The continuing revelations about Harvey Weinstein tell us something important about sexual harassment and sexual violence and also about civil-rights movements and social change more broadly.
Because of social norms, people often shut up. Even if they are humiliated, hurt or angry, they will not say a word. It is only when norms start to shift that people feel free to disclose what they have experienced and to say what they think.
Once they are unleashed, social upheaval can result. But it is hard or even impossible to predict whether that will happen — and what form it will take.
I learned something about self-silencing and sexual harassment in the late 1980s, when I was a visiting professor at Columbia Law School. In the hallway near my office, a law student (female) was speaking to an older law professor (male). To my astonishment, the professor was stroking the student’s hair.
I thought I glimpsed a grimace on her face — a quick flash. When he left, I said to her: “That was completely inappropriate. He shouldn’t have done that.” Her response was dismissive: “It’s fine. It’s really not a problem.”
Thirty minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. It was the student. She was in tears. She said: “He does this all the time. It’s horrible. My boyfriend thinks I should make a formal complaint, but I don’t want to do that. Please, I don’t want to make a fuss. Do not talk to him about it and do not tell anyone.”
After hearing my comment, the student was willing to tell me what she actually thought. But back then, the norm against making any kind of public complaint was apparently pretty firm — firm enough that she was unwilling to confront her harasser.
In the past decades, of course, that norm has been greatly weakened. In some places, at least, victims have been unleashed, in the sense that they can disclose their experiences. But as shown by the length of time that it took for the accusations against Weinstein to come to light, there is still a taboo, in other places, against public complaints.
In these circumstances, “norm entrepreneurs” — people who are willing to speak out and try to change the norm — can be crucial. It helps if they’re famous. But sheer numbers can be enough. Eventually there can be a social cascade, as people are influenced by the thoughts and deeds of others, so that what was once silence is replaced by a loud and continuing cry: #MeToo.
That is what we’re observing for sexual harassment and assault, but similar processes have occurred in countless domains.
As late as 2007, it might have seemed preposterous to predict that, within a decade, numerous states would recognize same-sex marriages, let alone that the U.S. Supreme Court would require all states to do so.
But that happened, above all, for one reason: Many gays and lesbians came out of the closet. When faced with one’s own son or daughter — or neighbors, colleagues and heroes — it became much harder to be homophobic or to support bans on same-sex marriage.
When norms shift, so that people stop silencing themselves, injustice and cruelty can be exposed, and societies can advance. But sometimes the opposite can occur. Self-silencing is often a product of norms that hold societies together — and that help to prevent terrible things, even horrors.