The Matt Lauer Effect

Last night I was walking out of the subway station at Metropolitan & Lorimer in Brooklyn, and something strange was happening on the stairs. A put-together woman and a disheveled man who didn't seem to know each other were in some sort of slow-motion dance that would soon turn live-action chase. Before stopping to hear the details of the situation I already felt energetically that something was weird, but if I didn't stop to watch it play out I would've missed the thing completely. What turned out to be an intense situation lacked the emotion or dramatics you might expect; more than anything it just felt off.

When I arrived the woman was traveling down one side of the stairwell while the man was moving up the other. They were sort of paused on the same stair, separated only by the handrail. They faced each other but were an arm's length farther apart than either would need to physically stop the other from moving. Neither acted particularly quickly, they seemed to be taunting each other to remain still. In only a slightly raised voice, she threatened to call the police as he quietly and repeatedly replied, "no, it's ok, it's ok" and took one step forward and one back. 

The whole ordeal picked up pace in front of my eyes. She got closer to dialing 9-1-1 on her phone as he realized the gravity of the situation. He chose an exit and started to make his way quickly up the stairs as she hastened in return.

As abruptly as the scene entered my awareness it left. I could still hear as the woman connected with emergency response and said, "I'm at the Lorimer L and a man just sexually assaulted me." With the words out the man began to run out of the stairwell and up the street. She chased him. It was clear she needed to keep him in her sight as badly as he needed to escape. 

As I write this I reflect on whether there was something I could have done to help. I might have helped her chase him down. But I was stunned in a strange shock of not only the situation at hand but the situation at large. The woman was fully clothed and outwardly unharmed. It seemed obvious that whatever happened had just happened there, in public. I imagine it was an inappropriate comment or a passing grope of sorts. She wasn't physically hurt, just pissed. He wasn't noticeably perpetrating, just caught. 

What dawned on me was the climate we are living in that made the situation both evident and possible. I've seen this, even experienced it, before. But just a short few months ago I'm not sure this would've gone down like it did. And it highlighted for me the effect of what happens when public figures are held accountable for unacceptable activity: it means that ordinary people can be held accountable as well. 

When the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK and Matt Lauer are dethroned, anyone can be. That means that a woman using public transit is empowered to stand up to a misguided subway-dweller biding his time. The off-ness of our everyday existence can begin to be set right, one misdeed at a time.

Right now we are living amidst a turning tide. I wondered if I would take action like this young woman had, if my worldview has shifted enough to drive me to a similar act of reprehensibility. It's safe to say, at the very least, I'd think twice about it. Where before I would have brushed the situation off, called the man a jerk and kept moving, I might at least pause for a moment with choices in mind. 

As I often claim, I believe that awareness is the very first step to change. We all are becoming more aware. Aware that behavior we at one time deemed inappropriate but excusable has impact. Aware that this behavior is systemic, and that for systemic change to be made action can and must be taken. 

I also believe that taking the time to be present with and reflective on immediate discomfort leads to more meaningful change. Hence this post and these words. Today, a Friday, the weight of the first headline I saw Wednesday morning is clear. "Matt Lauer Fired After Sexual Misconduct." All of us are responsible for our actions. Top down and bottom up, what's off in our society has the potential to be made right. 

Joanna Cohen