Opinion

Opinion

What the Uber scandal says about us

Posted June 13

Perhaps because we are in a moment where nothing serves to shock, the news reported by Recode that a top executive of a $69 billion company tried to use a woman's confidential medical history to discredit her claims of rape initially failed to rouse a reaction from me. After an Indian woman was raped by her Uber driver in 2014, the company instituted more comprehensive background checks for its drivers in New Delhi and increased security technology in its cars. But do panic buttons change a global culture of deeply normalized sexual violence? Can there be such a thing as safety when what we hope to protect most is profit?

The real news here seemed to be that the executive was fired promptly after it was reported the executive in question doubted the woman's account and shared her medical records with other Uber executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick.

The letting go of Eric Alexander, Uber's head of Asia Pacific operations, upon the findings of his gross misconduct unearths a litany of questions related to this particular case, others like it and the broader picture of shame, blame, a woman's word and the lengths to which a system will often go to invalidate her. Are Alexander's behavior and the response to it -- which now, reportedly, also includes the departure of Senior Vice President Emil Michael -- signs of progress in how we react to sexual assault, or evidence of a business trying to save itself in the eyes of the public?

The answer, I think, is both.

Uber was banned in Delhi after news of the assault broke. According to The New York Times, Alexander spoke with Kalanick about what he believed was subterfuge by the victim. He was convinced the charges were part of a plan initiated by Ola, one of Uber's largest Asia competitors, and he aimed to set the story straight by showing that the survivor's personal history was somehow at odds with her account. He carried the documents around with him for months, sharing them with other top management at Uber, none of whom have medical expertise.

It is unfortunate that Alexander's termination is the real news. With such rarity of accountability for the violence against and dehumanization of women in a system that prioritizes money and power, however, the swiftness of the action may be significant. While the ultimate motivation behind the decision might certainly be to preserve Uber's image -- Kalanick denounced the rape publicly but also participated in the clandestine examination of the woman's medical records -- it still speaks to a shift, however subtle, that the success of a business is on the line when it fails to address sexual assault and harassment properly. We must remember it has not always been like this.

On the blog of Susan Fowler, the ex-Uber engineer whose post about her experience of repeated, brazen instances of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company (initially ignored by HR) prompted an investigation that led to the firing of 20 employees, readers have left comments that range from a demand that Fowler post "documented evidence" of sexism and calling sexism a "feminist delusion" to gratitude for sharing her story.

The bulk of the comments cite how common the kind of behavior Fowler describes is and the impunity granted to harassers in corporate settings and otherwise. It is this absence of shock now that is the remarkable thing. Or, I should say, should be. But when the President of the United States openly objectifies women, what once cut begins to grate dully.

In Silicon Valley alone, a number of haunting sexual assault accusations have come to the fore in the past years. Joseph Lonsdale, a venture capitalist who started a firm called Formation 8, was the center of a lawsuit brought against him in 2015 over allegations of horrific and ongoing physical, emotional and sexual violence. "This is a malicious attempt to destroy me, pure and simple," Lonsdale wrote on his website, and the suit was later dropped. A year before, entrepreneur Gurbaksh Chahal was seen hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times on camera; he was fired from his startup RadiumOne due to the footage, but he nonetheless was quoted saying, "Celebrities in sports, entertainment and business, and high net worth individuals in general are all potential targets. ... It was only a matter of time when I would fall prey." The judge ruled the video was not admissible, and Chahal accepted a plea bargain on charges of battery and domestic violence.

"It is incredible in this day and age that one could even fathom that a legitimate rape victim was part of a conspiracy by a rival firm to harm Uber," Douglas Wigdor, the attorney for the survivor in the Uber Delhi rape, said in a statement. "Sadly, these views, coupled with the scrutiny of private medical records, support rape culture and must end."

For many though, Uber's attempts to discredit a rape victim are, in fact, standard procedure, globally. From the two-finger virginity test in India to America's customary questioning of what a woman was wearing, how much she had had to drink, whether she knew her alleged rapist before the incident, and the list goes on, we are, all of us in this world, obsessed with proving that unless a woman is the perfect victim she has no proof and is therefore lying. We are profoundly invested in this narrative, fighting, at every turn, for the hero -- an athlete with a bright future ahead, a pop culture icon upon whom we've projected our golden ideals of fatherhood and morality, a group of young men looking for fun on a bus one night -- to emerge unscathed. Rather than confront challenges to this narrative, we would rather see the reputations and humanity of women who dare speak their truth be tarnished.

Today, I wonder, is this what the long arc of the moral universe looks like? Are more and more of us trying to pull it toward justice? The conduct of Alexander and his colleagues was reprehensible, and had it not been widely reported, it might have gone completely unchecked. But maybe, just maybe, the fact it is a given that we, the public, are now expected to condemn such a matter as despicable, is the real news.

Maybe, in moments such as this, we can look hard and see the bend.

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