Klobuchar’s defenders mistake the promise of feminism

There’s a reflexive kind of defensiveness that comes from the realization that women are judged more harshly than men for the same behavior. It tells us that fairness matters — and it does. But there are positive and negative forms of fairness. Negative fairness is a kind of fairness that reduces everyone to an equally bad position. Arguments that we ought to discount coverage of Klobuchar’s maltreatment of her staffers on gender-egalitarian grounds, for instance, really hold that because we wrongly accept male abuse of workers, we also ought to accept female abuse of workers. But the reality is actually the reverse: We rightly don’t accept female abuse of workers, and we shouldn’t accept male abuse of workers, either. This line of criticism is both gender-egalitarian and aimed at increasing the overall common good by creating a moral expectation that all workers be treated with dignity. That’s positive fairness.

What Klobuchar did, according to several reports from different credible news organizations, isn’t acceptable — and it’s almost certainly the case that plenty of men who have run for office in prior years are guilty of similar abuses, and should be just as firmly held accountable. But this time around, staking out a path for women to the nation’s highest office doesn’t require us to choose between reluctantly championing a negative fairness or kissing the hope of a mixed-gender field of candidates goodbye. There are enough women running who don’t share Klobuchar’s staff issues, and who can therefore more credibly set forth a pro-worker agenda, to make criticism of Klobuchar tactically safe (if you’re protecting a path for women to the presidency) as well as morally justified.

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