You say you want a revolution?
Well, you know
We all want to change the world….
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know
That you can count me out….
The Beatles (1968)
#MeToo and its allies are running into the inevitable and fully anticipated backlash. The commentary lately has been turning critical. Some of the critiques seem unduly harsh, others more reasonable. But the reasonable and the destructive invoke many of the same arguments.
Compare and contrast two recent New York Times op-eds, the first by Zephyr Teachout, the second by Daphne Merkin. Both focus on the same reasonable point: p #MeToo and its supporters failed to acknowledge and deal justly with the differences among the many versions of sexual harassment: how to differentiate between the Weinsteins and the Frankens. Most of us see Weinstein as repugnant and despicable, deserving of severe penalties, legal and otherwise, both in order to teach him a lesson, and as a deterrent to others. He used his power knowingly to inflict harm on his victims; he showed zero remorse.
Franken is a more complex case. The grabbing and pinching are infantile and oafish, certainly, but nowhere near as horrible as what Weinstein did repeatedly. And he had the grace to own up and apologize. I am tempted to blame Franken more because he was one of us: trusted to be sympathetic to women’s issues, and at the same time less, for the same reason. To me, his misbehavior constitutes a betrayal as Weinstein’s does not. Furthermore, as a senator he is charged with representing the interests of all his constituents, but 51% of them turn out not to have been properly represented by him, because he could not be counted on to treat them as fully human.
And these are the easier cases of sexual harassment. How are we to assess gender harassment, perhaps less shocking but certainly more prevalent, and I would argue more destructive to women precisely because of its prevalence and our tendency to dismiss it as harmless: the interruption, the taking credit for women’s ideas, the mansplaining, the hyperinterpretation, the obsession with women’s superficial appearance….and so much more. I think of these behaviors as existing on a spectrum with their sexual equivalents, but how should we look at both? As similar and both subject to legal penalties, or as different and differently dealt with?
Neither I nor #MeToo nor anyone else I am aware of has put forward a plan enabling the punishment of all malefactors to fit their crimes; or even to determine correctly who is and who is not a malefactor at all. And if these questions remain unresolved, the backlash will continue until the whole topic goes away, smothered in contempt. Three steps forward, two steps back – at best.
Before we get overly critical, let us remember that the whole idea that sexual harassment deserves serious punishment is new – just a few months old – and revolutionary. Revolutions start fast but take time to achieve their goals, if they do. First comes anger at the status quo, then action that changes that status quo, and only much later, steps that truly alter the world. Think of the Boston Tea Party; the Revolutionary War; and the Constitution. With sexual harassment, we are barely into Stage II.
Teachout and Merkin both address this issue and see the same problems. But they do it very differently – I read the first as a thoughtful and reasonable critique, the second as misogynistic backlash.
Teachout raises three points that are not currently being contemplated by critics of sexual harassment. She argues that, to be successful in the long run, penalties for this as for other kinds of bad behavior must have three properties. They must always:
- Represent a policy of zero tolerance. Nobody gets off the hook because they otherwise are admirable persons, or because they are too powerful to prosecute.
- Involve due process. There must be laws in place that specify what “harassment” is and what it isn’t: what is, and what is not, criminal or actionable behavior.
- Be Some kinds of actions are worse than others, and worse actions must receive worse penalties.
It is clear that, comparing the cases of Weinstein and Franken, their treatment is in accord with the first requirement, but probably not the second and surely not the third. Therefore a lot of us – including those of us who support punishment for harassment of every type – feel more or less dissatisfied with the way things stand. It is time to propose and put in place legal and other safeguards to make sure that, when accusations are made, justice is done. Otherwise the entire discourse will be overwhelmed with backlash, which will destroy any gains that have been made to date, and the whole issue will vanish under ridicule and wrath, at least some of it justified.
Merkin’s op-ed is an augury of the irrational critiques and ultimate failure we can expect if we don’t fix the problems Teachout discusses. She mentions the injustice of cases like Franken’s compared with Weinstein’s. Fine. But most of the column revolves around Merkin’s “feminist friends” who are “rolling their eyes” over the scandals.
Publicly, they say the right things, expressing approval and joining in the chorus of voices that applaud the takedown of maleficent characters who prey on vulnerable women in the workplace.
In private it’s a different story. “Grow up, this is real life,” I hear these same feminist friends say. “What ever happened to flirting?” and “What about the women who are the predators?” Some women, including random people I talk to in supermarket lines, have gone so far as to call it an outright witch hunt.
I am shocked to hear such women referred to as “feminists” in 2018, all the more so because they are presumably intelligent and educated persons. “Flirtation”? Everyone over the age of 12 knows what “flirtation” is and is not. Maybe we can’t always define it precisely in words, but (like Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity) we know it when we see it. Flirtation is a kind of interaction that makes both participants feel good and interested in each other. Harassment leaves its target humiliated and demeaned, never wanting to see the perp again. Flirtation is about seeing the other as a person, someone worth getting to know; harassment is about lowering her to the level of a thing, something to be used for the harasser’s dumb emotional needs and then discarded.
