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The Potential Collateral Damage of #MeToo

By Stuart Muszynski, President & CEO, Values-in-Action Foundation (Purple America)

April 16, 2018

Image found at Google Images

I'm a believer in the laws of physics, particularly in two concepts. Oversimplifying a bit, one is that for every action, there is a reaction. The other is that the physical world devolves into its greatest state of disorder before it finally rebounds and creates a new order. Both are taking place simultaneously with the #MeToo movement against sexual assault.

We have seen this movement topple icons: Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor and Steve Winn. Many others have been accused but, like hanging chads, they and their careers are still somewhat dangling: Dustin Hoffman, James Franco, Tavis Smiley, Woody Allen, Morgan Spurlok and Donald Trump, among others.

No doubt, many more will be accused, and many others will fall before a new cultural norm, along with clear expectations, evolves. But, until this new order emerges, there are unintended reactions both in schools and in the workplace.

Please don't misunderstand. I believe the conversation about sexual assault is extremely important. And that the crossing of appropriate boundaries that affect workplace roles, power positions, mentor-mentee relationships and sexualized intentions has gone on way too long. I applaud the courageous women who have come forward risking prominence, jobs and friends to report on those who did them harm. They have changed our world!

But, in the workplace, can a person make an off-the-cuff wise crack that may carry an unintended double-entendre without being tarred with the same brush as Ailes or Weinstein? Or, in a school, can a teacher hug a student who is in distress without being labeled a sexual predator? Both potential scenarios raise serious questions for our culture in general as well as specific behavioral expectations within society.

I work with schools, and here is what I see happening.

A teacher recently told a colleague that she fears hugging a student, even if the student is in distress and proclaims that they need a hug. She said that if she hugs a boy, she risks being called a predator, and if she hugs a girl she risks being labeled as both a predator and gay. In both cases, her fear is that her possible actions, although well-intended, might be labeled as sexual assaults.

People in the workplace may be less fearful, because in most cases an act of sexual assault can be differentiated from that of a casual hug given to validate or comfort a co-worker. They're probably right.

But schools are different, and teachers have many legitimate fears because they and their school boards are under immense public scrutiny. Might a parent whose child is failing try to intimidate a teacher and school by crying assault when it was just an innocent hug?

Crazier things have happened in schools.

Might a school district be sued because a parent proclaims that the teacher crossed the line? It's entirely possible.

Teachers fear potential consequences because -- in today's rules-driven school environments -- teachers ask permission for almost everything. Virtually every behavior is pre-approved. What to teach. How to act. When to introduce new subject matter. When to share values and life lessons. When -- if ever -- to drive kids home.

Is hugging next?

I hate to see visible caring -- a touch on the shoulder, a hug, a pat on the back, a clasping of hands -- go by the wayside in schools. Because, if we cease seeing visible caring in schools, we will ultimately see empathy and caring actions cease in society, as well. The path to extinction may take several years. But if we start shunning behaviors in schools, ultimately the children who become the parents, workers and voters of tomorrow will shun those behaviors in their communities.

Psychologists and physicians have studied the impact of love on the normal development of children. Babies need touch in order to feel connected and loved. Loving actions -- empathy, sensitive words, acts of kindness, and the like -- have been linked to health, healing, caring, learning and overall wellness. Sometimes the hug is the best and most immediate way to show genuine human concern.

It would be a real shame if we threw out the baby with the bath water: if a legitimate hug, a casual friend's kiss on the cheek, or a caring touch gets sanitized, so distilled or so seldom displayed that it becomes abnormal. Or worse, if these acts of sensitivity are relegated only to the aftermath of school shootings instead of creating an environment that may be able to prevent a shooting.

Or, maybe we can distance ourselves from being sexually branded by sending hugging memes through social media or tweeting #IHugYou, further disconnecting ourselves from caring and human intimacy. In a world where true connection is eroding every day, this hypothetical trend would be one more dissipation of the value and meaning of the most important and most used word in human history: love.

I will not fear giving a hug. I will not fear showing that I truly care. I will not fear showing humanity or genuine human touch. I hope that, as the new order ultimately emerges, the #MeToo movement acknowledges that, in many cases, there is something called "legitimate touch" that does not cross the line. Like salt, touch can be used to cure or to erode. This acknowledgment will help our schools, our teachers, our children and the rest of us embrace humanity over the unintended consequence of unwarranted fear.

In this breakthrough year of #MeToo, let's remember the true power and legitimacy of visible connection, empathy, kindness and love as forces for good.

Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation. Purple America is Values-in-Action's national initiative to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values.;

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