Sex, Lists, & The New McCarthyism

In 1956, toward the end of McCarthyism, a concerned father wrote the FBI about his daughter’s professor. He was worried that she was being corrupted by a teacher, and that the teacher posed a threat to national security.

“Mr. X advised he felt that HANNAH ARENDT was very dangerous to the best interests of this country in view of the fact she is a professor who travels around the United States instructing at numerous colleges as a visiting professor. He stated his daughter changed her thinking completely after taking courses from HANNAH ARENDT at the University of California at Berkeley, California, in 1955, and feels that it was her influence which had influenced his daughter to go to Europe to study under Professor PAUL RICOERUR.”

Arendt’s case was closed because it did not warrant an active investigation. The FBI did not see her as a risk. Today, I’m sure there are FBI files on suspect individuals, but instead of worrisome parents writing to the government, we have websites with lists of professors to stay away from. Professors who are too liberal, professors who don’t support free speech, professors who grade too harshly. When we don’t like someone, when we judge them to be wrong or bad, we seek recourse in public lists. These lists are not innocuous. They pose a serious threat to our society, breaking down trust, the ability to speak freely, eroding the world we share in common.

In response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many have taken to making lists of men.

When I logged into Facebook the other day I noticed that a number of friends were sharing the same image. It was a list of male photographers to stay away from, noted with their particular proclivities. Earlier this week an article circulated on about an unwritten “creeplist” of lawmakers and staffers who are known for inappropriate sexual behavior. “The list keeps track of the male members most known for their inappropriate behavior in the offices, where one former House aide said that many men ‘have no self-control’ around their female colleagues.” In response, The House Administration Committee held a hearing and unanimously passed a resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training for Senators and staff. The New York Times published an annotated spreadsheet of men who have been accused since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, which includes pictures, acts, and responses to accusations. ABC, NBC, CNN, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, Business Insider, to name a few more, all have lists.

It is one thing for women to speak out when they are sexually harassed, it is another for them to launch anonymous and morally motivated witch hunts against men. It is clear that we need to have a conversation about sex, and that the #metoo campaign has released the floodgates. In the deluge, though, we have to have a standard of judgment to discern particular accusations from anonymous allegations. And right now, that is not happening.

In The New York Times Michele Goldberg advocated for Al Franken’s resignation, and casually noted that “as more and more men get swept up in this moment of reckoning, we’re going to have to figure out some mechanism by which those accused of offenses that fall short of assault can make amends and get their lives back.” This logic is exceptionally frightening, and the consequences are devastating for men who, finding themselves on lists, will never be able to get their lives back. In moments of crisis, we need judgment to discern fact from fiction. If we let the cascade of accusations sweep away our ability to discern what is sexual harassment from flirtation from what is rape, we are allowing individuals to ruin lives without consequence.

The cases of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K., to name a few, are all different from one another, but in each case, there is a nameable accuser. It is one thing to publically accuse someone of sexual assault; it is another deed entirely to add a man’s name to an anonymous list. When someone is publically accused they have the ability to defend themselves, to make their case. When they are the target of semi-public, anonymous, vigilante justice they are painted as persona non grata and rendered silent. Shrouded with anonymity and made powerful by masses of accusers, these lists are foreclosing the possibility of having a real conversation about sex. And they are shutting down desire by installing a culture of fear instead of a culture of sexual openness and acceptance.

It is true that some sexual experiences are black and white. When the roommate of my college boyfriend drugged and raped me, there was no question that I had been assaulted. When a tenured professor grabbed my pussy at a faculty dinner, there was no question in my mind that he had violated me. And I reported each incident accordingly.

But most sexual experiences, even ones where someone feels assaulted, are not black and white. Most sexual experiences exist in a space of uncertainty, between men and women that is felt differently. Instead of trying to regulate sexuality and sexual energy, we should be trying to open up a conversation that breaks down why men like Donald Trump think it’s okay to walk up and grab a woman. We can’t have that conversation in an atmosphere of fear, where men are constantly uncertain of whether what they’ve done could be misconstrued.

These lists, investigations, and hearings are quickly creating a culture of fear. This is all painfully ironic in an age where 1984 and The Origins of Totalitarianism are flying off shelves. We fear fascism, and yet we so quickly give into its caprices. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt discusses the intimate relationship between witch hunts and the breakdown of the legal system. The hunt for hypocrites “through the passion of unmasking society” prevents real liberation, real openness. Instead of freeing people to be themselves in the world, it tears away at what makes us unique, while removing the mask of legal protection. What we are left with is a frightening equality. All feel equal in their terror — who shall be unmasked as a sexual predator next? And, all are equal to accuse while feeling morally superior in their self-proclaimed fight.

A document — real or fake — can ruin lives and change a culture. When Joe McCarthy held out a stack of papers at the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club on February 9, 1950, claiming to have a list of 57 subversives in the U.S. State Department, he changed history. There was no list, but it didn’t matter. McCarthy laid the groundwork for a massive witch hunt by the sowing seeds of suspicion. Blacklists, committee hearings, and public bullying created a culture that censored public and private life in America by confusing our ability to discern fact from fiction.

We cannot let that happen again.

Samantha Rose Hill, Assistant Director and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College