The revelations of the sexual improprieties of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have released a torrent of similar accusations against well-known celebrities, politicians, business people, some occurring decades ago and others more recently. Hardly a day goes by when there is not a new sensational revelation. Although sexual harassment has been around for a very long time, its reporting had been covered up, buried or kept inside the minds of the victims.
Our world today is so different from the time I was growing up in the 1950s. Even earlier, when the classic film “Gone With The Wind” came out in 1939, the censors were debating whether Rhett Butler should be allowed to say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Television was closely monitored. You couldn’t use the word “pregnant.” In the show “Father Knows Best”, Robert Young and Jane Wyatt playing Jim and Margaret Anderson were in a bedroom scene discussing their kids. They were in twin beds with pajamas buttoned up to their necks.
Of course, in the intervening 60 years all has changed. Little is left to the imagination, not only on cable but also on network channels. PG rated movies give little comfort to parents who prefer shielding their children from the verbal vulgarity and explicit activities that would have been unheard of in prior times. Newspapers, advertising, dress codes, all have changed almost to an extreme.
When Vice President Mike Pence recently said that he would not go to dinner alone with a woman who was not his wife, he was ridiculed. When a celebrity stated that wearing provocative clothing can lead to sexual objectification, she was pilloried.
There has been a loss of shame.
Does that mean we should go back to the standards of the 1950s? No, but the pendulum has swung too far, and it needs to return to the middle.
However, now that the dam has burst, I am feeling much more optimistic about the possible reversal of this downward spiral of social mores. More than 16 years ago I was on a commission investigating the charges of sexual abuse by a leader of a prominent Jewish youth group. This inquiry was instigated by the reporting of this newspaper and its editor, Gary Rosenblatt. Those stories, comparable to the Harvey Weinstein revelations, opened the floodgate of countless other incidents that had been bottled up. The 10 members of the commission sat through six months of interviews of over 100 individuals, hearing their tragic stories. Many had their lives ruined as teen-agers, with marital relationships never achieving a modicum of normality. I remember two such interviews that left me in tears. But we on the panel learned a lot. And steps were taken to begin to fix the problem in the Jewish community with more still remaining to be done.
Does that mean that now post-Weinstein, the problem will be fixed? Of course not. But once a bright light shines on an area that was steeped in darkness, positive changes are inevitable. The Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination, is very potent and insidious, but self-preservation of one’s name and position in life is a powerful ally of the Yetzer Hatov, man’s good inclination.
In 1987, Gordon Gekko, the fictional protagonist of the movie, “Wall Street,” proclaimed that “greed is good.” I don’t know if he was right. But three decades years later we may justifiably be correct in saying, “shame is good,” if that shame will lead to improvements in the behavior in our interpersonal relationships.
Let’s hope so.
Fred Ehrman is a New York businessman and prominent leader in the Orthodox community.