The Harvey Weinstein Hollywood sexual-predator story offers one lesson for defenders of life: We defend or deny life even when we’re not within a thousand miles of a life issue. Here’s why. We don’t form a culture mainly by what we do in the big obvious cases. We form a culture mainly by what we do moment to moment.
A culture of life requires a culture of human dignity. I think the second’s the more fundamental of the two. How we see human beings in general decides how we see particular human beings like the unborn and the aged and the very sick. Doing what we can to create a culture of life requires us to recognize others’ dignity not just as a matter of law and social policy but in the way we treat them in our ordinary lives.
We can deny human dignity in practice while affirming it in thought. We can deny human dignity and undermine a culture of life while delivering clothes to a crisis pregnancy center or writing letters to congressmen urging them to defend the unborn.
What Harvey Weinstein did in such a gross, repulsive way, almost anyone could do in a much less obvious and contained way, even if he only does it in his head. Weinstein treated women as things he could use. We can see and treat people as objects, as things, as something less than human. Here I will describe two ways we can do that.
When We Look at Others as Things
First, we treat others as things when we look at them as things. Sexual objectification gives the easiest example, but it is only one of many, many ways we can do this. Financial objectification—treating people only for their economic use to you—is another, just as common and just as destructive.
The world’s religious traditions offer a long and subtle list of ways we can objectify others even while externally doing what we’re supposed to. Jesus noted that God orders us not to commit adultery. Then he added, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In modern terms: We dehumanize ourselves when we look at others as sexual things, even if they’re strangers standing at the other side of the room. They’re not human beings to us then, but bodies with especially useful organs.
Why is this more than a personal matter? Every objectifying thought makes you microscopically less able to recognize human dignity. Therefore it makes the world microscopically less able to recognize human dignity. No act means much in itself, but if you and billions of people like you objectify others dozens or hundreds of times a day, our collective denial of human dignity creates a culture that cannot completely recognize human dignity. That makes a culture of life much harder to create.
When We Do Not Listen to Others
The Weinstein scandal has also brought out a second way in which we can deny human dignity and undermine a culture of life: We treat others as things when we do not listen to them.
One part of respecting human dignity is to listen seriously and deferentially to those who try to tell you something they know much better than you. Especially when they speak of their own lives. To believe in human dignity means to accept that other people have stories to tell you may not like, that may not fit your cultural and ideological commitments, that may require you to change your mind.
We deny human dignity when we let ourselves react and criticize, especially when we do so to defend our side of the culture war. We deny it when we assume they’re wrong because we’re right. We might still disagree, but we should only disagree when we’ve worked to hear what others try to tell us.
A couple of years ago a video of a woman walking around New York City became a web sensation for a few days. It showed her enduring a good bit of creepiness and harassment. I happened to be on an email list on which several men leapt to attack the video and deny the reality of what she’d experienced. I am not exaggerating when I say “leapt.” Every single one would have said he’s completely pro-life.
The video told the truth, I said. When we’d lived in New York City, our 20-year-old daughter reported enduring such things as she walked down the street. Men of varying ages in cars creeping slowly along next to the sidewalk would proposition her. I could safely walk around at two in the morning. She risked assault walking around at eight in the evening. The men on the email list blew me off. The video was “feminist propaganda” and must be rejected.
As I was writing this over the weekend, the “Me too” message started popping up on Facebook. Many of the posters are friends. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t experienced an assault of some sort, often many, from lascivious “inappropriate” remarks to rape. Many of them had known her own version of Harvey Weinstein. I will bet money that some men are feeling surprised at the number of their female friends saying “Me too,” and also that some others are telling themselves the women are making too much of harmless sexual banter.
Why is this more than a personal matter? Every refusal to listen objectifies the person you won’t listen to. You deny their dignity as human beings because you claim to know their story better than they do. As with lustful thoughts, this kind of objectifying makes you less able to recognize human dignity, with the effects I have described already.
The Culture of Life
We want a culture that values every life and protects the most vulnerable. For that we need a people who believe in human dignity. And for that we need to be better human beings. Human beings who see others not as bodies but as friends, and who listen to their sisters and brothers when they speak.