Each of these men appears to have decided that they need not lie low for much longer than the average period of gestation. (For men such as the Spotted Pig restaurateur Ken Friedman, who was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, the interval was even shorter.) But these men do not appear to have conceived anything of moral consequence in the interim. “The [comeback] stories are, taken together, subtle (you might also say insidious) arguments not merely about who merits forgiveness,” my colleague Megan Garber wrote following the rumors of Rose’s new show, “but also about who merits empathy in the first place.”
Still, empathy is not a finite resource. It is possible to both believe the women who shared allegations of the men’s misconduct, and to imagine a world in which those men need not disappear from the public consciousness forever. It is not unimaginable that these men might find a genuine path to reconciliation with the women they are accused of having harmed. Healing is a lofty, but not impossible, goal. Many survivors of sexual violence, and their advocates, have long argued that ending rape culture cannot be done by simply casting aside anyone who commits harm.
But redemption does not come about without an exchange, without effort. What, exactly, have any of these men given up? Does forsaking nine months’ worth of public attention—in most cases, only after being forced out of the limelight—amount to a meaningful penance? Questions of “redemption” tend to zero in on the maintenance of powerful men’s legacies to the exclusion of their alleged victims’ needs. Suggesting that C.K. deserves to perform again without addressing his prior misdeeds—simply because he stepped away from comedy for a handful of months—is a lazy assertion. No one deserves to perform. Fame is not a birthright.
Lauer, C.K., Rose, and Ansari are all still outrageously wealthy. These men could all have retired in November (or January, in Ansari’s case) and lived comfortably for the rest of their lives. In the time since their public accusations, which range from verbal harassment to sexual assault, they have continued to collect ongoing returns from previous projects. Their disappearances amount to a time-out, not an excommunication. Many of the women whose lives they have affected do not have the luxury of disappearing from their careers without financial consequence.
More urgently, the question of when to reintegrate these men back into the working environments they reportedly tarnished is one that extends well beyond how audiences react to their personas. The people around them, who want simply to do their jobs in peace, deserve to be protected. To allow Louis C.K. into a comedy space again without any assurance of the work he’s done to address—and change—his behavior is to court danger. That’s both a workplace-safety concern—for female comedians, and the primarily female staff who tend to work service jobs within comedy spaces—and a public-safety one. It doesn’t matter how many people laugh if some of C.K.’s audience is unsafe.
Any meaningful push for redemption would begin with an emphasis on restitution. Addressing the gravity of misconduct is an ongoing process, not a cursory to-do list item. What if, instead of dropping into a club to test out new material, C.K. channeled his efforts—and outsized influence—into bolstering the careers of women in comedy from behind the scenes? (Two of the women whom C.K. admitted to harassing reportedly scrubbed their social accounts after receiving threats following their allegations; it will be hard to assess the extent to which this has affected their careers.) It may not be possible for any of the women hurt by his actions to return to life as it was, but that does not preclude attempts to account for wrongdoing.
Until then, and perhaps even after, genuine redemption is impossible—and breezing past that difficult work accomplishes little beyond PR. There’s nothing funny about that.