It's been only seven weeks since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. But it feels as if a generational shift has already occurred. Titans of entertainment and media have fallen. The cascade of revelations has been endless, and there will certainly be more. After all, we're dealing with decades of predatory sexual behaviour that's been excused, enabled, condoned, hushed up and generally swept under the carpet.
Big moral moments tend not to last, but I think this one will. Women have found their voice, and men are listening. Men now know the extent to which women have been harassed (believe me, most of them did not), and they, too, know things must change.
It's not just that standards of conduct have changed. Sexually abusive men are now toxic to the brand. The miscreants are whisked off the stage in a heartbeat, their projects, shows and movies cancelled. They become non-persons, perhaps replaced by somebody who looks like Christopher Plummer. They're finished, and nobody is sorry.
Meantime, thousands of men are sweating in the wings, examining their past behaviour, wondering if they'll be next and whether they should confess now.
There's one exception: politics. In politics, tribalism still prevails. In other words, if our guy does it, it's okay because we need him. That explains why leading feminists rushed to absolve Bill Clinton all those years ago. That's why Alabama's Roy Moore can be exposed as an alleged serial predator of teenage girls, and still have a chance of being elected senator. Either he didn't do it (his claim), or else those slutty 14-year-olds were asking for it (as his apologists claim), or maybe he did do it but we've got to vote for him anyway so the Democrat won't win.
The Groper-in-Chief, having consulted his base, stands by Mr. Moore. But what would you expect? Donald Trump is great at saying two opposing things at the same time. This week, without a shred of irony, he said: "Women are very special. I think it's a very special time, a lot of things are coming out, and I think that's good for our society and I think it's very, very good for women, and … I'm very happy it's being exposed."
On the other side of the aisle, lots of liberals have been defending Al Franken, the comedian turned Democratic senator, because although he acted like pig, he's their pig. "If the man groping a sleeping woman had been a Republican, would we even hesitate to denounce him?" one indignant letter-writer asked in The New York Times.
In fact, calls for Mr. Franken's resignation are misplaced. They are a great example of moral flattening – the failure to make distinctions between greater and lesser wrongdoing. This instantaneous rush to judgment – which has been accelerated by social media – may be cathartic, but it's also a bit scary. Mr. Franken is no Weinstein. The photograph in which he appears to be groping a woman's breasts while he mugs for the camera is clearly an example of sophomoric humour gone wrong. Allegedly, he cupped some women's bottoms and put a tongue down someone's mouth. Ugh. But that's hardly felonious sexual assault.
In this fevered atmosphere, a lot of us are groping (if you will) for a proportionate response. Even The New York Times – which broke much of the Weinstein story – has been caught in a sexual panic. The bosses are struggling over whether to fire one of their star political reporters, Glenn Thrush, who, according to Vox, has a "history of bad judgment" around young women journalists.
According to the story, Mr. Thrush was simply doing what certain middle-aged alpha-male journalists have always done. He expressed a lively after-hours interest in ambitious young female journalists in situations involving alcohol, then dropped them like a hot potato if they didn't reciprocate. On top of that, he allegedly behaved like a cad to the woman who wrote the Vox story, by telling people she had put the move on him.
Most of this bad behaviour occurred before Mr. Thrush worked for The Times, and none of the women worked there, either. So why is this any of his employer's business? Because The Times must be above reproach. Younger female staffers are in a tizz, and Mr. Thrush has been suspended pending an investigation.
The Weinstein effect is rippling through every media and entertainment outfit in North America, and a good many others too. Everyone is struggling to figure out where the new lines are. Businesses are terrified of being caught out. Suspicious men are being scrutinized extra-carefully. Bosses are issuing tough memos about harassment. They're cancelling the holiday parties or converting them to family-only.
The post-Weinstein era will be a better place for women. But there will be losses too. The ordinary, garden-variety banter of the office will be lost. Colleagues will be walking on eggshells, afraid that ordinary gestures of teasing or affection – including all kissing, touching, hugging, flirting and almost all kinds of humour – might be misconstrued and give offence. Men will no longer meet with women behind closed doors, alone. Casual informality and warmth will be replaced by stiffness, anxiety and prudishness. The world will be a slightly colder place. And that's too bad.