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in defense of #metoo: critiquing social justice projects without paralyzing activism (guest post by jaime hartless)

 

Earlier this month, (yet another) national conversation about sexual violence was started when the New York Times published a damning account of decades of sexual abuse by renowned Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein— (yet another) man with apparently progressive credentials who used his power and authority to violate the bodily autonomy of women seeking to make it in the film industry. Since this story has broken, accusers of Weinstein have grown exponentially in number, with recent figures listing over 40 accusations by women, including such household names as Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, and Cara Delevigne. Although Weinstein initially denied any wrong-doing, he was forced to own up to his abusive behavior as his brand began to collapse under the weight up these of accusations, leading him to be expelled from the Academy despite releasing a (sort of) apology that blamed his behavior explicitly on the ‘sixties’ and implicitly on sex addiction.

Feminist activists have since used the wide reach of the Internet to piggyback on the extensive media coverage of this scandal as a means of raising awareness about sexual violence, encouraging us to think of the Weinstein debacle not as an isolated incident but rather as an instance of a serious social problem. Perhaps the most powerful social media campaign to emerge from these efforts was the #MeToo project. On Sunday, October 15, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “Me too…Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” requesting “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘Me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

Not long after Milano tweeted this message, my Facebook feed swiftly became inundated with women posting #MeToo, sometimes with a devastating amount of detail about their experiences with street harassment, sexual harassment at work, and rape. This transformation of my feed stirred up conflicting emotions in me. On the one hand, it was absolutely devastating and heartbreaking to see so many wonderful women in my social networks admit that their lives have been so negatively impacted by sexual violence. On the other hand, there was something almost cathartic about witnessing these women talking so openly about an experience many of us are socialized to endure silently…something empowering about watching women from across the world find solidarity and even build digital community with one another. It was an almost Durkheimian moment of collective effervescence.

However, this solidary moment didn’t last long. Shortly after the campaign took off, the divisiveness and infighting that typically follows social justice campaigns on the Internet began to rear its head. A line seemed to be swiftly drawn in the sand between survivors or allies who endorsed the campaign and those who refused to participate in it. The issue was not that some survivors refused to engage with this project, but that their refusal to do so often took a somewhat adversarial tone vis-à-vis the survivors who did embrace the hashtag.

Some of these call-outs of the campaign have been subtle, such as Alex Benviniste’s tweet, saying “Reminder that if a woman didn’t post #MeToo, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sexually assaulted or harassed. Survivors don’t owe you their story.” On the surface, this is an uncontroversial statement to make, at least amongst feminist audiences. Of course, the problem is bigger than we are seeing; after all, sexual assault is a notoriously underreported crime due to the normalization of violence against women. And, of course, no one is owed a survivor’s story. But the narrative framing of this Tweet seemed to point the finger implicitly at the #MeToo campaign, as though Milano’s invitation to retweet stories of abuse as a means of raising awareness was an ultimatum for survivors to disclose their most personal traumas for the good of the cause.

Other call outs of the movement were much more explicit. To be fair, some of these critiques exposed very important weaknesses of the #MeToo frame. For example, numerous feminists have challenged news sources who attributed the campaign hashtag to Milano, noting that black feminist activist, Tarana Burke, coined the phrase 10 years ago as part of a grassroots campaign to connect survivors of sexual assault. Other critics have pointed out how this hashtag may re-victimize survivors as they see triggering descriptions of violence crawl across their feeds or are forced to negotiate with the symbolic violence that comes from antifeminist men and women questioning the severity of their assault and authenticity of their decision to say #MeToo. Additionally, some have argued that the heteronormative and woman-centered nature of the original Tweet alienates transgender people, non-binary individuals, and LGBTQ-identified men who are statistically likely to encounter this form of harassment. It is clearly important to address these issues. However, it is possible to do so in a generative way without derailing the campaign as it tries to move forward.

Other critiques, however, have been more problematic, such as Wagatwe Sara Wanjuki’s viral FB post, which reads:

I won’t say “Me, too.”…Partially because most of you know that already…But mostly because we shouldn’t have to ‘out’ ourselves as survivors…Because men have *always* seen the gendered violence happening around them (and/or being perpetrated by them)—they just haven’t done anything about it…Because it shouldn’t matter how many women, femmes, and gender neutral & non-conforming folk speak their truths…Because it isn’t about men seeing how many of us have been hurt; they’ve been seeing it for a long time…Because it shouldn’t be on our shoulders to speak up. It should be the men who are doing the emotional labor to combat gendered violence…Because I know, deep down, it won’t do anything. Men who need a certain threshold of survivors coming forward to “get it” will never get it…Because the focus on victims and survivors—instead of their assailants and enablers—is something we need to change…Because we’ve done enough. Now it’s *your* turn.

Before I discuss what I see as troubling about this framework, it’s important to point out what is helpful about this critique. Again, the poster is absolutely correct that survivors must have the right to decide how they want to process their pain and whether they want to channel it into their activism in any specific way. They are also correct to point out that this educational work shouldn’t ethically and morally rest on the shoulders of survivors and that we should not ignore the fact that cisgender men disproportionately perpetuate this abuse.

