Harper's Publisher Worried That Women Can't Tell the Difference Between Assault and Harassment


The first thing Rick MacArthur, the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine—which last week published a long essay from former public radio host John Hockenberry regarding allegations of sexual harassment and workplace bullying—says to defend the piece on Anna Maria Tremonti’s CBC radio show is that Hockenberry is in a wheelchair. “I’d like to inform your readers,” MacArthur nervously laughs. “Excuse me, I’m not thinking about informing my readers—that Mr. Hockenberry’s in a wheelchair.”

That’s crucial to Hockenberry’s piece, titled “Exile,” MacArthur argues. MacArthur insists—as Hockenberry did and as Katie Roiphe did earlier this year in a separate Harper’s essay—that the #MeToo movement “lumps together” everyone from Harvey Weinstein to your creepy coworker who sends you inappropriate messages. “There is a distinction,” he warns ominously. It seems that he really, truly believes that no one has stopped to think about this before; that no one is interested in the difference between assault and harassment.

But his argument, though already absurd, begins to fall apart when “The Current” host Tremonti (who was extremely patient with MacArthur’s condescension) asks why Hockenberry’s disability has anything to do with the allegations made against him.

“Wait, hang on a second, what is your understanding of sexual harassment?” she asks, as MacArthur repeatedly tries to interrupt and talk over her. “You have to be touched? Because women are told—you can be sitting down, whether you’re in a wheelchair or not, and tell a woman all sorts of things. So what’s your point?”

“My point is there’s a difference between [that and] a criminal act, and he’s not been accused of anything criminal,” MacArthur says. “He’s been erased,” he adds without a trace of irony. “[Hockenberry’s] been erased from the culture and he can’t work anymore,” MacArthur reiterates.

This kind of back and forth goes on for a few minutes before MacArthur seemingly takes issue with both Tremonti’s tone, as well as the tone of #MeToo. (You can listen to MacArthur’s interview here, which starts around the 13:00-minute mark.) “There is something in the tone of voice I hear, in your tone of voice,” MacArthur says. He continues, comparing: “It rises to the level of Soviet-style re-education. These guys have got to be re-educated they have to show sufficient atonement, remorse….” he trails off. Tremonti, who notes that she worked in Russia, is clearly surprised by his comparison, but MacArthur insists that she “consider the metaphor.”

As Tremonti pushes back on MacArthur’s characterization #MeToo, some fault lines in his line of thinking materialize. Is it that accusers equate sexual harassment with sexual assault, or is it that powerful men see all allegations as misguided overreactions and therefore categorically worth dismissing? Regardless, MacArthur’s arguments are a textbook case of what writer Moira Weigel identified as the “The Straw Girl” a technique that “posits the existence of a hypothetical observer who is conflating things that should not be conflated. It discredits the testimony of real women by implying that other, imaginary, women are too stupid to know the difference between getting raped and having a guy be ‘creepy in the DMs.’”

MacArthur decries the “anonymously written Shitty Media Men” list arguing that it was “written by someone” who “lump[ed] together” sexual assault and ostensibly lesser offenses. (For what it’s worth, the list was crowdsourced, not written by a single person; a fact MacArthur, especially in the wake of Roiphe’s piece, likely knows.) As he mourns the “disproportionate response,” Tremonti replies: “You sound flippant.”

Over the course of this interview, it becomes clear that MacArthur is uninterested in the differences between sexual harassment and sexual assault, and seems uncomfortable when confronted with the details of each. Maybe if there was a universally accepted handbook for classifying abuse, it would be that much easier for women to call out the bad men in their lives. But rather than identifying a more subtle, or perhaps better, conversation, MacArthur relies on established narratives that do little to bring the nuance that he claims he desires.

In the end, Tremonti runs out of time to get meaningful answers out of MacArthur, because he keeps going on about how unfair the #MeToo movement has been to men. Instead, he argues that #MeToo is “distorting the conversation between power relationships,” and forcing women away from the right conversations (in his view: Equal Rights Amendment or economic parity). It’s an incredible disservice to the many feminist writers who have incessantly argued that #MeToo is the manifestation of the unequal distribution of power. At its best, #MeToo aims to dismantle the very domains of power, but MacArthur seems invested in maintaining business as usual.

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