Lifetimes of understandable resentment can boil over into presumptions of guilt. This is dangerous. And when important public careers are ruined, everybody loses
As former Green Party defense spokesman Peter Pilz returns to Parliament this month, it’s a good time to reflect on the short and intense history of the #MeToo campaign – from a website launched in Harlem a decade ago, exploding into a movement following revelations of sexual abuse by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein going back decades.
What made the Weinstein case so important was that it was so clear: an enormously powerful man in a profession built on the talents of beautiful women, who relentlessly badgered and bullied for sexual favors in exchange for a successful career. We know this is wrong.
Shortly thereafter, Peter Pilz was accused of repeated heavy-handed sexual overtures, first to-ward a staffer in 2015 (described in the Kleine Zeitung as “everything from irritating endearments like “Schatzi” to unwanted invitations for weekends away”), and then, at first through anonymous witnesses, toward a colleague (“sloppy drunken pawing”) at the Alpbach Forum in 2013. The accusers remained anonymous, while Pilz felt forced to resign, even as his own Liste Pilz had just passed the 4 percent threshold to be seated in Parliament.
The election victory was his: A leading voice for decades in the opposition, he had repeatedly exposed corruption, excesses and insider Freunderlwirtschaft – in the Lucona and Noricum scandals, the Eurofighter, Novomatic – consistently brilliant, articulate and persistent.
Over the weeks that followed, Pilz tried to manage the heady dynamic of #MeToo politics, something he basically agreed with (“I have high standards and these apply to me as well”) while the public mood shifted around him. He was never allowed to see the files; he speculated publicly about possible political revenge.
As he spoke with reporters at the Café Landtmann in early November 2017, he was clearly chastened: “We older, and in my case, still powerful, men must be prepared to learn something from this,” he said.
By February, the mood was shifting, and some, like Austrian film director Michael Haneke (Amour, The Piano Teacher) were speaking out against what he called a “witch hunt.”
Of course, “any form of rape or coercion should be punished. … But this hysterical prejudgment, which is spreading now, I find absolutely disgusting,” he told the Austrian daily Kurier. Too many of the reported incidents were merely awkward, a flirt gone wrong, and “had nothing to do with sexual assault.” Now, he admitted, he would probably be referred to as “Haneke, the male chauvinist pig.”
It was outrage deferred, lifetimes of pent up resentment boiling over into presumptions of guilt. For so long, women had felt powerless in these situations. Women are taught to be ingratiating, yet expected to set the limits of intimacy – this is the paradox of women’s lives. So now they were speaking out. Because they could.
But do women really feel this helpless? Like Catherine Deneuve, Austrian actress Nina Proll said #notme – “Why do feminists always insist on being victims?” she challenged.
One depressing irony in all this is how often the men accused, like Peter Pilz, have been political progressives – people like U.S. Democratic Senator Al Franken (accused of sloppy kisses and pretendingto grope), or IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn (affairs and prostitutes), the once likely next president of France. You can’t help wondering if sex drive and leadership go together, and about the strength of ego essential in today’s politics.
So often, we see clumsy behavior within the catalytic mix of professional passions and alcohol, where men make overtures and women become the objects of power-fueled desire, who, in the moment, are unable to brush them off.
Still, at this late date, surely we are able to stand up for ourselves, or live with the awkward knowledge that we occasionally went too far – without needing to destroy the men we have allowed to become too familiar.
So was Pilz done an injustice, asked the Austrian news weekly Profil in May? Yes, probably, as nothing he had done qualified as criminal; the women chose not to sue. His actions were clearly “sittenswidrig” (bad form), disrespectful and certainly unpleasant. And for this, he paid a high price. For a public official, Profil decided, it goes with the territory.
Still we must be careful, that in doing the right thing, we don’t inflict a greater wrong.