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Throwing Stones

Today, in August 2019, there is ongoing flap over accusations that opera superstar Placido Domingo has, since the 1980s, committed multiple acts of sexual harassment and aggression against female performers. I take such accusations seriously—but why am I addressing the topic here, on a website devoted to topics relating to religion, spirituality, and faith?

There is a tie-in…

The facts as known

To date, nine women—eight singers and one dancer—have made these accusations. Only one has revealed her identity. Almost as soon as the accusations became widely known in the news and social media, the San Francisco Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra canceled scheduled appearances by Domingo; other performing venues in America and around the world have not (or not yet) taken any such action.

The specific accusations include inappropriate physical contact and attempted coercion through threats and promises relating to the women’s professional opportunities and future careers. Moreover, it has been reported that some of the women told other women about their experience long before the story broke, and that such misbehavior by Domingo was an open secret in many leading performing venues. In response, Domingo has characterized the accusations as “inaccurate,” maintaining that any physical or sexual contact he had with the women was consensual. Whatever the truth may be, his reputation has been tarnished, probably permanently.

Public response has been mixed. To some, it is yet another example of a powerfully influential man taking advantage of women. Others (myself included) think that there are still many questions that should be answered before judgment is rendered.

Religious and spiritual perspectives

The most obvious religious analogy is the scriptural account of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11), culminating in Jesus saying to her accusers, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Though there is some scholarly question about the authenticity of this passage, the lesson is vivid and memorable: None of us are perfect, and our proper course is to strive to refrain from error in our own lives, not to condemn others for their errors. But the analogy is flawed: Mutually consensual adultery is not the same as sexual assault or coercion.

What about the spiritual concept of forgiveness? Forgiveness does not mean granting absolution or ignoring wrong acts; it means letting go of harmful anger. The reasons for anger and even hatred do not alter the fact that they are burdens; we can either cling to such a burden, reliving the pain even after the injustice has ended, or we can shed it. Forgiveness does not depend on what happened in the past; it is the spiritually awake person’s choice to jettison the burden of anger now, in the present. If the accusations are true, is there no place for forgiveness?

Practical perspectives

The only thing new about men in positions of power committing sexual aggression or coercion is that now the victims of such abuse are pushing back against it. With respect to the accusations against Placido Domingo, it remains to be determined what happened in each individual case; not all cases are necessarily the same, and there is a range of possibilities of what may have happened in each case, everything from rape to inappropriate behavior arising from malice or miscommunication.

It has been claimed that misbehavior toward women by Domingo was an open secret at performing venues; that is, everyone knew about it but no one said or did anything about it. If so, it supports the specific charges being made, but it also indicts the directors at those venues as hypocrites who ignored such misbehavior until now, when the story has become common knowledge.

Another form of hypocrisy is the attitude of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct but no concern about other forms of reprehensible conduct. For example, shall we start refusing to schedule music by anti-Semitic composers (it wasn’t just Wagner)? Are we not giving assent to bigotry by ignoring their hateful attitudes? A possible response: Anti-Semitism was common in past eras, and we should be moving past those attitudes. But sexual aggression is still going on whereas composers who were anti-Semites are dead. And a possible rebuttal: Sexual aggression was also common, and anti-Semitism is still with us. Shall we adopt a policy of restricting the arts to composers and performers who have been vetted to screen out bigots of all types?

What about the concern that a sexual predator poses a real threat to others? Domingo has not been arrested, much less convicted. Even registered sex offenders are not automatically banned from employment. With the accusations now public knowledge, his every word and action will be under intense scrutiny—so how could he pose a threat?

Finally, before we declare war on those accused of sexual misconduct, let's remember the principle of presumption of innocence. The fact that such misconduct is all too real doesn’t mean it is always real. Former senator Al Franken was accused of sexual impropriety by a right-wing news commentator; without getting into the details of that case, it was clear to most people that the charge was bogus. But the Democratic Party, unable to resist the opportunity to play holier-than-the-Republicans, forced Franken to resign his Senate seat. Thus did they divest themselves of one of their own most intelligent and eloquent members… over an accusation that could not pass a sniff-test for credibility. (It is almost too obvious to say, but if we are adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual malfeasance, why does an unapologetic predator still occupy the highest office in America?)

A personal perspective

This issue is important to me, and I am trying to approach it by way of both rationality (an integral aspect of spiritual aliveness) and responsible citizenship. I am not cavalier about sexual misconduct; and I am not trying to cast doubt on the women’s sincerity or the accuracy of their accusations. My point is that the information currently available seems inadequate to support any clear conclusion or course of action, and we should be wary of rushing to judgment in a paroxysm of outrage.

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