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Notes on Cancel Culture

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The fall of 2017 dumps you roundly in the wrong. You catch yourself musing aloud to a friend, regarding Louis C.K.’s admission of masturbating in front of a large minority of his industry, about whether his having asked the women’s permission first shouldn’t count for something. Under her hard, silent look, you are forced to concede that ideally no workday should require a person to opt out of seeing someone’s erection. You resent the obligation to recategorize so much of what had once been just life as minor sexual assault. You envy a microgeneration that has apparently grown up anticipating respectful treatment as though it were some sort of norm. At the same time, you don’t exactly admire the mental acrobatics by which you have, you realize, allowed an experience in your own past to go unnamed when it really does have only one accurate name. That incident involved a man you loved and kept sleeping with intermittently for years afterward, who still blithely chitchats back and forth with you about this and that, including, now, all these unfortunate cases in the news—you still don’t use the name with him, or bring up the episode in question at all. You wonder, if it had taken place at work, whether you’d have felt obliged to do something about it.

It can feel as though the public discussion around #MeToo has been designed as a training program for denial, with self-reflection rarely encouraged on any side of the issue. The appearance of perfection—which is to say, hiding and disavowal—seems to be your main aim. You can speak honestly in private groups, but in public you must operate more like your institutions and politicians—the first concern is liability. Give no ground. When you hear tales of men offering women jobs at magazines they don’t even work for in exchange for sex, you first assume that no one could be gullible enough to take such an offer seriously, then wonder why you’re gullible enough to think they wouldn’t. Can you really expect newcomers to these professions, seeing how small and intimately networked they appear, to believe they operate on merit? Obviously not. And yet you know that most of their grindingly dull exploitations and discriminations, the uneven distributions of advantage, involve no sex at all.

Still, in discourse, sex continually upstages its ism. You receive an agonized email from a former colleague about whether he should have intervened on the night a notorious and more senior man invited you to an industry party alone. You consider replying with a list of all the deeply unerotic ways in which that job, where no one ever made a pass at you, drained and demoralized you—the derisory pay you were expected to be grateful for, the obligation to exploit those paid still less, the fuzzy boundary between professional and social expectations. Instead, you write back at fulsome length to reassure him that he did nothing wrong.

Over time it grows clearer that when you fixate on famous individuals like Louis C.K., or on those from your own publishing cohort, like former Paris Review editor Lorin Stein—what they do, what happens to them—any nuance you include becomes a way to let someone off the hook. Yet when you strip out the nuance, you do the companies and boards the very same favor, letting them trim the fat then carry on as before. You feel so weary thinking and reading about all this, and so aware of everyone else’s exhaustion, too, that the collective fatigue resembles a form of feminist solidarity unto itself. When you’re asked to write on the subject (by this magazine, whose former president and publisher, Hamilton Fish, resigned in 2017 after members of staff expressed concerns about his behavior), nearly two years have passed since the activist Tarana Burke’s hashtag took on its second life, and the relationship between individual shamings and entrenched institutional habits is more vexed than ever. You pick the second person, the only mode that seems aggressive, obnoxious, presumptuous enough. You don’t want to claim knowledge or insight, or to speak for any group, or to speak for yourself. You want to speak for the reader in such a lavishly illegitimate manner as to invite them to hurl you across the room with both hands, if they so choose. (Here, given the violent subject matter, you immediately regret your choice of words.)

Harvey Weinstein has become so totemic that by the time you reach the fifteenth floor of the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse at 100 Centre St., it’s almost relaxing to see him in real life. You’re spending the day, April 26, 2019, at a pretrial hearing whose goal is to determine how much additional evidence can be admitted in the case against him. As a symbol of the recent wave of disgraced men, Weinstein is a parody, at once exaggeratedly representative and wildly distracting. He is a bad apple extraordinaire, a man whose personal compulsions operated on such a scale that they distorted entire firms, entire industries. If you wanted to fantasize about curing a whole sick culture by getting rid of a single individual, Weinstein might seem like your man.

