Why Weinstein Held On For So Long and Fell So Fast

Bloomberg View , October 17, 2017

More than three dozen women have now alleged that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted them. It’s been little more than a week since the New York Times and The New Yorker broke the story, and Weinstein’s world has collapsed, with new allegations continuing to pile up. He’s lost his company and his wife. He’s been stripped of his creditson TV shows and movies and expelled from the Oscar-granting Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- only the second person ever to suffer that punishment -- and from the Producers Guild of America. Seemingly overnight, the feared and admired king of Hollywood has become a powerless pariah.

If Weinstein’s behavior was really an open secret -- it did, after all, make it into a joke on “30 Rock -- how did he keep it up so long? How and why did so many people hide the truth? And how could such a quick reversal happen?

To answer these questions and put the Weinstein saga into a broader context, I went to Timur Kuran, a professor of economics, political science and Islamic studies at Duke. In his path-breaking 1995 book “Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Kuran examined how individuals’ decisions to disguise their true feelings can sustain political regimes and social norms that most people don’t like -- and how those seemingly permanent institutions can collapse unexpectedly.

This is a lightly edited transcript, with added links, of our email conversation.

Q: What is preference falsification?

A: It’s the act of misrepresenting one’s wants because of perceived social pressures. It aims specifically to manipulate the perceptions of others about one’s motivations or dispositions.

Q: What are some examples?

A: Intellectual preference falsification occurs when scholars refrain from expressing skepticism of a theory for fear of being ridiculed or losing friends. A closeted gay man is engaged in a form of sexual preference falsification. On college campuses, conservative students and faculty commonly falsify their political preferences for fear of ostracism. Political preference falsification was also a survival tool in Eastern Europe before 1989, where support for communism was mostly feigned.

Q: How is the Harvey Weinstein scandal like the fall of European communism?

A: Communism was considered invincible. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall started a domino effect that brought down six Soviet satellites in quick succession, and soon after the Soviet Union itself. Though communism’s failures were widely understood, no one thought it vulnerable to street demonstrations. In East Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, it had demonstrated a willingness to crush dissent brutally. Moreover, for decades on end, the members of communist-ruled societies had displayed a remarkable tolerance for tyranny and inefficiency. They remained docile and even outwardly supportive of the status quo.

For all this submissiveness, it turned out that millions had been willing to revolt all along -- if enough others would also revolt and they felt sufficiently sure of escaping punishment. But no one knew exactly what needed to happen to set off a successful uprising. In retrospect, all it took was a few thousand demonstrators calling for more freedom and a regime that signaled that it was afraid of overreacting. People standing on the sidelines suddenly found the courage to join in, and the East German revolt started feeding on itself.

Before long, fear changed sides. People who had never criticized communism publicly were now afraid to be caught defending it. Genuine supporters of communism (they, too, numbered in the millions) joined the opposition. They took to pretending to have been falsifying their political preferences out of fear, like their compatriots who had genuinely felt oppressed.   

Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace fits the same pattern. Few Hollywood executives have been as powerful as he. His movies have earned hundreds of Oscar nominations. He was both admired and feared  as someone who could make or break a career. As a major fundraiser for Democratic Party candidates, he had national political clout. Though he was rumored to be predator of young women, Hollywood insiders and many observers knew that he dealt ruthlessly with anyone who crossed him. Reporters who investigated his behavior found almost no one willing to speak honestly or on the record. Many people who were hurt by Weinstein suffered, we now know, for their own silence. They wanted to go public with their stories all along.

For his behavior to draw public criticism, it was not enough for Weinstein’s behavior to be widely known. Potential complainers needed to know that other victims and witnesses would back them up. They also needed to believe that Weinstein’s supporters or the press would not smear their reputations. It needed to be sufficiently likely that the early movers would be greeted with sympathy rather than condemnation.

Once the press broke the story, people who had been afraid to speak lost their reticence. The outpouring of revelations gave more victims the courage to speak out. As in the case of communism, within days, silence was no longer an option. Weinstein’s friends in Hollywood and the Democratic Party found it necessary to express shock and outrage; defending him was out of the question. Actors and actresses whose careers he had launched and promoted rushed to condemn his behavior.

Hollywood allegedly contains many other serial abusers of women who might want to defend him. But in the present climate, most will not dare. Just as one could hardly find a committed communist in Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain fell, so today no one will admit that they themselves have enjoyed Hollywood’s sexually permissive culture, or that they hope it will survive Weinstein’s fall.    

Q: Why now and not, say, 25 years ago?

A: Two factors jump to mind. At age 65, Weinstein is well into the last third of his career. People must have started to sense that his influence is waning.

Q: Even before the scandal broke, the Weinstein Co. had had a couple of bad years and this year’s awards prospects weren’t looking good.

A: More important is that some of the people whom he apparently harassed, and others who witnessed his destructive behaviors and felt guilty for remaining quiet, had achieved stardom themselves. Unlike a relatively unknown person, who stands to gain publicity and possibly money from accusing a famous person, an already-famous person does not have anything obvious to gain. That makes the charges more credible. With the passage of time, the number of potential accusers in the latter category rose. The voices of Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow carry much more weight in 2017 than they would have in 1992.

Q: How does preference falsification instill a sense of powerlessness?

A: People hate the system not only because of its failures but because it compels them to feign satisfaction with the failures. They feel weak, diminished, and guilty for keeping their objections to themselves and even pretending that they are content.

The accounts of the women who say they were abused by Weinstein suggest that they suffered from his predatory behaviors and also from a sense of enabling those behaviors through their reticence to speak up and their decisions to continue working with him. One senses that the feeling of powerlessness, and the self-loathing that accompanied it, may have done more damage than the behavior itself.

Q: The few times that Weinstein's behavior made it into the general media, it was usually through jokes. Jokes were also a big part of Soviet and East Bloc culture. What role do jokes in breaking the silence?

A: Jokes allow people to acknowledge failures, crimes, hypocrisy and absurdities without having to take ownership of the underlying knowledge. They allow preference falsifiers to form a community who all recognize each other’s predicament.

Jokes served as a coping mechanism under communism. By sharing jokes about its failures, people learned that they were not alone. Jokes served also a source of hope. People understood that disapproval of the regime was rampant and, hence, that overthrowing communism was, though not likely, at least not impossible. By themselves, jokes could not overcome the rampant feeling of powerlessness. But they could alleviate those feelings. Jokes about Weinstein’s behaviors would have served similar functions. They would have helped build bonds among people who secretly disliked his behaviors.