It will come as no surprise that Jeffrey Toobin’s recent uncomfortable apology for having accidentally exposed himself to co-workers on a New Yorker magazine Zoom call last fall has not been met with forgiveness by the general public.
For Toobin to be mocked mercilessly is to be expected in this day and age. Somewhat more disconcerting, however, is the tendency of many – including some conservatives – to see Toobin as not just a fool but a veritable public menace, a man to be spoken of in the same breath as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.
Writing for The Washington Post, Erik Wemple suggested that Toobin should be prevented from commenting on cases of sexual misconduct in the future, and implied that CNN gave him a pass on his behavior because of his value to the network. At USA Today, Alia Dastagir placed Toobin’s conduct within the context of #MeToo.
Meghan McCain and Megyn Kelly both said that Toobin was protected from his actions by virtue of being a white man, and that a woman in his place would have been treated far less sympathetically. Rose McGowan went so far as to say that a woman would have been “burned at the stake.”
This is ludicrous. There is no indication that Toobin had any intent to harass or intimidate his female colleagues with his actions. He clearly exposed himself unintentionally, not knowing that any of his co-workers were watching, and was extremely embarrassed when he realized what had happened. To frame him as a sexual predator based on this incident is simply inaccurate. He caused no one, except himself, any lasting harm.
It is similarly groundless to imply that Toobin received a male privilege pass. On the contrary, had this happened to a woman, it almost certainly would have gone the other way: She would have been treated with sympathy and understanding, recognized to be the unfortunate victim of a deeply humiliating but ultimately benign mistake. If anything, the men on the Zoom call might be accused of voyeurism if they did not hang up quickly enough.
It is understandable that conservatives would revel in the downfall of a smug CNN legal analyst who is dependably hostile to Republicans. It could be said that the Toobin incident was the perfect symbol for the state of the modern media, which has grown downright masturbatory in its self-adulation, and seems to think that no one else can see this to be the case.
Conservatives will get nowhere, though, by holding Toobin to a clearly unfair standard out of pure spite. Hoisting such figures on their own petard, however temporarily satisfying it may be, merely perpetuates the unfair standard. If all it took was enough leftists being cancelled to “crash the system” and make them realize the error of their ways, then it surely would have happened by now.
To be sure, Jeffrey Toobin is not an admirable person. He cheated on his wife for years with the daughter of a friend, a younger woman whom he impregnated and subsequently tried to bribe and pressure into an abortion. He has been accused of crudely coming on to other women. And like nearly every other partisan mainstream media bottom-feeder, he jumped on the anti-Brett Kavanaugh bandwagon in 2018 – a standard that conservatives get particular karmic glee in rebounding on him.
But it is not these actions for which he faces cancellation. If we blacklist Toobin for the self-stimulatory mishap, we will be contributing to a disturbing precedent, playing into misandrist feminist narratives in which the male body, even when displayed virtually and inadvertently, is an instrument of inherent aggression. We will be reinforcing the worst tendencies of cancel culture and (what remains of) #MeToo, and the consequences of doing so will echo far beyond this incident.
Toobin is almost certainly not the only one to have made such an embarrassing mistake this past year. There is no shortage of people who have forgotten to turn off the Zoom camera before undressing, or worse. He is merely the most high-profile victim of this trend, the product of a society that has increasingly blurred the line between public and private with the lockdown-coerced rise of virtual communication.
Of course, Toobin will never live this down. He might have received more forgiveness for a more heinous, but less disgusting, misdeed. As George Orwell once noted, you can have affection for a murderer, but not a man with chronic halitosis, and Toobin’s offense is of the bad breath variety: an act that harmed no one, but which will leave an indelible stink about him for the rest of his life.
Nonetheless, the need for societal stability dictates that Toobin be afforded some mercy, however undeserved. Laugh at him all you want, but do not accuse him of predation when none occurred. If we are all defined perpetually by our most Toobin-eqsue moments, then there is nothing left for any of us.