One other thing, on the day of the hearing, strikes you as fraught with symbolism. For a moment, the prosecution and defense pull together: Both are committed to the spectacular windmill-tilt of an attempt to avoid “tainting” the big, crumple-faced man’s jury pool. Ultimately, they succeed in banishing press and public from the room while the “highly inflammatory” evidence is heard. In other words, for today, the Weinstein team and those tasked with putting him away form the same side. The other side, your side, is out in the hallway—the gossiping reporters, Gloria Allred resplendent in yellow (“she’s always there,” a journalist remarks sotto voce, “she loves the cameras”), the court illustrator slowly reconstructing Weinstein in multicolored pastels. After this, he’ll walk out again on his million-dollar bail, and possibly, sometime in the fall, he’ll be imprisoned. Not for long, in all likelihood; as with Jeffrey Epstein and other fabulously well-to-do assaulters, Weinstein can rig virtual criminal impunity in exchange for cash. In late May, he arranged to pay a $44 million civil settlement for his decades-long run of victimizing women.

For the last two years, the question of where the lesser #MeToo men should go has remained in hot dispute. The Shitty Media Men list—the Google spreadsheet that collated anonymous annotated allegations ranging from rape to general creepiness against named individuals, and was almost immediately leaked to the press—seemed to spark subtler controversies in private than it did online. (At the time the list was leaked, the creator of the spreadsheet was an editor at The New Republic.) Why on earth isn’t so-and-so-the-infamous on it when poor such-and-such is? What about the freelancers who, never investigated and thus never cleared, can’t be sure whether assignments are drying up because they’re literary dinosaurs or social ones? Is garden-variety infidelity or assholism being mixed up with abuse of power in some cases? Don’t accusers realize that magazines are already weakened unto death, that they may be torpedoing the sinking ship while we’re all still onboard? You get drunk with a straight woman who whispers that it’s difficult for people who haven’t dated men recently to understand that the prolific, extravagant sleazes who draw the eye and are first on to lists like this are not the types you really have to watch out for. Meanwhile, the partner of one of the men named reportedly quipped that she wouldn’t care to fuck anyone who wasn’t on the list. 

A man you know posts that his former colleague, the subject of an internet shitstorm, is a stand-up guy who respects women: “That was my experience and I stand by it.” At a party, a woman in her twenties, someone you find slightly intimidating, tells you that you and others your age (mid-thirties) are being used as “beards” by men who employ your friendship as a convenient badge of feminism while behaving poorly, when your back is turned, toward younger, less professionally established women. The claim doesn’t seem to be an attack; she’s trying to help you make more informed decisions. Your first reaction is, You think I’m established? Your second: How could I possibly know if what she describes is happening? And third: It’s probably true. (This last strikes you as an alternate instance of what the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls “the unthought known.”) Can people abuse power they don’t see themselves as possessing? All the better, probably. Not seeing power must be a function of having it. 

You notice people whose names are on the list showing up at each other’s social events; were they already friends or has the list brought them together? Anecdotally, at least, it seems that the men so far shunned, canceled, excluded are slinking around in corners, griping about the new regime, while some of the as-yet-unscathed are excited to see their personal enemies brought low. Perhaps this is one of the risks of banishment as a strategy—or a sign that it hasn’t been properly accomplished. In either case, it’s not encouraging to picture a trash heap of men who will seethe together in private and interpret their unseating as merely a power grab rather than a thoroughgoing shift in the mode of doing business.

In a bar after the drinks run out at a magazine’s holiday party, a group discusses the now much-scrutinized behaviors that fall short of rape or assault. You describe a thought experiment you’ve been learning to perform. When someone does something you’re tempted to excuse as not that bad—propositioning an underpaid intern or a student, for instance—you imagine doing it yourself rather than having it done to you. You’ve been brought up to take it for granted that others will always try their luck, that it’s your own responsibility to mitigate the consequences. Imagining yourself as the transgressor allows you to let go of self-doubt, self-blame, and the sense that the world is as it is and can’t be otherwise. Invariably, in this new light, the act seems egregious. A British friend objects that it’s easy for you to say: “You don’t want to fuck the undergrad interns. That’s not how your sexuality works.” You wonder whether it can possibly be true that, as she seems to be implying, power trips (except from the receiving end) are generally a turn-on only for straight cis men. Would that mean that replacing them with less macho bosses and managers might be enough to rid workplaces of abuse? If women, for instance, wield power more humanely than men, will that difference remain when more women have more power? 

