Monday, November 6, 2017

Permission Structures and Social Change

Here I go thinking about stuff about which I know not.... I heard the phrase permission structure on a Pod Saves America podcast, which makes sense since it is an Obama thing.  As far as I can tell, it is a social dynamic where expectations/norms/behavior tend to make it easier for people to act.  Like, hey, vote for a Black guy?  Well, maybe now because other folks I agree with say so...

Anyhow, it got in my head when I was talking with Mrs. Spew about the Harvey Weinstein story.  Something may or may not be changing--we shall see if what has happened the past few weeks with Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others will stick or not.  But it seems to me that two things have changed:
  1. While there had been some stories and complaints and even jokes about Harvey Weinstein for years, the big news story that had both a big name or two (Ashley Judd) and breadth (more than a few specific stories) essentially gave people permission to speak out about Weinstein and then other men and the Hollywood culture in general.  I am not saying people need permission to speak out, but the environment became more permissive--that it would be ok to tell one's story and not face as much disbelief or victim-blaming as in the past.  Yes, there is some safety in numbers, with more and more folks telling their stories, sharing their horrific experiences, it became easier (although not easy).  The Metoo stuff online provided some accelerant, so we now have a cascade (I should be citing Timur Kuran here).  The Cosby story didn't have the same effect even though the story generated a mini-permission structure for women to come out about Cosby (the pattern of a few women leading to a cascade of many since now they would be believed) perhaps because Cosby was no longer at the top of the power structure.  Taking down a relatively powerful figure in the industry created a permissive environment to come out against James Toback, Kevin Spacey and others.
  2. Maybe, just maybe, a second thing might also be happening: the previous permission structure that made it ok and easy for relatively powerful men to prey upon actresses and others in Hollyood maybe breaking.  For how long was the casting couch an unfortunate but expected obstacle that one had to overcome, one way or another, to get a role and to stay in the business?  The men saw it as an entitlement and the women and men (thanks, Kevin Spacey for reminding us that one can be a creep regardless of orientation) beneath them as legitimate prey.  It maybe the case that these norms--these standards--are changing so that the powerful will not see it as their right, that their companies may be less willing to protect, foster and even feed them.  The economic consequences of harboring these folks may help to break this particular permission structure.  I hope so....
Which gets me to the phone call du jour.  Student journalists at McGill are pursuing the story of sexual harassment there, and wanted to get my take since I have been vocal about it.  One of the challenges McGill faces is this: the current batch of administrators say that they are more serious and will listen to the students who file complaints, but why should students believe them?  Thus far, they have not observed any profs paying any price for their behavior.  The permission structure has not visibly changed: those who complain cannot detect any justice, any ramifications, any consequences for the perpetrators.  Yes, the school will say that folks have faced consequences but it is all confidential, so trust us.  Um, no. Permission structures don't changed based on one set of actors saying "believe me."  People have to see that something has changed.  Weinstein lost his job, that his studio is in deep trouble, that police and prosecutors are looking into him have made a big difference (whether it lasts or not, I have no idea).  If McGill and other universities want to be taken seriously, they may want to fire a serial sexual harasser or two.  Well, if they want to be seen as caring more about their students than about their reputation, which, ironically, would improve their reputation.

I'd appreciate your thoughts on this, as I am way outside of my expertise and just thinking aloud.  Does this make sense?


Anonymous said...

Nothing would make me happier than to see the serial sexual harassers at McGill poli sci be given the boot but the administration (even the new and improved variety) have yet to show how serious they are and seem more intent in protecting the professors than in the students.

One of the reasons why Weinstein fell is not only because there was a domino effect after the first few women spoke up and more victims felt emboldened to step forward and share their stories and the stories all started to follow the same pattern but Weinstein's clout in Hollywood has been waning the past few years. He's no longer the kingmaker he used to be in the late 1990s/early 2000s. With the loss of power and influence, it also becomes easier to tackle the monster.

Maybe there are victims who are willing to speak out now and come forward. If there are, maybe you could post the contact info to those McGill student journalists on your blog so those victims can perhaps reach them directly?

Anonymous said...

McGill Tribune

Steve Saideman said...

Also see my new post reacting to this comment