Thursday, November 2, 2017
The New Puritans
Kudos to Cathy Young and her op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times!
She courageously stirred political controversy by calling out the extremity of the reaction to recent allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.
You can see her article here:
Anyone practicing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for decades learns the shimmering uniqueness of each individual person. We live in shades of gray, not black and white. Human behavior exists in many complex contexts, presents in subtle, nuanced ways, and evades generalizations.
The witch-hunt-like, frenzied nature of the recent controversy over sexual misbehavior brings to mind the spirit of Puritanism relevant in the formation of our country.
According to Brittanica.com, Puritanism was defined primarily by the intensity of the religious experience it fostered. Puritans displayed a moral and religious earnestness which, combined with the doctrine of predestination, produced a “covenant theology.” They considered themselves “elect spirits” chosen by God to live godly lives as individuals and as a community.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlett Letter, critiqued the Puritans by portraying the absurdity of their ideology. His portrayal of a 17th-century New England Puritan town demonstrates the rigidity of beliefs regarding the structure of religion and society. Puritans privileged a male-dominated family structure intended to keep everyone in line; they severely shunned any kind of sexual sin.
In Hawthorne’s novel, Esther, the main character, smiles in rebellion when she first appears in the novel displaying letter A, for adultery, embroidered on her bosom. What should have been a symbol of shame, Esther converted into one of resilience and resistance.
But that is fiction.
In truth, most 17th century women found guilty of committing adultery were flogged; some were tortured and executed.
Sin was defined in an absolutely black and white way.
I fear American culture regressing to a similar ethos.
I have neither the time nor the energy to investigate the recent Kevin Spacey controversy in detail. However, according to the Rolling Stones, itself joining in the feeding frenzy, here are the allegations about Spacey as of today:
- Spacey was initially accused by Anthony Rapp who claims, when he was age 14, Spacey, then 26, made unwanted, aggressive sexual advances towards him.
- Actors Zachary Quinto, George Takei, and Wanda Sykes critique Spacey for deflecting attention from his alleged crimes by linking them to his announcing his homosexuality.
- Netflix cancelled the sixth season of House of Cards and its producers issued a statement indicating they were “deeply troubled” by the accusations.
- Last Tuesday, several more men accused Spacey of inappropriate touching and unwanted advances. These include Tony Montana who claims Space groped him, grabbing his “whole package” at a Los Angeles bar.
- Mexican actor Roberto Cavazos authored an FB post describing Spacey as long having a reputation for preying on young actors at the Old Vic Theater.
- Spacey served as the artistic director of the Old Vic Theater from 2004 and 2015, and the institution now distances itself from him.
- Meanwhile, others have disclaimed the Old Vic Theater itself, claiming its leadership knew well that Spacey molested and assaulted young men there.
- Eight people have anonymously accused Spacey of creating a “toxic” work environment on the set of House of Cards.
- Spacey’s longtime publicist, Staci Wolfe, and his talent agency, CAA, have dropped him.
- Netflix cancelled Spacey’s planned project about author and intellectual Gore Vidal.
- In a statement issued just last Wednesday, Spacey claims to be seeking “evaluation and treatment.”
Spacey now joins ranks with Weinstein who similarly seeks treatment at some kind of a facility in New Mexico.
Just what’s the point of my post?
I offer several, and wish to make them extremely clear because of the before-noted, inflammatory nature of our culture.
First, Spacey may well be an abusive person, another abuser of power and a sexual predator. Perhaps he truly has a serious problem, and has hurt many people. However, none of us yet know the facts, or the context. I counsel caution as we proceed to hysterically indict him as well as Weinstein.
Second, I particularly mean to call attention to the witch-hunting, McCarthyism-like nature of our contemporary, media-dominated culture. I extend the point made by the brave Cathy Young, as noted above.
Third, and arguably speaking now with the most authority, I question both Spacey’s and Weinstein’s use of evaluation and treatment as some sort of a magical panacea. Assuming these men are both guilty as sin, their behaviors represent a complex combination of impulse-control, sexual, power-related, and compulsive problems. The idea that some kind of inpatient treatment program will address such complex psychobiological disorders is nothing less than absurd.
Their well-publicized plans to seek assessment and help reminds me of the role psychiatric hospitals played in Soviet Russia. Many opponents of the repressive regime, if considered to display “psychopathological mechanisms of dissent,” were sent to inpatient psychiatric hospitals for treatment of “philosophical intoxication” and other nonsensical disorders.
That represents abuse of the mental health system on the part of the state.
Here, we likely see abuse of the mental health system by alleged perpetrators.
Fourth, and returning to the idea of the new Puritanism, our culture seems to have lost sight of shades of gray. Every single one of these allegations have contexts to them. Some may end up representing truly anti-social, criminal behavior; others may end up having been innocuous passes misinterpreted by recipients.
Who can hold that in mind when both men have been crucified in the media?
I fear our entire social-media dominated, sensationalist culture loses sight of these complexities. I personally know of two academics whose careers have been destroyed for simply making remarks that made others uncomfortable or for developing romantic feelings for another person at work.
This is beginning to get frightening.
Fifth, when will the witch hunting stop? Several of my women-friends suggest it fair for the system to “over-correct” a hierarchy privileging men.
I gently and respectfully disagree.
Why would an overcorrection be any better than the abuse of power by men?
Besides, how far will the overcorrection go?
In final conclusion, yes, Spacey and Weinstein have apparently behaved badly, possibly illegally. They should be investigated and punished accordingly. They should avoid using the same media frenzy to purport nonexistent mental syndromes, and pay $50,000 per month, for alleged treatment programs intended, in truth, to evade negative judgment.
Meanwhile, I hope we members of the public can slow down, consider the many shades of gray, and resist our propensity for gossip and sensationalism.
Hawthorne, N. (1850/1994). The Scarlet Letter. Minneola, New York: Dover.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP