BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. As the list of the alleged and admitted abusers grows, so too grows hope that maybe the status quo can change, for real and for all women. But if change is in the air, it's not yet reflected in the coverage.
Lili Loofbourow, culture critic for The Week, says that these headline-grabbing scandals tend to follow a predictable arc, shock and outrage after the initial revelations, followed by acceptance of the problem as the list of victims grows, followed by panic and confusion and doubt, as the list of victims continues to grow, followed by -- backlash.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: The coming crisis that I fear is that a single event that will be disproven will like result in a lot of people dismissing the phenomenon, as a whole, and hundreds of women who’ve have come forward with stories of sexual misconduct by their peers, colleagues and employers will be washed away because of one false story. This myth that women somehow profit off of accusing men is really muscular [LAUGHING] and very available to us, and that's hard to understand for anyone who’s spent a lot of time on social media because most of these women who come forward with stories about famous people who are beloved results in these women getting death threats and rape threats and their careers being destroyed, but it is the way that a lot of people think. And so, I think one of the tasks for us, as we confront this moment, is to try to dismantle some of those really powerful cultural scripts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You offer a way to unpack these scripts with a set of terms, some of which already exist and some of which you've come up with. The first one is the “identifiable victim effect.”
LILI LOOFBOUROW: Right. It’s easier to identify with Rose McGowan who is someone people know. As the number of accusers grow, we grow a lot less charitable, both because we suspect them of taking advantage of an opportunity to advance their careers but also because we just are not capable of empathizing with crowds the way we are capable of empathizing with a single person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another term you say we should embrace is the just-world hypothesis.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: The just-world hypothesis is very comforting because we assume that injustice is rare and competently dealt with. When we find out that, in fact, that's not true and rampant injustice has been everywhere and we have not seen it, there's real psychological relief at reverting to a less confusing status quo and to deny that this is happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, these are both preexisting ideas. You've also come up with a few new phrases, for instance, the “anti-bandwagon fallacy.”
LILI LOOFBOUROW: The belief that a news item’s truth content actually diminishes as more people come forward with corroborating stories. You can see that, for example, in some of the GOP responses to the Roy Moore allegations in Alabama, where a lot of Republicans actually see more women coming forward is evidence of a conspiracy against Ray Moore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do you think we are now in the arc? Do you see any warning signs?
LILI LOOFBOUROW: I think that the Al Franken allegations that broke on Thursday will prove to be a very interesting test of where we are. As it’s become clear that there is a real sexual-harassment problem in politics, it's very tempting for a lot of people, as they look back and maybe see some behaviors like Al Franken’s that they might have engaged in, to double down into a protective stance that normalizes a lot of these things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think the Al Franken situation may accelerate the backlash.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: I think it might. And I think the other thing that might accelerate the backlash is, because we haven't yet really identified hierarchies of harm when it comes to all of these different forms of sexual misconduct, we’re also not seeing, quote, unquote, “punishments” being meted out equally or fairly. Danny Masterson, for example, who’s best known for playing Hyde on That '70s Show, stands accused currently of raping three women, and yet, his Netflix deal is still in effect, whereas Louis C.K.'s professional network has collapsed. I think that a lot of these allegations, because so many of them are coming so hard and fast, are actually turning into an inverse popularity contest, where some of the most beloved figures are experiencing the biggest backlashes, themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do we break out of the cycle? How do we avoid backlash and move toward real positive change?
LILI LOOFBOUROW: We have to use extraordinary caution in our own thinking, and I think that every time that we reach a conclusion like, well, she must be lying or this can't be real, we need to recognize that that response is coming from a place of frustration, [LAUGHS] a place informed by the just-world fallacy, a place informed by the victim identification effect, that we are creatures who have a lot of cultural programming that we’re not aware we’re running. In order to do that, we also have to start recognizing and trying to anatomize what I see a lot of these accused men doing. One of those things is I’ve identified this phenomenon called the “male bumbler” --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: -- which is a man who claims not to understand at all that these advances were unwanted. He had no idea. He’s amazed and befuddled and really repentant but felt that he had no power, is astonished to discover that he was perceived to be using it. That is a very [LAUGHS] widespread excuse among a lot of these accused men, who are otherwise extraordinarily social navigators. They're very savvy about networking. They’ve become enormously rich and successful. It's hard to understand how they would fail so completely to read pretty basic social cues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what about the argument for older men who present themselves as unknowing victims of changing mores?
LILI LOOFBOUROW: Social mores were different 30 years ago, 40 years ago, in that there was a very high social tolerance for male misbehavior. That does not mean it was not misbehavior. Those are two important truths to hold in our heads at the same time. No man who groped his secretary thought that what he was doing was right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What they did know is that there would be little or no consequence.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: Exactly.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
LILI LOOFBOUROW: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lili Loofbourow is culture critic for The Week.