The #MeToo moment is in a far more delicate place than headlines would lead one to believe.
The New York Times’ Oct. 5 bombshell on Harvey Weinstein’s myriad sexually predatory offenses set off a cultural chain reaction that feels truly important or scary or both, depending on who you ask. Women in Hollywood stood up and shared their stories of sexual misconduct. And then women in the media did, women in the art world did, women in politics did, women in comedy did, and so on.
It was as if we had lanced a cultural wound and collectively stood around, astonished by what came out. How was that all there, all this time? How much do we still have to learn?
Meanwhile, men in those worlds privately wondered (sometimes in late night text messages to their female friend: this writer) where it would end; if they had something lurking in their own past; if one day, the #MeToo moment engulf them too.
When I’d get calls or texts like that, I’d go through the regular reassurance script: False accusations are rare because coming forward about sexual misconduct generally sucks for women, especially when they’re accusing powerful men. Journalists have learned their lesson from the disaster of the UVA Rolling Stone story and how that episode set the campus rape discussion back, arguably to a worse place than it was before. Yes, it’s possible that a sociopath with malicious intent could try and burn a foe or settle a score without merit. Certainly, the barrier to entry is low—a tweet or an anonymously sourced online google document would suffice. And, yes, they could leverage bloggers or ideologues to get their stories out without having them fact checked, leaving their subject’s PR team to unexplode the bomb.
I’d tell them, that sort of thing could happen, but it probably won’t, because lies fall apart once you look at them closely enough. And we would never be stupid or careless enough, en masse, to refuse to look at things like this closely.
But privately, I’ve been worried that we’re cruising toward the #MeToo moment’s trip wire, the point where a public’s over-credulity means that opportunists could exploit the movement and bring it all crashing down, worse off than before. And then stories of sexual misconduct will again be relegated to cocktail hours and DM’s—feminist ghost stories women share with each other with the knowledge that the demons that torment us still lurk in corner offices.
Today, two women accused Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) of harassment. Radio host and model Leeann Tweeden wrote that back when she and then-prominent comedian Franken were on a USO tour together in 2006, he forcibly kissed her during rehearsals for the show. Accompanying the story was a photo of Franken reaching for Tweeden’s breasts while Tweeden appeared to be asleep. Franken has apologized and called for a formal ethics investigation into his conduct. Reaction from the left was swift and mostly damning. Democrats have no moral authority on the issue of sexual assault and harassment unless they condemn it from everybody, even their caucus’s class clown.
On the heels of Tweeden’s disturbing allegations, however, another woman came forward claiming that she too had been “stalked and harassed” by Franken. Melanie Morgan teased her accusation with a Tweet, and then directed curious readers to her website. On her website, she described how Franken called her more than once because he disagreed with how she was discussing a policy issue on the radio.
Even giving Morgan the extremely generous benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to pretend what she alleges Franken did is the same thing as what Tweeden’s picture shows Franken actually doing. Nor is what Tweeden’s picture shows, horrible as it is, the same as what somebody like Roger Ailes or Bill Clinton did.
Which gets to a problem. Right now, the court of public opinion is faced with the awkward task of assigning degrees of severity to sexual misconduct, because, while they all cause harm, they don’t all cause the same amount of harm and thus don’t merit the same punishment. Furthermore, punishment varies by the power the offender wields. A senator, for example, should have a much higher moral threshold than, say, a comedian. Writing in The New Yorker this week, Masha Gessen treads lightly in making this point, warning that the #MeToo moment could devolve into “sex panic” if we’re not careful. “The distinctions between rape and coercion are meaningful, in the way it is meaningful to distinguish between, say, murder and battery,” Gessen writes.
One’s political ideology or past advocacy doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a person to be victimized by somebody with opposing ideology. But if what she’s written is all she’s got, Morgan’s account reeks of naked political opportunism, of weaponizing victimhood in a way that is so morally bankrupt that it threatens to derail the entire #MeToo conversation for selfish political ends.
(I suppose it also bears mentioning here that while Fox News’ primetime lineup was going up in flames thanks to decades of sexual misconduct coming to light, Morgan was leading the charge to protect men like Bill O’Reilly—who has settled tens of millions of dollars worth of sexual harassment lawsuits during his career—from being fired for what Morgan called “dubious” reasons.)
This is how delicate it all is and how dangerous Morgan’s gambit was. Less than 24 hours ago, lawyers for Alabama’s Republican nominee for Senate, Roy Moore, gave a press conference. The purpose of that press conference was to attack and discredit the five women (well, now it’s at least seven women, but at the time, it was five) who had accused Moore of sexually pursuing them as teenagers. Moore’s lawyers—both men—claimed that they’d never personally witnessed Moore molest any teenagers. Further, they claimed that one of the accusers had a personal vendetta against Moore because he had signed a legal document in her divorce. They said nothing about the other four accusers, including one woman who claimed to The Washington Post that Moore molested her when she was 14.
They didn’t need to discredit all of the women because, in the warped worldview of the Roy Moore apologist, to discredit one woman is to discredit all of us.
Writing with almost creepy prescience at Crooked.com this week, Brian Beutler warned against the coming Breitbart-style weaponization of the “Believe Women” movement. “Unfolding against the backdrop of the post-Weinstein revolution, the Moore scandal exposes the conservative propaganda machine in the ugliest and most discrediting possible fashion,” Beutler writes. “But these cultural changes are all but destined to collide with one another in the opposite direction, in a way that exploits both the beneficence of the ‘believe women’ campaign, and the even-handedness of the mainstream media. It is a collision we as a political culture are not equipped to handle, the consequences of which are almost too awful to contemplate.”
That’s why Weinstein fallout could go up in smoke in a second. Because enough people believe that women are all liars, that one liar will fuck it up for all of us.
This Roy Moore Old Testament-Original Sin-Women Are Liars mindset is the worldview that needs to change in order for women to truly have access to the same opportunities that men have. But its opposite—the notion that women must be believed without any evidence whatsoever—will lead the worst among us to exploit the proof loophole and wreak as much damage as they can before their lies are discovered and skewered. At that point, the loophole irreversibly closes. And if that happens, we’re stuck in Roy Moore’s world, where men are the arbiters of morality and if women aren’t lying, they must have been asking for it.