The year of speaking up

As we lumber into the final six weeks of 2017, I’m noticing a marked difference between the stories that have everybody talking this year and those that got us all fired up last year.

From where I sit, 2016 wound up being The Year of the Grim Reaper, as it seemed like every beloved celebrity died on a weekly – and even daily – basis. And, since 2016 also saw a broken America allow Donald Trump to become President, last year also seemed to mark the death of hope and optimism.

And then came 2017, The Year of Speaking Up.

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Think about it: On New Year’s Day, Harvey Weinstein was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Kevin Spacey was a beloved veteran actor, who had come into his own by portraying a ruthless U.S. president on the Netflix hit House of Cards; he was also only four months away from winning rave reviews as a singing, dancing Tony Awards host.

Right-wing commentator Bill O’Reilly was presiding over a one-man media empire, decades in the making. Left-wing commentator turned Democratic Senator Al Franken had all but erased “Saturday Night Live alumnus” from his resume as he established himself as one of the cooler heads on Capitol Hill.

Emmy-winner Louis C.K. was seen by many as the comedic voice of a generation. Brett Ratner was set to direct the sequel to the movie that would emerge as one of 2017’s biggest smash hits, Wonder Woman.

Today, it’s astounding to recount how far – and how fast – all these men have fallen over the past 12 months.

The O’Reilly Factor was cancelled in April. Weinstein was forced out of the company that bears his name earlier this fall. Spacey was dumped from House of Cards, whose final season now remains in limbo. Nobody chuckles at the mere mention of Louis C.K. or Al Franken anymore.

Ratner was removed from the Wonder Woman sequel after its star, Gal Godot, declared she wouldn’t make it if he was involved, in the wake of revelations from Halifax native Ellen Page regarding Ratner’s Neanderthal activities on the set of X-Men: The Last Stand.

I suspect this is not the last time we will hear a famous name connected to inappropriate behaviour. But I also get the sense that North American society might be better off for it, because we may have collectively decided that we’re not going to tolerate this nonsense anymore.

As I watched the flood of accusations and falls from grace by so many that we had somehow deemed better and worthier than the rest of us over the years, I found myself wondering if this could be considered America’s recoil for having sent a serial womanizer like Trump to the White House. Are the past 12 months a collective insistence that sexual predators – of any gender or sexuality – are no longer permitted in civilized society?

No, this is more than that.

From a purely mathematical perspective, it’s an infinitesimally-small portion of the population that have come forth to accuse these celebrities, the ones with massive fan bases, huge bank accounts and top-flight legal teams. (I say this with the recognition that nearly 100 people have come forward with allegations against Weinstein alone, with at least 13 of these accusing him of outright rape.)

But change is happening – in Hollywood, in politics, in the very aspects of our culture that we take for granted – because just one person had the courage to speak up.

This is the intestinal fortitude that recognizes a sexual harassment accusation against a famous name will result in months of intrusive media coverage of the victim, as well as the accused, but still goes public and risks the personal shame and disgrace.

This is the woman who bravely tells her own story on social media and joins the “#MeToo” campaign because she cannot stand the thought of one more person going through the horror that she still relives on a daily, even hourly, basis.

This is the Canadian Environment Minister that calls out a reporter of a so-called “news organization” that insists on calling her “Climate Barbie” for no other reason than the fact that she happens to be (a) female and (b) not a Conservative.

This is the Grammy-winning rapper that stops one of his own shows when he sees a male audience member groping female fans, and threatens to come into the crowd and handle the situation itself if it persists.

It can’t simply be about the courage of the abused; we also need the change in attitude that prevents abuse from happening in the first place. But 2017, The Year of Speaking Up, is certainly a good place to start.