The new scarlet letter

In his classic novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays a heroic woman in Hester Prynne who is forced to bear a mark of shame by wearing a red A, meaning Adulteress, on her bosom. Hester, though, refuses to accept that judgment, not by refusing to wear it but by wearing it nobly. She embroiders it with gold thread and walks with her head high despite being ostracized by the tongue-wagging, judging Puritan society.

Hester remains steadfast and noble to the end. She refuses to reveal the identity of her child’s father. Her hope is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale will muster the courage to admit his role. But the man is weak and craven.

The Scarlet Letter is a timeless story with its broad theme of dignified courage in the face of oppression by a sanctimonious, hypocritical community. It’s about power—zealous men feeling the need to control a woman via religion—and remains profound and relevant today as it pulses with irony.

To portray today’s unfolding sex scandals in a he-said-she-said context is a misguided oversimplification. The tectonic plates undergirding American culture and mores are colliding, on a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter Scale. That undulation is causing a fundamental shift in our cultural landscape in which the scarlet A has taken on new meaning: Assaulter.

It’s intriguing to talk to women friends about their take on it. A number have been victims themselves, on a range from office groping to full-fledged assault. I’ve learned there isn’t unanimity in thought among them about women going public with their stories. Some cheer them on and are elated some men are facing consequences; others maintain a let-sleeping-dogs-lie attitude. But even among the latter, I sense a satisfaction that a new day may be dawning with relationships between men and women in the work force.

One problem is the tendency to lump the scandals together. It’s not that simple. Revelations indicate a complexity among the deeds, not only in terms of shades of gray on a scale from fondling to assault, but also in terms of pedophilia, braggadocio, and out-right moral hypocrisy by those for whom the Ten Commandments are ostensibly carved in stone on their souls.

Without condoning anything the Matt Lauers and Al Frankens did or might have done, there is an ocean between what happens between adults and that which happens between an adult and a child. To put Alabama’s Judge Moore and actor Kevin Spacey in the same category as the other men defangs the heinousness of pedophilia. It was pedophilia, not gay priests, that caused the Catholic Church so much trouble.

Toss in Donald Trump’s bragging about walking in on underage girls while they were in various stages of undress as “owner” of the Miss Teenage America pageant. If a male teacher or coach had done that, he’d be imprisoned and listed on a state’s sexual offenders’ registry.

In a recent Washington Post column, conservative writer Michael Gerson reflected on the Religious Right’s “scary, judgmental old men.”

“On sexual harassment,” he writes, “our country is now in a much better ethical place. And how we got here is instructive. Conservatives have sometimes predicted that moral relativism would render Americans broadly incapable of moral judgment. But people, at some deep level, know that rules and norms are needed. They understand that character — rooted in empathy and respect for the rights and dignity of others — is essential in every realm of life, including the workplace.”

The façade of moral piety has been torn from the Religious Right that Gerson calls an “ideology of white male dominance dressed up as religion.”

We started down the slippery road of a wink-and-nod attitude toward sexual assault during the Clarence Thomas hearings; then many of us turned a blind eye toward Bill Clinton’s escapades. Now we have Trump and Moore. The chickens have come to roost right and left.

The nation is in dire need of moral clarity and leadership. It’s not coming from the White House nor from craven leaders for whom, as Gerson frames it, “the dignity of girls and women has become secondary to other political goals.”

Nobility begins in the heart and is expressed with behavior, not in status. Hester Prynne is our model.

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