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The awful way Louis C.K.’s Grammy is part of the process of change

The Grammy voting quirk that helped the disgraced comedian is an excellent metaphor for social movements that face the bulwark of bureaucracy.
Louis C.K. performs on stage at the 10th Annual Stand Up for Heroes event on Nov. 1, 2016 in New York.
Louis C.K. performs at the Stand Up for Heroes event in New York on Nov. 1, 2016.Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for The Bob Woodruff Foundation file

Louis C.K. wasn’t the first person accused of being a sexual predator to be honored by his peers when he won a Grammy Award on Sunday night for best comedy album. He wasn’t even the only one this year. 

Singer Marilyn Manson — named by Evan Rachel Wood in February 2021 as the person behind the abuse she’s been public about for years — was also nominated for a Grammy, though he didn’t win. (He denies the allegations and has sued Wood for defamation.) Woody Allen’s daughter’s allegations of sexual abuse had been widely reported when he got a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in 2014 (he’s also denied the allegations). Roman Polanski fled the country in 1978 after he pleaded guilty to a charge of engaging in unlawful sex with a minor — and has still won a Golden Globe and an Oscar.  

The experience of surviving gender aggression is the experience of enduring institutional indifference.

I feel confident another sexual predator of some kind will be honored again at some point, despite the strides made in amplifying and supporting the voices of those who come forward to tell their stories of sexual violence and sexual harassment. When it happens, those of us who consider ourselves allies or participants in the #MeToo movement might yet again get depressed or outraged or maybe feel smug resignation: a shrugging “see, I told you so.” But if you’re surprised by it, then I’m guessing you’ve never experienced sexual harassment yourself or listened very closely to someone who has — because the experience of surviving gender aggression is the experience of enduring institutional indifference. 

An article in Billboard illuminated the voting process that made it possible for C.K. to win, despite his admitting in 2017 to having masturbated in front of several women and despite what I’m sure is sincere support among many Grammy voters for the #MeToo movement. (C.K. hasn’t been charged with any crime). Beyond the four major categories of album, record, song and best new artist of the year, Grammy voters (the musical professionals who have been invited to be members of the Recording Academy) can cast ballots only in three additional genres. So voting in the comedy field would spend a vote that could have been cast in pop or dance or alternative or rap (all different genres in the eyes of the Recording Academy). It’s easy to imagine that someone who had strong negative opinions about C.K. would choose to simply not vote in the comedy category, while people who support C.K. would want to show their support. 

This administrative quirk in Grammy voting happens to be an excellent metaphor for how a broad social movement can peter out against the bulwark of bureaucracy. It’s easy to tweet a hashtag or buy a T-shirt or gripe with friends — and those are great things to do! — but support has to mean more than having an opinion. You have to act. You have to act even if other people don’t see you doing it.

#MeToo has had an impact on institutions, but it’s had the most impact at the point where all change begins: with the individual. To be clear, institutional, systemic change is the only way that justice abides. Policy changes, legal protections and vigilant oversight have to be parts of any civil rights victory, or else it’s not really a victory — it’s a publicity stunt. But we can’t wait for policies to change before we examine our own part in the process.

You are probably not a Grammy voter. We have that in common. If voters in the comedy category weren’t swayed by the vivid stories of C.K.’s transgressions, well, not even this opinion piece — as eloquent as it is — will help. What we non-Grammy voters can do is support the survivors in our lives. Given the numbers on sexual violence, we all have survivors in our lives. Crucially, “support” in this context doesn’t mean stating your own opinion or even having one; it means listening to someone else’s experience. 

Another thing I can do as a non-Grammy voter: examine my own knee-jerk response to the next set of people who come forward, whether they are telling their stories about a public figure or someone I know. What I can do is become aware of how my elected representatives respond to #MeToo and vote accordingly. I’m going to go ahead and say that’s a more important vote than one for best comedy album, anyway. 

Maybe you’re not a Grammy voter, but maybe you have seen someone made uncomfortable at work. Now you can explore the best way to do something about it. (It’s not always to report the offense. In fact, the first thing you can do is research what the different options are for those who witness harassment or assault.) Maybe the next time you have the urge to pay for a Woody Allen movie, you won’t. 

This one might sound completely unrelated, but it’s depressingly relevant: Consider taking personal action in the #MeToo movement by either tipping food servers big or — better yet — advocating for a salary system independent of tipping for restaurant employees. The food service sector reports more cases of sexual harassment than any other. An astounding 70 percent of female restaurant staffers have reported harassment. Fifty percent say they are harassed weekly. More than half of those harassed told researchers that they accepted that behavior because they depend on tips. I’m sure C.K. is familiar with the clichéd close for a comedian’s set: “Tip your waitress, try the veal.” The veal, I don’t care. But, yeah, tip your waitress — maybe then she won’t have to tolerate men like Louis C.K.

In some awful way, outrages like C.K.’s Grammy are part of the process. Think about it this way: If Louis C.K. hadn’t won, would the state of protections for survivors be any different today? Institutional injustices are reminders of how important it is to create change in the venues where we personally have a say.