I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay “Epistemology and Tragedy”:
But aren’t Nazis those who have lost the capacity for being horrified by what they do? They are our special monsters for that reason, monsters of adaptability. (Who knows whether what they did, apart from scale, was really that different from what others have done? Who knows whether the only real Nazis were created by a particular time and place and by a particular set of leaders and led? Who does not know that Nazism cannot succeed apart from the human capacity for going along? And what political thinker does not recognize that most of us will mostly go along with the tide of events, and even argue that we [mostly] ought to? But who does not see that there must be some limit to this? I am saying that Nazism specifically turns this human capacity for adapting into a mockery of itself, a mockery of being human.)
Originally, I wanted to write about Nazis and Charlottesville and some other stuff. But then the last two weeks happened, and Cavell’s parenthetical remarks read much differently to me. The accents fell differently, especially after reading Rebecca Traister’s remarkable essay in The Cut. The stories about Harvey Weinstein broke. Weinstein isn’t a monster of adaptability. He is a monster of coercion, physical violence, and domination, who, it seems, gets off on owning people through fear. (Just to be clear, I’m not calling Harvey Weinstein a Nazi, though I’m calling him something.) The revelations and accusations that followed have provoked, at least in me, a vertiginous feeling that something is changing. And I think it has something to do with adaptability of the sort that Cavell talks about here, though I think I may mean something different.
I had heard about the Louis C.K. accusations for a while, and I’m nobody special. So when I first heard them, I thought, well, if they’ve gotten to me, then everyone must know. And Louis C.K. must know that everyone knows. And everyone must know that he knows that everyone knows. So how is it that no one has done anything?
The questions — “Why hasn’t someone done something?” — is its own answer. All considerations of career and personal safety aside, the presumption that “everyone knows,” I think, is the thing keeps anyone from doing anything. Because if you learn something terrible, and you learn it from someone who heard it from someone else who herself heard it from someone else, then you learn two things: 1) you learn the terrible thing, and 2) you learn that the terrible thing is “normal.” Not “normal” in the sense that it’s acceptable to you, that it is something you would ever do or that you think is ethical. “Normal” in the sense that it turns out to have always been a part of the world you live in, a part of the world the person who did the terrible thing lives in. And that world has kept on turning while the terrible things you’ve just learned about have been happening. You look around, and you say, maybe not out loud, probably in the back of your head somewhere, “Terrible as it is, this is how it is.”
The world changes retrospectively for you, and you look back and you realize your sense of what was normal included the fact that vile acts committed against women — in some cases, women that you know — just happen without redress. You may not have known you knew it, but you knew it. All that time, I was watching and enjoying Louie, and Louis C.K. was sexually assaulting women. And because I sat there and watched it happen, and because no one was doing anything about it, I incorporated these two seemingly irreconcilable images — Louie the lovable schmuck-moralist and Louis C.K. the sex criminal — into my sense of The Way Things Are.
I think this is a structure, one structure, of permissibility. It’s how we — or in this case, I — can both feel revulsion and not think it at all strange that this person is still allowed to function in public. This is especially true in the case of the entertainment industry, whose lore and history has always included the predations of lechy men. Once you learn that something terrible has been permitted to go on, it hardens into a mere fact about the world, and so it becomes something you accept about the world, and you adapt to it as you would the changing weather.
Once you simply begin assuming that crime is part of the order of things, it becomes permissible. Not permissible in the sense that, if you asked the average person whether they think the terrible thing is okay, they would say yes or do it themselves. It is permissible in the sense that knowledge about the crime, knowledge about everyone else’s knowledge about the crime, and the knowledge that nobody has really done anything about it, all conspire to produce a sense of normalcy around the crime. It’s not great, but what can you do? If we all know it’s going on and no one’s doing anything, how criminal is it, really?
What people like me — that is, people who have not had to worry about sexual harassment or assault basically ever — have come to understand is not that terrible things happen to women as a matter of course. We already knew that. I definitely did, though not to the extent that I should have or could have. (I’m not speaking of the victims’ experience, of course. In many of the cases we’ve been reading about, the victims tried very hard to draw attention to the situation, to its abnormality or monstrosity.) What I did not understand was how different my experience of normality, of “how things are,” was from theirs. To take that gap, the gap between my experience and a woman’s experience, seriously means to accept that I can’t ever have direct knowledge of what is on the other side. Hence, slogans like “Believe Women,” where, as so often happens, an assumed “belief” substitutes for an impossible “knowledge.” The slogan’s tacit admission is that a man can never know, but asking someone to “believe” is a difficult prospect, even if we “know” we should.
I can only attribute the dizzying feeling that something is happening to a certain kind of normalcy dissolving and another kind of normalcy emerging, which is maybe what it feels like when belief transforms into knowledge, a transformation that isn’t a change in the physical state of the facts, but in people’s feelings about the facts. A good place for this event to end up would be in our powers of adaptation aiding all of us to agree that the terrible things we know should be treated as though they were as real as they actually are. The frightening feeling comes with not knowing what that will mean, and what will come along with that sense of normality. Masha Gessen has already raised the specter of sex panic, one of the country’s most prominent progressive politicians has more or less admitted to groping charges, and probably, by the time I click “publish,” something else will have happened.
Insofar as our sense of what is ordinary and real emerges out of a shared understanding about who can know what, we’re undergoing not only a long, long overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault, but with our very sense of what we can and do know about each other.