A so-called movement should aim to move, and not just in the emotional sense. Thus the mandate to do something drastic. Banish the men. Don’t let them back in. The change needs to be swift and permanent. For this exile strategy to work, though, there can only be a few of them, and they’ll serve as a warning for anyone who hasn’t yet gotten the memo. Banishment as a goal reinforces the idea that someone could be uniquely bad and powerful such that simply removing them will alter a harmful work culture. To be irredeemable is surely to be special, a lone wolf. So those who want the men canceled and those clamoring for them to be offered a route back agree, at least implicitly, on the paramount importance of these individuals and their fates. Again, two opposing sides seem to head in the same direction. Increasingly, you fear that power never changes but merely changes hands. 

Even as harassers begin to get their overdue comeuppance, environments that have housed them go eerily unscathed. You receive a mass email from the London high school you attended, inviting you to participate in an “exciting” #MeToo-themed drama project. Representatives of the school will come to your house, the email promises, to collect any stories of workplace assault or harassment you may have and recycle them into a play that will be taken to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. You (and others, it soon becomes clear) write back to note that, leaving aside their unseemly eagerness to suck people’s traumatic tales into a triumphal feminist vanity project, school administrators appear to have missed the point of #MeToo: that abuse is ubiquitous. Those who attended the school knew of teachers there who groomed and slept with underage students without consequence. Even without such knowledge, the instigators of the drama project should have been able to work out that this was a statistical likelihood. Assault and harassment, you point out in your email, are endemic in places where there are dramatic imbalances of power, like schools—and when they happen, such institutions usually act to protect their own reputations first, by suppressing the reasons for a teacher’s departure, say, thereby leaving said teacher free to repeat the performance elsewhere. Part of what allows abuse to continue is the ease of seeing it as someone else’s problem, someone else’s fault—perhaps that of the vaguely villainous men in some unnamed workplace. You emphasize that the school’s self-congratulatory assumption that the bad guys are always elsewhere, and we would never tolerate this sort of thing, probably makes it still harder for those harmed to come forward. You skewer the institution’s prurience and smugness, its failure to engage in any self-reflection.

Simultaneously, you notice what a relief it is to give the school, which you always hated, a kicking. Not just a relief, a thrill. Administrators soon withdraw the project in confusion. Before long, embarrassing allegations of abuse, more than one involving a current member of staff, hit the papers. It feels good to be in the right. Not for the first time, a gap opens up between much of what you’re thinking and what you feel able to say in public. You think of ways you’ve been complicit with harmful dynamics at work and elsewhere. You feel guilty about unfair advantages you’ve enjoyed, about things you haven’t stood up to and for. Part of you fantasizes about slipping into that gap—between the false, righteous public self and the inner chaos of shame, cowardice, bad faith—and vanishing altogether. For a moment you envy the canceled men—might it in fact be possible for people to just evaporate? 

When it first appears in a New Yorker article, Asia Argento’s story about her experience with Harvey Weinstein elicits in you both intense relief and intense discomfort. It still feels rare to hear a named person make a complaint that contains so many self-incriminating complications, that sounds as confusing and un-litigable as the things that happen to you and the people you know in real life. Ambushed and sexually assaulted by Weinstein early in her career, Argento blames herself for not fighting back harder. Over time, she compounds the error by remaining on good terms with him, benefiting professionally from their association, and having consensual sex with him, though she also fictionalizes the incident in a movie in which her character has the more appropriate reaction. When you are assaulted, you don’t respond correctly, and you blame yourself for not responding correctly. You are aware that your assaulter has in some sense targeted you as a good bet to do this to, and you are aware that—by not reporting him, by being nice to him afterward—you are confirming his assessment. Reading Argento’s account, you understand better some things that have happened to you in the past. If catharsis has an opposite, that’s what this feeling is. A male friend suggests there ought to be an #EtTu movement. You, however, are your own Brutus.

When accusations of sexual assault then emerge against Argento from a much younger man, there is a predictable wave of fear that the revelations will discredit #MeToo. Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase in 2006, emphasizes as she has many times before that this cult of personality is unhelpful. Victim and perpetrator are contextual positions, after all, not fixed and eternal roles assigned to particular individuals (or gender identities). Abused people can also become abusers. That’s why it’s essential to look at what has been happening systemically. You try to understand these events as the result of generations of violence—also, perhaps, in the literal sense that they have been generated, not committed at random.

