What would you rather be remembered for: “Read my lips” or “Dodge my hands”? Breaking the tax pledge was once considered the low point of the George H. W. Bush presidency. But now even that low moment has competition.
As a researcher and then speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, I don’t remember any untoward gestures on the part of the President and all his men. The White House of Bush 41 was surprisingly, refreshingly gentlemanly and dignified. I do remember being sent home to change one day because our office manager felt my skirt was too short. She was right. And it was the maintenance of that kind of decorum that kept the administration largely sex-scandal free.
But beyond that haven of waspy restraint, I have dodged enough hands at Harvard, the State Department, private equity, think tanks, and the food industry to not be surprised by the past couple weeks’ multiple eruptions of sexual harassment scandals.
The social media #MeToo campaign has further illuminated the scope of the problem, but it doesn’t shed light on a solution. Among solutions which have been tried:
Well, we could try feminizing men. Encouraging boys to play with dolls, not guns, the manipulation of gender-confused children with cross-sex hormones, even obliterating the very idea of gender by introducing an entire alphabet of different sex-orientation options.
And yet the sexual harassment epidemic continues unabated.
We could try sexual harassment prevention education — mandating that employees sit for hours every year and watch the same lame video tutorials over and over, as I was required to do at Dole Food Company.
Lot of good that’s done.
Or we could embrace litigation as a strategy. Perhaps lawmakers could make it easier for victims to sue their alleged harassers for damages — and increase penalties. By increasing disincentives for such behavior, it’s possible some harassers would think twice before crossing boundaries. But in that regard the public shaming and total professional meltdowns of high-profile harassers in recent weeks should do more than any low-profile litigation to deter dirtbags.
Let’s hope it does. But for victims of harassment, litigation is necessarily the option of last-resort — one that, even if successfully pursued, could cast a long shadow over the litigator’s professional life, as future employers regard him/her as a potential troublemaker.
Sexual harassment is a stubborn problem and conventional solutions so far have failed. It’s time for a radically different approach. Instead of #MeToo as a guiding principle — finding solace and solidarity among the ranks of fellow victims — I propose #MeFirst as a much more powerful orientation to deter, prevent, and, when necessary, deal with unwanted sexual advances in professional environments.
My #MeFirst approach comes from my reading of Ayn Rand — and my own first-hand experiences with workplace harassment
“Ayn Rand??” Some of you will shriek, “Sexual harassment? Are you crazy??”
Granted, given her most famous sex scene — Roark’s “rape” of Dominique in The Fountainhead — as well as Rand’s own issues with regard to personal boundaries in the workplace, an Objectivist approach to fighting sexual harassment may seem brazen. Yet these reservations are far overshadowed by Rand’s towering literary heroines like Kira Argounova and Dagny Taggart — independent women with wills as steely as the girders with which they dared to build.
Moreover, of the five branches of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, the most revolutionary was her ethics, which elevated self-interest as morally superior to altruism.
So what would a rationally self-interested — #MeFirst — approach to harassment look like? It would involve a focus on ourselves, and what we can do as individuals to help prevent harassment, deal with harassment, and get beyond harassment. It would also involve a return to thinking about relationships — all relationships but particularly professional relationships, and those include student/teacher relationships, in terms of the trader principle.
That is coming together to trade value for value in voluntary association honestly and rationally. Sexual harassment almost always involves a perversion of the trader principle in one fashion or another. You were hired to do a job — a stylist I visited recently told me: “When my boss hired me, the only thing I was hired to blow was hair.”
At some point, he tried to change the terms of the trade. Well when you’re trading, you’ve got your resources, they’ve got theirs. Sexual harassment almost always involves one party making the other party think they’ve got nothing on their side of the ledger. “I’ve got your grades, I’ve got your raise, I’ve got your donation….and what do you have? You’ve got nothing.”
And when you’re young, and you’re dealing with someone a lot older, or with a lot more power or experience, you’re more inclined to believe that person. But almost always, it’s a head fake. It’s either a butt patt or a head fake. They’re trying to make you think you’re less powerful, you have fewer options and resources than you do.
There are only two ways to deal with this subversion of authentic trading. The best way, is to work your tail off, learn what you don’t know, make friends along the way, build a reputation as a man or woman of integrity, a man or woman who is a worthy trading partner. And that can be done in a relatively short period of time. But until you get there, do a head fake of your own. Do it on yourself, and by extension, you’ll be doing it on those who might think to take advantage of you. Think of yourself as someone with tremendous options, extraordinary competence and courage.
Second, and this is something relevant not just to victims, but to perpetrators. How do we raise our sons and daughters not to become the kind of people who use their positions to take advantage of other people. The answer again comes from selfishness, in its strictest term, which has to do with deriving value from how you see yourself, as opposed to altruism, which is essentially otherism.
Francisco d’Anconia in Atlas Shrugged captured it best:
A man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.
When we look at harassers through this lens, we come up with a very different, and rather pathetic perspective. And this applies equally to men and to women who abuse their position to again, try and get something for nothing, to cheat reality, and to take advantage of those for whom they should feel responsible.
One young athlete, body-builder and Objectivist tells the story of how at Arizona State University, female teachers would ask him to come by after class and offer extra tutoring, or suggest that they go out for something to eat. “They gave a lot of hugs,” recalled Hikmat Alli, “I knew what was going on, that they were looking for some kind of response.”
Was he angry, I wanted to know, since I certainly was on his behalf.
“No, I just felt sorry for them.”
It’s an attitude worth cultivating, since many who experience harassment too often end up feeling sorry for themselves. That’s understandable. But by placing themselves first, by believing in their own agency, and working hard to create opportunities that provide more professional choices and leeway, women and men will find harassment becomes the least of their problems — and their own creativity and self-confidence will create the greatest of their opportunities.
Jennifer Grossman is the CEO of The Atlas Society and is a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush.