History as a ‘how to’ guide

Harvey Weinstein certainly should be held to account for his actions.

Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein gestures during the Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley (photo credit: RICK WILKING / REUTERS)
Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein gestures during the Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley
(photo credit: RICK WILKING / REUTERS)
The news is rife with reactions to the unfolding Weinstein affair. Ranging from shock to self-reflection to blame to denial, the responses vary, yet the deep underlying question remains. How do we learn from the past in order to improve the future? In an eye-opening article, Lin Farley, responsible for coining the term “sexual harassment” over 40 years ago, examines the current state of affairs, reflecting and comparing it to the change she had anticipated would occur. “Plus ca chance plus ca réste la meme chose,” history repeating itself despite the many codes and regulations written to alter a troubling reality in so many areas of our existence.
Sexual harassment is but one manifestation of an abuse of power that takes place in so many realms and manners, and which is responsible for human suffering and tragedy from time immemorial. Our challenge is to identify and expose such abuses of power in real time, without being distracted, ignorant of, or deceived by the true power dynamics at play.
Interestingly, the biblical portion of Noah read this week sheds light on this difficult challenge. We are explicitly told that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. As children we perceive Noah as just that – righteous. However, in the cyclical, annual reading of the portion, we begin to extrapolate, contemplate and later fully comprehend that had Noah lived in another generation, we may not have attributed righteousness to him.
As opposed to the often linear account and understanding of history, the human condition is in fact cyclical. We learn that history repeats itself, and are committed to cracking the code to humanity’s ability to improve its condition. In order to do so, we attempt to learn from past errors and formulate rules and regulations that will prevent their repetition.
What we seem to fail to recognize is that the formulated rules and regulations are limited only to what has actually already transpired. Just as viruses mutate, so does evil and wrongdoing. In fact, the readily available “what not to do or say” manuals that we create only serve those looking for new/old paths to abuse their power, be it on an individual, group or country level.
Regardless, by the time they are printed, these behavior guides are irrelevant.
In order to truly learn from history and enhance the human condition, it is important to understand that lessons learned from history cannot be fully comprehended if we regard history in linear or chronological terms. A linear account of history enables quick-fix, one-line solutions. However, reality is far more complex and nuanced than the quick-fix solutions we are tempted to try to find.
To truly benefit from the past, history should be read as cyclical. Such an account enables a deeper understanding and discussion, rather than the imposition of today’s rules and regulations on yesterday’s actions or words. Tempting as it may be, it is this very linear thinking that limits or even prevents us from truly advancing the human condition. While perhaps punishing the culprits of the past, this predictable response may in fact empower and equip the current and future tyrants and abusers of power with valuable insights.
Harvey Weinstein certainly should be held to account for his actions. Beyond that, however, the questions we should be discussing is not who else knew but what prevented all those that knew from reporting him; not what new regulations or codes are necessary in Hollywood but what stopped the victims or those they confided in from turning to the laws that existed then as well; not how he wined and dined his inner circle but what in our culture and value system led so many to admire and worship him.
The natural human tendency to covet power and to abuse it should not be ignored or denied. For true change to occur it should be acknowledged and take its rightful place at the epicenter of the discussion. In the current “holier than thou” state of affairs, while we are focused on past occurrences and often satisfied by holding past transgressors to account, the present and future predators and abusers of power remain in the shadows, or in full light. In a manner of speaking, the past becomes but a distraction.
Our challenge is to learn from the past, but not be blinded or distracted by it. History and memory are an imperative. Humans are imperfect and will remain so. Evolution of the human condition depends on the acceptance of that fallibility and the expectation for the taking of responsibility and accountability for mistakes. Attribution of moral codes that exist in the present on those that functioned in the past relies on the age old cliché of “hindsight is 20-20.” Other than a momentary feeling of moral superiority or hypocritical self-aggrandizement, it has no value. In fact, it may have the very opposite effect, taking the focus away from the real issues while empowering current transgressors.
A final thought – acknowledging the significance of history to the betterment of the human condition means that those that act to revise or alter it intentionally, and even those that are indifferent to or ignorant of it, are complicit in the resulting inability to improve it. In a “post-truth” era, the account of history as such has become that much more significant. Without the past to guide us, the present becomes meaningless, the future uncertain.
The author is a PhD candidate in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researching the topic of free speech as part of the Human Rights under Pressure – Ethics, Law and Politics doctoral program. She is a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and a former commissioner for the prevention of sexual harassment at IDC Herzliya.