Monday, November 20, 2017

Dear Rep. Chenault: An Open Letter In Response To Your Commentary On Sexual Assault Of Women

Dear Representative Chenault, 

I read your commentary in the ADN  in which you said you'd raised four young women and you'd supported women's issues as a legislator, but you had had no clue how pervasive abuse was.  
"Yet until now nothing, absolutely nothing, has made me understand the prevalence of sexual abuse and the dehumanizing behavior that women routinely face. In the wake of this scandal, I now see and understand the magnitude of this problem and how women have been taken advantage of, exploited and shamed with little if any consequence to the men taking these unwanted liberties. 
Frankly, I am saddened and shocked that a country as enlightened and great as ours would tolerate and show such indifference to this cultural abhorrence.
As a father and a legislator, I had no idea of the extent of peril women regularly faced. I now understand that this issue that women have lived with is of epidemic proportion. Society has too long tolerated this behavior. This is unacceptable and must change.”
First, I want to thank you for writing this.  So thank you.  

But I want to push you a little further.  And I do this hesitantly.  You’ve done a pretty big thing and you deserve lots of praise for it.  What follows is not criticism, though it may feel like it, but rather strong encouragement to take another few steps in the same direction.  

Here's an overview of my basic points.   
  1. What you did by publishing that commentary, was a big deal that doesn’t happen often to adults.   You thought you understood the topic of sexual abuse and harassment and now you realize you were missing a big part of it.  You’ve made an adjustment to your world view. 
  2. When that happens, some people stop there and close down again.  Others continue to grow.  They ask, “If I missed that, what else am I missing?”  I want to encourage you to ask that question.
  3. This whole process could be bigger than just the issue of sexual assault and discrimination.  It could expand to other issues.  It could also expand to how the legislature works, how legislators regard issues and treat each other.
  4. You aren’t just anybody.  You have been Speaker of the Alaska House and are now the Minority Leader.  What you think and do is not just about you personally.  It affects everyone in the state and beyond.  If your world views are accurate, you can do great good.  If they aren't, you can do a lot of harm.  It’s critical that I take advantage of your commentary to reach out to you and encourage you to keep expanding your world view.

So I’m aiming big.  I do so at the risk of offending you by saying you could do more than you have.  I hope you can listen and accept my assurance that my intentions are the best.  

Part 1:  On the issue of sexual assault, rape, and the barriers women face.  

  1. Your commentary is a big deal.  You’ve not only said how important this is, but more significantly, you’ve opened yourself up by revealing that there was an important public policy area where you had missed something critical. Even though Alaska is at or near the top in bad domestic violence and rape stats.  You’ve exposed a weakness publicly.  And I want to strongly applaud you for that.  And I go on in this letter with trepidation, because I don’t want you to think,  “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”  I want you to keep growing in your awareness.  So I continue.
  2. In addition to the #metoo hashtag, there is also an #ihave hashtag where men talk about how they contributed to perpetuating the problem.  They go beyond saying, “This is bad” and after self-reflection, talk about how they have contributed to the situation.  Most men haven’t physically assaulted women, but they probably have passively stood by when other men acted badly toward or talked badly about women.  They may not have paid as much attention to women in meetings as they did men.  Or interrupted them more than they interrupted men.  They may not have questioned policies that made it harder for women to advance or that kept pay for women lower than that for men.  
  3. In your commentary, you acknowledged the problem, but you didn’t acknowledge your contribution to the problem through action or inaction.  In your position as Speaker, you had considerable power.  Just by not making this a higher priority, you allowed this to continue.  I have no idea how you treat women in the legislature.  I have no idea of what conversations you took part in.  But I have to assume in the legislature, dominated by men who are attracted to power, there must have been testosterone tinged conversations where women were discussed as objects, where specific women’s body parts were discussed.  Did you think about your daughters in those situations and protest?  Did you chastise the offenders?  You haven’t discussed that.  If you stayed silent, like most men do in those situations, you helped support the abuse.  
  4. There is one thing that you did that is on the record - you were an honorary co-chair of the Alaska Donald Trump campaign.  That announcement was in May 2016.  I can find nothing via google that says you protested his pussy grabbing comments in October 2016.  Perhaps you did and I missed it.  If you didn’t publicly denounce those comments, particularly since you had publicly endorsed him, you were part of the problem.  
  5. I get that your view of the world has been shaped by your party and that loyalty is a key plank of the Republican party rules.  Your party severely punishes people who do not vote for the budget the party endorses.  But if you are going to actually do something about sexual abuse, you need to take a step beyond acknowledging its existence,  and acknowledge your part in the system that allows it.  I’d point out here that the kinds of pressures on you to lie low in these situations, are the same kinds of pressures on women to not report abuse.  Fear of losing job opportunities, income, social status.  It’s easier to say nothing and not rock the boat.  This code of silence is what keeps this sort of thing going. 
  6. I’d also like to encourage you to think bigger when it comes to the legislative committee you propose in your commentary.  You write, 
“I will be sitting down with my colleagues in the Legislature and explaining that we need to provide awareness and sensitivity training and that we should have a zero-tolerance policy for such behavior.”

