Chris Hopson | Harvard University

In blockbuster films and hit TV shows, villains are often portrayed as lone wolves; they may have a close inner circle of people who help them carry out their plans, but rarely are they portrayed as operating within systems and institutions.  

The #MeToo movement, which has done so much to expose the ubiquitous predation of men in positions of authority, has made another contribution by showing us just how wrong this view of villains is. Ever since the accusations of decades of sexual harassment, assault, and rape against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, not only have more and more men been exposed, but so have the countless people who were complicit in their actions.  

A quick Google search defines the word “complicit” as: “involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing”. The broadness of this definition is helpful, because it reflects the myriad ways in which abusive men like Weinstein have been enabled and insulated from accountability. Some people led their victims to hotel rooms, some threatened those who would speak out, some quashed tabloid reports, and some looked the other way and pretended not to see.  All were complicit. In effect, all of these actions are equal, because without any one of them, the others could not have proceeded uninterrupted.

The #MeToo movement isn’t the only social event that is pushing the word “complicity” to the front of so many people’s minds.  Last year, SNL aired a skit called “Complicit”, starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump. The list of people who Trump opponents have accused of being “complicit” in his rise and rule has grown so large as to include almost the entire Republican Party establishment, and countless people beyond that.  The news about the legal troubles of Trump’s current and former allies can be hard to follow, but the sheer number of storylines reveals the same basic lesson from the #MeToo movement: systemic forces are at play.

Regardless of whether one thinks that Trump or anyone around him has been complicit in a crime, it’s clear that a large number of people with varying degrees of connection to Trump have done things that have raised enough suspicion that the Justice Department has hired a Special Counsel.  

The examples of Weinstein, Trump, and all the men like them make clear that in fields as diverse as film and politics, systems are at play, and the Hollywood archetype of the lone wolf villain doesn’t apply anywhere.  But why is this lesson important? I think that what is so essential, and scary, about understanding systems and complicity is that they implicate all of us. If my argument can be summed up in one sentence, it is this famous line that has been attributed to many famous people throughout history: “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”.  We don’t need to know the life stories of the people who have allied with Weinstein, Trump, and others to know that they were not born monsters.

Not even Weinstein and Trump were. None of us are born bad people, but we are all born into systems, many of which create, support, or tolerate injustice. In the course of life, we all will likely find ourselves in situations in which we can be complicit in unjust systems, or act to dismantle unjust systems.  

I would argue that injustice thrives, on the individual-level, community-level, and societal level, when and because too many people are complicit in an unjust system. Complicity need not be enthusiastic; some industry executives lamented Weinstein’s behavior but merely sat on their hands hoping it would stop. Complicity need not be direct; most of us would probably shut down sweatshops if we had the chance, but we still wear sneakers.

Complicity needn’t even be active; there are chilling photos of German Jews being marched out of their neighborhoods as their non-Jewish neighbors looked on, not helping the Nazis, but not stopping them either.  We can only hope that we’ll rarely find ourselves in situations in which grave crimes against humanity are being committed, but the only way to stop them in the future is to not be complicit with unjust systems to begin with.

Standing up and speaking out about small injustices might seem trivial or even whiney, but it is the most important roadblock to larger injustices down the road. Just like people, systems never start off unjust, but they gradually become so with each time that people turn a blind eye to things that are wrong. But the patterns of human history need not be repeated, and my biggest hope is that the generation of people who have been shaped by the #MeToo and Trump eras will be exemplars in breaking the cycle.

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