WHY did nobody say anything earlier about Harvey Weinstein? The question keeps being asked, like an indignant refrain, with every accusation made against the Hollywood mogul by a succession of actresses. Despite the film producer’s insistence that any sexual relationships were consensual, the tone of the discourse assumes his guilt, in its outrage at the fact that he was not brought to justice earlier.
The truth is that we never learn the lessons of history. The same questions were earlier raised, in the same tone of naïve outrage, about the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, orphanages and care homes, schools, the army, the music industry, and the BBC. Jimmy Savile was the focus of a storm of moral indignation, much like the one currently whirling around Mr Weinstein.
In the case of Savile, it was warranted. Due legal process and a sense of natural justice mean that it is premature to pass judgement on Mr Weinstein. But there is something more important here than the guilt of individuals.
Several decades ago, when Savile was at the height of his fame and his predations, and when churches were discovering reprehensible abuses of sexual power among the clergy, there was a lack of understanding of offender psychology. Then, it was deemed understandable for a bishop to have taken at face value the remorseful apology and firm purpose of amendment of an offending priest. Few, if any, realised that some kind of recidivist addiction drives these horrible crimes. Promises that it will not happen again, we now know, cannot be trusted.
Society was, in that sense, negligently complicit in these offences. But there is another kind of complicity. It comes from our common collusion in a mass genuflection to power. One indignant protester said of Mr Weinstein: “Now we discover he had been doing this over and over, not just for years, but for decades.” Yet the reality is that the abuse of power has been going on not just for decades but for centuries — and, indeed, millennia. The same model of bullying and sexual coercion can be found in Roman emperors and in mighty men long before that.
Men such as Savile — let us leave Mr Weinstein aside for the purposes of argument — are smiling monsters. But we scapegoat them at our peril. We should remember from the Old Testament, and from the more modern commentaries by René Girard, that the scapegoat classically carries not its own guilt, but is a beast that is loaded with the sins of the community before it is killed or driven out into the desert.
When the team around an important man slip away from his hotel room one by one, leaving their master alone with his hapless victim, they are, at best, neglecting their duty as citizens. At worst, they may be playing the part of a pander or pimp. But the rest of us bear some responsibility. We must, of course, take care not to confuse rumour or hearsay with evidence. That said, we are all part of the society which has taken the easy route of turning away from trouble.