David Greenberg has a useful take on the Herman Cain business. He talks about the changing of sexual mores in politicis over the last fifty years — how extramarital affairs went from unspoken private behavior to very public and ruinous scandals; how divorce went from politically ruinous to acceptable; how homosexual behavior could once have destroyed a politician but is a smaller problem now. The relevance to Cain:
It may be hard today to imagine that sexual harassment could be considered anything but proof of a serious moral deficiency. The crime has appropriately moved from a widely tolerated practice to one whose gravity is dinned into the heads of every employee in every workplace. But the behaviors that fall under the rubric vary widely, and some may result not from malice but from the inability of men accustomed to one set of rules to adjust to new realities. Certain kinds of flirtation deemed unacceptable today could perhaps one day be regarded as relatively harmless. At the least, in this case, as in the others, we should halt the rush to judgmentalism. We shouldn’t assume that our own culture’s newly developed notions of sexual right and wrong are timeless and absolute.
Bill James once noted that social progress often comes in the guise of its opposite. In the early 90’s we had an explosion of sexual harassment scandals — Clinton, Clarence Thomas, tailhook, you name it. But what had changed was not men’s behavior. What had changed was that women stopped putting up with it. For whatever social or economic reason, the early 90’s was when millions of women said, “You know, I really don’t like it when you rub my shoulders like that at work.”
For many men, especially of Cain’s age, this was a radical shift in the landscape. Rush Limbaugh wrote a whole chapter about behavior in radio studios that would now be considered harassment. He wondered why women suddenly didn’t like it. What he missed was that women had never liked it; they had tolerated it.
We don’t know the details, of course, but the timing of the complaints makes me wonder if the same thing happened to Herman Cain. It is likely that the way he had acted around women didn’t change, but what was acceptable and unacceptable did. It’s also possible, as he claims, that his behavior wasn’t harassing but got swept up when the pendulum swung too far. As numerous people have pointed out, the settlement amounts are “nuisance suit” level.
What’s really critical is whether Cain changed his behavior or whether this behavior has continued. I’m willing to cut politicians some slack on past behavior or beliefs. But not if it is reflective of who they are today.