The number of female sexual predators is tiny, if it truly exists at all. Even if someone (male or female) is victimized by an alleged female predator, it’s not the same as when the predation is done by a man to a woman. Male-on-female sexual harassment is meant to remind the victim that she has no power and is not fully human. It gets its strength and effectiveness by piggybacking on millennia of female powerlessness. So a woman – no matter how badly she behaves – cannot sexually harass a man. The behavior might superficially resemble what a male sexual harasser does to a woman, but more deeply it cannot have the same meaning or function. And here as elsewhere “witch hunt” has been grievously misused. There are no witches and no hunt.
Perhaps Merkin’s feminist friends are idiots, or perhaps they are merely male-identified – a new form of feminism to be sure.
The ultimate effect of Teachout’s column is, or should be, to encourage us all to get to work to create the proper legal theory and process to deal justly with harassment issues. The ultimate effect of Merkin’s is to shame us and belittle us for wanting to create a more equal relationship between the sexes. It should be obvious whom we ought to listen to – but how do we translate that knowledge into meaningful action?
To Teachout’s concerns we can add a fourth: women must take some responsibility for bad experience. But how much, and when? This question is tricky because it is so easy to commingle the valid notion of responsibility for one’s actions with the ancient and invalid theory that everything bad that happens is a woman’s fault. But reactions to a recent story force us to find answers to this question.
A piece in the blog “Babe,” tells the story of “Grace,” and her encounter with the comedian Aziz Ansari. She recounts an evening that was clearly unpleasant for her – but was it “harassment”? He ordered red wine for both of them, and she prefers white; he was in a hurry to leave the restaurant; he came onto her (but didn’t persist when she objected). Certainly his behavior was gross and certainly it was not ideally “flirtatious.” But – especially considering that she pursued him – it does not clearly meet the definition of “harassment” for me (though there is plenty of room for disagreement).
Reaction to the piece has been swift and negative. And much of it, quite reasonably, worries about “Grace’s” unwillingness to take responsibility for her part in the unpleasantness, and for her inability to leave when the going got tough. If you have the means for a reasonably comfortable exit, the theory goes, harassment did not occur. I grasp this argument, but I wonder about the passion “Grace”’s story has inspired, suggestive of a desire to put things back the way they were.
A final cause for concern is an article in the January 22 New Yorker, by Jill Lepore. Lepore, whom I usually admire, is writing first of all about the history of two dolls, Barbie and Bratz, and their roles in creating dubious feminine identities for the little girls who must own these dolls. So far, so good. But toward the end the article turns into a diatribe against what Lepore and others have called “empowerment feminism,” which Lepore refers to as a “cynical sham.”
Lepore at first seems to be referring to a questionable use of “feminism” in which a woman achieves power by consumption – shopping and buying, getting and spending. Certainly this is a sham and a derogation not only of feminism but of womanhood altogether. But she extends the definition of “empowerment feminism” to include those versions of feminist argument that put forward women’s needs to achieve power or control for themselves as individuals – for instance Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. That seems to include all proposals that women get better at doing things that guarantee, or at least encourage, personal success, especially at work. What feminists should be doing, Lepore thinks, is acting so as to benefit all women at once, or everyone at once: pay equality, for instance.
There’s nothing wrong with this, except the assumptions that it’s one or the other, and that you can do the latter without first achieving the former. But women will only have the power to change the world in general if we can first achieve power on our own as individuals. We need a place to stand if we are to move the world.
“#MeToo arises from the failure of empowerment feminism,” she argues. Taking Sandberg’s and others’ advice about how to succeed individually necessarily leads to males seeing women as sex objects and the rightful victims of harassment.
Unfortunately, an extrajudicial crusade of public shaming of men accused of “sexual misconduct” is no solution, and a poor kind of justice, not least because it brooks no dissent, as if all that women are allowed to say about #MeToo is “Me, too!”
She’s sort of half-right here, I think. The problem of sexual misconduct in the workplace (and elsewhere) will not be resolved by public shaming – although I do think that’s a start. But the question remains:
If #MeToo and the recognition that sexual harassment is bad behavior that should be punished is a start, how do we finish the work that it started? Where do we go from here? And the process must continue and go further, much further, because if we stop at #MeToo and anti-harassment, that will give aid and comfort to the backlash and will make this latest move toward equality ineffectual or worse.
We must continue until we get to what it’s really about: a fundamental shift in human power relations.
This, children, is what we call a REVOLUTION, and as Chairman Mao pointed out, a revolution is not a dinner party. As I said earlier, revolutions commonly start as a spontaneous response to a perceived injustice, but must progress to more complicated understandings and actions, or no deep change will ever take place. America would still be colonies rather than what we have become. If women stop at #MeToo, we will fall far short of equality. There will be no revolution.
A revolution is indeed not a dinner party: it’s not about etiquette or polite conversation or the proper service of elegant courses; it’s about blood in the streets, and fear, and passion. Revolution is not about the propriety of taking a third helping of Peking Duck; it is about grabbing the tablecloth and pulling it off the table, along with everything on it. It necessarily involves – as the Beatles’ song points out – destruction, of old ways of thought and interaction, if nothing else. Revolution means total change, ready or not.. It’s messy and awkward and frightening.
Are we ready to create and accept these new roles and responsibilities? Let’s hope so. Revolution alone will stop the backlash.