With the fall of Rob Porter, are we ready to stop giving a pass to abusers?

By Heidi Stevens, ChicageTribune


The rise and fall of alleged wife beater Rob Porter has me thinking about those kids who had their admissions yanked from Harvard last year.

You might remember them. They formed a secret Facebook group called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens” and used it to share jokes about minority groups, sexual assault, the Holocaust. Real high-minded stuff. Harvard administrators discovered the group and withdrew offers from a bunch of its members.

What does that have to do with Porter, the White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence by two ex-wives?

Porter resigned Wednesday, but not before enjoying the robust support of White House aides, many of whom knew about the allegations a year ago, according to reports, and gave him a key role with access to classified information anyway.

As recently as Tuesday, Chief of Staff John Kelly said in a written statement that Porter is “a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”

On Wednesday, after photos surfaced of Porter’s first wife with bruises on her face, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Porter still had the White House’s support.

“I can tell you that Rob has been effective in his role as staff secretary, and the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance,” she told reporters. 

Effective in his role. Trust in his abilities and his performance.

That punching-and-choking-his-wives stuff is his business, in other words, separate and apart from his White House role, in which he’s really been quite effective. Don’t blur the lines.

We need to blur the lines. We have, in fact, started blurring the lines. We have become far less willing to give abusers a pass simply because they’re effective in a role, whether that role is populating the Las Vegas strip with opulent hotels (Steve Wynn) or churning out Oscar-winning films (Harvey Weinstein) or boosting morning-show ratings (Matt Lauer) or building a restaurant empire (Mario Batali).

I could go on, but you get the point. We are beginning to understand that a person has one identity, one set of values, one moral compass. If you are a violent, spouse-abusing predator at home, you’re a violent, spouse-abusing predator at work. You’re simply in a different building.

The White House on Thursday defended its handling of domestic violence allegations against now-departing Staff Secretary Rob Porter, amid questions over who knew what when.

I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation,” Kelly said in a statement.

DailyMail.com first published a photo of one ex-wife’s bruised face. Colbie Holderness told the outlet that Porter choked and punched her during their marriage.

Holderness told Fox News on Thursday that she got the black eye during a hotel-room fight when she and Porter were on vacation in Florence, Italy. Further, Holderness said she told her story to the FBI on Jan. 24, 2017 when she was interviewed as part of Porter’s security clearance investigation. She also gave photos to the FBI.

Holderness described Porter as having a “bad temper” –and as an “angry person.”

Both of his ex-wives detailed physical and verbal abuse in prior press reports.

When the Harvard memes story broke, I called Ana Homayoun, an education consultant and author of “Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World” (Corwin). I wanted her to help me understand why, after years of being warned about their digital footprints, teenagers keep doing stupid, dangerous stuff online: sexting, bullying, secret Facebook groups that joke about the Holocaust.

“So much of the last decade of social media education has been around scaring kids, ‘Don't do this, or you won’t get into college,’” she told me. “All that really does is send them underground.”

The conversations (plural, this isn’t a one-and-done thing) we need to have with our kids, she said, are about their online identity matching their offline identity.

“Kids often go online and feel like they have this secondary experience — maybe they try on different personalities, different viewpoints, see what kind of response they get,” Homayoun said. “Especially if they're using apps or groups where their real name isn't being used.”

We need to help them understand that what they tolerate, what they create, what they propagate while they’re on social media should square with what they tolerate/create/propagate in real life too. Just because you’re on a screen doesn’t mean you aren’t you.

It’s advice that’s cropping up in a growing body of parenting advice. In Rachel Simmons’ fantastic new book, “Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives” (Harper), she urges parents to talk to their daughters about what sort of values they want to embody — and then help them understand that those values carry over into every part of their lives.

“Ask her about three values she wants to honor right now in her life,” Simmons writes. “Friendship? Family? Honesty? Service? Talk together about the ways she can align herself with what she cares about. … The goal of this work is not to get her to the next step. It is to stabilize her where she is, by anchoring her to her self.”

It’s fantastic advice. I hope it spreads. I hope whatever reckoning we’re experiencing at this moment leaves us with a greater understanding that we don’t get to cleave our behavior into parts that count and parts that don’t.

It all counts. It all adds up to who you are in this world. “Effective in his role” is not enough. Not when you play the part of abuser in your off-hours.

One identity. Let’s start holding adults to the same standards we’re setting up for our kids.

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