With the rise of MeToo and Time’s Up, more and more women and men are speaking out about sexual misconduct. But not all those facing allegations are Harvey Weinstein. And so begins the complicated conversation about uncomfortable grey areas and how bad is really bad. We see the rationalizations that it’s not like Louis C.K. raped anybody. That we don’t really know what happened in Matt Lauer’s office, behind the door he had the power to lock from his desk. And is Aziz Ansari a predatory sexual deviant, or just a bad date?
We’re seeing celebrities like Terry Gilliam, Colin Trevorrow, and Jason Bateman grapple with gender dynamics in the industry. And in private, women across the country—and likely around the world—are having more conversations with the people in their lives about the sexual misconduct they’ve faced. We’re being encouraged to open up. And look. We know it’s hard to listen to what we have to say. It means taking in information that might force you to change your view of someone you might respect, trust, or love. It’s uncomfortable. But if you care about the women and men in your life who are trying to share their experiences with you, there’s one thing you absolutely must do: Stop using the Good Guy excuse.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this trotted out as a feeble defense of an accused sexual harasser/abuser. It’s happened to my face. It’s happened in texts and Slacks and on Twitter. Someone says, “This guy did this” or “This guy has been accused of this,” and there’s always someone else who rushes into the conversation to declare, “THIS GUY IS A GOOD GUY.” In my experience, this someone else is a man. And what follows is a benign or nice anecdote about the alleged creep being a “good guy,” who once did something decent, despite this never being relevant to the conversation.
Most humans have some level of decency. Serial killers have had wives and children, held down jobs, and have been polite to their neighbors. Trump has probably held the door for Melania on occasion. Hitler had a dog. None of this excuses them for the horrors they commit.
“He’s a good guy,” is a lame excuse, because it is not evidence that any alleged creep didn’t do the thing he’s accused of. All it does is suggest that maybe he didn’t because you like him. You weren’t there during the alleged abuse/assault/harassment. But hey, he bought you a beer once. You shared a great conversation about your favorite TV series. You showed him a picture of your cat, and he complimented it. People we like can’t be creeps, right? Let me clue you into something many, many women have had to learn in a heartbreaking and too often violent manner: Yes, they can.
When you cut into a conversation with the Good Guy excuse, you’re telling a woman that you value your opinion of the accused over her. And by extension, you’re telling every woman around that you value your opinion more than her safety/well-being. You’re telling us you don’t want to hear her story. You want to continue to believe that being a “good guy” means the accused could never be a creep or a criminal. You choose your anecdotes over allegations, so could the women please pipe down, thank you very much.
A bigger problem: You probably think you’re a Good Guy too. Well, you might be the good guy defending a potential rapist. You might be the good guy making your female friends feel silenced by insisting on interjecting jaunty anecdotes into a serious discussion of a could-be creep. You’re the good guy derailing the uncomfortable conversation, and by extension, any shot of progress and positive change. You might not mean to be that kind of guy. But if I told you this to your face, “When you interject to defend this guy by insisting he’s funny or never been a jerk to you, do you see how that might make us feel ignored or unimportant?” You might respond, “I don’t think my female friends/colleagues should be ignored; I’m a GOOD GUY.”
This label gives comfort, cutting off the disquieting conversation of our own culpability in a bad situation. And it’s not a men-only issue. Women do this too. I could call this the “good person” excuse. But honestly, when I see alleged abusers being defended, it’s most often by men. Men who likely have related to or admired these alleged abusers. They admire them not for the crimes of which they accused, but because of their beautiful, moving, Oscar-winning movies, because the sharp stand-up that made you belly-laugh, because they made you feel joy. You don’t want to believe someone you like or admire could be a Bad Guy. I get it. Countless women and men around the world get it. But what too many of us don’t get is the luxury of maintaining the fantasy of the Good Guy.
To truly dismantle a system that blames the victims and ignores abusive behavior and sexual harassment as the cost of doing business, we all have to change. Maybe you’re not an abuser, but you might be part of the problem. Look at Jason Bateman in that notorious New York Times interview. He surely didn’t set out to belittle Jessica Walter’s pain or experience, he said that four times. But that is exactly what he did. He was making the Good Guy argument about Jeffrey Tambor, excusing accusations that occurred on the Arrested Development set and those that didn’t, because he didn’t want to have the awkward conversation. You see Tony Hale and David Cross join in. And it’s easy to imagine how fast it happened. How little they were thinking about what these interjections mean, not just to Walter and Alia Shawkat, but to women and men across the country who’ve been talked down when they came forward with their own painful stories.
Victims’ stories will make us uncomfortable, sad, and angry. But to avoid them by making excuses for the alleged abuser is to uphold a system that protects the abuser, not the abused. The Good Guy excuse shields us from talking about these ugly truths and shields us from having to recognize our own failings and complicity. That’s how we move forward together.
So, don’t be a good guy. Be better.