Notice that though it may get easier to damage a man’s career, it doesn’t necessarily get concomitantly easier to come forward as someone who has been harmed. What has been accomplished is perhaps a net increase in vulnerability. Good news, institutionally speaking. Individual employers might endure some embarrassment and take a few extra financial hits, but things will go on as before, only with more opportunities for summary dismissal, still more widespread fear and precariousness among employees. While it’s crucial to recognize harassment as a labor issue, doing so doesn’t necessarily tell you how to solve it, especially when the interests of some union members are pitted against others. The American Guild of Musical Artists, for instance, recently fought to reinstate ballet dancers fired for their treatment of colleagues, while members of the United Automobile Workers union at Ford were ignored or attacked for their complaints; at least one reported that her own union representative targeted her for severe harassment. Why get rid of today’s abusers if we will keep making more? Sexual consent becomes the standard only in a regime where unwanted contact is the norm: Someone else has set the terms and you must either go along or protest. Enthusiastic consent is where you should also pretend to like it. You’re not the first to observe that this is how most jobs work too. 

It’s increasingly obvious that Weinstein, that vortex where individual misdemeanors and structural injustice meet, is not the poster boy for the bad-apple theory he first seems: Not just employees and ex-employees of his firms but also fleets of tabloid journalists and ex-Mossad operatives worked to prop it all up—the systemic quality of the whole odious set-up is now bizarrely, unusually visible. It wasn’t exactly in the interests of Miramax or the Weinstein Company for actors and employees to be assaulted and harassed, but certainly Weinstein’s personal qualities, his talents as a bully, above all, were integral to his success, more feature than bug. He’s an extreme test case of the theory that some of the men who have been abusing power in the workplace could be more aptly described as simply using it: They were following the extant (if unwritten) rules—by which, for instance, employees vie for favor and with it scarce resources, by which personal relationships determine reward. (You recall the editorial job in which your manager had to gently explain that while there was no maternity policy per se, you were not to worry, for should you ever find yourself with child, he and other colleagues would “cover for you and make it work.”) Many of the misdeeds now widely viewed as acts only a bad apple could commit were a somewhat logical outcropping of being good at the trade.

Compare, for instance, the press coverage of Lorin Stein’s downfall with that of his appointment and tenure at The Paris Review, and note how closely what’s later framed as suspect—drunken, unpredictable parties; an emphasis on aesthetics that allegedly extended to the dress and appearance of the staff; the cultivation, altogether, of an atmosphere of louche midcentury glamour—resembles what he was hired to do. The New York Times confirmed in 2011 that Stein was “thought to be a more natural heir” to the journal’s founder, George Plimpton, than his dourer-sounding predecessor, “journalist and genocide expert” Philip Gourevitch: “Bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” 

It often seems that scandal only befalls those who have already begun to lose friends and influence, whether by fuck-up or by economic fate. (Cf. Weinstein, again.) Those fired for their behavior in the workplace may suspect they are in fact being punished not so much on ethical grounds as for other kinds of failure or incompetence. No wonder then that those disgraced men who have so far spoken out have demonstrated such a lack of self-awareness, an inability to find what particular truth their own stories might yield. You don’t need to learn from Jian Ghomeshi what it feels like to be judged on something other than your talents (whatever they might be). Being ostracized, excluded from charmed circles, trapped in a no-win situation, forced to censor every small expression of self, out of the running for second chances or opportunities no matter what you might now do—this is a circumstance that no woman and no employee requires a man like Ghomeshi or former broadcaster John Hockenberry to explain to them. Ghomeshi’s essay in The New York Review of Books about the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual violence, like John Hockenberry’s cri de coeur in Harper’s Magazine, is a study in bad faith and bad writing and the ways in which they reinforce each other. Neither writer asks nor answers the questions that would be of interest to anyone besides himself. 