However, aspects of this critique don’t sit well with me as a scholar of social justice movements or as a feminist. As a sociologist, the claim that those oppressed by political systems shouldn’t have to take charge of fighting these battles, while nice in theory, seems fundamentally flawed as a political strategy. Social movements, at least on the Left, have almost always been driven by marginalized people who collectively frame their individual pain as part of a broader collective grievance, reaching out to more privileged constituencies to help them facilitate change. Pretending that this is not how social movements function seems somewhat counter-productive.

And if sexual harassment and assault survivors are not to be the ones driving this movement, then who will? Women and men who have not experienced these forms of violence? Is that truly a preferable state of affairs? Research on allies suggests that this may not be an ideal scenario for numerous reasons. Often when privileged people take on the causes of marginalized groups, they end up reproducing worrying social dynamics. White allies in anti-racist activism often allow their white guilt and residual racist ideas to derail activist efforts. Straight allies sometimes join LGBTQ activism because it makes them feel like a good person rather than because they care deeply about fighting homophobia. Men invested in feminism have been accused of co-opting the work of women activists. My own dissertation research shows that insiders in social movements often worry that allies, no matter how well-intentioned, lack the lived experience necessary to spearhead social justice movements. What would a campaign against sexual assault look like if it were only run by individuals who have never been catcalled, harassed at work, or sexually assaulted? How could we expect those individuals to know what survivors need…especially if, as the original poster suggests, they have been so historically bad at addressing sexual assault?

In addition to implying a trajectory for sexual violence prevention that feels untenable, posts like these are guilty of misdiagnosing the intent of #MeToo and underestimating its potential impact. For example, Wanjuki claims that #MeToo is ineffective because it will never convince predatory men (and those who are complicit in facilitating their predation) to change their ways or listen to women. This is undoubtedly true, but that fact hardly makes the campaign worthless. I would argue that rather than trying to reach these men, the #MeToo claims-makers are instead targeting two other audiences: 1) other victims of sexual violence and 2) apolitical moderates who are potentially sympathetic to survivors of sexual violence but either have yet to be convinced that the problem is widespread or prefer to go about their daily lives without encountering such unpleasantness. Reaching out to these groups can be immensely useful as a movement building strategy. For survivors of sexual violence, this can help cultivate collective online identities that both provide important solidary benefits (e.g., elevated self-esteem, a sense of community, and emotional support) and build vital networking ties that may be useful in future activism. And those ties would only be further amplified by raising the consciousness of those unaware of the scope of sexual violence. These new networks could then serve as a useful foundation for other progressive projects, such as fighting the recent rollback of Title IX or addressing sexual harassment and abuse in other industries and institutions.

Finally, from a feminist standpoint, I cannot completely get behind the way many abstainers from the #MeToo campaign seem to be implicitly shaming those who participate. While I’ve yet to see a #MeToo skeptic explicitly tell a #MeToo participant that they are wrong for engaging with the campaign, the dismissive tone of many posts may be conveying that message indirectly. Although I lack definitive data on this point, I suspect a lot of these #MeToo cynics are battle-hardened activists—many of whom have watched similar campaigns like #YesAllWomen get derailed by the #NotAllMen crowd and are expecting the same here. Yet it’s important to remember that many posters chiming in with tentative #MeToo’s may be just dipping their toes into the waters of social justice work, perhaps even disclosing their survivor status for the first time and feeling affirmed and vindicating by the positive comments they have received in response. I worry that seeing take-down after take-down of the #MeToo campaign may be harmful to these individuals both personally and politically, making them feel foolish for sharing their stories with a campaign that so many feminists find ineffective and ultimately depressing their nascent passion for activism.

What then do we make of this divide between survivors who feel empowered by #MeToo and those who feel distanced from it? While there’s likely no easy answer to this question, it seems important to keep the energy of this campaign alive while still making space for people who feel such disclosure is not right for them. Neither abstainers nor participants should be shamed…nor should one approach be hailed as superior. Yet, despite the critiques that some feminist activists have of #MeToo, it feels premature to squander the momentum it’s generated. Not only has #MeToo caught the eye of the news media, it has also begun to generate interesting new campaigns that address some of the very criticisms that have been launched against it, such as the #ItWasMe and  #HowWillIChange campaigns, which were designed to encourage men to disclose times they have failed to address rape culture or directly perpetuated it themselves.

While it is vital we continue to push to make #MeToo more inclusive, it’s also important that we not let these criticisms devolve into the ‘more-progressive-than-thou’ rhetoric that often thwarts Left-wing projects. If we spend too much time reflecting on how to craft the perfect campaign, we may find ourselves paralyzed and unable to execute any campaign at all. Most activist efforts are flawed and imperfect, and, though we should always push to refine them, we can’t let our reflexiveness prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done. In the words of Lupita Nyong’o, “Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing.”

Jaime Hartless is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia.

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Written by jeffguhin

October 20, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. Just wondering whether social media-based activism has ever been consequential. Won’t this whole “me too” thing be forgotten in a couple of weeks? (Unless, that is, some serious organizations decide to build a real campaign. Is there any sign of this?) Can’t help but feel folks are too invested in their digital worlds.

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    Jeff blogs

    October 21, 2017 at 10:04 am


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