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Future Harassers Beware! We'll (Eventually) Learn About You

What do we learn from the recent revelations and what remains to be learned?

How can some of those who harass others, stay under the radar for such a long time? What is the appropriate response to these cases? What could prevent them in the first place?

It is astonishing to see lately the variety and speed at which sexual harassment allegations and scandals are erupting from every corner of society. No harasser is safe: politicians, entertainers, athletes, broadcasters, businesspeople, trusted experts, public officials, leaders…Yet multiple mechanisms seem to have systematically kept such events from our experience:

  • Nobody wants to be a victim or be labeled as one. Hence, speaking up can be daunting.
  • Culprits can wield their power and influence to constrain victims’ ability to report and manage to dismiss evidence as rumor.
  • As spectators, we can give public figures a benefit of the doubt well beyond reasonable levels.
  • Those of us who are not personally subjected to abuse tend to underestimate its scars.
  • Auto-control mechanisms for ethical behavior, such as the sleep test (act so you can sleep soundly at night) or the golden rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) have not proven as effective as one would hope.

But the game seems to have changed recently. We are now finding out about lewd actions, regardless of when and where they took place. Silenced individual voices have started to bundle into convincing stories. Also, the ongoing scrutiny of previous cases seems to encourage many victims to dive into their repressed and painful experiences and share them more freely with the rest of us.

Absence of visible and immediate experience

Learning would be much easier if life was like tennis. Any decision on a tennis court has immediate, observable consequences. When you hit a 100 mph serve, you’ll receive the response in a matter of seconds. No exceptions. If you abuse the rules, throw your racket around, harass your opponent or attempt to cheat, others in and around the court will see that behavior. In an official game or even in a semi-serious practice, you know you’ll be warned or sanctioned on the spot. Your reputation as a player and as a human being will be in ruins too.

Life is not like tennis, however. Decisions may or may not have certain visible consequences. Harmful behavior toward others can go unnoticed. Even in cases where offenders are eventually found out, there tends to be a time-gap between decisions and outcomes: what one does now can surface many years later. These complications make it hard to learn the correct lessons from experience. It also does not help that we are usually oblivious to our limitations: we tend to think that experience is a great teacher. What’s out of sight thus remains out of mind, sometimes for an unduly long time.

Change and urgent need for further change

Social media as a deterrent. A major contributor to our learning about the extent of harassment is undoubtedly the social media. We are more connected than ever in the history of humanity. As a result, news can travel faster and wider than ever before. Reports on public figures grab immediate attention and get promptly shared with others. This mechanism will likely be an effective deterrent against harassment: those who think of acting in inappropriate ways will be forced to think about the potential intense public backlash they will receive through retweets, memes, and scores of online commentary.

In fact, those who came forward with their stories might already have saved many potential victims and prevented future scandals.

Missing stories. The sheer number and variety of accusations should give us a clue about the prevalence of harassment in general. Just because we don’t hear from certain professions or countries does not mean that there are no similar cases. Differences in rules and culture can ensure that much remains hidden. In the UK, for example, the system of reporting misconduct is different from the U.S.: the burden of proof is heavily tilted towards the accusers. Hence, cases can remain in the dark indefinitely if court-admissible evidence is missing. In other countries, distrust in the judicial system or large power differentials can cause problems.

The question then becomes: what is still missing from our experience? Is the situation actually similar in other domains and areas of the world?

Adapting the law. Various types of previously hidden misbehavior are becoming widely available to our daily experience. The situation, as a result, is starting to resemble tennis more in terms of learning. Yet this is not enough. We still need to figure out as a society how to appropriately categorize and treat in a consistent way those who choose to continuously hurt other players. Our reactions should ideally vary from case to case, depending on the nature and severity of the situation. But more importantly, the law needs to catch up with technology. Currently, everything revolves around public reactions, which is susceptible to both unpunished crimes and false accusations. There should be a due process through which crimes are identified and punishments are delivered in a just way we can agree on.

We’ll need to be careful in the messages we give to future harassers, as they will learn from this experience, and act accordingly.