It’s said that no one needs to hear from these disgraced men, about anything. To speak publicly at all is a privilege they have already vastly overused. But it can’t be a coincidence that so far the men who have published their accounts have focused only on what is least intriguing or useful about their experience. Nor that the better writers among those accused—Stein, for instance—have chosen this moment to remain silent. What if they were encouraged to speak freely not about the emotional delicacies of their own experience of exile, but of what allowed them to operate that way at work in the first place? We might do more to remove the fear of being caught out again, and acknowledge the ways in which they were not special but representative. Surely these guys were not all merely freeloading in secret, but were bred and developed by existing ecosystems they learned to thrive in and then perpetuate.

Amid a flurry of off-color #MeToo digs in his 2017 special The Bird Revelation, comedian Dave Chappelle argued that a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission would be the best way to deal with men who have behaved poorly but not criminally. He pointed out that what “should have been a bloodbath” in post-apartheid South Africa was prevented by a recognition that “if a system is corrupt then … the system itself must be tried.” The way to accomplish that, he suggested, is “if everybody says what they did. Tell them how you participated…. You guys keep going after individuals, the system is going to stay intact.” The routine didn’t get many laughs.

Suggesting the same strategy in an interview, the historian Stephanie Coontz conceded, “This is a wild thing to say.” But what’s wild about it, aside from the idea that someone could actually make it happen? In the mid-1990s, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard—and broadcast—testimony from people who committed egregious human rights violations under apartheid and from several thousand of those who suffered them. The TRC was hailed internationally as an unusually successful example of restorative justice, as opposed to the retributive model that had been practiced at the Nuremberg trials. Still, there were failures and compromises both in how authorities delimited the scope of the inquiries and in how South Africa’s post-apartheid government enacted the commission’s eventual recommendations. The TRC offered incentives for participation that don’t translate easily to other contexts—amnesty for some of the perpetrators, reparations for some of those they harmed. (Though, predictably enough, the former was prioritized over the latter, and payments much smaller than those initially recommended only materialized years later.) In the case of #MeToo, even in theory both sides would probably stand to gain only the same thing: a different mode of working. (Those harmed might also get a detailed confirmation of precisely what was done to them. Call it an unguttering—the opposite of a gaslighting.) The goal in South Africa, to “practice neither impunity nor vengeance,” and eventually to reintegrate as one community, sounded admirable. If this can be done for crimes against humanity, it ought to be possible with exponentially lesser but still pervasive, intractable offenses.

You consider whether this model is really wild enough. The best-known critiques of the TRC’s proceedings, such as history and politics scholar Mahmood Mamdani’s 2002 paper “Amnesty or Impunity?” and the internal dissent by Commissioner Wynand Malan, the Afrikaner politician who served as vice chair of the TRC, have held that they focused too narrowly on certain individual perpetrators and victims. In doing so, the commission elided historical context, emphasizing violent acts but not broader and more systemic forms of discrimination, and obscuring their deep-seated causes in the social order that was taken for granted and rationalized under apartheid rule. As Mamdani pointed out, the commission held institutional hearings only as background to the individual ones, when it perhaps could have worked the other way around—individual testimony offered to illuminate what was done structurally, to large groups of people. Malan criticized the “religious thought” that framed the commission’s approach. It focused on individual questions of personal redemption or repentance or forgiveness, rather than making a “real historical evaluation of roles played by various actors.”

The scholar Priscilla Hayner, in her book on truth commissions, writes that very few “have examined the economic and social factors that allowed or even encouraged serious abuses to take place.” Tellingly, she also notes that such endeavors have been especially ineffective in addressing gender, that rape and assault were treated as “secondary” and apolitical even in cases where they had evidently been employed deliberately and strategically. “Commissioners serving on the TRC Amnesty Committee,” she writes, “told me that they threw out an application to receive amnesty for rape, after giving it virtually no consideration, because it was impossible, in their logic, that such a crime could be political.” One of them, surrounded by colleagues signaling agreement, asked Hayner, “How can someone claim that they raped someone just because she was from another political party? That makes no sense.” Sexual violence, it’s implied, is too basic and natural to be politicized. You can’t help but notice that by fixating on sexual abuses, one can end up in a very similar place as by ignoring them—the mistake is the same, to allow them to be separated out from other social processes and wrongs.

