The complicity of silence normalizes the unacceptable

by | Oct 15, 2017

Let's not fool ourselves, a complicity of silence exists everywhere

 In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein crisis the film industry is going through a period of introspection. But we all know that it is part of a wider general complicity of silence which we find  in other sectors too.

Harvey Weinstein will be forever synonymous with his behaviour as a sexual predator who consistently and repeatedly abused his power over the women who crossed his path. The number of women who are now stepping up seems to be growing every day. But what is striking is the degree of complicity that has surrounded these incidents and enabled this abuse to take place.  Whether it's the executive secretaries setting up meetings, agents sending unsuspecting, innocent young talent to hotel rooms for appointments, lawyers drafting Non-Disclosure Agreements or accountants paying settlements.  All have played their part. It was seemingly a well-kept and "open secret" that a myriad of people perpetuated, by choosing not to speak up. This complicity of silence has made them part of a deeply rooted collusion and enabling process. They are probably feeling very uneasy now.

Widespread toleration

complicity of silence

The jokes about the casting couch route to stardom is well-known, even to those disconnected from the bling and glitter in Hollywood. The Marilyn Monroe line of spending a lot of time on her knees is legendary, way beyond movie circles. It seems that sexual predators maybe more numerous in the film industry, perhaps because career success for women is so closely linked to appearance and looks. However, there is no doubt that other sectors have their own share.

There is not one of us who hasn't been aware of the office play boy, the misogynist sales team or the groper Director. We talked about it over coffee and made sure we were never alone with them. In offices where sexual harassment was common place, we saw women sidelined into other departments, usually to the detriment of their own career. Sometimes they left the organisation. We noted the lack of support from HR - very frequently women, and also line managers, especially if the perpetrator was commercially valuable. We see it in the media every day: on-line, on our screens and in newspapers, both in writing and images.  We understand why women are afraid to come forward. Eyes roll when women persistently call these things out, quite often followed by abusive comments.

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Re-defining success

But this behaviour runs deeper. It's about the way we define success and what some feel they have to do to be part of that inner circle. In a paper, Why the Assholes Are Winning (2016), Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, suggests that the relationship with power and wealth creates a situation where: "for all the lofty values and leadership aspirations we profess to hold, there is precious little evidence that real choices and behaviour, or even hierarchies of status and awards, reflect what we espouse"

He then goes on to say:  "Instead, numerous behaviours suggest that it seemingly doesn't matter what an individual or a company does, to human beings or the environment, as long as they are sufficiently rich and successful." 

We accept behaviour over and over again which is offensive, dangerous and immoral in all areas of our lives socially, not just professionally. The fact that another sexual predator when exposed went onto become President of the United States, says a lot about the society we live in and our levels of toleration. What type of poor behaviour will people ignore or tolerate to protect their careers or achieve their goals? And what about those potentially less successful careers, because those women rebuffed a powerful man? What are you willing to ignore?

Real change

So although some voices believe that this Weinstein scandal will usher in a sea change, while money and power are the benchmarks of success it will be interesting to see how long those changes actually endure. While we rationalize, de-escalate, minimize or ignore men behaving badly, we all become enablers. This ubiquitous complicity of silence normalizes the unacceptable. We want Weinstein to be more than the sacrificial lamb thrown to the wolves to satisfy baying public opinion in the short-term. And although Weinstein is paying the penalty for decades of abusive and possibly illegal behaviour, and has been expelled from the American Film Academy, let's not forget  that Roman Polanski who is charged with raping a 13-year-old girl, is still a member.

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