We were heartened to see the immediate, powerful consequences of the Weinstein effect across the American entertainment and media industries. But we weren’t really expecting the phenomenon to quickly make the jump to London.
And we certainly weren’t expecting it to threaten the stability of the British government or the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
And yet here we are. In the wake of accusations that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women, women began to come forward with their own stories of harassment at the hands of British politicians. Prime Minister Theresa May has already lost one cabinet minister to the scandal, and dozens of other Conservative M.P.s have been accused of harassment and assault, as have multiple officials from other parties.
Ms. May does not have a majority in Parliament, and was already struggling to move forward with the negotiations of how Britain will leave the European Union. If accused lawmakers from her party are forced to resign, she could lose her ability to govern at all, leaving the future of Brexit even more uncertain.
All about equilibrium
As we watch the powerful consequences of the Weinstein effect, we keep getting reminded of a very different news story we have been covering over the past year: Brazil’s widening corruption scandal.
It, too, involved widespread bad acts that were an “open secret.” It, too, was enabled by a code of silence and a hierarchy of powerful people that protected perpetrators. And when the corruption came to light, it, too, threatened a government’s stability.
And so perhaps research on systemic corruption can help us understand the escalating consequences of harassment accusations around the world.
Social scientists who study corruption say the one critical thing to understand is that it is perpetuated by a “corrupt equilibrium.”
When people see bribery tolerated, even rewarded, they begin to assume it is the way things are done in that system. They realize that speaking out would mean taking on a whole system of powerful people, not just a single bad actor. And so, fearful of the consequences, they stay silent. And so the equilibrium perpetuates itself.
That seems to be what happened in Brazil, where the scandal has ensnared much of the government and opposition. It seems many people were aware of what was going on, even if they weren’t taking bribes themselves, but did nothing because they feared the consequences of speaking out.
The Harassment Equilibrium
The signs are there that harassers were enabled and protected by a similar kind of equilibrium in the halls of Westminster. (And in Hollywood. And TV news. And magazine journalism. The list grows every day.)
Ben Kentish, a reporter for The Independent, a British newspaper, wrote that harassment was widely known, but that lawmakers kept silent about their abusive colleagues because “the sense of loyalty to their party and their colleagues, or to their own political ambitions, trumped their concern for junior parliamentary staff.” Junior staff members, he said, kept silent because they feared for their jobs.
And many have said that the problem was endemic across all parties. Kavya Kaushik, a former activist and candidate for Britain’s Liberal Democrat party, wrote on Twitter that she had been groped by a lawmaker, but that a party official dismissed her reports and pressured her to continue canvassing with her abuser. “Young people in politics are brainwashed into tribalism and convinced to stay quiet for the good of the party,” she wrote.
In other words, if the accusations are correct, the British political system had developed an equilibrium that tacitly protected and perpetuated sexual harassment across multiple political parties.
The Long-Term Costs
In the case of corruption, the cost of a damaging equilibrium can be measured in bribes paid, economies distorted, witnesses silenced. And in the case of harassment and assault, it can be measured in bodies and minds damaged, careers destroyed and trust shattered.
But because they infect whole systems, they also cause damage when they are finally broken.
In Brazil, corruption spread so widely through the political system that when the reckoning finally arrived, the entire political system came to be seen as implicated by association. The country has been wracked by protests. Public trust in the government is at a record low. And parties that relied on politicians who have been tainted by the scandal are now struggling to restore institutional stability.
The consequences of breaking the harassment equilibrium turn out to be similar. As perpetrators are accused, they are taking their projects, colleagues and organizations down with them.
Hollywood studios are rushing to distance themselves from Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others accused of sexual harassment and assault, and movies and television shows centered on those senior figures are now in jeopardy. A new magazine to be built around Leon Wieseltier has been cancelled after multiple women accused him of harassment.
And in Britain, Ms. May’s government and other political parties are now struggling to contain the damage of harassment that went ignored for years.
When systems protect bad behavior, they ultimately put themselves at risk.
This morning's "Interpreter" from the New York Times