In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens opens with the famous quote “It was the worst of times, it was of the best of times.” We are living in such times when it comes to the issue of women’s rights.
November 25th marked the start of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the first of 16 days of activism on the subject. This is a good moment to take stock of a year that crystallized the deep social divisions that exist on the treatment of women—not in some far-flung corner of the world but right here in North America.
This year, the United States inaugurated a president who exemplifies the breakdown of social norms on gender (among many other norms). Standards of acceptable behavior in communicating with and about women have been challenged by the Trump presidency. What were once considered old battles are now being rehashed and fought anew. For example, assessing the worth of a woman’s opinion based on her menstrual cycles are portrayals that are being debated again. If we only paid attention to this world of social interactions, we would conclude that future presidents of the United States can boast about grabbing women’s private body parts and suffer no social or political sanctions for doing so, and then, months later, lie that they were not his words recorded on tape. The man who currently occupies the highest political office, and the voters that put him there, have made this treatment of women socially permissible again.
On the other hand, we are witnessing a surge of women and men who are asserting their right to pursue careers free from sexual harassment. There is an almost daily addition to the roster of accusations against men who have taken advantage of their power over the women, men and children who find themselves within circles of influence. This culture is now being exposed and tested, and because many of those accused of sexual misconduct are suffering consequences we might also conclude that a norm against sexual harassment is asserting itself.
Careers are being cut short. Harvey Weinstein, who is now credited with the dubious distinction of launching a social movement against a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace, was fired from his own company and stripped of the accolades and landmarks of achievements gathered across a lifetime of work. Kevin Spacey has been cut from a film currently in production, and Netflix has cancelled the wildly popular series House of Cards in which Spacey played the protagonist, whose abhorred fictional conduct is now being compared with the actor’s personal life choices and morals. The television network CBS fired the long-term broadcaster Charlie Rose after eight women accused him of sexual wrongdoing. Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who predates the Weinstein scandal, was forced to resign from the network he founded after ten women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. He died in May of this year leaving behind him a legacy of shame. These professional and social sanctions confirm a new standard that says men cannot wield their power over women to obtain sexual favors, and if they violate that rule, they must pay a heavy price.
Canada has not been immune to similar experiences. The most widespread news story to kick off a Canadian conversation on a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace was the 2016 sexual assault trial of former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi, which, though it resulted in his acquittal, led to the loss of his job and the revelation that he violated CBC’s code of behavioral standards. Following the Weinstein story in the United States, Canadian film leaders acknowledged—and many women in the Canadian entertainment industry confirmed—that this culture does not stop at the U.S.’s northern border.
However, two divergent worlds are coexisting almost independently of each other. Compare the fates of Weinstein, Spacey, Rose, Ailes and Ghomeshi to that of Donald Trump. In Trump’s case, 16 female accusers remain in the dark. Their accused lives out his presidential days in the West Wing unfazed and free from repercussions. And now the consequences of President Trump’s impunity are beginning to come to light. Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator of Alabama, who remains locked in a closely tied race despite allegations of repeated pedophilic behavior. Like Trump, his conduct seems beyond the grasp of social sanction.
The fact is that these two worlds do not interact, they do not seem to inform each other. Opposite norms are coexisting and fighting for a preeminent spot at the top of our social value chain without a visible light at the end of the tunnel on which norm might win out.
Norms are powerful tools of social order. They have the power to ensure we collaborate without a law forcing us to do so or a market incentive to make it appealing. Norms are the connective tissue of a society that hangs together without any mode of control other than reproach or affirmation. Norms are not dictated from the top down. They are negotiated daily. Whenever we hold the door open for somebody coming out of the store behind us, we strengthen principles of solidarity. Whenever we steal a parking spot from somebody waiting for it, we weaken those same principles. Norms are made and remade every day, by everybody, in every action we take.
So, what does our current tale of two cities tell us about the norms by which we live and hold each other accountable? Dickens’ classic novel is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. What kind of social order are we manufacturing in the profoundly bifurcated path we tread?