The problem with weaponizing umbrage, as so many on the political left do with such relish, is that eventually ordinary people put their fingers in their ears and stop paying attention to all the racket — and legitimate grievances fall by the wayside. Oh, that again? a weary public asks. Who cares?
Take, for instance, the cacophony stirred by President Donald Trump's latest needling, insulting tweet, this time jabbing Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand after the New York Democrat told CNN he should resign because of "credible … numerous" sexual assault allegations against him.
If Trump is anything, he is a counterpuncher with a mean streak and a genius for diversion. He fired back on Twitter:
"Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office "begging" for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!"
You might read part of that as having a sexual connotation; you might not. I did not. Imagine him saying that about a man. Who would care? Certainly, when television correspondents later read the tweet on the air, and when some of them actually lowered and softened their voices when they came to "and would do anything for them," it sounded a lot like sexual innuendo. Reading it? Not so much.
Nonetheless, Gillibrand excoriated Trump before news cameras, saying his tweet was a "sexist smear attempting to silence my voice." Democrats leaped to her defense. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren accused Trump of "trying to bully, intimidate, slut-shame" Gillibrand. Slut-shame? Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, all demanded Trump to resign.
"He's a misogynist and admitted sexual predator and a liar," Hirono fumed.
USA Today took the fireworks to a new level. "A president who'd all but call a senator a whore is unfit to clean toilets in Obama's presidential library or to shine George W. Bush's shoes," it thundered editorially.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed unfazed by the uproar, saying the tweet could be taken as sexually suggestive "only if your mind is in the gutter. …" That set off yet another eruption of outrage.
Reva B. Siegel is the Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law at Yale Law School. In her "A Short History of Sexual Harassment," she notes men preying on women in the workplace is a centuries old problem. In this country, it has been a hot topic since just before the Civil War, when the women's-rights movement got underway.
Americans often blamed women's sexual predicament on the women themselves, she wrote. "Yet an equally powerful line of public commentary condemned men for sexually abusing the women who worked for them."
The situation evolved in the 1970s, Siegel says, "and the American legal system began slowly to yield to this challenge, and for the first time recognized women's right to work free of unwanted sexual advances." At about this time, the term "sexual harassment" sprang from a consciousness-raising session Lin Farley, an author, journalist and feminist, held in 1974 as part of a Cornell University course, Siegel wrote.
It still is evolving. Today, a shell-shocked nation daily is treated to the latest allegation of sexual harassment; another name is added to an ever-growing and shameful roster of men — and I use the term "men" loosely — who prey upon women, dishonoring themselves and their victims. The depressingly lengthy list of celebrities and government officials and businessmen to be publicly shamed just since media mogul Harvey Weinstein was outed is mind-boggling. And that list certainly is incomplete.
It is excruciatingly difficult for a woman to step into the spotlight and accuse a boss or co-worker or client of sexual harassment, even with today's laws and views. It takes guts. They should be listened to and encouraged to do what is right, but I fear we make it even tougher with our constant casting about for even the thinnest examples of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct to rage about. In the long run, it will create emotional callouses and desensitize the public to the problem — again.
The over-the-top reaction to Trump's tweet is an example. It would have been just as easy to ignore the childish rant or dismiss him as cretinous and move on, saving our outrage for better targets. Instead, the explosion added to a growing crescendo of political noise, and Trump, showing us his latest shiny object, has us all talking about the tweet rather than his embarrassing loss in Alabama.
Our fear should be that, indeed, ordinary people will put their fingers in their ears and stop paying attention to all the racket.
Oh, that again? a weary public asks. Who cares?
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.
The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.