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Dispatches From Progressive Spaces: On Liberalism and Dangerous Men

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

When Casey Affleck was handed an Oscar, I felt a familiar sense of dread — dread that a space that, on its face, claims to be a hallmark of diversity, progress, and “liberalness,” (quotations used very purposefully) could honor somebody with such strong allegations of harassment and assault levied against him.

But the truth is, “progressive” spaces can be even more dangerous than their conservative counterparts when it comes to weeding out predators.

You Can’t Sit With Us: On The Promise Of Exclusivity And The Danger Of Isolation

We like to be part of communities — especially exclusive ones. The more “insider” we feel, the better we feel. The community. The business. We use cute terms and unique vocabulary to describe our existences and experiences within those spaces. And, of course, we like those spaces to reflect our progressive and/or liberal values.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have an exclusive community. But the isolation that frequently follows creates danger. (See: fraternity culture)

Hollywood is certainly one example of an exclusive community. And while the media does cover the happenings of Hollywood, what happens behind the scenes of the mainstream narrative is much grittier, darker, and scarier — one only need look at the allegations against Casey Affleck, the countless tales of sexual exploitation, horrific body-shaming, etc, to get a picture of what it’s really like to be in the business. But on the surface, we hold up Hollywood as an example of “the liberal” elite, rich, and famous. The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Hollywood almost certainly isn’t sexual abuse.

This is a carefully orchestrated attempt to distract you and gaslight you, and everybody who is suffering from abuse in Hollywood, to think that cases of sexual assault, harassment, and racism are rare, when really, they’re the norm.

After all, if Casey Affleck is a famous actor in the land of the Liberal Elite, he certainly can’t be a predator — right?

And if Kesha can’t speak to the details of her case or respond to everything Dr. Luke says, there’s no way she’s telling the truth, right? Didn’t he produce that one “feminist” J.Lo song?

The insulation of “liberal communities” creates a dangerous environment where we sweep away accusations of assault, putting everyone else in said community in an unsafe space. This culture of silence, confusion, and gaslighting extends far past Hollywood, far past small town sociological dynamics — it is ever-present in tight knit “progressive” communities. And since they are so isolated, there’s no way out if you’re being abused. To put it bluntly: nobody can hear you scream, or nobody cares to listen, because they don’t want their space to lose its “progressive” title.

John*, one person I spoke to regarding this piece and the dangers of isolation in liberal spaces, points out that one excellent example of this effect is college culture. Widely thought of as “liberal meccas,” college campuses have a startling sexual assault crisis. And as fraternities get more and more spotlighted in the dialogue about assault, the less insulated they are. Which is good — transparency leads to accountability.

However, by casting aside fraternities, we neglect to realize that fraternities are a symptom of a wider issue. And rather than clamping down on rape culture holistically, weeding out predators and allowing people to stay informed of potential danger, colleges can impose gag orders on witnesses and victims in Title IX investigations, in relation to fraternities and other extra-curricular activities, like collegiate debate. Under gag orders, witnesses and victims aren’t even allowed to discuss who the respondent is in the case or what the allegations are. John saw this phenomenon firsthand and recalls to me how frustrating it was. “Title IX induces silence,” he says. “It prevents us from spreading warning to those in our communities about predators.”

This secrecy creates an illusion of progressiveness. After all, you have Title IX rights, don’t you? Isn’t that so progressive? But those rights don’t do any good if they effectively silence people from speaking out. If you can’t talk about rape, rapists and enablers will get away with whatever they want in the meantime and people will be none the wiser. And it brushes assault under the rug: it creates an atmosphere of “business as usual” within our most exclusive, admired communities. It’s a “what happens here, stays here” attitude that isolates these communities from the outside world. Whether it’s a fraternity, an honor society, Model UN, Congress, or the National Park Service — the more exclusive the setting is, and the more liberal and innocent it seems, the harder it will be for people to hear from you when something has gone terribly wrong.

The Woke Man Is The Dangerous One

One of the more disturbing elements of this exclusive, isolated cultures is that we trust that people in power have our best intentions at heart. After all, there’s no way somebody who supports equal rights would ever commit rape, right? There’s no way a politician would assault somebody, right? There’s no way an “ally” would harass someone, right? Wrong.

It’s a great tactic to lure people into a false sense of security with your so-called liberalism, and an even better one to then prop up an image of whatever community you’re in as progressive and fair — because it hides the insidiousness of the abuse, lurking just beneath the surface. Casey Affleck knows this well. So does Dr. Luke. So does Jian Ghomeshi.

It doesn’t matter how “woke” somebody is; it doesn’t matter that they’re part of a liberal group in society. A predator is a predator, and our liberal spaces give them the perfect hunting ground and safe haven.

The collegiate debate community is just one of dozens of examples of this effect. Commonly regarded as extremely liberal, “nerdy,” and safe, the debate community has been revealed to have a massive issue with sexism and racism. This was spotlighted during the 2016 election.

