May 22, 2018

#metoo

You can read the full article, explaining my relationship to this topic, over at The Washington Post. Here I’d like to draw attention to the challenges for the #metoo movement going forward:

….I study large-scale advocacy movements. I’ve led them, observed them, written about them. Each is a product of its time and place, so making generalizations is tricky. But one common thread is that they replicate the dynamics of the societies where they arise. So it should surprise no one that the people spearheading this moment of cultural scrutiny are the people who have the privilege of voice in our society more generally.

Social media campaigns such as #MeToo tend to view “raising awareness” as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. In this case, the spread of the hashtag has been valuable — it has expanded participation beyond those victimized by people whom the news media has an interest in reporting on. It has revealed the true scale of the problem and demonstrated that it is not confined to high-profile sectors such as entertainment, journalism and politics.

But campaigns like this often lose steam before achieving anything concrete. And even those that avoid this trap can run into another problem: They use the power they amass through raising awareness primarily to push for visible solutions that can be swiftly implemented — such as the recent firings of famous men. These immediate steps create a feel-good feedback loop.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with some quick victories to boost the morale of all involved. But such responses have their limits: They are superficial fixes. Over time, they crowd out lower-profile work that could ultimately create the structural changes needed to really resolve the problem.

My fear is that the immense power of #MeToo is about to be squandered. We risk congratulating ourselves for a slew of high-profile dismissals that address particular harms suffered by a privileged subset of victims, without ever grappling with the harms occurring across the board.

For many observers, the past few months have been gratifying; previously unimaginable actions have been taken in the name of women. That has not been my experience. For weeks, the night I was raped, my reporting of it, and the power inequities, indignities and degradations of the situation have run on a mental replay loop I’ve had no control over. I’ve felt pressure to participate in the act of public unveiling — this man, at this time, with these details. A moment of mass empowerment for women has been overwhelmingly disempowering for me.

What I have needed is the time to untangle my feelings and carefully question what I could lose or gain at this moment. I’ve concluded that, having spent the past decade trying to reach a vaguely livable status quo, I’m unwilling to upend it all for vengeance alone. Others may have decided differently. But if empowerment means anything, it must entail the ability of individuals to make their own choices based on their own circumstances as they see them. For me, speaking in this limited way still frees me from the dead weight of silence and allows me to contribute to what is finally a serious conversation about sexual assault and harassment.

If the power of #MeToo has been to reveal the pervasiveness of work-related sexual assault and harassment, then meaningful change demands solutions that tackle the depth and breadth of these problems. This means acknowledging the inherent conflict of interest that arises when human resources departments are tasked with addressing allegations against their own companies’ employees — while remembering that many working people have no human resources department to report to. It means challenging the gaping disparityin access to legal services in this country, while recognizing that not all harms are best addressed through the legal system. It means getting more women into leadership roles, but not assuming that women are always better at dealing with the abuse and harassment of their staffers than men are.

As #MeToo becomes a movement, we need to be meticulous about distinguishing criminal and noncriminal behavior, without minimizing the chilling effect that even noncriminal behavior can have. We need to listen to the many women (and men) whose stories do not involve newsworthy perpetrators, and not demand that the signature “name and shame” action of this moment be the price of entry into the conversation about how to deal with all of this.

We also need to overcome the failure of imagination that prevents us from seeing that we may have colleagues who treat us well yet treat others badly, and that people can do admirable — even heroic — work while behaving in ways that violate the very values they purport to stand for. It is natural to want to believe that the people our society holds up as “good” would not engage in sexual assault or harassment, or protect those who do. But, as the philanthropy of the likes of Weinstein and Bill Cosby demonstrates, that is not always true. And believing that it is only strengthens those perpetrators who already have social capital to protect themselves.

Most of all, we need to avoid deluding ourselves that behaviors our society has normalized over decades will be banished over the course of a few painful months. Social change is always an iterative process. The backlash against the current moment is inevitable. The challenge will be to push past the backlash and keep working, even as the nation’s attention turns to the next crisis. The downfall of predatory men with household names is worth celebrating. But it is not nearly enough.

 

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