Commentary: We all must stand up to inappropriate behavior

The recent phenomenon known as #MeToo is a powerful way for victims of unacceptable sexual behavior to speak up and support one another. It also provides all of us with a priceless opportunity that cannot be missed. Even though we come from opposite sides of the political spectrum and the rural/urban Vermont demographic, we two Vermont State Senators agree the #MeToo discussion is a critical first step in the hard work necessary to bring about much needed social change.

A brief review of #MeToo postings reveals a wide array of acts that have left a trail of pain and bad memories that can last a lifetime. Those acts range from what have too long been considered "harmless play" (cat calls or the snapping of a bra strap) to outright sexual violence. The common theme is disrespect. It is for juries to decide whether a given act transgresses a criminal statute, but just because something doesn't rise to the criminal definition of "sexual assault" doesn't mean it is acceptable. It is time for all of us to stop standing idly by. We must hold each other accountable whenever behavior creates a hostile environment for anyone.

Let's start by recognizing that victims are not obliged to share their traumatic experiences with the world. Casting blame upon the victim by suggesting her clothing was inappropriate or that she placed herself in a bad situation only misdirects attention from the acts of the perpetrator. Minimizing the perpetrator's behavior ("Charlie's just being Charlie.") is a sad and desperate attempt to maintain a flimsy illusion of decency. We must stay focused on the alleged perpetrator. When behavior is inappropriate, we must find the courage to say so.

That courage will not come easily. Society has yet to recognize that inappropriate behavior comes in many forms, from the seemingly innocent to the grossly obvious. It is found, but masked, in our Whitehouse, our Statehouse, and potentially in every gathering where conversation flows freely. As males we know it is much easier to look the other way or join the crowd. But this is not isolated to the male gender. Saying "that's not cool" in reaction to an inappropriate joke, comment or act is foreign to the social norm. But those brave #MeToo commentators have inspired us to work together and join their fight to foster social change.

Our society must recognize this inappropriate behavior as both a symptom of, and a foundation for, cultural inequities that must be corrected. Power differential is one such inequity. It is the common thread that binds the men making allegations against Kevin Spacey and the women making allegations against Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood. That same thread winds through allegations against politicians from all parties at all levels of government, and against employers in all work environments. When power is used as a manipulative weapon to engage in bad behavior, justice should be swift and to the fullest extent of the law. That perpetrator must be removed from power and, where necessary, subject to civil and/or criminal penalties. The perpetrator, not their victim, should be the one who suffers public scorn.

Another form of inappropriate behavior is gender economic inequality. Although we in Vermont consider ourselves as doing better than the nation as a whole, Vermont women still earn only $0.82 when their male counterparts are earning $1.00 for the same job. This disparity is a cultural inequity, a symptom of an accepted power differential that has been allowed to exist for far too long. Its end will only come about if we speak up at every opportunity.

Vermont is not immune to inappropriate behavior and we should all thank those who have added their personal experiences to the #MeToo commentary. Their courageous testimony is just the first step. Step two requires all of us to muster up the fortitude to confront such behavior wherever it is found. This is an important fight for cultural change and all of us need to be a part of it.

State Sen. Joe Benning is a Republican representing the Caledonia District. State Sen. Chris Pearson is a Progressive representing the Chittenden District.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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