Punishment and Reward for the Inexcusable
I’ve been struggling with my own response to the Al Franken revelations this week. On the one hand I think Al’s admitted behavior is reprehensible, on the other hand I think his acknowledgement and apology are sincere and important. He did the wrong thing then, he is doing the right thing now. Do we punish him for his past behavior or reward him for his present behavior?
One of my frustrations with my fellow men is that we seem to be incapable of owning our own behavior. Not only do we do terrible things from time to time, we seem to find it impossible to acknowledge those terrible things later. In the case of assault and other less aggravated insults agains women, we compound our transgression by then accusing the women of lying about these situations, or of being unreasonable in their own responses. Just last week I was telling my sister that I wished one of these prominent men being accused could accept the accusation and simply apologize.
Here we are, a week later, and I believe Franken has more or less fulfilled my wish. After an initial resistance, he has issued a sincere public apology to Ms. Tweeden and apparently even called her to offer a private apology as well. He has admitted being an ass and not made excuses for himself. He has avoided compounding the damage he already did to Ms. Tweeden. This is the behavior I want to encourage in men, this is what owning our own past actions looks like.
None of this excuses his past action. Clearly he was a turd six years ago. He is probably still a turd now and then today. So am I. So here we all are. Do we punish him for his past behavior or reward him for his present behavior?
For the most part I’ve seen this framed in Minnesota as a question of whether Al should resign from his seat. The political calculus goes something like this: Al should resign and let our DFL (Democratic, for those of you not from around here) Governor appoint a strong woman to the seat, she can run for the partial term in 2018 which will likely be a blue year and then be in a stronger position in 2020 to win the seat outright.
My fear about this course is that it could discourage other men from responding as Franken has. If acknowledgement of and apology for an action like his results in being immediately cast aside, then why not simply resist any acknowledgement, call the women crazy, and hope to ride out the storm. In this scenario, the best of men would acknowledge their actions and be sacked for it, while the worst would further victimize their victims and be rewarded for that choice. This is more of the same, more of what we have seen for all too long.
And yet, his behavior was reprehensible. Doesn’t it deserve some consequence?
I believe that Franken would face harsh headwinds should he stand for re-election. He has been a bright light of the Democratic Party in Washington and around the country. He has used his notoriety to raise funds for candidates around Minnesota and the whole US. That Al is gone; he has lost his standing, and most likely lost any chance to carry on his career in the Senate. That is already a significant consequence.
I wonder if there is not another option available. What if Al serves out his Senate term but announces now (or soon, anyway) that he will not stand for re-election in 2020. In this case the punishment for his past behavior would be the conclusion of his Senate career (a harsher punishment than Ms. Tweeden has asked for, by the way), and the reward for his present behavior would be room for a dignified exit.
Of course, if there are further shoes to drop from Al’s past, then this path is probably precluded. Minnesota deserves a Senator working for the people, not distracted by a litany of mea culpas for a past of insensitivity, insult, and assault.
Whatever happens next, I hope that it encourages men to acknowledge how harmful they have been to women, encourages women to keep sharing their stories and holding men accountable, and results in a deep and shared understanding that sex and power are never things to be grabbed, but are gifts to be given and respected. Whatever happens next, I hope it makes our politics less toxic rather than more.
(P.S. Yes, I realize that this is not always a male/female dynamic of disrespect. Please forgive me for simplifying the picture using the most common pronouns rather than a more comprehensive accounting of perpetrators and victims.)