I hate one-dimensional characters in movies and TV. I love complex characters who have good qualities and bad. I like that “The Good Wife” actually isn’t really such a paragon of moral virtue at all. That she has made questionable decisions and struggles with things, just like we all do. I like how many of the “villains” on that show do monstrous things, but still have likable qualities and people they love and who love them in turn. I’m glad we’re seeing more and more shows like that, where characters are as flawed and three-dimensional as we all are.
Yet there seems to be something in us that likes to simplify things when it comes to judging real people. Someone is either good or bad. On the side of right or on the side of evil. And there’s a tendency to either vilify people or put them on a pedestal. But the world is not so black-and-white.
I think few things have made that tendency to simplify as clear to me as the whole Joe Murphy vs. #Teamharpy lawsuit and social media debacle. It seemed like the dominant narrative either had to be that Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus were heroes and saints and Joe Murphy was a monster, or that Joe Murphy was a saint and poor innocent victim and Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus were monsters. I personally don’t believe either is true. Joe Murphy is not a saint, but he has had his reputation damaged (maybe fatally in our profession) for something there may be no evidence of him having done. Calling someone a sexual predator without first-hand knowledge or evidence that they are one (and I’m not saying that victims need to have evidence) seems like a shitty thing to do. But, given the number of negative things I’d heard about Joe from other librarians prior to all this, I’m assuming (and hoping) that Lisa thought she was doing something good in warning people about him.
I’m writing this knowing that I will probably be trolled by someone for it, but c’est la vie. I’m disturbed by the fact that, after all of the petitions, and Facebook drama, and blog posts, and tweets about this no one seems to be talking about this (other than right-wing feminist-hating nut-jobs) since the lawsuit was settled and Lisa and nina published retractions. We shouldn’t let right-wing feminist-hating nut-jobs control the narrative. And we also should be willing to admit when we were wrong and/or stand up for our beliefs if we feel we are right.
When I first wrote a post about all this, social media had been relatively quiet about it. I think there had been a couple of blog posts and the Team Harpy WordPress site was up, but nothing with a lot of vitriol had come out. Most of the rhetoric seemed focused generally on how common sexual harassment is — even in our female-dominated profession — and how important it is that there are whistleblowers who speak out about that behavior. There were posts about the importance of believing victims and supporting whistleblowers. I’d say that people were generally supportive of Lisa and nina, but were not necessarily assuming that Joe was what they said he was.
Soon after, the discussion took a turn for the bizarre, at least to me. The conversation around Joe on Facebook and Twitter became intensely vitriolic, with plenty of people arguing his guilt as if they had inside information. Respected library administrators who have never met Joe were calling him a “douchebag” on Twitter. There was a change.org petition asking him to drop his lawsuit, apologize to nina and Lisa, and compensate them. It was signed by over 1,000 people, including many people I like and respect. I did not sign it. I found it really odd that no one was considering the fact that he might be the victim in this. Instead, Lisa and nina were treated like victims, which, if they did harm his career without any evidence of a crime, they were very much in the wrong. I find it difficult to believe that over 1,000 other people knew for a fact that he actually was a sexual predator.
It seemed more like people thought he was wrong to have sued them. If someone publicly accused me of a terrible crime with no evidence and damaged my career, wouldn’t I be the injured party and shouldn’t I be able to seek damages in a court of law? The idea that he was squashing their free speech rights was ridiculous. If it’s not true that Joe is a sexual predator, it is slander. It’s one thing to say Joe Murphy is a jerk. That is opinion. But stating that someone is factually something that they don’t know is true is not protected speech. Destroying someone’s reputation is a tremendous and personal violation of another human being. But maybe he deserved it because he was a player and a flirt? How is that any different than “slut-shaming?” I found it disturbing that none of the people I like and respect seemed to be acknowledging this. But maybe everyone but me knew for a fact that it was true?
I don’t like Joe Murphy. I still feel about him exactly the way I did when I wrote my first post. But, as I mentioned then, I think the fact that he was disliked by so many people made it easy for folks to believe him to have done it (and he might consider why so many people were saying awful things about him behind his back, because it’s not just “haters gonna hate”). We’ve all seen the delight people feel when someone powerful (or someone who is perceived of as being privileged) is taken down. I’ve been reading a lot about Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and am looking forward to reading it and learning more about this strange and all-too-common social phenomenon.
