A year ago, almost to the day, Louis C.K. went on the Conan O'Brien Show to sing Hillary Clinton's praises. "She's really talented, super-smart; I'd take her over anybody else," he said. "It's exciting to have the first mother in the White House!" Then he scolded any liberal who wasn't going to vote, calling them "a piece of shit."
The internet was obsessed with this, and said it was the "Most Perfect Rant About Liberals" and urged people to "Watch Louis C.K. Praise Hillary Clinton, Mothers." Kind of shocking that a dude who won the hearts of feminist liberals also was accused of sexual misconduct by five women a year later. Actually, it's not that shocking at all.
Take Harvey Weinstein. When allegations that the film executive had sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women for years were first revealed, many news outlets threw in the fact that Weinstein has also been liberal-leaning throughout his career. He's donated millions to Democratic candidates, his foundation helped back a "Feminist Studies" chair in honor of Gloria Steinem — heck, he even went to a Women’s March back in January.
Then, in late October, reports surfaced that MSNBC pundit Mark Halperin (who some might argue leans toward the liberal camp) had non-consensually groped, kissed, and pressed his erections on seven women, and he was suspended from the network. Shortly after that, Redditers resurfaced a passage from a 1999 supposedly "satire" memoir, co-authored by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi. In the blurb, Mark Ames recounts how he and Taibbi sexually harassed junior female staffers at the Moscow-based newspaper they co-edited, demanding blowjobs and anal sex. (Taibbi has since issued an apology and explanation on Facebook.) And then there was Mike Oreskes, who was ousted from his position as NPR's news chief after two women came forward saying he had tried to forcibly kiss them and asked deeply personal questions about their romantic life.
The list goes on and on, and makes you wonder: How can men who claim to be liberal regularly harass and/or assault women in their personal lives? It’s impossible to say, but the situations reek of cognitive dissonance, "the kind that you experience when someone you like or admire does something terrible," John Jost, PhD, professor of psychology and politics at New York University and co-director of the Center for Social and Political Behavior, wrote in an email. "It's not really ideological dissonance, because their transgressions are not related to liberal ideology in any way," he wrote. In fact, it's likely deeper than dissonance.
When people get in those positions of power, they have a tendency to engage in less inhibited behavior, and they see others as more of a means to an end.
Elizabeth Mullen, PhD
Social psychologists have long been fascinated by how people tend to "regulate their moral behavior" over time, explains Elizabeth Mullen, PhD, assistant professor of management at San Jose State University, who studies social psychology. As humans, our behavior naturally fluctuates, so we’re not always good or bad. Often, we find ways to compensate for our bad behavior with good behavior.
This psychological phenomenon is called "moral licensing," and it suggests that people feel free or "licensed to" engage in ethically dubious behavior if they’ve first done something virtuous, Dr. Mullen says. For example, you grocery shop to save money, and then justify buying a pair of shoes that you don’t need. Or, you might recycle, so you can feel better about the other wasteful things you do throughout the day. In other words, when we feel like we’ve done enough to maintain our image of ourselves as good, moral people, we can turn our attention to goals that are self-interested or even unkind, she says. This means that doing the right thing is often inconsistent with our other personal goals.
Sound familiar? It’s the reason why your eyes roll back in your skull when people throw around the caveat, "As the father of a daughter..." when discussing feminist politics. It's also why last year’s SNL sketch about feminist-presenting jerks hitting on a woman at a bar was so spot on. In the case of men like C.K. and Weinstein, their political affiliations might be way more than just a case of cognitive dissonance. Instead, it's almost as if they use their politics to cut themselves some slack.
Case in point: In 2012, C.K. released comedian Tig Notaro's album, and she sold 75,000 copies. Notaro told the New York Times that she was afraid this was a calculated move to "cover his tracks." "He knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman," she said. As for Weinstein, his response to the aforementioned allegations included a line about how he "needed a place to channel his anger," so he was going to give his full attention to the NRA. "These men are espousing some positions in public that they might feel like earned them enough credentials to sort of deviate from those standards in their personal lives," Dr. Mullen says.
It could seem frivolous to apply the "moral licensing" theory to incidents of sexual assault and harassment, and researchers haven’t studied "this blatant a degree of sexual harassment or egregious negative behaviors," Dr. Mullen says. But they have studied how this applies to racism and sexism in the context of minor transgressions. In a 2001 study, researchers gave people an opportunity to disavow sexist statements before participating in a simulated hiring task in the lab, in which they had to either choose to hire a man or a woman. Those who did, in fact, establish their credentials as a "non-sexist" person were more likely to hire a man. A similar 2009 study found that people who were reminded that they voted for President Obama were more likely to behave in a questionably racist manner afterwards.
To be clear, this isn’t a theory that only applies to liberal-leaning men, and this type of hypocrisy does seem to be prevalent with people in power across the board, no matter their gender or political beliefs. According to a 2008 study, people in power tend to approach others as "social targets," and their behavior is often driven by that target's usefulness to their goals. "When people get in those positions of power, they have a tendency to engage in less inhibited behavior, and they see others as more of a means to an end," Dr. Mullen says.
C.K., Weinstein, Halperin, and Oreskes are all powerful in their respective fields, so it's not surprising that any sexist, predatory actions they've committed have been covered up until now. "It seems more shocking when it comes from liberal-seeming folks, but I think that the power behind it makes people on both sides of the political spectrum susceptible to that behavior," she says.
Of course, none of this excuses the behavior of these men, but it certainly speaks volumes about what power can do to people. The lesson here is that we shouldn't be surprised when men like C.K. turn out to be misogynistic predators — and we shouldn't get so distracted by the smokescreen of their "feminist" actions that we totally miss their misogyny hiding in plain sight.