In September 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States.
During a press conference, he was asked (and I paraphrase): In all the years you served under Stalin, why did you never question his methods?
Outraged by the question, Khrushchev launched into a fearsome tirade on the impertinence of the Western press, the lack of respect shown to a leader of his stature and the ignorance of Western journalists. As he spoke, he worked himself up into such a lather that there were fears not only for his health but also for the viability of the remainder of the trip. At which point he roared: Any more impertinences!!?
The room fell deadly silent.
Suddenly, his face creased into a smile, he turned to his questioner and, in the most genial tones imaginable, said: I hope that answers your question.
The vast majority of us will do anything to avoid confrontation (unless, of course, it can be conducted from the relative safety/anonymity of a computer keyboard or the driver’s seat of a car). But when it comes to a face-to-face, one-on-one showdown, nobody wants to go up against Hitler (who was justly famous for his two-to-four-hour-long tongue-lashings).
So when we ask ‘How was Harvey Weinstein able to continue in his abuses for so long without anyone saying anything?’, it’s not so much a matter of a male conspiracy (though I’m sure this enters into it) as it is one of ingrained, unthinking, socially endorsed cowardice.
Nobody wants to go up against Weinstein, one-on-one. Nobody wants to rock the boat – even a boat so desperately in need of rocking. Nobody wants to blow that whistle for, as we’ve seen, whistleblowers end up either in jail or in Russia.
The penalties for not playing by ‘the rules of the game’ are severe: Ostracism, both personal and professional. A kind of blacklisting. This person can’t be trusted to exercise ‘discretion’.
We are taught these rules from a very early age, starting with examples as benign as:
‘Does my arse look big in this?’
‘Not at all. Totally in proportion.’
‘So what did you think of my short story?’
‘Idiosyncratic word choice. Great font. What else do you have?’
‘Do you still love me?’
‘Why would you even need to ask me that?’
In 40 years as a playwright, the one word that nobody has ever uttered to my face is ‘no’. The manuscript goes off into the ether and the sound you hear is silence. That means ‘no’ in Cowardese.
So I guess you could refer to the entire Weinstein parade as a conspiracy of silence, but silence motivated more by a lack of courage than by any sexual agenda (I say more, not exclusively).
Men like Weinstein know this. Given a choice, they will always choose a public humiliation of their victim over a private one, because it is a public display of power. Don’t mess with me or this will happen to you.
So the next time you see a grown man in his seat at the UN, beating down on his desk with the heel of his shoe, you’ll know what he’s on about.
It’s too much to expect any radical change in our natural aversion to confrontation. And so we rely on those brave few to speak out. Many of these will be squashed by the heel of that shoe, but one or two voices will make it through, allowing the rest of us to find safety in numbers as we bring down the statues of our former despots.