If a man abuses his co-workers and apologizes, should he be forgiven? What about a man who sexually assaults a stranger asleep in bed? Is redemption possible?
Last week, Tom Ashbrook, who was fired as host of the popular National Public Radio program “On Point,” asked in a column in The Boston Globe if there was a way back after being fired in February for creating an “abusive work environment.” Investigators for his employer, Boston radio station WBUR, cleared him of sexual misconduct allegations.
“My behavior was offensive and overbearing to some,” Ashbrook wrote, going on to ask: “Is there room for redemption and rebirth, in our time of Google trails and hashtag headlines?”
There should be, say many experts who study issues surrounding sexual abuse. Forgiveness must be possible if society wants to reduce instances of sexual misconduct, but experts say, it will take work and willingness to change from both the perpetrators and society at large.
Many of the apologies men have made after being accused of misconduct during the #MeToo movement have fallen short of what’s needed for redemption: Think of Harvey Weinstein, whose apology after a New York Times report in October alleging decades of sexual misconduct included a promise to fight the National Rifle Association and an excuse blaming the culture in the 1960s and 1970s.
Or, celebrity chef Mario Batali, who ended his apology for sexually harassing multiple women with a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls .
“We don’t really have a map for what public rehabilitation should look like,” said Jennifer A. Thompson, an assistant professor of applied Jewish ethics and civic engagement at California State University, Northridge.
Thompson said Ashbrook and Batali both get credit for trying. But they fall short by continuing to focus on themselves, rather than the people they wronged, she said. In Jewish tradition, when you wrong a person, it’s up to that person to forgive you.
“You have to go to the person you hurt and ask, ‘What can I do to make this right?’” Thompson said, adding that asking for forgiveness makes you vulnerable, an unfamiliar place for men with power.
At times, when famous men, such as the comedian Louis C.K. , have made public apologies that are deemed insufficient, it can cause them to retreat from view, said Alissa Ackerman-Acklin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton. But she said that’s the opposite of what we should want.
“If we want a society free of sexual misconduct and we want people to really understand the impact of their actions, then publicly shaming them is not the way to do it. It makes us feel good, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce sexual misconduct,” Ackerman-Acklin said.
Instead, the men should be making connections — possibly with their victims, if that’s what the victims want, or with others in a “safe, non-judgmental space, people who have caused this kind of harm can really think about what they’ve done and get really introspective and come to a place where they can offer an authentic apology,” Ackerman-Acklin said.
Lesley Wexler, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, whose work has focused on sexual harassment, armed conflict and apologies, said the idea of “restorative justice” offers a model for possible redemption.
“Part of what should be happening here is personal. Making amends to the victim, restoring the victim. And a separate part is acknowledging that the nature of this harm isn’t just the individual, you are a community. That suggests you also need to be public about what specifically was wrong and what you can do better,” Wexler said.
She pointed to the example of Mel Gibson, who went on an anti-Semitic rant as he was being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in 2006, and also pleaded no contest in 2011 to one count of misdemeanor spousal battery of his former girlfriend. Among the steps he took to redeem himself was offering public apologies and meeting with members of the Jewish community, she said.
“Within less than a decade, he’s directing ‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ he’s staring in ‘Daddy’s Home 2.’ All of that is happening in the absence of the #MeToo movement,” she said. “This fear that men are going to be exiled for the rest of their lives is vastly overstated.”
After comedy writer Megan Ganz called out her former boss, Dan Harmon, on the sitcom “Community” for sexually harassing her, she got more than a simple “I’m sorry.” Harmon, in an episode of his podcast in January, acknowledged specific things he did to her. Ganz called it a master class in how to apologize.
“He’s not rationalizing or justifying or making excuses. He doesn’t just vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past. He gives a full account,” she wrote on Twitter.
Just last week, a former Boston University student stood in a court and presented her own lesson of offering redemption.
The woman was sexually assaulted in 2015 by a then-MIT student, Samson Donick, who broke into her dorm room. She woke up to find Donick assaulting her.
The woman did not want to go through a trial, and she asked the court to approve a plea deal that kept him out of prison. The judge was initially opposed to the deal, but finally agreed after the woman told the judge “everyone deserves second chances.”
The judge then required Donick to recount in court in graphic detail what he did to the woman. He did so, and apologized.
At his sentencing, the woman asked him to “make a positive impact in every life you touch.”
“I ask that you live each day with a little reminder of what you did,” she said, “and make up for it.”
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