Editor's Blog

Harassment and the hashtag

Perhaps there are times when it pays to have a low profile. The ongoing furore around sexual harassment in – and outside - the workplace has underlined to those of us working in meetings and events that ours is an invisible industry. When the Presidents Club Dinner story broke, it was the charity sector that took most of the heat, while the events industry whistled a tune and looked the other way. It is remarkable that since the issue of sexual harassment came to prominence following the Weinstein scandal, and the #metoo movement that followed, the mainstream media has failed to turn its gaze on the one industry that (probably) facilitates more late-night ‘networking’, hotel overnights, and free alcohol than any other.

The outside world’s failure to grasp the meetings industry – to acknowledge that such a thing even exists - has given it the luxury of time; time in which to do some serious soul-searching. Time to ask if it is doing enough to make women feel safe at conferences or on familiarisation trips, for example. Time to ask if the current legislation goes far enough to protect both those working inside the industry and their clients. Time to ask if the culture of the industry, as a whole, needs to change.

We have been undertaking some research of our own - which will be published shortly – and it reveals, that, yes, there is a problem. But before we train the spotlight on the meetings industry, we should perhaps pause for thought, and consider the extraordinary context in which the current debate is being held. What we don’t want to do is add to the white noise surrounding this issue.

The sexual harassment ‘story’ is a media spectacle, and is best viewed in that context. This is not to deny that women are being sexually harassed and abused by men or to denigrate the testimony of those who have come forward to share their experiences. It is simply to make a point about the saturating nature of modern media, where issues can be grossly inflated and sometimes distorted.

To accept the prevailing narrative, many of us – men and women - will have to embrace two contradictory positions: ‘this is real and it’s happening everywhere all the time’ and ‘this is something I have very rarely, if ever, encountered’. The two are not necessarily incompatible, but the readiness of individuals to accept this degree of cognitive dissonance, without question, is a disturbing by-product of our hyper-connected age. The mass media has always had the power to create false consciousness, but social media – via the hashtag – can, apparently, do it lightning quick.

Overnight something can become ‘a movement’ behind which hundreds of thousands, if not, millions of people are willing to stand. When this happens, and when its sentiments are considered morally virtuous or stand in opposition to something odious, the movement is given greater status than evidence, for example, or empirical data – all that matters is adherence to the movement.

When the movement is an expression of outrage – like #metoo – the response from people in public life – politicians, CEOs, celebrities – is not only to match the outrage, but, often, to go one step further in calling for things to be banned or people to be sacked, often before any concrete evidence is produced to support their demands. The outpouring of (mock?) disbelief and indignation which greeted the Presidents’ Club Dinner story was typical of the frenzy that can be whipped up in the digital age. So swift is the process of dissemination now, that people can’t be seen to be ‘slow to respond’. You have to get your answer in before the question is asked. And in no uncertain terms.

The point is, it shouldn’t be necessary to create the impression that this is something that affects most women or that there is something wrong with men per se. Even if only one per cent of women were affected by this, that is still an awful lot: 10 out of a group of 1,000, say, or 200 in a group of 20,000. Most organisations would be utterly dismayed if that many women complained of being abused at one of their conferences or events. We can keep a sense of perspective and still take this seriously.

But in this new world order, dissent, even nuance, is not allowed – especially when it comes from unexpected quarters. When the novelist Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, voiced concerns about ‘extremist’ elements in the #metoo protest, and the need for due process, she faced a fierce backlash and was accused, amongst other things of defending powerful men against young women. Even of being a ‘rape-enabling feminist’. The feminist icon Germaine Greer has been similarly abused for not jumping on the nearest available bandwagon but, instead, like any self-respecting intellectual, thinking about things and then saying what she thinks – regardless of whether or not her thinking accords entirely with those of the movement.

Sexual harassment and abuse is a serious problem that needs a serious remedy. There is nothing wrong with a howl of public outrage - and much of it no doubt stems from the abject failure of society to deal with the problem. But equally it is important not to stoke an already febrile atmosphere with click-bait. It is important not to deliberately confuse and conflate issues that deserve separate treatment. It is important not to indulge in the knee-jerk hounding of individuals who have only been accused of something. It is important not to demonise whole sections of society. It is important to respect differences of opinion, and, finally, it is important not to indulge in the kind of bullying and harassment that we are trying to stamp out. The victims of sexual abuse deserve better, frankly.

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