Sainati: A take to leave in 2017

Leo Sainati, Columnist

In mid-December, Richard Cohen, an Opinion writer for The Washington Post, published a column titled “Who really should have been Time’s Person of the Year.” Curious as to who could possibly deserve more recognition than the thousands of women and men who “broke the silence” on sexual harassment, I succumbed to the clickbait and was thoroughly shocked at what I read. In the opening paragraph, Cohen writes that what was originally the “Man of the Year” award is now “six women — ‘the silence breakers’ who spoke up about sexual harassment.” Cohen graciously conceded that this “was a worthy choice,” but argues that he instead “would have picked Oliver Schmidt. He took a bullet for Volkswagen.”

There are many things to unpack, but I’ll start with the reference to “six women.” Cohen falsely diminishes “The Silence Breakers” to just six women. This in itself is emblematic of how Cohen fails to truly grasp what “The Silence Breakers” actually represent. The “Silence Breakers” are not just the women selected to be on the Time cover who spoke up about sexual harassment, but are the thousands of women and men, whether anonymously or publicly, who put their job, safety, reputation and life on the line to challenge the prevailing culture of sexual misconduct, harassment and assault. Cohen’s pick, Schmidt, a Volkswagen executive who took the fall in that company’s emissions scandal, was chosen out of irony; Cohen calls him “hardly a man at all.” Confusing, right?

My problem with this article does not concern the actual award; while Time’s Person of the Year award can be an immense honor, its recognition and effect are of greater importance. Through framing his critique of Schmidt in the context of Time’s heightened recognition for the movement against sexual harassment, Cohen tramples on those who came forward and puts down those who risked so much just to make a seemingly witty take on complicity in the Trump era.

Cohen’s mention of Schmidt’s claim that his actions were just “following orders” with his actions to the increasing gaggle of Republicans claiming the same is insightful. However, it is sorely out of place and has no reason to even mention “The Silence Breakers.” In fact, Cohen’s article would have been far less confusing if it simply followed its criticism of Schmidt, Volkswagen and ultimately President Donald Trump.

Cohen, and many others, will probably see his article as an apparently harmless critique of complicity in today’s politics. But this lack of awareness is part of what has constructed the culture which “The Silence Breakers” challenged. Whether intentional or not, Cohen, like so many others, undermined women by diminishing the significance of their actions. Despite the prevailing message of the article, its title is still “Who really should have been Time’s Person of the Year.”

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.