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Weinstein and the Outsize Power of Corrupt Institutions

As horrifying as it is, the Harvey Weinstein story would not be nearly as engrossing if it were not also so relatable. Almost every women and some men seem to recognize in the situation of a powerful movie producer trying to coerce less powerful actresses into sex a power dynamic that they have experienced or seen. The natural and understandable response has been to demand reform of our workplaces, a demand with which I completely agree.

But I also think it would be a shame if we failed to step back and question the dominance of institutions that clearly value the success of an individual--usually a man--and the financial and status-related wins he is credited* with bringing in more than the well-being of a group. And it would be a shame if we did not step back even further to question the source of these values: a socioeconomic system that I will describe as late-stage, hyper-capitalism--one which we are still trying to save, despite all of its moral failings, its demeaning of human beings and particularly those who do not hold power.

I thought of this while reading an article by a female partner of a private equity investment firm on WBUR in which she describes an experience where her boss talks about what sexual positions she must like in front of her all male colleagues while they are all in a car. Despite having held her colleagues in high esteem, none of them stick up for her.

She ends the article by suggesting that the amount of time women had to spend guarding each other from Harvey Weinstein represents an "inefficiency" and suggests that boards of directors should "undertake a long-term view of human capital. How many talented individuals leave companies after such incidents? How much future revenue, how many hits has Miramax squandered?"

I worry that we are going to spend so much time trying to reform systems that may be hopelessly corrupt, like Hollywood and finance, and not enough time questioning the outsize role they have in our society.

It is a great point -- companies should value long-term well-being of all of its employees more than short-term profits, or whatever a person like her lecherous boss or a Harvey Weinstein bring to the table. But is this really possible? And what does it say that she has to appeal to corporate America withan argument for basic human decency that is to be couched in terms like "human capital," "inefficiency," and of course, loss of revenue.

I worry that we are going to spend so much time trying to reform systems that may be hopelessly corrupt, like Hollywood and finance, and not enough time questioning the outsize role they have in our society. Because what the Weinstein story tells us is not just that powerful people can get away with sexual assault and harassment as long as they succeed, but that one of the most influential institutions in our society does not really care about morals, ethics, or treating someone with human decency. We knew this of course -- we take it so much for granted that we don't expect Hollywood to be any other way.

Think about the institutions where gender discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment is rife: Hollywood, finance, Silicon Valley, academia.  In fact, it is true that many of the most successful organizations within these institutions are some of the worst offenders -- or at least grab the most headlines. It is also true that these institutions highly value individual success and financial gain much more than cooperation, group flourishing, basic human decency, and financial stability (but not necessarily huge profit). If you work in some of these places and are empathetic, kind, and generous, you may be at a great disadvantage. People who work in these places may also have jobs that are demanding, requiring a lot of hours, so it may be hard to leave the office and find a space for a healthier, less toxic environment.

If cooperation, group flourishing, and basic human decency, are values we want to foster in our society -- and I hope they are, but I'm honestly not sure anymore -- I think we must question the values of late-stage, hyper-capitalism and put them in their proper place. 

*I have almost no doubt that whatever success is credited to Weinstein would have been impossible without all of the people who worked for him and who surely saved his butt when he acted like a monster.