Seeing No Evil

Conceptualizing "network silence."

Seeing No Evil
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Here’s an interesting article published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology a couple years ago. It proposes that the silence around sexual harassment is a network phenomenon, that is, something collectively generated by communities of people. This won’t come as a ground-breaking revelation to anyone who’s been paying attention to the comedy world or the rest of the world, but I think it offers a useful theoretical framework for certain dynamics playing out around us. Also it's just validating to see these things articulated.

In essence, the article expands the concept of silence in order to examine the full scope of who's responsible for it. Silence is more than just individuals being silent by withholding their own complaints: it's a socially constructed and reproduced phenomenon that involves witnesses, authority figures, and broader communities silencing and not hearing those individuals. “We conceptualize being silent as behavior that is socially learned and compelled,” the authors write:

Silencing is an active effort among network members to discourage and prevent others from voicing concerns or filing complaints. Silencing communicates to others that they should not express their concerns around sexual harassment. Not hearing occurs after someone has tried to complain or speak up, but network members dismiss, trivialize, or invalidate the concerns, or they gaslight the complainants by manipulating them into questioning their experiences. Not hearing communicates to others that the concerns raised are not worthy of attention or response.

There’s a lot to chew on in here, like the idea that network silence occurs in communities where harassers have strong connections to many other network members—and especially when they possess valuable knowledge or resources, empowering them to engage in unethical behavior with little risk:

People who benefit from favors from the connected harasser(s) may be reluctant to give up those advantages, and may be more willing to turn a blind eye to bad behavior, because silence brings continued rewards. Furthermore, network members who observe the silence and silencing of others may fear retaliation from well-connected perpetrators and their network ties, and may worry that speaking up will harm their career prospects.
Moreover, harassers with many ties could use their ties to silence others by marginalizing them. If silence is broken, harassers with many ties can also use their connections to ensure that complaints fall on deaf ears. Well-connected individuals can control information flow to their advantage; they are more likely to know when complaints arise, and can mobilize their ties to protect them by either silencing would-be reporters or not hearing (dismissing or trivializing) complaints of sexual harassment.

Then there’s the argument that network silence is more likely to occur in male-dominated networks (though the authors stress that “most harassers are men—not the other way around”):

First, in such networks members are motivated to protect “their own,” making men more likely to be silent or to silence others when the harasser is a man and the victim is a woman. Second, men who are part of male-dominated networks are likely to perceive a male harasser as someone who is more relevant as a social tie, compared to a less-connected female victim, encouraging them to be silent or silence others for instrumental reasons.
Furthermore, considering the advantageous position of men in male- dominated networks, victims and witnesses may recognize that speaking up against a male harasser may not be well-received by other men in the network, motivating victims and other members of the network to conform by being silent and silencing others about harassment. Finally, men are more likely to trivialize sexual harassment than women… so complaints of sexual harassment are less likely to be “heard” and taken seriously in contexts dominated by men.

The authors connect this to belief systems that permeate male-dominated networks and increase the likelihood of harassment, like “boys will be boys” attitudes and the valorization of masculinity:

Baked into the patriarchal cultures of many organizations, sexual harassment myths serve two aims: denial and justification. That is, some of these myths deny that any wrongdoing has occurred, often by questioning the motives and veracity of victim reports (e.g., myths that women routinely lie about sexual harassment, file false charges) or downplaying the gravity of the offenses (beliefs that women exaggerate minor misdeeds, make much ado about nothing). When sexual harassment becomes undeniable, myths justify it, by absolving harassers of responsibility (e.g., suggesting “boys will be boys”) and/or blaming victims (e.g., asking why they failed to fend off the sexual advances, or what they did to invite them).
[…] Sexual harassment myths make it exceedingly difficult for victims, witnesses, or anyone else in a social network to speak up about sexual harassment. In social networks where many members subscribe to these belief systems, people are more likely to question others’ motives for reporting harassment (such as is the case when harassment claims are seen as a revenge tool). Meanwhile victims are more likely to assume blame for the harassment, and therefore stay silent about it. When someone does report sexual harassment in such a context, the report is more likely to fall on deaf ears. Network members may therefore caution other would-be reporters against complaining, effectively silencing them. Why would someone take the risky step of reporting a harasser, especially one who is central in the social network, if widespread fallacies will derail the report and degrade the reporter?

The ultimate effect of these dynamics is a feedback loop in which network silence and sexual harassment mutually reinforce each other:

The more sexual harassment that network members witness without consequence, the more likely it is that they will believe that speaking up is dangerous or futile. That is, when network members observe that other network members, including authority figures, allow sexual harassment to persist without stopping it or punishing perpetrators, this itself will encourage network silence. When network members do nothing to combat sexual harassment, this creates a perception of network consensus of tolerance for harassing behavior, leading victims to believe that others will not acknowledge or believe their experiences.
Furthermore, network members may perceive persistence as others taking the side of harassers, magnifying perceptions of the harasser’s status and immunity, and making would-be reporters fear retaliation if they speak up. Finally, failures to correct sexual harassment can also contribute to the belief that even if people think that harassment is unacceptable, no one will dare stand up to powerful perpetrators, fueling feelings of helplessness on the part of all network members. All these processes will make network members less likely to address, report, or talk about sexual harassment.

