A "Second Chance" for Harvey Weinstein--Already?

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Last Sunday, according to the New York Times, Harvey Weinstein sent an email to agents and studio executives begging them not to allow him to be fired. "Whether it be in a facility or somewhere else, allow me to resurrect myself with a second chance."

Weinstein made this same plea for a second chance in his statement to the Times in response to its October 5 story revealing that he had sexually harassed actresses and others over a period of at least two decades. "I want a second chance in the community but I know I've got work to do to earn it," he wrote.

For the past two years, I've been reporting on sexual misconduct in the sciences, which--like the film industry--is still largely dominated by powerful men, some of whom see preying on younger female colleagues as just one of the perks of their power. When caught, they either deny what the evidence clearly shows they did, or, like Weinstein, start making the rounds of colleagues and also asking for a "second chance."

All too often, when a harasser asks for a "second chance," it means they want no consequences whatsoever for what they did. That's essentially what Weinstein was asking for when he pleaded with industry colleagues to save him from being fired: A little time off for some therapy and counseling, and then full restoration to the position of power that made it possible for him to do what he did over and over again.

Whenever I can, I link to a very insightful commentary published in Forbes in early 2016, by Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University who studies sexual misconduct in the sciences. It's title is "Advice for the Reformed Harasser On Rejoining the Scientific Community," but I think it applies to any field or industry where sexual misconduct is rife. Stemwedel lays out six criteria by which a harasser might be deemed to have been rehabilitated. Her title is somewhat tongue in cheek, however, because her real point is that too many harassers are asking for forgiveness and second chances long before they are actually reformed.

The six criteria are:

1. Own what you did.
2. Accept the descriptions of the harm you did given by those you harmed.
3. Have your defenders stand down.
4. Avoid the limelight.
5. Don’t demand anyone’s trust.
6. Shift your focus to work that supports your scientific community, not your individual advancement.

For each of these points, Stemwedel provides wise counsel on what they would entail for a harasser who really is undergoing rehabilitation. Indeed, I don't know of any recent case, in the sciences or elsewhere, in which the accused harasser has fulfilled any one of the six criteria, let alone all of them. All of the harassers I know and have written about have yet to get past step one, admitting what the evidence plainly shows they did. Even Weinstein, despite his statements of remorse (now that he has been caught out) is denying much of what he is accused of, especially in Ronan Farrow's devastating piece in the New Yorker.

This week I've been having an email debate with an old friend (a woman, as it happens) about whether those accused of sexual harassment can be rehabilitated and returned to the community, just as we hope to do with those accused of crimes and sent to prison (which almost never actually happens in the case of the Weinsteins of the world.) My friend is concerned that in the swirl of moral outrage we are losing sight of this humanitarian goal.

Yes, people can and do change, and it's not entirely unreasonable for accused harassers to ask for a "second chance." But that plea should come in the future, not right now. It should only be voiced when, by their actions, abusers can show that they have fulfilled criteria for rehabilitation similar to those Stemwedel has spelled out. And, very importantly, it should be clear what a "second chance" really means. In my view, it should not mean that guilty parties be returned to the positions of power that allowed them to exploit others and cause them to suffer (and in many cases, abandon their own careers before they have even begun.)

If all goes well, Weinstein will never return to a position of power in the film industry. Never. And that's exactly as it should be.

Afterthought: If Weinstein really wants us to believe he is on the road to reform, he can start by releasing all of his alleged victims from the nondisclosure agreements he and his minions have forced them to sign.

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