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Jeff Simon: The 21st century vocabulary for abuse

Jeff Simon

"This is what I was wearing 23 years ago when Donald Trump attacked me in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room."

That is what is printed on the cover of the June 27 issue of New York Magazine next to a picture of a woman.

Her name is E. Jean Carroll, best known as an advice columnist for Elle Magazine. She was also a 1975 Emmy nominee for "Saturday Night Live."

Her rape charge against Trump was in an excerpt from her forthcoming book, "What Do We Need Men For: A Modest Proposal" (St. Martin's officially publishes July 2). The excerpt tells of her dealings with "hideous men," among whom we find the president, as well as Les Moonves, whose sexual depredations have already knocked him out of the top office at CBS.

Both Trump and Moonves deny Carroll's claims. Trump went so far as to claim he never met her, even though the magazine printed with the excerpt a picture of the two of them together (Carroll is laughing in the picture and standing next to another man, just as Trump is standing next to ex-wife Ivana).

Carroll's story was widely bandied about over the weekend, but it didn't get major play on newspaper front pages or on Sunday TV news talk shows. The internet is well-populated by people with scorepads who keep track of such things and they registered far more online attention for Carroll's tale than in what Trump and his friends might call "the lamestream media."

As I paid careful attention to all this over the weekend, it occurred to me that here was living proof of a term I first heard from my daughter and resisted for a while: "rape culture."

What I disliked about the term the first time I heard it was its apparent implication that rape – and the desire to rape – were commonplace among American men. What I came to understand about the term "rape culture" is that it signified how much of American culture, nevertheless, seems to be designed to ignore rape or cover it up when it does happen. That's what "rape culture" means and it's hard to deny.

The vocabulary I might originally have resisted for ordinary reasons (age, unfamiliarity, gender,) I have begun to see as subtler and more accurate than it might otherwise appear when used at top volume.

Describing, for instance, the #MeToo climate of updated sexual understanding as a society that's "woke" may be grammatically oafish, but it's also accurate.

Any mature heterosexual man would have to admit, I think, being surprised to the point of jaw-dropping shock by the amount of sexual abuse women are detailing about their lives growing up and carrying on in America.

I couldn't have begun to imagine the amount of sexual abuse hiding behind the curtains in American social life. The Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein stories opened the floodgates.

"Woke" from sleep isn't merely a metaphor, it's pin-pointingly accurate about routine understandings among American males. We were, as a gender, largely asleep to the degree our fellow males are being wretched with American women.

Another bit of modern vocabulary I've begun to appreciate is what has been called "cancel culture," i.e. figures who get caught up in public obloquy and are then subjected to the threat of being canceled. The classic illustration of that is probably Woody Allen, whose behavior finally engendered an industrial hostility in the world of film where he is no longer able to make a film.

It is, I think, going to take a long time for America to handle what it is now expected to deal with in our daily media diet. Consider Wikipedia's attendant auxiliary entries for "outrage culture" and "cancel culture":

"See also" it advises "Boycott," "Hashtag activism," "Internet vigilantism," "Milkshake Duck," "Mobbing," "Moral panic," "No Platform," "Online boycott," "Outrage (emotion)," "Outrage porn," "Righteous indignation" and "Slacktivism."

Yes, "Milkshake Duck," which signifies an internet character as lovable as a milkshake, but who is revealed to have an ugly back story or worse.

Or as we might simply add them all up in the 21st century and call it the internet's way of wishing us "Good morning."

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