Courage: What the World Needs Now

As 2017 draws to a close, we are looking back on a tumultuous year that brought many changes, some of them shocking. Time magazine noted one of the most fundamental shifts by naming the women who have come forward against sexual abuse “Person of the Year.” A few weeks ago, African Americans in Alabama helped defeat a candidate who has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct involving children. They did this in spite of an establishment that is still aimed at suppressing their voting rights, including draconian laws that put up multiple obstacles to their ability to cast ballots.

These two groups are united by a common characteristic: courage. The women who spoke up against Harvey Weinstein, arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood (and known to be the most vengeful), did so in spite of his multiple, specific threats to harm their careers. In some cases—for example that of the actress Mia Sorvino—there is demonstrable proof that he succeeded. After she won an Oscar, her career didn’t take off as expected—it fizzled, and the director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) said a couple of weeks ago that Weinstein had warned him not to hire her because she was a “nightmare” to work with. Jackson was considering casting her, but moved on because of this comment, taking it at face value.

Many other women have now joined in to raise their voices against abusers, even those that were very powerful, like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. Because of the spark ignited by #MeToo, the culture has shifted enough already that both were immediately fired.

It is hard to overestimate the degree to which traumatic sexual experiences can haunt their victims. Some women have found themselves “triggered” by the multiple accounts that are reported daily, and their memories and fears have been revived. One woman I know, a victim of abuse when she was a teenager, asked her husband to stop wearing his bathrobe around the house because, thanks to the accounts of vile behavior by Weinstein and Rose, it has become an object of fear to her.

The Mexican actress Salma Hayek wrote an editorial recently that underscored the power of these experiences. Writing that Weinstein was her “monster,” she recounted his relentless quest to “have” her in some way. She resisted mightily, and when she was on the verge of realizing a long-held dream, producing and starring in a film about the artist Frida Kahlo, he threatened to take it all away unless she agreed to do a nude love scene with Ashley Judd (another Weinstein accuser). Feeling that it was the only way to save her film project, she relented. She writes of her experience that

“I arrived on the set the day we were to shoot the scene that I believed would save the movie. And for the first and last time in my career, I had a nervous breakdown: My body began to shake uncontrollably, my breath was short and I began to cry and cry, unable to stop, as if I were throwing up tears.”

But while Weinstein “won” this battle, his victims ultimately won the war.

Meanwhile, December 12 brought about the historic defeat of a candidate whose party had been in control of Alabama politics for decades.  Michelle Goldberg wrote in The New York Times,  “. . . in Alabama on Tuesday, black voters defied all predictions, as well as attempts at voter suppression, to turn out at historic levels. Though African-Americans are only 26 percent of the population, exit polls showed that they might have made up as much as 30 percent of voters.”

Again, these people had the courage to overcome naked attempts to intimidate and discourage them. They did so in a state that has a history, centuries long, of racial intolerance and violence. They did so in spite of the drumbeat of discouraging and disheartening events lately demonstrating the persistence and even exacerbation of racism on our nation.

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