Can Men Like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby be Forgiven and/or Rehabilitated?
Readers of this here blog know I’m a little bit obsessed with the public statement Harvey Weinstein made in the wake of his life and career-destroying rape and harassment scandal where he vowed to kick his demons’ pasty asses, learn to meditate so good rape monster viruses will be forcibly ejected from his bloodstream, and then come back and end Donald Trump politically while destroying the NRA as well.
There was also a part where he quoted Jay-Z and said he was donating five MILLION dollars to some bullshit fund for broad directors and by the way, did he mention he was doing it all in his saintly mother’s name? It was a document so jarringly, ridiculously off that it begs to be taught in public relations classes as how not to communicate with the public in the midst of a serious, potentially calamitous scandal.
Weinstein’s epic exercise in intertwined self-mythologizing and self-delusion was remarkable for how instantly wrong it turned out to be. Show-business saw Weinstein’s sweaty, desperate offer of, “Brief period of ‘spiritual growth’, sex rehab and then I come back bigger than ever, baby!” and instead offered instead “Permanent banishment from show-business, effective immediately.”
My fascination with Weinstein’s bizarre misconception of what his life would look like in the aftermath of an explosion of horrific accusations and allegations led me to write about The Boss for Lukewarm Takes, which is likewise about a rich, arrogant, narcissistic mogul brought low by allegations of criminal misbehavior but redeemed through their friendship with their former assistant.
In this case, Melissa McCarthy’s character’s transgression is Martha Stewart-like insider trading, which is a whole lot easier to forgive and forget than raping, harassing and terrorizing women for thirty years, as Weinstein is accused of doing. This led me to wonder whether it’s possible to forgive people like Weinstein, to see them as rehabilitated and welcome them back into show-business.
Weinstein sure would like to believe that it is. He seemed myopically convinced that after a couple of months of therapy, all would be forgiven and he’d re-assume his throne, as God intended. Needless to say, it didn’t play out that way. Rehabilitation and forgiveness was certainly possible for Martha Stewart, who committed the crime of being a strong woman, and, also insider trading, and went to jail but now is seen as a lovable American icon, not unlike fellow ex-convict Mike Tyson, who rebounded from a rape conviction to become a figure of fun in projects like The Mike Tyson Mysteries, which asks what would happen if, in addition to being a convicted sex criminal, Tyson also solved mysteries and palled around with talking animals?
The default move in instances like this is to put out a public statement strongly denying that the things the person is accused of ever happened, followed by a vague semi-apology and a vow to conquer their sex or substance addiction and be a better person for the sake of their friends and family and colleagues.
By simultaneously denying misbehavior and vowing to take the steps necessary to correct the misbehavior you’re pretending never happened, these scandal-wracked men (and it’s almost always men, despite The Boss centering on a woman) are doubly distancing themselves from rape and sexual harassment. They’re saying it never happened, and being the upstanding, daughter-and-mother-having exemplar of human decency, obviously never could have happened, but if it did, it was obviously the product of cocaine addiction, or sex addiction, or untreated mental illness, and should be judged more leniently in that light.
Don’t get me wrong: there certainly are things that can be explained, if not necessarily excused, by addiction: missed performances and erratic behavior and wild mood swings. But sexual harassment and sexual assaults don’t seem to be things Weinstein did once or twice at the very nadir of his addiction, just before he had his moment of clarity and vowed to go straight. No, for seemingly his entire adult life, sexual assault and harassment were at the core of who Weinstein was as a businessman and human being. They weren’t things he did because he had a disease: they defined who he was, and remains, just as it’s impossible now to understand Bill Cosby’s legacy outside his status as a prolific alleged rapist of vulnerable young women.
For a long time, the decades of rape allegations functioned as something like a nagging little asterisk to Cosby’s saintly reputation: I mean, sure a bunch of women said he drugged and raped them and their stories all sound the same but wasn’t The Cosby Show groundbreaking and important? Can’t taint that kind of legacy over a couple dozen assaults. I mean, who even knows how those women might have been dressed?
It’s tough to know exactly where to draw the line for unforgivable behavior. It’s a little easier, sometimes, to determine when someone has crossed it. For example, I have not listened to R. Kelly or bought any of his music ever since I decided “operating a sex cult” and “committing sex crimes against underage women” both fell on the “unforgivable” side. I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to get to that place.
Can men like Weinstein or Cosby be forgiven and rehabilitated? I don’t think so. They’re too old to change their ways. And they seem devoid of genuine empathy of remorse. In fact, they seem like sociopaths devoid of empathy and basic human decency. For the same reason, I don’t think people like Mel Gibson or R. Kelly should be forgiven either.
Because while I am a big believer in forgiveness and rehabilitation in the abstract, and on a political level, I feel like we’re too eager to forgive powerful heterosexual men and too unwilling to hold them truly accountable for their actions, on both a personal and a political level.
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