Ignorance is one of the many flaws of humans. Arrogance, too. Combining the two with people in a position of power and influence can create abusive monsters.
Reflecting this week on the separate scandals enveloping Herman Cain, Penn State University and the Academy Awards, it painfully reminds me of how far we have not come.
About 20 years ago, as a supervisor on the night shift at a daily newspaper in the Northeast, I witnessed a member of the sports staff make a homophobic slur in the middle of the newsroom that was overhead by a number of people. As a leader of the night team, I was offended by what I heard and as a supervisor I dutifully reported the incident to the management team. Immediate action was taken and our corporate parent ordered sensitivity training for every employee of the newspaper. It is safe to say that I was not considered a hero for blowing the whistle on homophobia in the newsroom.
The person who made the comments was a graduate of Penn State, which this week is being rocked by a scandal that accuses a former football coach of sexually abusing boys. It is impossible to know if Penn State fosters a climate of silence on such matters, but the well-respected university has serious public-relations problem on its hands and its board of directors has already fired the PSU president and the Nittany Lions' longtime head coach.
During my two years living within driving distance of Happy Valley, I witnessed many other troubling incidents of homophobia, bigotry, sexism, abusive attitudes toward women, economic inequities and more. The LGBT community in Northeast Pennsylvania was largely invisible and hid in fear, and few supported the lone gay bar in the town where I worked.
One night at work, a young female copy editor confessed to me that her supervisor was making unwanted sexual advances toward her and was even following her home, parking his car outside her apartment and calling her late at night. She was scared of losing her job, but was brave enough to report the obscene behavior of her boss. Again, I reported it immediately to the management team. Only this time, no action was taken. The corporate office was apparently not notified, and the local management team went silent. To this day, I believe the management team was trying to save their own asses because having to report a second troubling incident to the corporate offices would have sent red flags that there was something terribly wrong in their newsroom.
A few days later, the man accused of inappropriate behavior with his young charge was promoted to a position that gave him greater authority than me over the night crew. I knew my career there was over, and I was allowed to transfer to Texas to another newspaper within the chain. The young lady also left the paper as soon as she found a new job.
That incident reminds me of the Herman Cain allegations, that a prominent business leader used his power and position in an attempt to seduce women. The night supervisor at the newspaper was never punished for his inappropriate behavior, and only now does Cain appear to be getting his due for his alleged misdeeds.
With arrogance and protestations, Cain is loudly proclaiming his innocence as accuser after accuser comes forth. It is clear that Cain has a problem with respecting women, and that his employer paid multiple settlements to keep the accusers quiet. The circumstantial evidence suggests that Cain is a serial predator, not unlike the ex-football coach at Penn State.
Then there is the brash and outspoken director Brett Ratner, whose anti-gay slur has caused an uproar in Hollywood. His comments caused me to flash back to the early 1990s at the newspaper in the Northeast. Ratner’s arrogance -- that he could speak his mind on any subject and get away with it – is also the reason he is paying the price. The uproar has cost him his gig as producer of the Oscars in 2012 and he has had to apologize for his boorish behavior.
Ratner, at least, is eager to learn from the experience and will be partnering with GLAAD to speak out on how slurs are harmful to the LGBT community.
These ugly incidents show that much work still needs to be done to erase the harm done by words and deeds. And for me, the sense of déjà vu is terribly disheartening. When are we ever going to learn to be better humans?