Men like Louis CK are not vic­tims – the peo­ple they preyed on are

The National - News - - OPINION - RU­PERT HAWKSLEY Ru­pert Hawksley is an arts and cul­ture writer at The Na­tional

In Novem­ber 2017, the co­me­dian Louis CK re­leased a state­ment in which he con­firmed al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct made against him by five women. “I have spent my long and lucky ca­reer talk­ing and say­ing any­thing I want,” he con­cluded. “I will now step back and take a long time to lis­ten.”

Nine months later, Louis CK was back on stage in New York. Okay, so he’d lost a few lu­cra­tive deals and an up­com­ing film was scrapped, but oth­er­wise it was busi­ness as usual. There he was, with a mi­cro­phone and an au­di­ence, do­ing the same cranky white-guy thing that has earned him six Emmy awards and a top-five spot in Rolling Stone mag­a­zine’s list of the best stand-up co­me­di­ans of all time.

The speed of tran­si­tion from his ad­mis­sion of guilt to ap­par­ent re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion didn’t sit well with many peo­ple. As the co­me­dian Sarah Lazarus pointed out: “I’m still on the same sham­poo bot­tle as when Louis CK’s time out started.”

But it gets worse. Au­dio has sur­faced from a re­cent per­for­mance, in which Louis CK mocked the sur­vivors of the Fe­bru­ary 2018 Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School shoot­ing in Flor­ida. “You’re not in­ter­est­ing be­cause you went to a high school where kids got shot,” he said, be­fore ridi­cul­ing pro­gres­sive views now held by many young peo­ple.

The con­trite tone of Louis CK’s 2017 state­ment has been re­placed by some­thing al­to­gether more con­fronta­tional. He wants to let us know that he doesn’t care what we think of him any more – and, de­press­ingly, this ap­pears to have won him a new set of fans.

At one point dur­ing the tape, when he com­plains about not be­ing able to use the word “re­tarded”, he is chal­lenged by a mem­ber of the au­di­ence and re­sponds with an ex­ple­tive-laden rant, in which he says: “My life is over”.

It is in­fu­ri­at­ing to hear him pre­tend that it is some­how rad­i­cal to be of­fen­sive. Co­me­di­ans have done so for decades. Just stick your head in the bar­rel, scrape around a bit, and you’ll find the ca­reers of Jim David­son, Bernard Man­ning and Roy “Chubby” Brown.

Co­me­di­ans can say al­most any­thing. Watch­ing them push­ing an au­di­ence to its limit is part of what makes the art form ex­cit­ing. But the suc­cess of any joke de­pends on the tar­get. Of course it’s pos­si­ble to make a good joke about school shoot­ings. The rea­son Louis CK didn’t man­age to is be­cause he broke com­edy’s golden rule: al­ways punch up, not down. By all means, use a school shoot­ing to skewer US gun laws, just don’t mock the vic­tims.

How­ever, as spite­ful and un­funny as these jokes were, the way Louis CK has stomped back into the lime­light is even more grim. Clearly his idea of a “long time” is very dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­one else’s. The brevity of his ex­ile and the des­per­ate come­back ma­te­rial have re­vealed him as a man who be­lieves he has been wronged and has come out fight­ing. Hear­ing him bleat that his “life is over”, you’d al­most think that he was the vic­tim – not those he ha­rassed and trau­ma­tised.

Louis CK is just one of a num­ber of men who, ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct, refuse to act ap­pro­pri­ately. At the tail end of last year, the ac­tor Kevin Spacey – against whom a string of sex­ual as­saults against young men are al­leged and who was last week ar­raigned by a Mas­sachusetts court on felony charges – re­leased a bizarre Christ­mas video. In it, he af­fects the voice of his House of

Cards char­ac­ter Frank Un­der­wood and says: “I know what you want: you want me back.”

I’m not sure any­one does, but be in no doubt these guys are go­ing to try to re­claim their space in the pub­lic eye. We are go­ing to have to work out – and quickly – which of them, if any, we can tol­er­ate and which we can’t. It’s com­pli­cated and scary to dis­cuss, but dis­cuss it we must. Who and what are we pre­pared to for­give?

Given that most of the thou­sands of cases high­lighted by the #MeToo move­ment have in­volved men prey­ing on women, this is not a ques­tion I feel com­fort­able an­swer­ing.

How­ever, we all have a duty to call out un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour and, in the case of peo­ple such as Louis CK, we are able to vote with our feet. After all, come­backs don’t hap­pen with­out an au­di­ence. We should con­tinue to lis­ten, learn and, most im­por­tantly, be­lieve the women and sur­vivors of abuse who come for­ward.

The singer John Leg­end fea­tured in a newly re­leased six-part doc­u­men­tary about R Kelly, the R&B star around whom al­le­ga­tions of sex crimes have swirled for decades. When Leg­end was com­mended on so­cial me­dia, he re­sponded: “To ev­ery­one telling me how coura­geous I am for ap­pear­ing in the doc, it didn’t feel risky at all. I be­lieve these women ... Easy de­ci­sion.” That seems to sum things up fairly well.

The past year has brought to light the shock­ing ex­tent of sex­ual mis­con­duct in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. But if these rev­e­la­tions are to have a last­ing im­pact, those guilty can­not ex­pect to stroll back into pub­lic life on their terms. The “time to lis­ten” is a long way from be­ing over – and we all have a part in en­sur­ing that, this time around, it is the vic­tims who hold the power.

We should con­tinue to lis­ten, learn and be­lieve the women and sur­vivors of abuse who come for­ward

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