WASHINGTON – Even in a political season of routine marvels, few developments are more spectacularly incongruous than this: America has seen a swift, dramatic shift in attitudes toward sexual harassment with Donald Trump as president.
It is sometimes assumed (including by me) that the presidency sets a moral tone for the nation, influencing what society considers normal and acceptable in a kind of trickle-down ethics. But the sexual harassment revolution emerged from society in spite of – or even in defiance of – a president who has boasted of exploiting women and who stands accused of harassing more than a dozen.
This is a reminder that the moral dynamics of a nation are complex, which should come as no surprise to conservatives (at least of the Burkean variety). This is a big country, capable of making up its own collective mind. Politics only reaches the light zone of a deep ocean. It is a sign of hope that moral and ethical standards can assert themselves largely unaided by political, entertainment and media leaders – except when they serve as cautionary tales of egregious behavior.
We are seeing an example of how social change often (and increasingly) takes place. Advocates of a cause can push for a long time with little apparent effect. Then, in a historical blink, what seemed incredible becomes inevitable. Over a period of years, this is what happened with the gay marriage movement. A type of inclusion that initially appeared radical and frightening became an obvious form of fairness to a majority of Americans. Politicians, including President Obama, were left catching up to the new social consensus.
Over a period of weeks, this is the story of the revolt against sexual harassment. What seemed for generations the prerogative of powerful men has been fully revealed as a pernicious form of dehumanization. Men such as Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose have been exposed at their moments of maximum cruelty and creepiness – just as their alleged victims (on credible testimony) experienced them. An ethical light switch was flipped. Moral outrage – the appropriate response – now seems obvious.
Such rapid shifts in social norms should be encouraging to social reformers of various stripes. Attitudes and beliefs do not move on a linear trajectory. A period of lightening clarity can change the assumptions and direction of a culture. The movement against capital punishment, for example, may be reaching such a point. Advocates of gun control, in contrast, seem to have an endless wait. But the record of our times counsels against despair.
On sexual harassment, our country is now in a much better ethical place. And how we got here is instructive. Conservatives have sometimes predicted that moral relativism would render Americans broadly incapable of moral judgment. But people, at some deep level, know that rules and norms are needed. They understand that character – rooted in empathy and respect for the rights and dignity of others – is essential in every realm of life, including the workplace.
And where did this urgent assertion of moral principle come from? Not from the advocates of “family values.” On the contrary, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family (now under much better management), chose to side with Roy Moore against his highly credible accusers. “I have been dismayed and troubled,” said Dobson, “about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment.”
It is as if Dobson set out to justify every feminist critique of the religious right. Instead of standing against injustice and exploitation – as the Christian gospel demands – Dobson sided with patriarchal oppression in the cause of political power. This is beyond hypocrisy. It is the solidarity of scary, judgmental old men. It is the ideology of white male dominance dressed up as religion.
This is how low some religious conservatives have sunk: They have left me sounding like an English professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Conservatives need to be clear and honest in this circumstance. The strong, moral commitment to the dignity of women and children recently asserting itself in our common life has mainly come from feminism, not the “family values” movement. In this case, religious conservatives have largely been bystanders or obstacles. This indicates a group of people for whom the dignity of girls and women has become secondary to other political goals.
We are a nation with vast resources of moral renewal. It is a shame and a scandal that so many religious conservatives have made themselves irrelevant to that task.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.