“I’ve known him 40 years. He's about as flirty as the grizzly in#TheRevenant.”

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That was Geraldo Rivera defending RogerAiles against Gretchen Carlson’s accusations of sexual harassmentat Fox. He issued it this week on Twitter, triggering a lot ofangry responses. My own response was not angry, but bemused.

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In my twenties, when I was working in two male-dominatedindustries (tech consulting and finance), I certainly encounteredmy share of wildly inappropriate remarks. The fellows who harassedme were not suave, debonair ladies’ men; they were about as“flirty” as a stainless steel burqa. In fact, the grizzly in "TheRevenant" was probably a closer model of their behavior.

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There seems to be a perception among many men that sexualharassment mostly exists on some sort of continuum with harmlessflirting. And, to be fair, some of the complaints from women doseem to verge on stigmatizing basically normal behavior. Itmay even be true that some small number of these women areessentially using the scarlet letter of “harassment” to penalizeguys who they resent having to turn down.

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But when I talk about sexual harassment, I’m not talking aboutthis. I’m not talking about guys at work who put me in an awkwardposition by asking me out. Nor even about the fellow I brieflyworked with who used to show me pictures of skimpily clad magazinemodels and say “You’d really look good in this.” He wasn’t anabusive jerk, but a shy, awkward fellow who needed a lot (!!!) ofwork on his approach. When I belatedly made it clear that I wasn’tgoing to date him, he immediately stopped with the pictures.

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No, when I say "harassment," I’m talking about … well, this is afamily column, so actually, I can’t repeat most of what I’m talkingabout. But let’s just say that when you are on your knees undersomeone’s desk in order to check the network connection, and theowner of that desk starts a sentence with "while you're downthere," he has not inadvertently stumbled over some near-invisiblesocial line he wasn’t aware of.

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The sort of men who make these remarks don't do this kind ofthing because they think it is all right; they do it because theycan get away with it. That is the kind of abuse that Carlson andothers are alleging.

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I do not know whether Ailes is guilty or innocent; that’s whatcourts are for. But I was surprised to find that Rivera actuallythought “I’ve never seen any sign of it myself” was relevant to thequestion of Ailes's guilt or innocence. Does Rivera considerhimself so irresistible that anyone with the potential to sexuallyharass would be sure to sexually harass him? Like he's some kind ofcanary in the sexual harassment mine? "Oh, don't worry about Roger;if he were a lech, I'd be the first to know."

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He showed a stunning lack of imagination, or feigned it, todefend his friend. Stunning -- but not rare. Everyone is shaped byhis or her own experiences, and men are less likely to have beensexually harassed. So are women a decade younger than me, whereaswomen a few decades older became inured to quite crass abuses.Think "Mad Men"-level sexual harassment

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Everyone naturally extrapolates from their own experience toassess the likelihood of some claim. I was shocked when a blackfriend told me that clerks followed her around stores. What shesaid was completely alien to my own experience. But after she toldme, I did observe it happening occasionally. Previously,presumably, I had not noticed, because it wasn’t happening tome.

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That matters because it affects how we assess public policy. Ifyou rarely or never see sexual harassment, then it can be hard tobelieve a group that says that it’s really common and that legalredress is required.

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We forget that if one group is particularly likely to betargeted, then even a small number of people who abuse their powercan create, for the targeted, a near-universal experience of beingharassed. And so we end up shouting past each other, the targetedon one side shouting “this is rampant, do something!” and theunaffected on the other angrily denying that they’ve done anythingwrong. Conflicts that should be framed as Americans against a smallnumber of abusers instead get framed as men against women.

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Sexual harassment is not, of course, the only context in whichthis occurs. We don’t need to believe that all cops, or even mostcops, abuse their power, to understand that as soon as power iscreated, it will be abused by at least some of the people who wieldit.

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And if those people perceive that it is wiser to target blackmen than middle-aged white women, the middle-aged white women willhave no idea that this is going on, while the black men will growto see every cop as a potential threat. So instead of comingtogether to solve a joint problem, we divide into sides, separatedby our own experience.

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I do think that this attitude can be overcome. Both victims andthe groups from which most of the victimizers are drawn need arefresher on probability: “Most sexual harassers are men” is notthe same statement as “most men are sexual harassers.” Andthe righteous majority of men, or police officers, probably hasmore in common with victims of sexual harassment, or victims ofpolice brutality, than with the perpetrators.

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