Will no one think of the poor abusers in the #metoo moment? Don’t they get a shot at redemption?
The question sounds like a joke, or maybe a gross parody at first. We’re nowhere near the point of spending enough time supporting and thinking about the victims survivors to feel anything close to an obligation to help their abusers. Not. Even. Close. But right now, that damn question (phrased in almost exactly this way — I’m not kidding!) is everywhere. As the summer ended, Louis C.K. quietly showcased a new set at the Comedy Cellar, his first since he admitted, and sort-of-apologized , for forcing aspiring female comics to watch him masturbate, the question of redemption is everywhere. Louis C.K got a standing ovation.
Charlie Rose, Garrison Keilor, and Matt Lauer (the worst offender of the lot) have all publicly floated trial balloons about making their way back onto television and into our lives. They sound pretty confident that they’ll make it. Memories are short. Sympathies for victims —who have to live with the consequences of their abuse for the rest of their live—are limited. Men, especially white men, and including abusive white men, get to be redeemed. They can be punished enough. And it turns out that for men, especially white men, enough punishment is a short career break and some bad threads on twitter. It turns out, actually, everyone is thinking of the poor abusers.
Louis C.K got a standing ovation for that set.
Hey. The guy’s funny, after all. Shouldn’t we get the chance to laugh? Well, there are a lot of very funny people out there who haven’t intimidated women and destroyed lives. Can we maybe laugh with them instead? And maybe let’s not give admitted abusers a standing ovation. Maybe let’s not be so concerned with their redemption and instead focus on supporting those they abused. Or maybe let’s work on changing the system that enables them to abuse, partly by not letting them off the hook so damn easily. Which, make no mistake, we are: the very fact that someone like Louis C.K. can return to comedy and get a standing ovation instead of, say, living quietly off his millions means that as much good as #metoo has done, we have a lot of work to do.
I may sound harsh. That’s fine. I’m not saying people can’t eventually be redeemed as people —but I am saying that people who use their power and platform for bad purposes shouldn’t just be handed that platform back after a short hiatus. Some actions can never be redeemed with a clean slate. And if you ask me, that standing ovation means we aren’t nearly harsh enough .
There is a lot of redemption talk floating around this time of year, right before Rosh Hashanah, as Jews take stock and begin to perform teshuva, atoning for our wrongdoings the previous year.
It’s a fairly rigid structure: first the sin has to be acknowledged. That means admitting one has done something wrong, often to someone else. Then one has to apologize. Sincerely, to the person who has been transgressed. The offended party can — note this — choose not to forgive. Finally, one has to commit to behaving differently in the future, again, sincerely, or it doesn’t count. The person transgressed against has the option not to forgive, up to three times. That means, perhaps, that the wrongdoer has three shots to get it right. Or maybe it means that Judaism knows that some sins can not be forgiven so easily. Some sins require a longer process for redemptions.
And some sins cannot be forgiven at all. In classic Rabbinic terms, these are The Big Three transgressions that one should choose to die rather than commit: murder, idolatry, and a very specific kind of sexual impropriety (a form of incest) called giluii arayot. Again, the fact alone that there are unforgivable sins is, for me, something to be quite proud of. There are transgressions for which there cannot be redemption. There are sins that we should not be called upon to forgive.
It might be a stretch to compare giluii arayot to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape. But it’s not a stretch—not even close to a stretch—to say that many of these accused abusers have not performed anything close to adequate teshuva. Nor, really, has society at large.
Have these men truly admitted that they’ve done something wrong and articulated how that harm worked? Any of them? Even Louis C.K., who offered a self-serving apology (but never quite said he’s sorry), doesn’t seem to totally understand the depths of his transgression. Most crucially, absolutely none of them have done a single damn thing to show that they would behave differently in the future. Because if they did recognize the depths of their transgressions and if they were truly committed to change, they sure as hell would not show their faces in their old industries so soon, except maybe to try to fundamentally overhaul these corrupt, sexist, oppressive systems that reward men, especially white men, and even abusive white men.
The 19th century Italian rabbi and commentator Elijah Benamozegh teaches in the Em Lamikra (on Genesis 43:9, if you are interested) that in some biblical contexts, the punishment is the sin itself. In other words, despite the overwhelming narrative of forgiveness in Jewish texts and Jewish practice, some sins stay with us forever. Not because others do not forgive us, but because some transgressions are so deeply heinous that we can never forgive ourselves.
Abusers should have to live with the fundamental knowledge of what they have done. The first step would for them would be awareness of the depths and horrors of their transgressions—awareness so deep that forgiving themselves might not be possible.
The first step for us is to sit down instead of offering standing ovations. If an abuser is saying anything except “I know I’m wrong, I’m sorry, and I’m doing everything to create change,” I’m not listening. And until that point, they shouldn’t be talking.