Today, after weeks of resisting calls to resign, Andrew Cuomo has officially announced his resignation as Governor of New York. Yet one notable feature of this announcement is a lack of repentance. Since the allegations first broke, Cuomo has been defending himself, stating that they are untrue, and he only ever had good attentions. This, I think, points to some very important conversations we need to have as a society.
Despite a lot of good work being done by the #MeToo movement and the scores of academics, writers, and educators, far too many people seem to hold onto the view that evil is blatant and easily recognizable; that they won’t be fooled and that those who are fooled must have just missed the signs.
This is a dangerous assumption–study after study has pointed to exactly the opposite: the majority of violent crimes, including crimes such as sexual assault, harrassment, rape, etc., are committed by the people closest to us; trusted friends, family and partners; not some stranger on the street. False allegations are estimated to be so rare as to be essentially negligible–even in this era of the #MeToo movement, the disincentives far outweigh the benefits of coming forward. In fact, there’s a good chance that sexual assault and harrassment remains under-reported.
Cuomo, like many others in moderate political camps, has billed himself as a progressive on issues of women’s rights, workplace protections, and such. Yet Cuomo’s reactions to these allegations was to go on the defensive, to deny any wrongdoing, and to defend his intentions as excusing any contrary interpretation of his actions. This, I fear, is going to be a trend that will be all too common, unless we discuss things openly and clearly.
Let me be very clear: your intentions don’t matter in such instances. If someone tells you they were uncomfortable with what you said or did, you must believe they are telling the truth. You can say all you want that you were merely being affectionate and that you didn’t think anything of it–but clearly, there was a breakdown in communication here, and rather than denying that or excusing it, you should own up to it, learn from it, and amend to do better.
When there is a clear power differential, as in these cases, then there are many reasons why people may be reluctant to tell you “No”; so rather than assuming your usual gestures of affection are okay, make sure to ask folks, and make sure to pay attention to their tone and body language; if there is even the slightest doubt that they don’t actually want what you are offering, respect that and pump the brakes.
The old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is as true now as it ever was. The truth that we often escape is that evil is banal, that harm oftens come unwittingly from mundane, everyday actions–or, indeed, even out of a selfless desire to do good. This is the challenge we face: doing evil and/or causing harm is incredibly easy; resisting evil and doing good is a constant struggle and requires awareness of one’s self and others; as well as much knowledge, wisdom, self-control, and strong principles.
If you aim to be an ally, if you aim to truly change things for the better, you must understand this. It won’t be easy, and unintentional harm may result in consequences you’d rather not face; but we must listen to the people we hurt, even if we were trying to do good. We must not deny the harm we have caused, but take responsibility and do our best to make amends–even, and perhaps especially, if it means sacrificing positions of power and privilege as a result.
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