Op-Ed

Zero tolerance and zero fairness in the Rep. Hall case

State Rep. Duane Hall waits outside of Market Hall prior to former president Bill Clinton's arrival for a Hillary for North Carolina event Monday, March 7, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C.
State Rep. Duane Hall waits outside of Market Hall prior to former president Bill Clinton's arrival for a Hillary for North Carolina event Monday, March 7, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Of course Gov. Roy Cooper and other top male Democrats immediately called for state Rep. Duane Hall’s resignation when he was accused of sexual impropriety.

As the #MeToo movement brings long overdue attention to how some powerful men demean, dominate and force themselves on women, many leaders are concluding that now is not the time to stand tall on principles like due process but to hunker down and weather the storm. Cooper’s training as a lawyer — to carefully consider each case on its own merits, weigh the evidence and come to a fair conclusion — is less important than the message #IGetIt.

Never mind that Hall denies the allegations.

Never mind that none of his accusers considered his actions serious enough to warrant a criminal charge or formal complaint.

Never mind that there is no evidence that Hall used his office to reward or punish any of his alleged victims.

In this environment all charges are tantamount to a conviction; every man is a Weinstein. Hall must be sacrificed for the sake of history and the good of the party.

Politics ain’t beanbag and it’s hardly ever fair. This is the profession Hall chose and perhaps he needs to go. But the rush to judgment — the swift willingness to destroy someone’s career to make a point — is troubling.

To my mind, and some may differ, even if all the allegations are true they do not merit a political death penalty.

A few involve sexually loaded comments. Without specifying the context, one anonymous legislative aide claims Hall told her, “You know you want me.” She reportedly told him his comment was “degrading.” And that was that.

As it should have been. Let’s not forget we are talking about human beings, not political actors. Despite the many changes in our culture, traditional roles still pertain in most relationships: men are usually expected to make the first move through word or deed. Sometimes they are accepted, sometimes not. It’s what happens after “no” that matters. Do we really want to prohibit testing-the-waters flirtation?

Another woman, Jessie White, alleges that when she confided in Hall about “relationship problems” over drinks, he told her, “If you give me two hours, you’ll forget about those other guys.” His remark was coarse but given her opening hardly out of the blue. She should have told him it made her feel uncomfortable. My guess is he would have apologized. If she did not feel empowered to speak up because of larger culture forces, let’s not forget that those same norms have taught Hall that his comment was playful banter. Perhaps we want to change the rules of engagement. If so, they shouldn’t be retroactive.

The worst incidents involve two claims, which Hall also denies, that he kissed women against their will. The more deeply reported one occurred at the Equality NC event in 2016 where Hall, single and 49 at the time, allegedly pursued a 23 year-old party official throughout the evening. The woman and other witnesses say she rebuffed him several times. Nevertheless, he pulled her onto his lap and kissed her — we don’t know where — while taking a selfie.

N.C. Policy Watch, which broke the Hall story, reports that the woman bravely demanded that he delete the photo.

If true, Hall’s conduct was disturbing. If she had been my daughter, I would be furious. I do not think it is so egregious that party officials should force him from office — rather than let the voters decide. It was a mistake, not a sin.

N.C. Policy Watch also reports that the woman says she was so shaken by the incident that she left state politics. Since the #MeToo movement erupted last October, many women harassed by powerful men have said the incidents left them doubting themselves. For this man, at least, reared to shake things off, this is hard to understand. But it is real and must push us to acknowledge the insidious potential of “playful” words and deeds.

We are living in a period of high-voltage cultural change. In a few short years the landscape has changed remarkably regarding gay marriage, transgender rights and now sexual harassment. Views considered mainstream a few years ago now seem beyond the pale.

During complicated times, there is a natural tendency to embrace certainty — the great religious awakenings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries occurred during periods of profound social change. In our secular age, zero tolerance appeals because it casts problems and solutions in black and white. The world, however, is shades and shadows, and sometimes what looks like a pig is actually a scapegoat.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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