On Monday morning, Adam Venit returned to his job as an agent at entertainment industry-leading WME after a 30-day suspension for allegedly grabbing actor Terry Crews’ genitals.
“SOMEONE GOT A PASS,” Crews tweeted yesterday with a link to coverage of Venit’s swift return to work. It is not known what Venit has done to merit his reinstatement at the talent agency, or how his bosses judged his atonement. WME reportedly conducted an investigation, and now he’s back in the office.
Venit’s is one of the rare returns-to-normal following an accusation of abuse, assault or harassment.
Amid the relentless allegations of sexual misconduct that have dominated the news cycle post-Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, many of the alleged and confessed offenders have been publicly shamed for their behavior and unseated from their positions of power.
At the height of the #MeToo moment, we declared them all social pariahs—garbage men who we lumped together and left to rot in the trash bin.
Recently, however, many of those who initially rushed to render harsh sentences began reconsidering whether the whole lot should be cast out of society indefinitely.
They started questioning who among these garbage men deserved a shot at redemption. What standards of behavior were forgivable? Is there a moral line that can’t be crossed?
When Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) was accused two weeks ago of groping and making other unwanted advances on several women, Democrats who viewed him as a good guy and a valuable senator felt torn about whether he should resign. They knew it would be hypocritical to defend him in spite of behavior they’d already condemned when it applied to others.
But the other option was equally grim: saying goodbye to a progressive politician whom they adored and (still) trusted to go to bat for women’s rights.
Three dozen women who had previously worked with Franken on Saturday Night Live signed a letter in his defense, and female staffers in his office also issued statements attesting to his respect for women.
Writing about Franken, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg confessed that her “instinct is often to defend men I like, but I don’t want to be an enabler or a sucker...It’s easy to condemn morally worthless men like Trump; it’s much harder to figure out what should happen to men who make valuable political and cultural contributions, and whose alleged misdeeds fall far short of criminal.”
Meanwhile, the Times itself was also conflicted about how to deal with allegations of inappropriate and unwanted advances levied against one of their own MVPs: White House correspondent Glenn Thrush. The Times immediately suspended Thrush and called for an investigation into the incidents detailed by former colleagues in a Vox exposé.
Internally, however, current and former Times employees reportedly grappled with whether the accusations against Thrust “warranted his termination,” according to Vanity Fair.
Thrush is still in limbo, but Franken announced Monday that he would not resign from office. He said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of his behavior and apologized to his accusers without enumerating what, exactly, he was apologizing for.
Clearly he thought himself worthy of redemption, but he didn’t specify why his supporters should forgive him his wrongdoing.
When there’s no consensus about what standards of behavior warrant redemption, the court of public opinion may look to confessed offenders’ apologies (non-denial denials don't count) to determine if they deserve to be reintegrated into a community.
“In the current environment, I think the accused would have to convince the public that their remorse is genuine,” said Karen Stohr, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University.
Making a convincing case for remorse may require outlining a plan to make amends for the harm that’s been done in a very direct way.
“We would expect to see [the offender] genuinely working on behalf of civil rights--specifically women’s rights,” Stohr said, noting that this could ostensibly apply to Franken and other public figures.
“They would need to show that they’ve had genuine conversions,” she added. “The best example of this in recent history is probably politicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s who initially advocated against the civil rights movement but actively rejected racism later.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reportedly tried to orchestrate Representative John Conyers Jr.'s resignation after news broke last week that the 88-year-old congressman quietly settled a 2015 sexual harassment complaint from a former female staffer.
The woman claimed Conyers fired her after she rejected his demands for sexual favors, and other former staffers said Conyers had a habit of rubbing female employees’ hands, legs, and backs in a sexual manner.
If reports of Pelosi “lay[ing] groundwork for him to step aside gracefully” are true, the behavior these women described violated a standard for Pelosi, even if that standard had more to do with bad optics than personal morality. Conyers finally stepped down under pressure from his Democratic colleagues.
Meanwhile, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore has consistently denied accusations by multiple women that he pursued them as teenagers. (The “due process” argument has been made a lot in his case, as my colleague Erin Gloria Ryan noted yesterday).
While most of us can distinguish non-criminal behaviors from more severe sexual crimes like the ones Moore has been accused of, we’ve lumped them together under the abuse of power. Whether these men were sadistic serial predators, sexual deviants, or one-time gropers matters less to the #MeToo movement than the fact that they’ve all been enabled by gendered power dynamics that make sexual harassment so pervasive.
Collectively, we’re more likely to forgive confessed offenders who step down from their powerful perches instead of being pushed out the door, kicking and screaming all the while.
“I think part of making amends and being worthy of restoration involves acknowledging abuse of power, which is the common thread in most of these cases,” said Stohr. “That would involve someone recognizing that they’re not worthy of that power—and ceding it rather than waiting to be fired.”
Activists seem to hope that many of these men—if not all of them—will suffer consequences for the trauma and humiliation they’ve inflicted on their accusers, and that the gender-imbalanced power structures that have protected them for so long will continue to shift.
Regardless of the offenders and the degree of their offenses, the #MeToo movement is particularly invested in societal change and dismantling the patriarchy, so that men don’t continue to get away with this kind of behavior.
For the fervent #MeToo adherents, publicly shaming someone’s “creepy” behavior on a Shitty Media Men may seem like an effective tactic for bringing about change. And redemption narratives shouldn't be entertained because they detract from the alleged abuse. “Why do we allow terrible men redemption?” Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards asked back in September, focusing on Bill O'Reilly.
But as the flood of allegations has shown, not all cases of alleged harassment and abuse are on the same playing field. And lumping them together doesn’t do the #MeToo movement any favors.
“Examining the nuances and detail of these cases is crucial if we want to see change,” said Janet Radcliffe Richards, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Oxford.
“We need to be able to call out the offense quickly so that the offenders can’t make excuses for their behavior or credibly undermine their accusers,” she said, “and that requires identifying the context in which the offense occurred. It’s amazingly complicated, because some of it is a matter of not extending basic courtesy to women. So we also need a huge campaign against everyday sexism.”
Who among the countless men accused is redeemable and how they prove that to us hinges on our own sexual morality–and recognizing that we may never arrive at a unified opinion about this stuff.
“Personally, I think that the general presumption about the way we’re entitled to treat animals is morally atrocious, but society hasn’t gotten there yet,” said Richards. “There’s always the question of what’s morally wrong and why, and then the question of whether we can expect everyone else to know the rules.”