Why it's time to get rid of Time's Person of the Year
For the seventh time this century, Time’s Person of the Year is not a person.
On Wednesday morning, the magazine unveiled its pick for top newsmaker of 2017 and once again bestowed the honour on a group: “the people who have broken their silence on sexual assault and harassment.”
“The 2017 Person of the Year is the Silence Breakers, the voices that launched a movement,” said Time’s editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal, making “the big reveal” on NBC’s Today show, a curious venue given how Studio 1A in Rockefeller Center now feels haunted by the naked ghost of Matt Lauer.
“This is the fastest moving social change we’ve seen in decades,” Felsenthal told NBC’s Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie. “And it began with individual acts of courage by hundreds of women — and some men, too — who came forward to tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.”
It’s hard to argue with the choice. The #MeToo movement, which harnessed years of muted treachery to produce a thundering revolution, hit the culture like a bunker buster. You can almost see the acrid smoke billowing into the sky as society continues to grapple with the fallout of the campaign’s devastating force.
A few months ago, the notion that so many powerful men — including Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Roy Price, James Toback, Brett Ratner — might pay for past misdeeds seemed about as improbable as a truce between Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift.
But here we are, lurching into 2018, and while those two stars are still squabbling, a reckoning has come for powerful men. If you’ve ever used your position or libido to abuse a woman, chances are you’re now guzzling buckets of Maalox and Ambien.
Your past is coming to get you. Or as Time points out in celebrating the Silence Breakers: “Their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results.”
While the headlines have certainly been shocking — I’m still floored by Charlie Rose — the key word is “collective.” In fact, Silence Breakers is a misnomer. Many of the women who led the war on predators this fall did speak out at the time of alleged assaults. But they were either quickly pushed into hush-hush settlements with gag-order NDAs or outright ignored.
That’s not individual silence: it is systemic deafness.
So what the 2017 Person of the Year proves, first and foremost, is there is strength in numbers. Weinstein’s personal power, as shockingly diabolical as it seems in retrospect, was suffocated by multiple voices syncing in a chorus of “this ends now.” The women he violated, bullied and intimidated for years stood shoulder-to-shoulder, arms linked, and roared as a group into a system that until then seemed like a labyrinth in which justice was led astray and suffering was abandoned.
The maze came crashing down. The system changed. And day after day, powerful men are dropping like bags of wet cement.
But within the context of other recent Person of the Year winners that were also groups — The Whistleblowers (2002); The American Soldier (2003); The Good Samaritans (2005); You (2006); The Protester (2011); Ebola Fighters (2014) — all of this raises some questions.
Isn’t it time for Time to abolish the individual mandate? Isn’t it time to get rid of Person of the Year? Isn’t it time to celebrate a movement instead of an individual?
There is a paradox at play. The world has never felt more interconnected and, yet, divided. If there’s ever any coming together, it will be social movements that bridge the intractable divides. Whether the issue is sexual abuse or gender equality or civil rights, no single person can replicate the navigational impact of a group.
The world is a very different place from when Mahatma Gandhi (1930) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) were named Man of the Year, as the title was known.
Since then, winners have included generational groups (The Inheritor, 1966), frontier explorers (The Apollo 8 Astronauts, 1968) and demographic blocks (The Middle Americans, 1969).
Over the next three decades, there were nods to seismic shifts in the culture (American Women, 1975), explosions in technology (The Computer, 1982), the changing environment (The Endangered Earth, 1988) and even global stability (The Peacemakers, 1993).
You could take this one step further and argue Person of the Year, circa 2017, is actually a dangerous conceit when the pool of “top influencers” is overpopulated with bobbing narcissists and reprobates; indeed, one of Time’s runner-ups this year was Kim Jong Un.
Since the political world is often the first place Time looks to anoint a new Person of the Year, maybe it should pause to consider how politics has turned into a cult of personality. From Donald Trump to Justin Trudeau, we have frauds in the highest offices, leaders who could never hold candles to previous Time winners, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
It’s time to get rid of Person of the Year. In this age of social media activism and grassroots engagement, it is groups and movements that are changing the world in ways no one person could ever dream.
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