  • This goes way beyond awareness training.  This is a structural issue.  
  • What are the systemic pressures that keep legislators from criticizing their own party’s rules and procedures?  
  • What are the economic and political pressures on legislators to vote a certain way?  
  • Why do women get paid less than men?  
  • How do organizations allow for women to take time to have and raise babies without career penalties?  

This is more than individual decisions by individual men.

What does zero-tolerance mean here?  I know you had limited space, but I’d point out that the legislature has - both in Alaska and the Congress - often exempted themselves from rules they apply to others.  It’s hard for legislators to police themselves.  The California legislature is setting up an autonomous body to look into sexual harassment and assault complaints.  I’d just like you to think bigger here than personal restraint.  It takes structural change to have an impact.  

Part 2:  "What other gaps are there and how can I work on them?"

You’ve significantly adjusted a part of your world view.  The logical next step is to ask:  “If I missed this, what else am I missing?”  It may be logical, but it’s emotionally difficult.  What you’ve done already is emotionally a big deal.  For some it’s scary and far enough.  Even too far.  But for others, it’s a chance to expand and grow as a human being.  I’m hoping you’re ready for that second option.  To get there, I’d ask you to reflect on these questions:

1.  Why didn’t you see this before?  
2.  What happened that caused you to see now, what you hadn’t seen?

Which I hope leads you to ask

3.  What else am I missing? and
4.   How can I learn from questions 1 and 2 that will help me with questions 3?

So let’s look at these questions in more detail.

1.  Why didn’t I see this before?

Confirmation bias is a theory that says people accept facts and arguments that support their beliefs and dismiss those that conflict with their beliefs and vested interests.   

You had a vested interest in seeing this, namely  your four daughters whose lives and careers are threatened by the sexist acts of individuals and the stacked system that gives men advantages over women.  

On the other hand, you probably have a strong belief in the fairness of the American system and a belief in the work ethic, that if you work hard you will get ahead.  Most successful men do.  It explains that we are successful because we worked hard and blinds us to the fact that there are barriers to success we don't face, but that other hard workers do - like women and people of color who work just as hard, but don’t succeed as much. That belief makes it easier to dismiss claims by women and others that the system isn't fair.

I’m just speculating here since I don’t know the reasons in your particular case.  You have to think these through yourself.  My thoughts are just an example.

2.  What happened that caused you to see now, what you hadn’t seen?
You write, “I had no idea of the extent of peril women regularly faced.”  But the only clue in your commentary about why you changed is this line:
“The names I see coming forward on Facebook are people we know — our neighbors, relatives and friends, and not just movie stars and Hollywood celebrities.”
I take from this that by seeing names of people you personally know who have been sexually abused, this became personal.   This issue now was directly connected to you.  I even wonder if one or more of your daughters sat you down and explained things.  That has the biggest impact on fathers.  And you are right not to identify people any more specifically than you did.  It’s their jobs to tell their stories, not ours.  

3.  What else am I missing?
Sexual assault against women is an issue you have a personal stake in because you have four daughters.  Yet you missed it. “I had no idea of the extent of peril women regularly faced.”
So now is a perfect time to ask, what else am I missing?  Particularly in those areas where I have a vested interest in NOT seeing things?  
This is the hard part.  Where do you start?  Point 4 addresses that.

4.  How can I learn from questions 1 and 2 that will help me with question 3?

I’ve speculated about possible answers to questions 1 and 2, but you have to do some serious self reflecting to figure out the specific reasons that actually apply to you. 

