The Broken State of Our Normal
I’m not sure quite how to say this but I would wager that, to a lot of men, Al Franken's behavior seemed eerily and uncomfortably normal. I know women who have been exploited in similar ways - right down to the fact that they were asleep when a man chose to exploit them for his amusement. Everyone on god's green fucked up earth has seen the way that high school boys and college men behave at parties and with friends. They don't usually grow up as much as we like to think. It's everywhere.
A friend of mine said yesterday that it’s possible Franken both meant his behavior as a joke, and profoundly victimized his accuser. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Some people think demeaning and objectifying women is funny. Others just don’t consider that they’re demeaning and objectifying because it’s less important than the momentary satisfaction of their joke. Described that way it sounds an awful lot like an assault. And that’s because it is. I would go one step further and say that it’s possible for Franken's behavior to be fairly normal and also be awful and demeaning and traumatizing. That’s something we need to reckon with. Our standard for what behavior counts as normal is fucked up and has been for a really really long time.
It’s disgusting and there are a number of ways that Franken's behavior in this case was particularly demeaning but it also seems strikingly normal. Cat calls, objectification, offensive gestures, vaguely threatening jokes, and even unwanted physical contact are a literal every day occurrence for most women. That is profoundly depressing, but the reaction to Franken provides - tentatively and only so far - a quarter step in the right direction.
If Donald Trump taught us that the right amount of power and the right political situation can exempt a man from anything, the reaction to Al Franken could hopefully teach us that normal - jokes, public objectification, exploitation, serious harassment (because all those things are normal) - is no longer the same thing as okay.
Even if nothing else comes out about him, I think Al Franken will be censured by the senate. I think he should be. I think he will probably be encouraged not to seek re-election. I think that’s right. I have no idea if he’ll be forced to resign, but in truth I think he probably should be.
Public servants should be held to an extraordinary standard. Normal isn’t good enough. But holding public servants to a standard beyond what’s normal is the easy part. What we need is to start the long difficult work of completely changing our definition of what’s normal in the first place.
Normal is not the same thing okay. No matter how many times it’s been wielded to excuse abhorrent action (“locker room talk,” “I grew up in the 60s,”) normal never has been the same thing as okay. I hope that Al Franken faces consequences commensurate with the impact of his actions, not with the degree to which the men judging him find them kind of disturbingly normal. Right now our normal is profoundly fucked up.