Alison*, who I spoke to about her experiences in the community, knows this all too well. Having competed since she was in high school, and later on acting as a coach, she faced misogyny throughout her entire tenure in the community. From comments such as “you’d debate better if your skirt were longer” to being sexually assaulted, she had a front-row-seat to the danger of isolated liberal communities.

She describes her rapist as acting “under the guise of being one of the good guys.” She lived in fear of having to compete against him in rounds. “Literally every single time I checked pairings my heart would sink until I saw that I didn’t have to debate against him. There is literally zero recourse for that. You can’t constrain another competitor, even if they raped you or they make you uncomfortable for any reason,” she notes. Later on, when both she and her rapist were coaches and judges in the community, he would show up and watch rounds where she was judging his team. “I actually had trouble focusing and ended up picking a bullshit reason why they won, because I didn’t want to have to explain to my rapist why I didn’t choose his team to win.”

Additionally, when Alison* became a coach, she was made to “look after” a male coach — “a grown ass man of the same age,” she notes — on the team, simply by reasoning that she was female and therefore responsible for the behavior of men around her. Her rapist continued to make sexual advances towards her — even when he was in a relationship — until she, faced with overwhelmingly sexism and discrimination, left the community entirely.

Combined with a lack of clear-cut enforcement of Title IX — confusion over who is responsible for the actions of a non-affiliated, hired debate critic, for example — and the appearance of general “progressiveness,” the community is brimming with “woke” men who want their daily dose of “ally cookies,” who use progressive spaces as a disguise and make the area into their own personal hunting ground — and shut down complaints of harassment and assault left and right.

Sit Down, Shut Up, Or Be Shunned

Mary*, one competitor from the collegiate debate community, spoke to me about the dangers of these “progressive” men being able to use the guise of liberalism to prey on people and silence complaints. When she and her teammates began speaking out against abuse they were facing at collegiate tournaments, they were in for a nasty surprise. “Another person from an entirely unrelated team threatened to call our university and get our funding pulled for debate if we continued our actions against this individual. We had to drop everything against him, delete Facebook posts, and pretend like debate was safe just to get access to it because it was either we debate in an unsafe space or we don’t debate at all.” For students who rely on scholarships from debate to attend college, it’s an unacceptable cost to risk not being able to keep competing. Silence is bought, sold, and controlled.

Mary’s story can be applied to nearly any exclusive, isolated community. People are forced to pretend like liberal spaces are safe just to get access to them. This creates a ripple effect of a culture of silence and fear, where speaking out can turn you into a pariah and an enemy of the community. Nobody wants to be on the outside. “We’re told that this space is a safe haven for progressive ideas, but the second those ideas contradict the illusion, we are shut down…speak out and you’ll be shunned,” she notes.

Several women I spoke to in the community had similar thoughts. Samantha* described her frustration at the alleged progressiveness of debate. “You feel so defeated, because debate is a space that preaches equality, yet in the face of adversity it takes the side of the oppressor/abuser more often than not.” She went on to describe hearing someone in the community publicly brag about beating their significant other, “and then had the audacity to call himself a feminist.”

Women who were concerned about having to be forced to debate predatory individuals have occasionally forfeited rounds, leading to more success and social capital for the predatory individuals by default. “Due to forfeits, and through the tournament director backing him up, he was shown that he can continue that abusive behavior without consequence,” one woman notes of a predatory competitor. Even “awesome” men, she says, “don’t know how to deal with these problems, so they tend to brush them off.” Good intentions aren’t enough: victims of abuse can still suffer under the leadership of “progressive” men in “progressive” spaces.

Samantha laments the political insulation of the debate community and notes that because people don’t consider it “real,” none of the solutions that are proposed to end violence are considered “necessary” – which forces people to compete alongside predators. This is a common issue in insulated, exclusive communities — because people don’t think they’re the “real world,” people don’t take the issues that happen in the space very seriously, despite the fact that violence can (and does) happen anywhere. This is why violence in Hollywood, the National Park Service, Congress, and fraternities is able to fly mostly under the radar — because “they’re just kids” or “it’s just show biz” or “it’s just a joke” or “there are bigger issues to talk about.” Violence is real, no matter where it happens. No space is immune.

The fact is, communities that silence survivors and allow predators to constantly reinvent themselves and be praised and honored are not communities worth having. Shattering the silence of survivors and ending the protection of predators in Hollywood, on college campuses, in the debate community, and in every space, no matter how small, is a necessary step — it is vital to the survival of the “progressive” movement, and worth it no matter how high the scandal goes. If we must burn spaces from the top down to weed out predators and their protectors and apologists, then it’s time we reach for the matches — instead of handing abusers trophies.

* Names may have been altered in order to protect confidentiality.