Joyce McMillan: Cultural flaw legitimises abuse of power

Change is required to end society's acceptance and rewarding of the worst excesses of alpha-male behaviour writes Joyce McMillan
The behaviour of men like Harvey Weinstein should never be seen as normal in any industry. Picture: Getty ImagesThe behaviour of men like Harvey Weinstein should never be seen as normal in any industry. Picture: Getty Images
The behaviour of men like Harvey Weinstein should never be seen as normal in any industry. Picture: Getty Images

Thursday morning, and the wonderful Anne-Marie Duff - still most famous for her role as lovely oldest daughter Fiona in the television series Shameless - is talking on the radio about her latest appearance in a West End play. The Woman’s Hour presenter asks her about her experience of trying to make her way in show business as a young actress, back in the 1990s; and she says yes, she does remember male directors in one-to-one auditions saying things like “Your job in this audition is to make me want to sleep with you” - although often much more crudely put. She also remembers being asked to improvise love scenes, and to play out highly inappropriate actions in audition settings; but she remembers, too, that although she found some of this upsetting, she never felt able to complain.

Anne-Marie Duff’s experience can now be added, in other words, to the immense litany of accusation that has been raised against powerful men in show business since the recent revelations about the reported misconduct of film producer Harvey Weinstein towards dozens of young women in the film industry. I’m not aware that specific accusations have yet been made against artists or organisations currently working in Scotland, but those may come.

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And lest there be any complacent sense that this is only a show-business problem, we also heard this week from Jayne-Ann Ghadia, the UK government’s Women In Finance champion, about similar experiences affecting women at the Royal Bank of Scotland in the decade before the 2008 financial crash. As the current President of the United States has made abundantly clear through his own unapologetic comments, there are still men in positions of power across the whole range of business and politics who consistently abuse their status to make women - and occasionally young men - comply with their sexual demands; and in a world where such a man can become President, resistance or whistle-blowing can seem both futile and dangerous.

So what are we to make of this avalanche of accusation, at this moment in history? In her widely-publicised intervention in the debate, the Oscar-winning British star Emma Thompson traced this widespread abuse back to a model of masculinity - or a culture of machismo - which associates this kind of conduct with the alpha-male ruthlessness said to be necessary for success; and it’s hard to disagree with that analysis. Yet to state the problem is not to solve it, if we simply accept that this is how it is with powerful men; that they are natural predators using power to get what they want, and that nothing can prevent this ancient kind of transaction from taking place.

The word “culture”, though, seems to me to offer the key to real change in these attitudes; for in truth, there are and always have been millions of men, some of them highly successful in their fields, who for their own reasons - whether ethical, or religious, or cultural, or even to do with good taste - are simply embarrassed by the conduct of other men in these respects, do not enjoy being expected to go along with their behaviour, and might actually even prefer to express themselves sexually in committed and loving relationships. And the very fact that women in high places also occasionally abuse their power to obtain sex suggests that this is not an intrinsic male characteristic, but something to do with a culture which legitimises the abuse of power, actively rewards ruthless and egotistical behaviour, and promotes those whose personalities reflect those qualities.

This model of super-macho behaviour, in other words, is not “normal” in any way, but profoundly dysfunctional, based on lies, abuse, hysterical myths of superior entitlement often reflected in preposterously high earnings and bonuses, and an inability to conduct human relations on a basis of equality, or even of rudimentary respect and fairness. The culture that supports it is currently under the spotlight for its tolerance of sexual abuse; but the truth is that this is the same culture - as the RBS story reminds us - which crashed the global economy in 2008 through a combination of pathological addiction to risk and criminal or near-criminal financial rule-breaking, and which also legitimises the continued rape and abuse of our natural environment, now in many respects close to breaking-point.

That this culture needs to change is now self-evident; and to achieve that change, we need to act in three ways. First, we need to continue to press for a far higher percentage of women in positions of power; not because women cannot also abuse power, but because their presence at least helps to break down the traditional all-male social networks through which the worst patterns of abuse tend to be perpetuated.

Secondly, men who do not like this version of masculinity, and who reject it for themselves, need to band together with other men (as well as with women) to resist and replace it; indeed men in particular should be furious at the idea that the only way to express an effective and powerful male identity is to indulge in this kind of sleazy and bullying behaviour. There are other ways of being a man, a partner, a father, a son, a citizen; and men who demonstrate that every day need to get political about promoting a model of masculinity that neither insults and abuses women, nor devastates the earth in the desperate hunt for a few dollars more.

And finally, the generation of women who have been speaking out in recent weeks and months need to stay strong, and not become discouraged. For in the end, the battle against the toxic addiction to power and dominance shown by men like Harvey Weinstein is one that should matter to all of us. The world has been ruled for long enough - arguably for much too long - by this self-selecting class of rampant moral inadequates, who make a virtue of pathological levels of greed and ruthlessness; and in finding new models of strength and leadership based on consent and consensus rather than bullying and violence, we might also just start to create a future worth having, for our planet, and for ourselves.