1.   What happened that caused you to see now, what you hadn’t seen?  
It’s hard to know what you don’t know.  The first step is to acknowledge that there is a lot you don’t know.  The older we get, the less often we think about this.  The more successful we are, the more we think we know everything.  After all, if we didn’t, how did we succeed?  We just have to walk into any library or bookstore to understand how much we still have to learn.  
Right now, you have stumbled upon a gap in your knowledge, so you recognize that you don’t know everything.  I’ve pointed out that vested interests and entrenched beliefs play a role in preventing us from seeing things that might alter our world views.  
Step one: try to articulate your world view.  What do you believe about how the world works?  Why some people do well and others don’t?  Why men occupy most positions of power in the US?   What do you believe about what’s right and wrong, good and bad?  

Few people ever do this, so they don’t really know what they believe in detail.  Just in generalities.  When you write it down, you start to see gaps.

Step two:  Identify how you know each point in your world view.  How did you learn it?  Did you just accept what authority figures told you or did you come up with it on your own?  How did you test it?  What proof do you have that it’s true?  

This is hard stuff, but again, if you do it seriously, it will lead to more questions than answers.  When we have questions, we are open to new information.

2.  What happened that caused you to see now, what you hadn’t seen before?
You suggest in your commentary that it was when you found out that sexual assault and rape happened to women you knew.  Before that, it was others - celebrities you didn’t know.  
Step one:  Make a list of the people who influence your world view most.  As adults, most of us hang out with people who think like we do.  It’s comfortable.  It reinforces our sense that we are right about things.  But it also causes us to be blind to what’s wrong with our facts and our logic.
Step two: Rank the list by who thinks most like you and who thinks least like you.  Which of these people do you tolerate because they are on your team, but have troublesome behaviors?  Who do you admire most?  Why? Is it because they are powerful, because they’re good, because they  are smart, because they win?  Because they listen?
Step three:  Open up authentic conversations with people you know who do NOT agree with your world view.  Ask them about their world view and why they believe it.  Listen.  Take notes.  Be humble.  Be respectful.  Your Democratic colleagues might be a good place to start.  You spend a lot of time together and there must be some that you get along with on a personal level, even though you disagree on policy issues.  Invite some to one-on-one discussions, over lunch, on a walk, playing golf, or whatever comfortable setting works for you.  

Part 3: The Conclusions

I know this is a long letter. The issues are complex and it's necessary to get detailed.   No one pays me to do things like this.  Do I have an agenda?  Yes, better civic discourse and better public administration and more equal treatment of all people.   I taught public administration at UAA for 30 years and retired as professor emeritus.  It was my job to work with my students - mostly public servants - and get them to think about things like this, to see the world differently on graduation than they did when they started.  

I hope you take this letter seriously and understand my intent is a better place for Alaskans to live. I believe that your awakening on this one issue, could lead to awakenings on other issues.  

In Congress now, as well as in the Alaska legislature, things have become a highly competitive game - the object is to win, to beat the opponent.  Positions are frozen and any softening by anyone is seen, at best, as weakness and, at worst, as treason.  

The pressures on individual legislators to conform to their party line is not different from the pressure on women to stay quiet about sexual assault.  They face lots of negative consequences if they speak up.  That’s the structural reality that women face and that all of us face when we feel a need to challenge the status quo, to take on powerful people. 

But all the legislators are in Juneau because they believe they are doing the right thing as best they can.  I’m hoping that you can build on your insights on sexual assault and be a leader in breaking the logjam, in brokering peace between the parties and the individual members, and finally to help lead to policies and legislation that will take this state where we need to go.    

Your commentary convinces me you are serious about this issue.  You’ve stuck your neck out and my intent here is not to cut it off, but to push you further in the direction that will help you be successful in this and in other issues. 


Steven Aufrecht

[I sent a copy of this to Rep. Chenault last Wednesday and asked him to correct any errors of fact or challenge any assumptions I'd made that he disagreed with.  I said I would post this on Monday (today).  I haven't heard anything back from him.]


  1. Thank you, Mr. Aufrecht, for laying out a course for more than lip service to be aimed at this challenge. Too easy to walk out and talk, then slide back into the cave until next time. KJ


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