In addition to the fact that plenty of people wanted to see him taken down a peg, this was happening at a time when things like gamergate and the recent conversations, articles, and presentations about sexual harassment in librarianship were shining a pretty bright light on this issue. I think people wanted to show their support for women who have been the victims of sexual harassment and this lawsuit gave our community an opportunity to come together to do that.
But let’s remember something here: nina and Lisa were not sexually harassed by Joe Murphy. That was never what anyone was claiming. But many people behaved like Joe was suing the victims of harassment. No. He was suing people who were reporting something they said they’d heard. This wasn’t about believing the victims of sexual harassment. They may have believed they were doing the right thing, but they weren’t harassed by Joe prior to posting what they did.
Now the tide has shifted and the trolls are attacking nina, Lisa, and their supporters (including me, though I wasn’t actually a supporter). I can’t even blame Joe much for engaging in a bit of schadenfreude now (I’ve seen him favoriting some of the trolling tweets his lawyers have been shooting out to me and others) I can’t fathom the suffering he must have endured through all this. I can’t imagine how demoralizing it must have been to have more than 1,000 people in our profession signing a change.org petition against him. But sadly, because he’s put on the mantle of the innocent victim and good-guy, I doubt very much that he is going to examine the behavior that got him here (and I don’t mean the lawsuit).
And that’s the rub. How do we call people like Joe on their shit in a way that might actually create change? Calling them a sexual predator on Twitter without evidence is clearly not it. I believe in the power of social media for good, but I haven’t seen a lot of good come out of it when it comes to calling out powerful men for bad behavior, because many then just position themselves as victims. Has public shaming really ever worked to meaningfully change people’s behavior (again, gotta read Ronson’s book)? But the “whisper network” doesn’t work either. People were saying lots of things about Joe, but the information wasn’t getting to people in power or maybe even Joe himself. Maybe he didn’t know how a lot of people felt about him. I have no idea.
Still the greatest tragedy here, in my opinion is that so many women suffer sexual harassment and most of the time the perpetrators get away with it. And this whole sordid affair did little to help the cause of encouraging women to come forward. I’ve been sexually harassed and stalked and never reported any of it. But it was when a faculty member at a former job who used to stand too close to me and would put his arm around my waist sometimes later escalated to grabbing a colleagues breasts that I realized my silence was hurting other women. Because men who do things like this don’t just do it once. If they get away with something that you consider too minor to report, they may escalate to doing something much worse to someone else. We have to find more ways to help women feel safe reporting harassment. I’m happy that more conferences now have codes of conduct and discernible methods of reporting inappropriate behavior, and that will help, but it’s not enough.
I don’t have anything positive to end with here, so I’ll close with an excerpt from an interview with Jon Ronson where he talks about a situation where guy at a conference was social media shamed after a woman tweeted about an off-color joke he made and then she was horribly trolled after he said he lost his job because of it. See any parallels?
The strange thing is the impulse to shame often comes from a good place. Like the desire to confront sexism, say. A good example is the tech conference incident: Hank whispers a naff joke about ‘big dongles’ to his friend, Adria hears it and takes offence, posts something on Twitter and the whole thing snowballs.
Ronson: Yeah, everybody involved in that shaming is doing it for social justice reasons. So Adria feels that in calling out Hank she’s a calling out a greater truth: that privileged white men don’t know the effect they have on other people. The trolls think they’re doing the right thing because they feel Adria robbed Hank of his employment – so they wanted to get back at her. Everybody involved in that story feels the urge to be a good person – and it’s carnage all round. Everyone is broken by the experience; especially Adria, she has it worse than anybody. I mean, I’m on Hank’s side. Nobody wants to live in a world where you can’t make a dongle joke! But by the end of the story, Hank’s okay, he’s got a new job, but Adria’s unemployed and subjected to death threats. So Adria’s view of the world feels vindicated.