I’ve been following the unfolding Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and harassment story, like much of the rest of the country — and world — with a mix of horror and dread. The destroyed lives, the Hollywood enablers, the long trail of an open secret. I recoil in disgust and I celebrate the strength of the women who have come forward — especially those who came forward first.
But I have also been drawn into the fevered political debate it has ignited. Pundits, left and right, professional and amateur, on social media and in the news, have pointed fingers across the political aisle. Twitter and mainstream media outlets are full of stories that begin with Weinstein and end with denunciations of President Donald Trump: Weinstein is bad, but Trump is so much worse. How can you decry Weinstein if you voted for Trump?
On the other side, pundits argue that the Weinstein story lays bare the hypocrisies of Hollywood and the liberal politicians it supports. Hollywood loves to preach the cause of women and female empowerment, pushing federal legislation and regulation that criminalizes those accused of sexual assault without any due process, while at the same time enabling and protecting the powerful sexual predator in its midst. People in Hollywood are happy to speak truth to power, as long as that power can’t hurt them. It’s easy to decry Trump from within a liberal cocoon, but when it is one of your own, you meekly walk out of the hotel meeting and leave the young starlet in the clutches of the beast.
This latest crisis has highlighted one of the forces driving the growing fractures and fault lines in the body politic. The force is eminently human and apolitical — it’s exhibited on both sides. Liberals look at the religious right and see nothing but power-hungry hypocrites. How else to explain the overwhelming majority of evangelicals who voted for a man who bragged about committing sexual assault and gloried in rank immorality?
The right, in turn, looks at progressives with their feminist ideals. In the face of developing Hollywood storylines — what started with Weinstein has bled over to Ben Affleck and the head of Amazon Studios, with surely more to come — they see nothing but power-hungry hypocrites. Progressives don’t really care about empowering women; they just care about empowering themselves and altering the American landscape in their image and at the cost of a conservative’s way of life.
As the recriminations and accusations bounce back and forth from right to left and left to right, the schism widens. We stop listening to each other, if we ever really did, and we simply step into MSNBC- and Fox News-constructed echo chambers that fill us with the comforting glow of self-righteousness and virtue. We are so clearly right and good, and they are so obviously wrong and evil. Trump perhaps plays this game better than most. He rails against NFL players at a rally, and the collective mind of the country is lost for 10 days with media and social media whipping up a storm on both sides. By the time the dust settles, no problems have been solved and the two sides are further apart than when they started — both convinced of their virtue.
I believe we are in a national moment that calls for humility and grace. We should look to our political rivals and take their claims at face value. If they passionately argue that they care about family values or about feminism, we should follow the age-old practice of assuming they are sincere and engage in conversation that begins on that foundation. Next, we should entertain the thought that we might be wrong — our self-righteousness a false comfort. If that’s the case, maybe I have something to learn from my enemy. Bill Kristol has recently modeled this behavior in his excellent podcast "Conversations."
If you haven’t yet, listen to his conversation with Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard, treasury secretary to President Bill Clinton and economic adviser to President Barack Obama. The two intellectual heavyweights are deeply committed to their respective ideologies on the right and left. Their conversation is full of grace and humility. It’s clear they are learning from each other — exchanging ideas and listening.
Or listen to a debate a couple of years ago between Sally Kohn, a committed progressive, and Ben Shapiro, the conservative firebrand who can be found on YouTube. It gets heated, to be sure. But they are engaging each other’s arguments honestly — neither reads bad motives into the other’s position.
And on the more ceremonial side, consider the annual congressional baseball game this past June. Democrats and Republicans battle at Nationals Park each year for baseball supremacy. This year, the game began in a joint prayer for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who had been shot the day before while practicing for the game. It included politicians on both sides engaging each other in a meaningful bipartisan way. It didn’t last long.
More than a political right marching into extremism or a political left marching into totalitarianism, our biggest national danger at this moment is that the bonds that have connected us as a nation and a people might fray and forever break. This shouldn’t be the generation that sees the end of the great American experiment; it should be the generation that renews it. And that renewal can only come through humility and grace. I hope all of our leaders and pundits and tweeters can find just a little of both.
H.L. Rogers is executive vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer at Millicom.