Frailty, thy name is accountability gap | HBR Talk 80


In the last few weeks, Senator Biden’s reputation kinda… exploded. In this half-assed version of #MeToo, the man wasn’t accused of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or even sexual… anything, really… but of being so “out of touch” as to fail at understanding appropriate vs inappropriate platonic touch. Remember, Biden isn’t being accused of malice, or of having victimized anyone, and only some of the people he’s accused of touching inappropriately considered his touch inappropriate. He’s just accused of being creepy and making people uncomfortable. So that, apparently, is the standard now. 

Though this problem seems to have existed for Biden throughout the entirety of his decades-long career, during which, apparently nobody told him, only just now, when it looked like he might be considering a presidential run, did it become enough of a problem for a public discussion. 

Now, though, it’s a major issue, one that has insinuated itself into the news cycle over and over during the last several days. One way or another, both sides of the political fence are making hay with it, and following the new #MeToo standard: The left is angry about his nonpology, and the right is having a blast making fun of his predicament, and I predict that this will continue. Feminists will hold him up as an example of rape culture, despite the fact that nobody is accusing him of deliberately, knowingly, willfully violating anyone’s personal boundaries. Male commentators on the left will fling mud to distance themselves from him. The right will remind everybody ad nauseum that Biden rushed to judgement against both Trump and Kavanaugh, and how that makes him a hypocrite. Probably neither side will discuss the other hypocrisy this exposes, which we pointed out last week when we talked about the way feminists threw former president Clinton’s accusers under the bus and ignored Biden’s supposed creepiness in order to secure the Violence Against Women Act. Biden’s relationship to VAWA got little more than a few mentions. The context that the rest of that history it adds to his current situation has been quietly ignored.

But that’s not all that has barely gotten a mention. There’s a similar incident that has flown mostly under the media radar, outside of gossip sites and a few blogs. 

In an interview included in Ramin Setoodeh’s recently published book, “Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of 'The View,'” Rosie O'Donnell trampled a few personal boundaries herself. According to a March 25th staff article titled, ‘The View’ Book: Rosie O’Donnell Reveals Secret Crush on Elisabeth Hasselbeck,” published by Variety:

Joy Behar speculated that O’Donnell had a crush on Hasselbeck, which O’Donnell confirms in the book. “I think there were underlying lesbian undertones on both parts,” O’Donnell says about her working relationship with Hasselbeck. O’Donnell backed up this idea with some dubious evidence. “I think this is something that will hurt her if you write it. She was the MVP of a Division 1 softball team for two years that won the finals. There are not many, in my life, girls with such athletic talent on sports teams that are traditionally male that aren’t at least a little bit gay.”  

Although O’Donnell was attracted to Hasselbeck, she never wanted to act on it. “There was a little bit of a crush,” O’Donnell says in the book. “But not that I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to support, raise, elevate her, like she was the freshman star shortstop and I was the captain of the team.” O’Donnell changed sports metaphors from baseball to basketball. “I was going to Scottie Pippen her. If I was Jordan, I was going to give her and the ball and let her shoot. But it was in no way sexualized.”  

O’Donnell said that she was deeply hurt by Hasselbeck, and their fight on TV was about more than just politics. The final straw was when Hasselbeck wouldn’t defend O’Donnell from conservative critics. “It felt like a lover breaking up,” O’Donnell says about her last day on TV with Hasselbeck. “The fight that we had, to me as a gay woman, it felt like this: ‘You don’t love me as much as I love you.’ ‘I’ve taken care of you.’ ‘You have not.’ ‘How could you do that to me?’ ‘I didn’t do anything to you.’”

As in Biden’s situation, it’s not really predatory for O’Donnell to have an attraction toward another adult, or even to openly admit to such an attraction, but the way she talks about it would be presumed totally unacceptable if she were a man talking about his interest in a female colleague. He might be able to talk about an interest in mentoring, or possibly admit to a secret crush upon which he dared not act, but to openly, publicly fantasize as Rosie did, even going so far as to mentally write subcontext that was never expressed into two sides of an argument like that… what would feminists be saying about that? It’s made worse by what O’Donnell is actually talking about - an argument the two had on The View that impacted her target’s numbers so badly that she never recovered and was eventually fired from the show. 

