there is widespread news of evil conduct, a common human reflex is to make the conduct illegal, or if it’s already illegal, to make the law tougher. Sometimes that’s a useful response. Sometimes it’s not. Particularly when a large segment of the public is demanding action, it’s hard for public officials to follow a wise maxim from the medical world: diagnosis first, treatment second.
The Me Too Movement has Done a Great Deal of Good
The outrageous conduct of Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent revelations that sexual harassment has been widespread and widely tolerated in the entertainment industry, and far beyond that world, have sparked a healthy revulsion against such conduct, broad public understanding that the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault are virtually commonplace and have encouraged countless victims to speak out and demand change. The Me Too Movement (#Me Too) has done a great deal to improve the climate for victims of locally, nationally and internationally.
No comment on this subject could be complete without offering kudos to Tarana Burke, a social activist and community organizer, who began using the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society.
Public Policy can have Unintended Consequences
Unfortunately designing and implementing effective public policy is not easy. Sometimes policy has unintended consequences. Problems like sexual harassment and assault have a seemingly intractable nature, and real significant change takes wisdom, skill, and, in my opinion, sustained and repeated effort. I am convinced that we are dealing with deep-seated problems of human nature that lie at the intersection of human reproductive drive, ego, and power. I think of a speech, What Desires Are Politically Important? (December 11, 1950), delivered by one of my heroes, Bertrand Russell, as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature, as bearing on these issues. Russell argues that even when the drives to survive and to reproduce are sated – albeit temporarily — four basic desires of human beings, “acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and love of power,” remain insatiable. I think that these issues lie at the center of the dark side of human nature. And as Russell said then, “it is imperative that our political thinking should penetrate more deeply into the springs of human action.”
Forgive me an aside: If you can get by the somewhat dated language, even after nearly 70 years, Russell’s speech is remains a worthwhile comment on human nature and politics. Consider this quote as a partial explanation of our current national political scene:
Interwoven with many other political motives are two closely related passions to which human beings are regrettably prone: I mean fear and hate. It is normal to hate what we fear, and it happens frequently, though not always, that we fear what we hate. I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar.”
Solving this Problem Won’t be Easy
All this is meant to say that the prevention of sexual harassment is no simple task and requires an understanding of human nature, political savvy, legal knowledge, and willingness keep trying over time and adjust based on experience.