Saturday, December 3, 2011
Blame the Victim 2.0
Herman Cain convened a press conference earlier this week to address mounting allegations of sexual harassment. No one expected contrition, let alone a confession. Still, it was hard not to be taken aback by the sheer steadfastness of Mr. Cain’s will to innocence. A less self-assured man might have tried to deflate the crisis by admitting at least the theoretical possibility of errors in judgment. Not Mr. Cain. In his playbook, the best defense is a good offense. And so, rather than accounting for his own behavior, Mr. Cain and his team have launched a campaign to discredit the women who have alleged misconduct. Far from a high-tech lynching, what we’ve seen in recent days looks a lot more like Blame the Victim 2.0.
Setting matters of principle aside (always a risky undertaking, in my view), Mr. Cain does seem to be running out of options if he wants to beat this thing. Having cultivated a reputation for folksy irreverence, it’s unlikely anyone is going to be convinced (or compelled) by his hasty re-packaging as a man of unfailing rectitude. But I suppose you do have to hand it to him for trying.
Still, if the best evidence Mr. Cain can rally in his own defense is that his wife of forty-three years just doesn’t think her Herman is the kind of guy who would do this sort of thing, well, it’s no wonder Mr. Cain has gone into attack mode. Because if we’ve learned anything at all in the scandal-laden years since the Clinton presidency, it’s that a politician’s wife is as likely as anyone to be surprised by what some men will do in pursuit of a thong or a tweet.
If Mr. Cain flounders when staking his claim on the moral high ground, he’s hoping the attacks on his accusers will stabilize his reputation. Of course, when it comes to charges of sexual wrongdoing, turning the tables on the accuser is nothing new. But the Cain scandal throws into high relief the contours of a new politics of victim blaming—one custom-made for an era of shifting sexual mores and technological advances.
What’s changed about the treatment of women who come forward with sexual allegations? Traditionally, men facing charges of serious misconduct (whether workplace harassment or violent assault) have followed a simple formula: deny all wrongdoing while insinuating that the accuser was “asking for it.” How often have accusations of sexual assault been waved off with the suggestion that a victim wore provocative clothing or had too many boyfriends? And how often has the question of a woman’s chastity, rather than her consent, become the central focus of attention?
Today, we see these same old tactics at work, but with a new twist. When Mr. Cain’s team suggests that his most recent accuser, Sharon Bialek, is in bed with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, the point is not that Ms. Bialek is a slut in the old-fashioned sense. The point is that Ms. Bialek is a media whore. That’s hardly progress.
It’s not just the terms of the victim blame game that are shifting; it’s how the game is played. While Mr. Cain decries his own virtual victimization, his backers have been engaging in technological warfare. From email blasts to paid search results to “promoted” tweets, the Cain campaign has been working around the clock to get their message out: the accusations are groundless and his accusers are untrustworthy. When Mr. Cain’s lawyer, L. Lin Wood, kicked off the press conference with an indignant diatribe against those who would try his client in the court of public opinion, the hypocrisy was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Since then, the line between victim blaming and victim baiting has blurred beyond recognition. And with new technology, news travels fast: someone calls Ms. Bialek a “gold digger” or Karen Kraushaar a “whiner,” and the whole world smirks. It’s schoolyard politics gone viral.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Blame the Victim 2.0 is the way that taking a stand against sexual harassment and taking a stand against racism have been reconfigured as either/or propositions. Twenty years later, we still have Justice Clarence Thomas to thank for the handy bit of right-wing sophistry that would equate an inquiry into documented allegations of sexual harassment with the lawless brutality of lynching. In this distorted worldview, the (blonde, white) women who have alleged wrongdoing aren’t victims of sex discrimination—they’re racists.
Cain’s camp insists the charges against him have traction precisely because they resonate with pernicious stereotypes, particularly those that play on images of the predatory hyper-sexuality of black men. And you know what? There’s more than a grain of truth to the idea that these racist stereotypes are still very much alive and well in America, even in our supposedly post-racial age. But reckoning with cultural prejudice is one thing; exploiting it for personal gain is quite another.
The new politics of victim blaming are sure to outlast Mr. Cain’s candidacy. Already the public is showing signs of moving on as Cain coverage cedes airtime to the monstrous cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Penn State football program. To be sure, there is a world of difference between these two stories. But it would be naïve to think that the way Cain’s accusers are treated will go unnoticed by anyone who has ever wondered whether the personal price one may be asked to pay for justice is worth it.