Thursday, February 3, 2022

How we all too easily slip into public attacks and evade the real challenges.

 By Kasia Uzieblo*, Maaike Blok*, David Prescott, & Kieran McCartan 

*Board members of NL-ATSA, the Dutch Affiliation of ATSA

On 20 January 2022, a YouTube program called “BOOS” (Dutch word for angry) was aired in which several contestants of the Dutch talent show “The Voice of Holland” testified about sexual misconduct when participating in the show.  The hit TV show “The Voice of Holland” turned out not only to be a popular talent show but was suddenly also depicted as a cesspool of sexually transgressive behaviour.  An overview: two reports of rape, two reports of sexual assault (one of which involved a minor) and 34 reports of sexually transgressive behaviour, including groping, unwanted sexual comments and indecent pictures sent. The alleged suspects are coaches, a bandleader, and a director. Following these allegations, the bandleader has confessed to sexually transgressive behavior; at the time of our writing the others deny the allegations made against them. Although no accusation has yet been substantiated by police investigations, the many signs of transgressive behaviour are worrying.

On 27 January 2022, it was Belgium’s turn to discover that also a university is not free from (sexually) transgressive behaviour. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (University of Brussels), the university to which the first author is affiliated, fired a professor after "several reports of, inter alia, transgressive behaviour", including sexually transgressive behaviours and abuse of power. In the course of 2020, the reports came in and an internal, thorough investigation was started. After the procedure, the person in question was fired at the end of 2021.

The two events mentioned above caused quite a stir in Belgium and the Netherlands. NL-ATSA wanted to respond to these events, so we wrote a blog in Dutch. But a bad feeling came over us when we were writing the blog. It seemed that once again, we were making the same comments and recommendations. Again, we had to point out that it does not help to describe perpetrators of sexually transgressive behaviour as monsters, and we had to fight against victim-blaming tendencies on social media and other venues. In other words, we were writing a blog that we have written several times before, with only the occasion as the big difference. This awareness led to frustration among the authors of the blog: Why do we always seem to have to press that repeat button? Does it matter what we say at all? Will it ever change? What can we still add to the debate? A writer’s block was imminent. But we did not give up and decided to reflect on the questions: What does this case teach us? And are we focusing on the right questions in the social debate?

The cases show that no institution or structure is immune from transgressive behaviour and that eliminating such behaviour altogether is a very difficult task, and perhaps even an unachievable goal. This is especially true if we continue to focus only on the individuals and do not include the broader context in the societal debate and our prevention policies that continues to make the abuse and culture of silence possible. Or as the rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel put it: “it is a collective responsibility. In that respect, too, we must move from MeToo to WeToo.” But no matter how tempting it is now to start promoting the hashtag #metoo or #wetoo, adding an emblem to our Facebook profile, or fulminating on social media, this is not going to solve the problem. By contrast, thinking critically about how you as an individual and as an institution can contribute to the prevention of violence, and acting effectively on it, can help to move a mountain.

What will not help is shaming people who were working on these issues internally or who are expected to help prevent such behaviours from ever happening again, taking into account that we as outsiders have only a partial view of what has been said and done by these individuals. The reactions of the men/women at charge very quickly became the focus of the social debate, with both being pilloried for their reaction or lack of reaction. John de Mol, the creator of the format of “The Voice” and the big boss of the Dutch series until the end of 2019, was attacked for saying among others: "We have to get women to sound the alarm immediately" and “I hope that it doesn’t have a big impact on the rest of these people’s lives, that they can give it a place. And that they should be an example to others in the future. If it ever happens to them again, that hopefully they have learned to raise the alarm immediately, to report it immediately, so that the culprits can be dealt with sooner and so that they can no longer do this to others.” John de Mol was immediately criticized for putting the full responsibility on the women and for victim blaming. The rector of the university, Caroline Pauwels, was criticized because she wanted to handle the case discreetly and avoid excessive media attention and public pillories, and thus – according to her – protect the victims and the perpetrator as well as their immediate surroundings. She also stipulated that “We are a university, not a judiciary. And even in a state of law, people get a second chance.” Caroline Pauwels was reproached for not making it clear enough (mainly on the public platform) that sexual abuse did not belong at the university and for having concluded a settlement agreement with the perpetrator.

Have both then (re)acted correctly? Probably not (entirely). Could they have reacted differently? Probably. Surely. At least, that’s our assessment in hindsight. The Voice case shows that some people are still ignorant about abuse of power and sexual abuse, and lack a  proper understanding of the underlying mechanisms and victims’ behaviour. But apart from that, these cases show that we keep on struggling with such phenomena, and that it is not easy to respond appropriately. It shows that finding the right words and the right tone is difficult. It also shows that finding the right course of action is difficult. Discretion is quickly seen as an attempt to cover things up. Complete transparency is demanded very quickly and uncritically. A lack of quick reaction is quickly labelled as evidence of a conspiracy. In other words, we are very quick to judge how others should have reacted in such situations. In doing so, we often overlook the complex decision-making processes, ignore the fact that it is always easy to judge afterwards, and related to that, we easily forget that we all exhibit the tendency to overestimate our ability to have predicted a certain outcome.

Are we not allowed to take a critical view of these reactions? Of course we are. More than that, we must remain critical and attentive. But shouting and ranting in the (social) media, accusing, and nailing all those involved, directly or indirectly, to public scaffolds is not the solution. We must strive for a constructive, and above all, solution-oriented debate to see what has gone well AND what can be improved. And indeed, there are points for improvement. For instance, facilitating help-seeking behaviour in victims (and in perpetrators) clearly requires much more than setting up various hotlines. We also need to see how we can be more responsive to victims, whose needs may also vary throughout the disclosure and investigation process (e.g., from a need for mere recognition to a need for punishment and rectification). In order to prevent such cases, we also need to explore more in depth how we can teach people to recognize their own abuses of power and transgressive behaviours and how we can urge them to react appropriately when they come to that realization. Also, despite all the programs, trainings, and campaigns, it remains difficult to bystanders to pick up signals of abuse and to know how and when to react. How can we solve all these (and other) issues? These are the conversations we need to have, in the media, in institutions, in living rooms, in practice, and in research. And not the mere finger pointing. For this too is a way of evading your own responsibility in this debate and in this collective search for a solution against (sexual) violence.

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