In defense of Norm Macdonald

Norm Macdonald has a point.

Not in his boneheaded dismissals of the #MeToo movement and the trauma undergone by victims of sexual harassment and assault, of course, but in his comments about forgiveness.

“The model used to be: admit wrongdoing, show complete contrition and then we give you a second chance,” the comedian told the Hollywood Reporter in a controversial interview published this week. “Now, it’s admit wrongdoing and you’re finished.”

Some might call that karma, just deserts for bad behavior. But if there’s no room to come clean, there’s no room for repentance, either — no lesson learned, no possibility for growth. As Mr. Macdonald noted, “the only way to survive is to deny, deny, deny.”

I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of sexual coercion and intimidation, or the absolutely sickening experience of being intimately touched in an unwanted and unwarranted way. But if we don’t leave people the option of recovering from their misdeeds, then nobody gains — not the wrongdoer, not the wronged. And we’ve all done wrong at some point, to some degree.

The human animal is so intelligent about so many things (just look around you at all the stuff we’ve managed to make!), yet we can be remarkably stupid in our choices when it comes to our baser instincts. That’s not an excuse, just a fact. Some people get why you can’t just take what you physically want, that sex shouldn’t be a bargaining chip even when it’s offered, and that other people have as much individual value as you. Some need to be taught. The hard way.

For Louis C.K., it took being dropped by his management company, cut from an HBO comedy special, having his movie shelved, his animated series suspended and his life upended to see the problem in masturbating before female colleagues (three in person, one over the phone and simply asking a fifth if he could).

“At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my [penis] without asking first,” he said in a statement last fall. “But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your [penis] isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly. ... There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with.”

That sounds like a man who’s learned his lesson. Of course, he then chose to make a rape whistle joke during his comeback performance a couple of weeks ago, so maybe he’s still got a little ways to go.

But we appear to be at a place where we can’t even tolerate talk about forgiveness. In his interview with the Hollywood Reporter, conducted last month, Mr. Macdonald stood up for Louis C.K. and another comedian influential to his career: Roseanne Barr, who was shut out of her own show after posting a tweet widely deemed racist.

“There are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day,” he said, and should have stopped there.

But he didn’t.

“Of course,” he added, “people will go, ‘What about the victims?’ But, you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.”

And for that, “The Tonight Show” cancelled his Tuesday appearance; he was forced to publicly apologize; and people questioned whether his own talk show, set to launch on Netflix Friday, should be cancelled. Well, that and his statements that he was glad the #MeToo movement was slowing down and fearful it would steamroll innocent people. Apparently we can’t handle discussing that. On a talk show. With a comedian.

Serious allegations of sexual impropriety deserve serious scrutiny, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. To do otherwise undermines everyone’s credibility. As does refusing a person the opportunity for penance.

But I don’t forgive Norm.

I don’t think he did anything wrong.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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