David Letterman: Privileges produce Consensus

By Saswat Pattanayak Contrary to mainstream media depictions, David Letterman did not have any affairs with his staff members. And contrary to liberal media apprehensions, the world does not need to be bothered about whether the incidents took place before or after his marriage. Letterman’s apologies to his wife on air are ridiculously unnecessary, and his failure to step down from his job after admission of guilt is soaked in implicit privileges.

What Letterman has done is sheer abuse of his economic power and gender privilege. His unabashed claim that any disclosure of the details would embarrass his women employees he had sex with, evidences blatant sexism. Its a great irony of our times that women continue to not only put up with sexual advances at workplaces, but also are expected to maintain silence in fear of their career prospects. And here is a liberal intellectual who advances this regressive theory in an effort to “protect” his victims.

If Letterman feels his acts with the female employees are not unethical, the same must hold true for the women too. Hence, he needs to announce the names of the staffers, and the judiciary system must ensure that nothing harms the women simply because they had a relationship with Letterman. If Letterman’s job is not being taken away despite his being the perpetrator, there is no reason why the women’s will be.

If, however, Letterman feels he has violated ethics and possibly laws, by acting unworthy of his stature by means of either sexually exploiting the employees or by indulging in “consensual” sex with employees with full knowledge of their otherwise social commitments, then Letterman should have already resigned long time back, and having failed to do so, he must set an example now.

However, as it turns out, the world came to know about Letterman’s abuse of power only following the blackmailing tactics, indicating Letterman had something to hide, and this something was clearly unethical.

Letterman’s statement is wrong at so many levels: “The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. Now, my response to that is, yes I have. I have had sex with women who work on this show. And would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would, perhaps it would. Especially for the women. But that’s a decision for them to make–if they want to come public and talk about the relationships, if I want to go public and talk about the relationships.”

First, Letterman’s dismissal of the employees as just “women” without names who “work for” him on the show clearly smacks of disrespect. Secondly, to assume that the onus must lie with the women to protect their character from being tarnished is the age-old excuse under which men have sexually exploited women all along. Letterman’s reasonings might be proper considering his tradition of making disparaging remarks about women (Sarah Palin and her daughter were verbally humiliated by Letterman solely based on their gender), but they are no grounds for escaping critical scrutiny. Thirdly, the race and gender blindness of powerful men have always assumed that it is entirely possible for the women victims to become public and talk about their relationships with the perpetrators, and that, in doing so, they just might be believed. Letterman assumes he and his victims are on the equal level, without taking into consideration the disparate social locations they belong to, the unequal power relationships they share, the economic class barriers among them and the gender equations prevailing in today’s sexist world.

Whether Letterman invites legal troubles or not is unimportant. At the crux of the issue are his responses and responsibilities as a media personality who has been accorded viewership. An abuse of power coupled with racial privileges cost Don Imus his job. Letterman’s is an instance of abuse of power coupled with gender privileges. Sexual harassment at workplaces are so rampant and complex in their stratifications that it is implicitly required for the employers and employees not to engage in sexual relationships. This is necessary not because it may or may not cost the employer a reputation or the lack of it, but because, more often than not, the women employees will be victimized to suffer as silent subjects without alternative recourses. The women employees usually have lesser choices to explore avenues when they are confronted with hostile or demanding employer. Not only as being men, but also as being economically superior, the male employers need to enforce codes of conduct where the assumed disadvantages of female employees are not violated by anyone at the office, least of all, by the bosses themselves.

Letterman has violated the workplace ethics by involving in sexual relationships – not just with one woman, but with several, while being an employer. He has also displayed disgusting attitudes towards women in understanding their limits and potential. And his making references to his “affairs” in jocular fashion only adds to his already established sexist image.

When legality follows, Letterman may face charges, or like another privileged creative professional brought to recent limelight, Polanski, may gather enough media support for his case so as to have himself pictured as the victim. But for now, American media do not need Letterman’s jokes and judgments, considering his sense of “creepy” is beyond reproach, and judge he must never again. Privileges produce consensus. Letterman is the brightest instance who abused his privileges.