Paikin affair offers four lessons in hypocrisy
Critics of the #MeToo movement have warned that the public now is liable to believe any claim of sexual abuse or harassment against a powerful man, no questions asked. But the example of Ontario public television host Steve Paikin suggests that to be untrue.
This week, Paikin was accused of delivering an indecent proposal to Sarah Thomson, a one-time Toronto mayoral candidate with a colourful pedigree and media profile. Thomson claimed that during a restaurant meal years back, Paikin had offered her an appearance on his TVO show in exchange for sex.
For those who don’t know Paikin, but have been following the arc of the #MeToo movement through such grotesque figures as Harvey Weinstein, this may seem plausible. But for those who do know Paikin, it seems like a tale that could only be true in one of those weird dreams where your cousin has three heads and your car is made of dead cats.
Paikin (whom I count as a friend) is so conservative in his personal habits and manner of conversation as to be almost self-parodic. Moreover, because of his hyperactive lifestyle and personality, he lives in a sort of panopticon. I have run into him at baseball games, parties and awards ceremonies. At all of these places, he is a magnet for gladhanding, usually with other glad hands hovering about. He monitors every syllable closely, knowing that any false note could get him in trouble with his risk-averse employer, or serve to disqualify him from his role as perennial election-debate host.
Indeed, the restaurant where this lurid conversation is supposed to have taken place is steps away from TVO headquarters. Barring some temporary brush with food-induced insanity, the allegation seems implausible. I expect this will be the conclusion of TVO’s investigation and applaud the network’s decision to keep Paikin on the air in the meanwhile.
That said, the Paikin Affair serves up at least four lessons in hypocrisy — not just in regard to the #MeToo movement, but about our treatment of others more generally.
Hypocrisy, the first: The common claim that we are open-minded about matters of crime and punishment, that we respect due process, and will follow the evidence where it leads. In fact, many of us make up our minds early, and are resistant to new evidence. I, myself, am Exhibit A. I know few people who changed their minds about Bill Clinton when the Starr report came out. And how many of the poets and authors of CanLit changed their tune about former UBC creative writing chair Steven Galloway after he was cleared of sexual assault?
Hypocrisy, the second: For public consumption, many of us will describe Thomson’s allegations as “dubious” and “implausible.” And we will describe Thomson herself (as I did) as “colourful” or “controversial.” In private, however, people say “crazy” and ”bonkers." Having only met Thomson once or twice, I have no fixed ideas about her mental state. But others do, and have been sharing them enthusiastically this week, in the service of defending Paikin.
And what if — hypothetically — it were the case that Thomson actually does have psychiatric issues? What if this were more #LetsTalk than #MeToo?
Well, this gets us to Hypocrisy, the third. We talk about speaking openly and sympathetically about mental health. But when we actually are confronted with an episode in which a possibly unbalanced individual hurts someone we like, we throw all that hashtag empathy out the window. Why is it not OK to mock a cousin who has schizoid-induced psychosis, but somehow acceptable — at least in small groups and private chat — to describe Thomson as a cuckoo bird?
But lo, there are exceptions. Which gets us to Hypocrisy, the fourth. For there are times when a spirit of empathy informs our response to these incidents. But the application is selective. When Galloway stood falsely accused, he was understandably driven to near-suicidal despair. This earned him little sympathy among the small group of social-media diehards who have turned him into their own Emmanuel Goldstein. Yet when those same individuals are censured in any way, we hear much of their own emotional travails.
We are all hypocrites about this issue, even if we exhibit different strains.
In all cases, however, there is one constant — which is the tendency to organize human beings into the binary categories of good or evil. It is the error from which all of the above-listed pathologies of thought emerge.
If you have decided someone is good in root and branch, you will either dismiss the evidence against him, or else conjure conspiratorial explanations for inconvenient facts. Likewise, if you are convinced an innocent man is guilty, you will find arguments to justify the elimination of his civil liberties, and perhaps even launch propaganda campaigns against those who defend him.
If you have decided that someone is pure of spirit, you will view their mental fragility as a kind of alibi, or a mitigating factor. On the other hand, if you already have decided to paint that same person in sinister hues, then their infirmities become exacerbating factors.
Here’s a suggestion, the next time you hear of someone who is accused of something bad, try to imagine him as an annoying acquaintance whom you’ve known since childhood; a flesh-sack of inconvenient impulses and habits held in check by learned rules of morality, and perhaps even medication.
Because the person I just described is all of us: capable of doing bad stuff, or of thinking of doing bad stuff, and then stopping himself. And if he doesn’t stop himself, there may or may not be a reason. And that reason may or may not be one that elicits your sympathy.
The people who work at TVO and run in elections aren’t angels, demons or mad hatters. They’re a mix of all three, #LikeAllOfUs.