The Cruelty is the Point: Jeffrey Toobin, Sex, and Shame

Mama, and other sensitive loved ones: of necessity, this post discusses sex. Forewarned, etc.

Yesterday, writer and legal columnist Jeffrey Toobin was suspended from New Yorker magazine. As you’ve almost certainly heard, he was caught masturbating on a Zoom call.  He believed his camera was off, and did not intend to be seen.  His intention doesn’t matter; his clumsiness and his horniness intersected in a way that made him in an instant object of international mockery. His career, whatever you may have thought of it before, may not survive.

The jokes these last 24 hours are the thing for which social media, Twitter in particular, is made.  “Toobin took his ToobOUT;” “Jeffrey got #MeToobed.”  Long threads develop, with each user attempting to better the last with a clever pun or an entendre.   The election is so close, the anxiety so palpable, that Toobin’s disgrace seemed perfectly timed to give everyone the comic relief they crave.  

Even better, contempt for Toobin and lack of sympathy for his plight has briefly united left and right.  Both political extremes despise the New York chatterati to which Toobin belonged until hours ago.  My friends on the right have not forgotten that Toobin was particularly harsh towards Brett Kavanaugh for the then-Supreme Court nominee’s alleged sexual misconduct; their chats yesterday were filled with smug declarations that Toobin’s disgrace was justice for a hypocrite.  (Further reminders that conservatives only hate “cancel culture” when it is weaponized against one of their own; when it is deployed against anyone else, they find the urge to pick up the metaphorical pitchfork irresistible.)

In 2020, pushing back against this frenzy of self-righteous mockery is a fool’s errand.  If I say, “Think of his family and what they must be going through,” the correct response is, “Jeffrey should have thought of them first.”  Empathy, to the Woke mind, is complicity with injustice.  To ask the mob not to make fun of a rich man caught with his penis in his hand is not only to be a wet blanket, it’s to be actively on the side of evil.  In 2020, cruelty is a legitimate, even essential weapon when wielded on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed against the powerful.  One is permitted, even advised to be outraged on behalf of those on the Zoom call who were traumatized by Jeffrey’s accidental display of his genitals.  If you feel even an involuntary shudder for Toobin, however, you’ve fallen prey to “himpathy” – a popular neologism that warns that even the slightest concern for the psychological well-being of a disgraced man is complicity with rape culture.  His family?  They are collateral damage.  Mocking the mighty is too important a social project to allow for misgivings.

I’m not sure I need to tell you this, but millions and millions of men, women, and non-binary people masturbate, and a great many of them do so while watching porn on their phones and computers.  As the pandemic has blurred the line between the work space and the private space, as even news anchors broadcast from their bedrooms, this sort of accident – and there is no evidence it was other than an accident – will grow more common.   You might protest that one should know better than to masturbate while on a work call, and you’d be right.  They should also know better than to slurp noodles or pluck their eyebrows or use the toilet while on Zoom, and yet people constantly do those equally quotidian humannesses on calls as well, with relatively little consequence.   If you don’t think that what happened to Toobin could happen to you or to someone you love, you know less than you think about the intersection of basic human impulses and modern technology.

Yes, I take this personally.  If you’re persistent, you can still find on the Internet the porn site that in 2013 published my sexting exchange with a woman who was not my wife.   I exchanged erotic texts with this woman, and at one point, we sent each other masturbation videos.   This woman had a boyfriend who liked to go through her phone.  He found the sexts and the videos, and posted the screenshots online.  For a married “male feminist” to be caught like this was, like Toobin’s indiscretion, too delicious to ignore.  Twitter mocked my stilted language in the texts, and they mocked the way I had filmed myself.  The still images of my penis remain online after seven years, and I live with the grim acceptance that someday, someway, my children will find them. This tawdry revelation was only one of many that awful year, but the intense humiliation of having this private exchange revealed was one of the many things that drove my devastating psychological breakdown.  Eventually, I lost my marriage, my reputation, and my career as a writer and professor.   Was that all my own damn fault? Is there no blame to be placed on those who made my sins public?  Twitter will tell you the correct answer, which is no.

Every time a Jeffrey Toobin falls, I relive the trauma of 2013.   Each time I read or hear friends mocking a man for revealed foolishness that reminds me of my own, I am reminded that human kindness is tenuous, easily abandoned with the provocation of scandal. Therapy, medication, EMDR and time have all helped to soothe the pain, but the healing remains far from complete.   

Sometimes, those who would like to justify the cruelties of cancel culture suggest that I have only become a better man because I was humiliated and disgraced.   They try to justify this culture of cruelty by pointing out its redemptive effects.  The argument goes like this: not only does cancel culture remove hypocrites from positions of authority, it forces those hypocrites into a prolonged process of transformation.  Mockery, these friends suggest, is therapeutic for everyone: it gives the mob the chance to delight in the downfall of the powerful, and it gives the one who has fallen the chance to rebuild himself as something kinder, gentler, and more honest.  Everyone gets to play a part in an updated version of a Greek tragedy, where the hero’s hubris leads first to his humiliation and then his rebirth. 

Given how many of the disgraced we lose to addiction and suicide (and given what actually happens in Greek tragedies) this is a misplaced optimism and a poor justification for cruelty.  I am who I am in spite of what happened to me as much as I am because of it.

I write this post with resignation.  I know I’m arguing against something that seems intrinsic to our nature.  Whether we react with disgust or delight to Jeffrey Toobin’s discomfiture, his disgrace triggers something deep within us, perhaps something too deep to be overcome.  Humor at another’s expense is apparently irresistible, and, as it has for millennia, serves a social function. 

To ask you not to make the joke perhaps feels like I’m asking you not to be human.  I’ll ask anyway, because better than most of you, I know the cost.

Here’s the famous Jane Hirshfield poem I share every time something like this happens.  

FOR HORSES, HORSEFLIES

We know nothing of the lives of others.
Under the surface, what strange desires,
what rages, weaknesses, fears.

Sometimes it breaks into our daily paper
and we shake our heads in wonder –
“Who would behave in such a way” we ask.

Unspoken the thought, “Let me not be tested.”
Unspoken the thought, “Let me not be known.”

Under the surface, something that whispers
“Anything can be done.”

For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.

Anything can be done, by you or someone you love with every fiber and corpuscle of your being.   How we create a society that responds to shame is up to each of us, and perhaps – just perhaps – in this darkest and meanest of years, we can learn to be gentler with ourselves and with each other.