Mamdani argues that “reconciliation cannot be between victims and perpetrators; it can only be between survivors.” A theoretical goal of reconciliation commissions is to dissociate the perpetrator from his or her act, and allow the state to take responsibility for redressing past wrongs. This strikes you as a more promising starting point than permanently linking perpetrator and act, as banishment does. It must be possible to acknowledge, without descending into relativism, that power doesn’t corrupt only the most powerful. The aim should be not to minimize individual responsibility but to contextualize it better, and to allow it to produce something more constructive than humiliation.

Black women invented #MeToo, and they have spent generations developing tools to reduce violence and increase accountability within communities, tools that might offer the only serious place to go next in tackling workplace culture (and the dethroned men). Such grassroots approaches, developed collaboratively by groups such as Creative Interventions, Critical Resistance, and Incite!, aim to help people recognize and reduce the harm they are doing to those around them, to take responsibility and move toward new ways of coexisting, without involving entities like police or government institutions. They take for granted that groups and communities contribute to violent dynamics between individuals, and that they can also help change them. They respect the autonomy and specific wishes of those harmed in figuring out how to address the abuses. These are the rare approaches in which pragmatism and ambition are equally present. If you start with the recognition that institutions serve and protect themselves, that the option of aligning yourself with whoever is already in power isn’t open to you, then you can understand both how nearly impossible your position is and how nonviable it would be to simply accept its impossibility.

These approaches, which involve a collective reckoning, do not willfully obscure imbalances of power between the parties, as do, for instance, mediation processes such as those that were mandated until last year for people who made harassment complaints against members of Congress. Those pantomimes of concern for victims were transparently aimed at intimidating them and reducing the institution’s liability. The procedure required complainants to receive counseling and meet directly with the objects of their complaint and their legal representatives for a set period before they could request any kind of hearing or file suit. When an intern whose career prospects hang in the balance sits down with a congress-person and their attorney to discuss how to resolve a harassment claim, the encounter can only be a farce. This kind of mediation—a faux-reckoning, a cynical spoof of Creative Interventions–style collaborative justice—can be found in university Title IX proceedings and in HR departments across the land, wherever keeping the company or institution safe is the priority. The community-based approaches, by contrast, are specifically designed so that people who have been harmed are not required to directly confront those who have harmed them unless they want to. 

What should happen to those disgraced? Perhaps, in their weakened state, they ought to be exploited a little more. Set up grassroots commissions and invite them to appear on panels, to answer questions not devised to reestablish their malign actions and intent, but rather seeking to make them shed more light on how exactly our employers and institutions work. (It’s not yet clear whether the fledgling commission chaired by Anita Hill to fight harassment in media and entertainment might consider such a step.) To the extent that the perpetrators succeeded in navigating the customs of the workplace to their personal benefit, let them trace for us the particular weaknesses in those rules and systems, which might be used for better ends. Those harmed could help formulate the questions but should not be under pressure to share their horror stories again unless they wish to or feel it necessary, since the hope would be to move from the individual to the collective, from the particular to the pervasive. Let those who have done wrong testify against the higher-ups, say who enabled what, and who knew what when.

In a recent interview, Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney known for his work counseling and arranging financial compensation for the victims of 9/11, the Boston bombings, and, more recently, sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, insisted that truth and reconciliation commissions (which have been tried in limited cases) could never work in the United States, because outside the courts, cash paid to victims by perpetrators is “the great leveler.” Money is the “placeholder for moral responsibility,” he said. “That exchange of liability and compensation ends the moral dilemma.” Yet even in bald financial terms, what those canceled know may be worth more than whatever they could afford to pay—especially once they’re unemployable. On the panels, they’d receive an opportunity to answer back or to make amends, and in return they’d offer some partial form of what might be called informational or strategic reparations. If some feel they did nothing wrong, let them stop hiding behind silence, jokes, or calculatedly limited apologies, and engage in a live discussion. Someone who loses his career is perforce no longer in an alliance with the employer. Thus released, what might he have to offer? Vengeance is a bad idea only inasmuch as it misses or obscures an opportunity for understanding, not in the peace-and-love sense of getting along, but the literal one of knowing exactly what went on and why. Whether our institutions could be transformed enough to one day permit the same individuals to return to the same workplaces and participate in different dynamics—and whether that would be at all desirable—is hard to answer. But you try starting somewhere less ambitious. If not reconciliation, then why not truth? If their professional contributions are no longer wanted, let them at least give us candor.