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26 October 2017

The Weinstein scandal is a true watershed: it changed our perception of “normal“ behaviour

It might lead to changes in the law, but - just as importantly - it will shift the unspoken boundaries of what is socially acceptable.

By Ian Leslie

Some scandals are like lightning, spectacular but transient; others change the weather. Time will tell, but I think the Weinstein scandal is one of the latter. Not necessarily because it will lead to changes in the law, but because it will shift the unspoken boundaries of what is socially acceptable, even if only at the margins. What was tolerated is a little more likely to be condemned; what was whispered more likely to be called out.

If this proves true, I hope we remember who to thank. Yes, we are indebted to the journalists who so tenaciously pursued their target while dodging fusillades of bullets from the fat man and his gang. But the heroes of this story are the women who agreed to go on the record with their accounts of Weinstein’s abuse, thereby exposing themselves to risks of legal action and public shaming.

Other than the ones who were already famous, we are unlikely to remember their names, but we should nonetheless recognize them as social innovators. The Weinstein witnesses are what the legal scholar and writer Cass Sunstein calls “norm entrepreneurs”: people who publicly disrupt existing norms in order to create new ones.

Social norms are weird. We tend to think of a norm – like queuing or facing the front in an elevator – as something most people agree on. But there are cases in which many or even most in a given population don’t like what the norm entails, but still follow it pretty much unquestioningly. There were restaurateurs in the pre-Civil Rights South who did want to exclude blacks, but did so anyway.

Why wouldn’t you question a bad norm, when you know or suspect that many people agree with you on it? Well, you might live in a society, or work for a company in which any questioning of norms risks some kind of retribution. More subtly, you might be wary of the cost to your reputation – of coming to be seen as “difficult”. Or it might simply never have occurred to you that the norm could be changed – that it’s just the way things are.

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Norm entrepreneurs are outriders: risk-taking individuals who draw attention to what is stupid or unfair about a given norm. It’s not just that they are norm breakers themselves, but that they get everyone else to reconsider. After they have taken a stand, people who wanted to speak out feel better about doing so; people who hadn’t really considered how weird it is that they put up with something they don’t like, suddenly see things anew.

Sunstein, writing before the Weinstein story broke, cited Taylor Swift as an example. When she was sued by a former radio host for her claim that he groped her, she did not back down, and, even more importantly, she did not tone down. Her testimony was blunt and confident – “he grabbed my bare ass”. She made it clear that what he did was entirely his decision, and that it was a very bad one. She did not conform to the convention that says such events should be treated as harmless accidents. Of course, Swift is rich and powerful, but that her testimony made such an impact itself tells you something about the norms in play, and about the risk, even if it was a relatively small one, that she took in breaking with them.

The Weinstein witnesses were not, for the most part, famous or rich. They had more to lose than to gain from speaking out – we know this by the way so many others only felt empowered to come forward after the story broke. In some cases, they did not “come out well” of their own account – they talked about staying friendly with Weinstein even after he treated them badly, and about the horrible compromises they felt they had to make. To me, the moral ambiguity they admitted to only makes them braver for talking about it. They weren’t doing this for themselves. They were doing it to change the shape of normal.