I also appreciate the article’s reminder that most sexual harassment is not coercive or unwanted sexual conduct but rather gender harassment: “‘put-downs not ‘come-ons’… acts that derogate or humiliate people in sex-based ways, even when those acts are not ‘sexual.'”

This is what I meant the other week when I wrote that comedy’s social norms allow comedians to enact a form of mass gender harassment on the rest of society. I’m only barely exaggerating here. So much of the art form functions as an outlet for men to insult and humiliate women, and more recently trans people. It’s everywhere, it’s normal, you can’t go to an open mic or a club show without encountering it, and really you and I are the crazy ones for making it such a big deal. The most famous and respected people in the business do it and they always have done it, so what exactly are we complaining about?

With the obvious caveat that there are plenty of spaces and artists for whom this is not the case, I do think this framework is something of a Rosetta Stone for comedy. So many people come to it as fans or practitioners because it creates a space for the things they can’t do or say anywhere else, including racial and gender harassment. Practitioners especially benefit from the opportunity to expand their social networks beyond their immediate workplaces, assembling vast armies of people who feel closely connected with them and invested in their success. The article doesn’t get into celebrity, but I suspect the phenomenon they describe here is one that reproduces parasocially:

[N]etwork members with strong ties to the harasser will be motivated to protect their interests, causing them to actively silence others, while victims and their allies may engage in silencing as protection from retaliation by the harasser’s strong ties. Finally, network members with strong ties to the perpetrator may consider the victim to fall outside their scope of moral behavior and may minimize or refuse to hear concerns raised by those who speak up.

It doesn’t take any special insight to see that comedians like Louis CK and Chris D’Elia were able to recover from their scandals not only because their friends in comedy stood by them, but because they retained large enough fanbases that their brands were still salable once the dust settled. Lots of odious people have large fanbases and salable brands, of course, and entire media ecosystems have blossomed around those brands while remaining walled off from more respectable ecosystems. I think it is important to observe, however, that Louis CK and Chris D’Elia do not exist in alternative media ecosystems in the way that, say, Ben Shapiro and Alex Jones do, because Louis CK and Chris D’Elia are operating in the same live comedy spaces as everyone else, by which I mean clubs as well as larger regional theaters and auditoriums.

This makes their continued success everyone’s responsibility in a way that Ben Shapiro's success is not everyone's responsibility. A comedian like John Mulaney does not have leverage to exert over the Daily Wire; he does have leverage to exert over Carnegie Hall or Madison Square Garden or the Comedy Cellar, leverage meaning both the labor he can withhold and the public influence he can wield over his own networks, which are also Louis CK's networks.

I am using a famous example for the sake of simplicity—and because he's one of the few people who fired Dave Becky—but obviously the same is true of less famous comedians if they act collectively. I’ve made that argument before and I’m not going to repeat it here other than to clarify the stakes, which I think are clear. If they don’t do it, more people will get hurt, and everyone who did nothing will be responsible.

I enjoyed this lovely new poem by Heather Christle:

I also enjoyed this Paris Review conversation I'd never read before—Charles Simic interviewing James Tate, another one of my favorite poets:

INTERVIEWER: When did you first start enjoying jokes? What did you listen to, what did you watch?
TATE: I watched all the same stuff that you did on TV—The Colgate Comedy Hour, Jimmy Durante, all the comedians of that day. One of the older ones who was still around at the beginning of television was Ben Blue. In high school, when I belonged to the Zoo Club, that’s how we related. Everything was humor. It probably was sexual, low-down humor, but nonetheless it was great fun. We had such an evolved slang, it would be wonderful to see it reproduced on the page. It is so hard to capture.
But in terms of writing, you can’t try to be humorous. I’ve had many poets in their forties and fifties say to me, I’d love to be like you. One of these days I’m going to write a humorous poem. And I think, No you’re not! You’re not! You’ve been writing for twenty-five years and you haven’t written one yet. You’re not suddenly going to write one. So I don’t think it’s something you try for. I’m just who I am. I can neither boast about it nor bemoan it. You can’t do anything about your character.
INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your comedy? What makes things funny?
TATE: Surprising juxtapositions, obviously, are a great thing. And reversals of expectations. I like starting with a man sitting on a bench with nothing going on, and then a woman walks by and his whole life changes and gets thrown into some kind of hideous upheaval that he could have never foreseen or dreamed of walking into. I like to start with the ordinary, and then nudge it, and then think, What happens next, what happens next? And it gets out of control, until in the end he is practically a person he never dreamed of being.
INTERVIEWER: The characters in the new book long for miracles and pray for something wonderfully odd to happen. Why is that?
TATE: It’s just a really desperate hope. All evidence in the world is against miracles. And they’re going, Come on! Basically, they want to step out of their lives. They want to step out of one tired life into something new and unthinkable, something that is somehow going to be wonderful. I’m certainly not religious in any way. But I think a lot about the so-called spirit world and how it might shine on our own mortal selves.
INTERVIEWER: Do you believe in God?
TATE: I believe that we’re made up of more components than we can understand, and that there is something beyond us. It doesn’t have to be God, but there is something beyond what we do understand, and we’re in an almost slavish position to it because we’re seeking its help to understand more, and we can’t.

And that's it, that's all I enjoyed this week! Just kidding—I'm also rewatching American Dad.

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