Louis C.K. Is Back Too Soon
Okay I’m fired up now.
Louis CK is back? He performed in New York for a “surprise” 15 minutes set that the owner of the comedy club did not know about. At the end of the set, he was reportedly welcomed back with a standing ovation.
I wanted to write this to explain why I think this is not acceptable. I know it’s complicated. People like him. I liked his comedy. His comedy is still good. People want to believe in redemption, but I still think this is not acceptable. And I want to tell you why.
The complicating tension is striking a correct balance between redemption and accountability. We need to hold people accountable for assault, but we also can’t hold people's mistakes against them forever. What kind of world would it be if we did not allow people to learn from their mistakes and move forward?
My short answer to this question is this: He needs to see jail time, a settlement for the victims, or no stage time. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s true that the redemption narrative is an ideal we should strive for. I support societal forgiveness and second chances. I think it’s possible that after accountability, rehabilitation, and/or victim compensation people who commit crimes should be welcomed back into the world. This, by necessity, has to occur on a case by case basis. I just think that in C.K.’s case there has not been enough of any of these three.
First, in terms of the actual world this redemption narrative is a total myth. It is not how our society currently works for many Americans. Redemption is especially difficult for black Americans and for the poor. If you’re poor, bad credit from a few bad financial years can follow you for the rest of your life. Virginia Eubanks’s book outlines this.
For black Americans, wrongful criminal convictions can also follow you for the rest of your life. Forced plea deals and higher rates of sentencing for similar crimes mean it’s harder to get jobs, to vote, to access public assistance programs, and harder generally to be integrated into society if you have been convicted of a crime. So, if you’re willing to pardon C.K. because you believe in second chances, I’d encourage you to apply that concept more liberally to society at large or not be so quick to pardon funny rich white males.
I do support redemption narratives and social forgiveness. For the poor and the rich. I just think there are necessary conditions for redemption. I found this quote on some talking head show where a talking head says that CK apologized and so it’s all okay. He came clean so it’s fine. Sure, if he actually was held sufficiently accountable apologizing would matter, but in my view he has not.
An example. True story. I was robbed on a hike last week. Someone broke into the car, broke into the locked glove box, took my debit and credit cards, and relocked both the car and the glove box to cover it up and leave time to get out of town to make a purchase.
Would it matter if they apologized? No. I mean I believe in redemption. We can talk apologies, but only if they paid for the broken lock and gave me my money back. And possibly, since they’re now a criminal, seeing some jail time, or at least due process.
Can a murderer avoid jail time by apologizing? Can a powerful murderer avoid consequences if they’re super reflective about it? If they come out publicly and write in the New York Times about how they understand now that “when you have power over another person” murdering them is “a predicament for them.” No. None of these things matter if accountability is not served.
So, here’s where it gets complicated. Where the gray area begins.
In fact, it’s a big grey area because a reasonable person can make the claim that he already has been held accountable. He was publicly shamed. He apologized. He probably lost lots of money in his productions and performances being cancelled. So, like many people on twitter and on the talking head shows are saying, in their opinion he’s paid his debt.
In my opinion, I disagree. I draw my own personal line in the sand at what I view is a very reasonable place: Jail time or settlement for the victims or no stage time.
Maybe you think this is ridiculous. Maybe you think it’s absurd. Maybe despite my breathtakingly well-crafted murder analogies, you think an apology is enough if it’s a sexual crime. Maybe you think the monetary loss in 8 months off is sufficient punishment for a sexual crime.
But here’s are two problems in this line of thinking:
One: These are voices in the court of public opinion not jurors or judges in an actual court of actual law.
Two: This entire analysis, this entire public decision-making process is occurring without a second’s consideration for the actual women who were victims and the actual effect this had on their lives, their emotional well-being, and their careers.
