Reaching the Tipping Point on Sexual Abuse

No matter what the topic these days, whether it’s sexual abuse, gun violence in the United States, or any of the other ills of society, the comment we often hear is “We need a law against that.”

Not so simple.

You see, we live in a democracy. And in case you hadn’t thought about it that way, the whole idea of laws in a democracy is that the law follows the will of the people. Not the other way around, as we may wish it to.

So, no matter how much we would like to see strict gun ownership and usage laws in the United States, there isn’t really much sense in passing them. We already have laws against many forms of abuse in Canada, but they aren’t working very well. Why not? Because the will does not exist in the people to follow them.

Every law you enact turns some of your citizens into criminals. If there is a large number of such people, and – more importantly – if an even larger number of the population sympathizes with them, then there isn’t much sense in creating a whole bunch of scoff-laws. Which leads us to the oft-heard opposite reaction:

What’s the Use?

Well, let’s not be pessimistic. Our society has made great progress in the past century, the pace of that progress increasing rapidly over the last few decades. We have made great strides forward, but in doing so we have rushed quite a few people out of their comfort zones. Perhaps we can afford to cut them a little slack, objectionable though they may seem. Unhappy, frightened people do and say stupid things, and we are the cause of their fear and unhappiness, righteous though our actions may have been.

Laws Follow the Will of the People

The force in a democracy that creates the most change is the vast weight of public opinion. In an autocracy, somebody at the top makes a law. The authorities enforce it long enough that finally the people give up and obey it. Most of them, anyway.

A democracy works the opposite. The people start thinking that something should change. As time passes, enough people speak up about it that the topic becomes politically active. Then, finally, enough people in the general population push the politicians, and they create a law. And if enough people think the law is good, they put the pressure on those who want to break it, and soon the offenders realize they really shouldn’t do that sort of thing, and stop doing it. At least, enough of them stop that law enforcement can handle the few that didn’t get the message.

Northern Ireland

One of the greatest positive examples of this process is the solving of the Troubles in Ireland in the 1990s. Once there was good reason for antagonism. The Protestant minority, backed by the imperialism of the British, subjugated the Catholic majority and kept them in poverty. This bred rebellion, and the IRA was formed.

Then, over the years, everything evened out. Under a more democratic government, the reasons for fighting gradually disappeared. The vast majority of the population grew tired of what they saw as meaningless violence. The IRA ended up a group of criminals, using politics as an excuse to run the usual organized crime activities: drugs, guns, prostitution, protection rackets.

And finally the general population reached the tipping point. A few brave women stood up and said, “This is enough!” And there was so much support for them in the population that the criminals did not dare to touch them. And now Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful place. The IRA has even followed the herd and gone into politics instead of violence.

And Now Sexual Harassment

I’m sorry to say it, but like gun control in the US, this is a problem the population is not yet ready to fix. As I write this, I am sitting at a Christmas craft fair, selling my books. Peace and good will, carols on the PA system; you know, the whole holiday spirit. I got into a conversation with an elderly lady, and her opinion of the present situation in the entertaiment industry, which should not have surprised me, was “Those women. They should all be shot! They need to get over it and get on with their lives.” As far as she was concerned, “a pat on the bum is nothing to worry about.”

Which gives you an idea how far we have to go. As long as there is biased leadership in the traditional bastions of male supremacy like the police, the fire halls, and the military, women will continue to have uncomfortable lives in those occupations, no matter how many regulations are laid down by the politicians at the top. As long as the courts continue to treat complainants in sexual abuse cases as somehow complicit in the event, women will still be reluctant to come forward. And as long as many of the victims consider that sort of abuse to be business as usual, what can you do about the abusers?

We are in a situation of “two steps ahead, one step back” in this regard. Every time a charge against a public figure hits the news, no matter the outcome, public opinion nudges in the right direction. Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, for example. The present upset in the entertainment business is a great boost forward. Oh, soon less scrupulous women with axes to grind will make spurious charges and give the whole movement a negative twist. Cases will succeed and cases will fail. Soon the present stock of victims who are brave enough to speak out will dry up. The concept will stop being news, it will all blow over and things will settle back almost to normal.

But Not Quite the Same

More people will have had it brought home to them that the ‘casting couch’ is not the way business is done these days. More people (many of them men) will say, “Treating people like that is not right.”

And the next time around, there will be even more support for the abused, and better ways of dealing with the legal aspects of the problem. And the weight of public opinion will tip even further towards civilization.

But reaching the point where it all becomes easy? Not for a while yet, I’m afraid. Keep pushing, folks.

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