O’Donnell had jumped on the phrasing of a discussion point Hasselbeck had started to make, in which she referred to Al Qaeda as “our enemy in Iraq.” Rather than let Hasselbeck finish her point, and then argue with what she was going to say, O’Donnell responded as if Hasselbeck had called Iraq itself the enemy. There could have been a rational discussion, but O’Donnell made the moment emotional and heated by aggressively attacking that strawman, forcing Hasselbeck into a position of attempting to clarify, and then O’Donnell deflected from that clarification by descending into an argument about her feelings. For Hasselbeck, this was obviously a political argument about the Iraq war, one in which O’Donnell could have made some valid points if she hadn’t spazzed out. For O’Donnell, according to her interview statement, it was something else entirely.

Guys, if you’ve ever been in one of those arguments with a wife or girlfriend where the topic is impersonal, but important, and in the middle of it somehow it has become, without your knowledge, an argument about your relationship, you know exactly what Hasselbeck got hit with. Now imagine that argument was with a female coworker with some seniority, and it had at least appeared to remain strictly professional... until you read about it in an article about the company years later.


A day after the quote was published in Variety under the headline, “‘The View’ Book: Rosie O’Donnell Reveals Secret Crush on Elisabeth Hasselbeck,” E! News writer Elyse Dupre published Hesselbeck’s response in an article titled “Elisabeth Hasselbeck Responds to Rosie O'Donnell's Crush Claims on The View.” According to Dupre,

“During Tuesday's episode of The View, Hasselbeck described her former co-star's claims as "reckless," "untrue" and "not only insulting [but also] disturbing when it comes to how she felt about somebody in the workplace.’"

She went on to say the feeling was not mutual, and to use the terms “objectification” and “grooming” to describe O’Donnell’s behavior, and objected to her stereotyping of female athletes, saying "it's a lie and it's reckless to attach a sexuality" to a woman's athletic ability.”

Joe Biden is really being put through the wringer, very publicly, over his history. O’Donnell’s recent admission has made few waves outside of the blogosphere, and even when the book her interview is in is under discussion among establishment media, that discussion isn’t prominently featuring much analysis of the implications of her statements. 

Would the situation be the same if she were a man? Would a guy in a senior position at a marketing firm get away with treating his working relationship to a female subordinate this way? How about if she were a politician instead of an entertainer? How much worse would Biden have it right now if he had something like this in his history, and talked about it this way?

This represents a significant gap in social expectations that runs counter to gender stereotypes. How often have you heard women classify men, in general, as socially inept? Yet between the sexes, whose failure to adhere to rules shaped around women’s sensibilities is more likely to result in condemnation? Whose attention, in and of itself, is more likely to be presumed an infraction or imposition, or even a threat? And who is expected to just know that, or face consequences, including the presumption of malice or predatory nature, for failure to adjust accordingly?

Women are going to have to decide what they really want here. It’s not unreasonable to have a somewhat more formal standard regarding displays of affection and camaraderie in the workplace than in other settings. That’s the norm for the workplace dress code, and in professional settings, it’s generally understood, as well.

However, if women want equality, that standard has to be universal, not just applicable to men. There can only be exceptions where they’ve been demonstrably agreed upon, and only between the specific individuals in that agreement. If women want a more relaxed standard for themselves without compromising their equal professional status, is it then also reasonable to demand a separate and unequal, more strict standard for men? Or, if that division is going to be promoted, such that men face a more formal standard to accommodate women’s sensibilities, while women’s standard is more relaxed, with less obligation to accommodate others’ sensibilities, how can women justify the idea of equality? After all, that is a dramatically unequal environment, one that would rely, for its justification, on some odd assumptions; that women’s sensibilities are more delicate, that their dignity and confidence are more fragile, that both are uniquely impacted by offensive behavior when it comes from men, and that their professional performance and demeanor are more variable than men’s, depending on their workplace social experiences. 

Equality cannot be achieved by one group setting the rules of decorum for the other to follow, while presuming or declaring themselves exempt from being equally obligated. That inequality would undermine every other area in which feminists push for equal standards, including pay and promotion, as it would make every work environment that includes women difficult and dangerous for their male colleagues to navigate. It would make women presumably incompetent to fill leadership roles on the basis of their social frailty. How can an employer know what to expect from female employees under such arbitrary conditions, and why shouldn’t employers discriminate as a result?

Is that really what feminists want?

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