Let me drop you into a situation that’s happened so many times in my admittedly-still-rather-short twenty-three years of life that I don’t even have to point you at a particular instance of it. Picture, if you will, a rehearsal space. Maybe an ensemble is rehearsing; maybe a master class is happening. In either event, an at-least-somewhat-esteemed guest artist is working with people who are ostensibly there to learn and improve, even if they’re not still in school. That artist has commanded the attention of the room and established a power differential, often simply because they are a soloist or lecturer in that context. Still, regardless of why, they are the authority in the room.
Now imagine this artist begins a piece or introduces a topic by going on a brief, sexually-charged tangent. Perhaps the ladies in the room are told to cover their ears while the artist makes a lewd joke that’s apparently supposed to be okay for men; maybe someone gets hit on during a song. Or maybe it’s comments that belittle young musicians, or a wet-blanket persona that keeps everyone’s guard up. Context aside, though, this guest artist is saying or doing something that makes you deeply uncomfortable, but due to the power dynamics at play, a callout during that moment isn’t a smart move.
So you tough it out, and when you make it to the end—of rehearsal, of the clinic, whatever—you talk to your director about it. In this hypothetical, I’m going to designate this director or teacher as a person you trust and can speak freely and honestly to. So you express your concerns, you talk through your options, and then, toward the tail end of the conversation, the inevitable pops out: “he’s from another time.”
And in every case, without exception, this is where your heart sinks a little.
“He’s from another time” or “he’s from a different era” or “he was raised in a different time” or any of the million other ways we excuse gender discrimination and sexual harassment on the bandstand and in the classroom have actively found their way onto my feminist shit list. And before we go any further, yes, the conditions that necessitate these conversations are absolutely sexual harassment. (I just did my Title IX training. I am extra well-informed right now. Trust me, okay?) Comments and actions like the ones I’ve described above are major contributors to the hostile work environment tenet of sexual harassment policy at the federal level. Or, to put it more plainly: the more often this stuff happens, the more difficult it is for the victimized party/ies to consistently engage with their peers, superiors, and environment. When excusing that behavior becomes part of the culture, the people most affected by it are forced to make a major moral compromise: either sacrifice their safety and wellbeing for the sake of their participation or sacrifice their participation for the sake of their safety and wellbeing. I’ve made both decisions in different situations. Neither feels good.
A lot of the time, members of the chorus of “he’s from another time” are quick to follow up or preface with “it’s not an excuse, but . . .”, which, as you might expect if you’ve ever stood within ten feet of me, is a phrase I take great joy in picking apart. Functionally, “he’s from another time” is an excuse, and I think sometimes (but not always) the people saying it realize that. But for those who don’t, let’s pause for a moment.
When we say, “he was raised in another era,” or however it’s worded in any given instant, what we’re conveying without saying the words is, “the people in his time didn’t treat [insert-your-marginalization-or-power-disadvantage-here] with the respect we would now, and this individual has not altered his mindset over decades of advances for marginalized and powerless people to reflect current social principles.” As a statement of fact, that’s an accurate take in almost every instance. However, it’s also associated with the old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and that’s where I begin to draw a line. Because when we’re talking about old dogs and tricks, we’re essentially saying, “speaking up isn’t going to do anything, so why expend the effort?”
If you carry around any number of systemic marginalizations, that idea walks just behind you, haunting your every step.
“Speaking up isn’t going to do anything, so why expend the effort?” It’s not so different than, “don’t bother. Nothing’s going to change,” or my personal favorite, “you’ll get used to it.”
These underlying throughlines make the theme and variations on “he’s from another time” another tool used, often unwittingly, to perpetuate the predatory imbalances of power that exist within music and society at large. Often, “it’s not an excuse” (or its smoother, suave cousin, “that doesn’t excuse his behavior”) fails to land because it’s not backed up by anything else. It doesn’t talk about generational trauma or toxic masculinity or childhood trauma or toxic masculinity or anti-PC sentiments or toxic masculinity that could be affecting that specific individual and influencing where he is on his journey toward (or away from) treating all people with dignity and respect. It stops the analysis at “oh, he’s old” and doesn’t allow room for the ensuing “and we need to examine how we can incorporate him into this setting in a way that’s safe for everyone.” And while I’ve had the occasional conversation (even recently!) that both uses “he’s from another time” and leaves room for “but I will happily talk to him [/take further action] if that would help you,” they’re few and far between.
This idea ties in with civility discourse and respectability politics, two problematic concepts I haven’t yet found the right opportunity to discuss in depth here on the blog. Essentially, though, civility discourse devalues things said angrily or impolitely and dismisses them because they weren’t presented civilly (read: in a palatable way for people perpetuating and/or benefiting from oppression). Respectability politics is similar, but it broadens the scope to include how a person conducts themselves generally. Are you a model minority? Maybe you’ll be allowed to speak, but probably only under specific circumstances. Are you imperfect and flawed and somewhat open about that? Good luck getting a platform. We’ve seen this at work in targeted ways time and again. It’s part of why rape victims who were drunk and wearing revealing clothing aren’t believed. In cases of sexual harassment, though, “he’s from another era” serves as a similar abdication of responsibility. “He’s not going to change, so why bother” may in your mind be completed with “…[why bother] standing up to him,” but for a marginalized person, it can—and does—come across as “…[why bother] standing up for you?”
Yes, it’s true: some old dogs won’t learn new tricks. But how am I supposed to believe that they can’t when I see other people their age who do shift their worldviews to better respect the people around them? How am I supposed to believe that a seventy-year-old (or thirty-year-old) man’s right to say whatever the hell he wants trumps my right to a rehearsal or a clinic where I don’t have to worry about getting hit on, even jokingly, by a man who might be half a decade or half a century my senior? If he’s allowed to hit on my without my consent and receive no consequences, what is that telling my peers about how they can treat me?
Many times, these situations don’t wrap up cleanly. You can’t tie a little bow where the offending party goes undisciplined, no changes are made, and the affected party goes back to feeling safe. Frequently, the ensemble director or teacher or whoever’s facilitating the situation needs to act, and that’s usually an uncomfortable stretch. But when we’re in positions of power, that becomes our responsibility. We are duty-bound to exercise our power in the best interests of those working for and with us—even if it means a hard discussion (or more!) with someone else wielding a metaphorical scepter.
So, folks, as we continuously reevaluate our word choices, let’s try to remove “he’s from another time” from our vocabularies. Because, to close with the obvious, I know a seventy-year-old man when I see one. I know a man wielding power when I see one.
But I won’t compromise my standards for him. ♦
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