Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Didn't Get the Memo

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 5, 2017 --  

Men brought down by sexual harassment allegations have had their heads in the sand for a quarter century.

When Justice Clarance Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991 at the height of the battle over abortion rights, his backers knew the confirmation battle would be tough.  Left-leaning activists tried everything they could to discredit the anti-abortion candidate.  They said he was a judicial lightweight.   They called the black man who questioned civil rights an Uncle Tom.   But the accusation that gained the most traction were allegations of sexual harassment.

In explicit testimony that riveted the nation, Anita Hill, Thomas' former subordinate, testified on live TV about his discussion of pornographic movies and pubic hair.  Thomas was ultimately confirmed in a party line vote, but not without rocketing the topic of sexual harassment to the forefront of America's consciousness.

Human resource departments at companies across America took note.  As early as 1992, employees were typically required to attend a training session that included watching a video showing examples of inappropriate discussion or touching in the workplace.  Employees were given written exams after attending these training sessions, which were often requirements for employment.

As a recent college graduate who changed jobs several times in this era, I attended these training sessions at least a half dozen times.  I took them so seriously that I remember being afraid at my first job to ask a colleague in a different department for a date.

But politicians seemed immune.  In 1992 and again in 1996, Bill Clinton was elected president after his minions successfully deflected the "bimbo eruptions" that came from those who accused him of improper behavior.  The failure of Republicans to remove Clinton from office in the late 1998, despite passing articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives, ended the first era of enlightenment about sexual harassment.

A quarter of a century later, emboldened women and social media have fueled an avalanche of new allegations.  Public figures, many of them unwilling or unable to deny the allegations, are being toppled at a shocking rate.  Just today, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) resigned in the face of allegations.1  Conyers, an opponent of Thomas' candidacy back in 19912, is accused of far more damning behavior than the Supreme Court Justice.  

As a congressman since before the Thomas hearings, Conyers didn't get a memo asking him to attend a corporate sexual harassment training session.  Neither did folks who were spared the grind of a corporate office job like Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K. or actor Kevin Spacey.

But even if they didn't attend formal training sessions, could these men really have been so out of touch with what was going on in America over the last 26 years?  Did they miss the Clarence Thomas hearings entirely?  Did they notice that President Clinton got impeached (shamed even if he was not removed from office) after accusations of harassment from from multiple women?  Even if they had no moral hesitation regarding what they were doing, didn't they think that eventually they'd get busted?

It didn't take a half dozen sexual harassment training sessions for me to learn my lesson.  The early-1990s videos were a bit hokey and over the top, but the core point they were teaching was so obvious that it seemed crazy to even say: be respectful of your colleagues.  It's unclear if the lessons were useful for anyone.

Most of those caught in today's scandals are older men who came of age before the Clarence Thomas hearings.   Perhaps they did see the world change, but they were too old to alter bad behavior learned in an earlier era.   Given recent events, it will be awfully hard for young men coming of age to ignore this lesson.  No corporate training memo is necessary.


1. Wall Street Journal, John Conyers Resigns From Congress, December 5, 2017

2. Chicago Tribute, Black Debate On Thomas Carries Over To Hearings, September 20, 1991