The reckoning brought on by the #MeToo movement, reported on by my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleagues at The Times, was long overdue and a huge net positive. It took years of dogged reporting on odious cases like those of Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein to fuel the #MeToo movement, bringing necessary attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The behavior here was clearly egregious; the results were clear-cut and necessary. But then there are the more muddled cases.
Around the time that Langella was fired, allegations of misconduct concerning the actor Bill Murray on the set of “Being Mortal,” resulting in his suspension, and the firing of Fred Savage, the director of a reboot of “The Wonder Years,” also made headlines. It’s hard to know what to make of the near-constant stream of accusations of “inappropriate behavior” coming primarily out of Hollywood and the media world when smaller infractions seem to be treated much the same as appalling transgressions.
Part of the complicated fallout from #MeToo seems to be a lack of due process in responding to accusations. We’ve all heard stories of #MeToo overreach and backlash. Many people who work in the media or academia or entertainment, like me, have witnessed at least one person who has gone through some version of this. There are cases in which, whatever the accusers’ motivations, their claims are not found to be true or the punishment is out of proportion to the offense. Often the accused are convicted in the court of Twitter or ushered out by human resources and left to suffer the material and psychic losses. Public condemnation, even in the absence of evidence, can be enough to damage a life.
One high-profile example involves the novelist Junot Díaz, who was accused in 2018 of sexual misconduct by one writer and more generally of misogynistic behavior by several writers on Twitter. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches writing, found no evidence of misconduct toward students or staff members. The Pulitzer Prize Board, for which he served as chair, found no reason to remove him after a five-month review by an independent law firm. But not before his reputation was sullied.
There is no court of appeals if the offending party believes he was wrongly or unfairly accused. Langella said he was told by lawyers and advisers to follow the now standard cycle of abject public apology: “Do the talk shows, show contrition, feign humility. Say you’ve learned a lot. ” This seems to be the preferred route, but it’s by no means assured, nor does it always sit well with those who believe their actions do not warrant the punishment.
To raise these issues is not to betray or mistrust women. This is not a battle between the sexes. True, women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual harassment and misconduct. But nearly every woman has a father, brother, husband or son. Any one of the men in our lives could wind up on the wrong end of an accusation, perhaps for good reason but perhaps for no good reason at all.
Nobody wants to knee-jerkingly take down another Al Franken, who was effectively forced to resign from the Senate over iffy allegations of inappropriate behavior during photo ops and comic sketches. Yet how to account for the fact that not all complaints of impropriety are alike?