We can’t trust the court of public opinion in cases of sexual crime for a few reasons. First, by the definition of an oppressed class, public opinion will always favor those in power. Second, the court of public opinion is only in session for high profile crimes. When Weinstein or Spacey is accused, people care. It’s dramatic to see the powerful fall. We want in and want to chime in. But when an average Joe man beats his average Jane wife, public opinion does not address the problem. How many of you heard about the man who killed his girlfriend at the Astor place subway stop in New York a few months back? How many of you retweeted it? The court of public opinion did her no good. An entire premise of #MeToo is that sexually motivated violence against women is normalized. It is every day. We know the statistics. And since public outcry seldom occurs for the everyday women, we need systematic legal changes to allow for accountability to occur.
Alternatively stated, suppose you say something else. You raise your arms and say, hey, man, Louis C.K. is off the hook. I looked up the statute of limitations and it has expired. According to our system, he’s fine. What are we going to do? There’s just no structure in place to hold men like this accountable, legally speaking. If that’s where your head is, that’s entirely the point. If you’re using this logic to defend the male “victims” of #MeToo I think you’ve stumbled your way onto the necessity for the #MeToo itself.
Finally, @Two. While we are out here debating the rights of the male criminals, it seems we’re missing something pretty important. Where are the women in this discussion? What does it say about our society that we can have an entire conversation about this being right or wrong and not discuss the impact on the women?
We seem to be willing to care more about the emotional state and the justice/redemption arc of a man who harmed women, than we do for the women who were harmed.
This is why my line in the sand includes a settlement for the women. If the legal system has not allowed Louis C.K. – an admitted criminal actor – to go through due process and be convicted, then we need to spend all our time and remaining energy on the women and compensating them.
The debate is not whether or how fast can the men come back. The right is debate is when and how will the women be compensated given our justice system has failed them? And more generally, how we will systematically compensate them given the justice system systematically fails them.
If this doesn’t make sense yet, let’s go back to last week when I got robbed. I’ve talked to the police. There’s a report. But likely they will never be caught. I’m personally okay with this because the fraud prevention system prevented them to actually permanently getting any of my money. I want them to be caught, but I’ll settle for not losing my money. Sure, I had to deal with the inconvenience of activating new cards, but I’ll settle because a system exists outside of criminal prosecution that compensated my losses.
But in a case of sexual assault, when the legal system fails women there is no other system to compensate them. That’s the debate we ought to be having. That’s the real grey area that deserves our attention. Is the Louis C.K. debate a gray area? Yes. But there are other grey areas. How do you compensate a woman for a lack of advancement in her career because of a man’s actions? How do you compensate a women for the emotional harm done by men who have chosen to harm them? What legal frameworks can be put in place to require men to make these compensations given we cannot seem to convict them?
We shouldn’t be asking if CK need 8 months on the bench or 8 years. We should be asking if he should be paying for their therapy bills or their therapy bills and extra for other damages.
That is, in general, we should focus much less on what’s just for a particular man, and care much more about what’s just for particular women.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite the origin of this second insight. This cultural tendency to focus on men and justice for male perpetrators instead of women comes from Kate Manne’s book the Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. She calls it “himpathy.” And I guarantee you, now that that word’s in your head it’s going to be like the FedEx arrow. You won’t be able to not see it.
A huge chunk of the debate about Brock Turner, for example, is about the length of his sentence. Is it too severe? Shouldn’t we let the poor kid learn from his mistakes? No time is spent on the victim. The social desire to spend emotional and intellectual energy sympathizing with and defending sexually violent males is himpathy. It is the dead canary in our misogynist social coal mine. A sure sign that p**sy-grabbing president culture of toxic masculinity needs a come-to-Jesus moment.
So, should Louis C.K. be allowed back onto the stage? Has it been long enough?
This hard question is the wrong hard question. It is not just too soon, it’s wrong. It will be wrong until he has been prosecuted under new laws. It will be wrong until he compensates the women in as just a way as is possible given his actions. And, how long we need to wait until the men are in the clear will always be the wrong question until we solve the harder question of how we bring justice to the women our justice system continually fails.