During its first weeks driving the zeitgeist, #MeToo seemed a rare moment of national near-consensus.
Liberals, conservatives, socialists, libertarians—anybody who doesn’t earnestly own a copy of Gorilla Mindset, really—agreed that it was good that women were finally sharing stories of sexual misconduct and harassment. Opinion writers from The Federalist to Mother Jones nodded in tandem. Everybody loves the word “empowered.” Who doesn’t love it when women are “empowered”?
In 2016’s “The Case of the Missing Perpetrator,” Rebecca Solnit examined the way language erases male malfeasance. Pregnancy, rape, and sexual abuse are often treated as events that happen to women, not things that men do to women. “Men are abstracted into a sort of weather,” Solnit writes, “an ambient natural force, an inevitability that cannot be governed or held accountable. Individual men disappear in this narrative and rape, assault, pregnancy just become weather conditions to which women have to adapt.”
#MeToo is different from buzzy empowerment moments of the past in that the perpetrator is no longer invisible. The words of women are not fireworks that harmlessly explode in the atmosphere as a crowd cheers appreciatively. They are shots fired into the air, as the crowd scrambles to avoid the bullets’ inevitable reversal in direction.
It turns out people are far more happy about women speaking up than they are comfortable with something happening to the men the women are talking about. Every woman who is “speaking up” is speaking up about somebody. For every #MeToo, there’s a “#YouToo.” Or, in some cases, “#YouToo?!”
There’s no due process in the court of public opinion, but #MeToo stories have settled into grimly predictable choreography. First, people who work in New York or Washington or Los Angeles media hear rumors that another outlet is working on a story about a famous person who can’t stop masturbating into plants, or walking around the office in a open bathrobe, or secretly locking underlings in his sex dungeon office with a secret button beneath his desk.
The media people gossip about the famous man among themselves, and, if they don’t work at the outlet that’s working on the story, they tell people at parties when they get bored talking about the subway or how hard it is to find an apartment.
Then the story is published. The man who stands accused releases a statement that falls on a scale ranging from the defensive denial of James Toback (to wit: “Not sorry and all women are liars”) to the contrite self-flagellating of Louis CK (to wit: “I did all of it and now I’m going to shut up for a while”). The men’s deals dissolve, book deals fall through, employers hire outside firms to investigate, names are scrubbed from credits. Millions of dollars change trajectories, careers nosedive.
The problem now has a face, dozens of them, faces the public recognizes. And taking those faces down gives the entities that enabled sexual misconduct to run rampant in the first place—businesses, studios, comedy circuits, networks, restaurants—to score a symbolic victory without attacking the cause of the problem. Firing Matt Lauer, for example, is not the same thing as fixing NBC.
In the wake of #MeToo, the same opinionators who were nodding in unison about how great empowerment was warned that false accusations could lead to backlash against this cultural moment, in much the same way that false accusations of rape against the Duke lacrosse team helped derail a then-nascent discussion on campus sexual violence. But journalistic outlets have taken great care to vet stories of sexual misconduct concerning high-profile men like Roy Moore and T.J. Miller. Splinter’s Katie Drummond noted that “‘believe all women’ is not a thing.”
False accusations are not about to sideline the movement, not this far into it, not after this many credible stories. Hair-trigger reactions from terrified employers—reactions that create a brand new culture of fear—might.
As the number of women accusing Sen. Al Franken of groping them grew, so too did the public chorus for his resignation. Thirty of his Democratic colleagues joined the chorus, and Franken reluctantly capitulated.
Franken never admitted to doing exactly what his first accuser, Leeann Tweeden, said he did, saying in a lengthy apology that he “[didn’t] remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does” but “understand[s] why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.” He didn’t do what this woman said, but also women should be heard and believed.
After longtime radio host Garrison Keillor was fired from Minnesota Public Radio for harassment, he wrote that #MeToo was akin to “the grip of a mania.” Keillor was accused by a co-worker of misconduct; Keillor says he accidentally stuck his hand up the back of an open-backed shirt and apologized after the woman recoiled. Keillor added that Franken’s firing was “an absurdity,” that he wished somebody would “resist” voices that are calling for the sort of “zero tolerance” on display.
TV and radio personality Tavis Smiley, himself under scrutiny for alleged sexual harassment, issued an apology-denial highly critical of his former employer. “I celebrate and applaud the women that came out and told the truth and led us to create healthy workspaces,” he said during an interview with Good Morning America. “At the same time, I want to make sure we don’t lose all proportionality in this because if we do, people end up guilty by accusation.”
“Where is the line?” is a common refrain in response to #MeToo. It’s often an obnoxious question, the sort of thing asked by an old man who asks if it’s OK to hug his female employees anymore just to be contrarian. (Generally speaking, if you wouldn’t do it to a man at work, don’t do it to a woman. Also ask people for permission before you embrace them at work.)
But in the case of Franken, Keillor, and the #MeToo backpedal, the line matters, because it will determine the point from which we move forward, the point at which we forgive, if forgiveness is possible.
If Franken can be, in effect, fired for something that isn’t technically related to his work as a senator, then is there a limit to what off-the-clock personal conduct could count against those who now hold elected office? What about other highly visible public positions, like TV host or NASCAR driver? What about an actor who, in his 20s, was notorious for getting a little handsy with women at bars, but who has since stopped? How long ago must a man have stopped before it’s no longer a fireable offense? Do men with histories of serious or repeated offensive behavior deserve a shot at redemption? Should we send them all to Creep Island and force them to live as pariahs forever?
A serious person wouldn’t argue that touching a woman beneath her shirt is the same thing as demanding sex in exchange for a promotion. At the same time, small clues often portend horrifying secrets. Everybody knew Harvey Weinstein was a bully before everybody knew he was an alleged rapist. Nobody wants to be the 2017 equivalent of the last college to revoke the next Bill Cosby’s honorary doctorate. Employers have a lot of scalpel-delicate work ahead of them. They have not demonstrated a capacity for handling this sort of work well.
The New York Times is, perhaps, an outlier. When the paper announced that reporter Glenn Thrush, also accused of misconduct, would lose his coveted White House assignment but not his job, it hinted that there was a long road ahead, no broad brush strokes to paint.
Thrush was suspended in November after a first-person piece at Vox claimed that Thrush, while at Politico, was sloppy and inappropriate around female colleagues in social situations. In the paper’s statement on Thrush’s continued employment, executive editor Dean Baquet wrote: “We understand that our colleagues and the public at large are grappling with what constitutes sexually offensive behavior in the workplace and what consequences are appropriate. Each case has to be evaluated based on individual circumstances. We believe this is an appropriate response to Glenn’s situation.”
Where is the line, now that the problem has a million faces? Somewhere between Tavis Smiley and Glenn Thrush? Between Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Blake Farenthold? Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn? Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling? Louis CK and [insert any number of less-famous-but-creepier male comedians]? “The line” will be determined by countless separate entities, each with separate interests, dealing with separate people who committed separate acts. “The line,” in many cases, is not going to feel fair to both accused and accusers.
I’m not confident that the places that turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct from important men can suddenly be trusted to fix themselves. NBC, for example, is instituting a zero-tolerance policy that extends to employees who witness sexual harassment and don’t report it. This writer is no HR expert, but encouraging workers to turn each other in or risk their own jobs doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy work environment. It replaces one flavor of fear and paranoia with another.
Those who care about the #MeToo movement should not let employers off the hook during the messy months (or years) ahead. The cause of the problem is much bigger and more complicated than the men whose names festoon the front pages; the solution is much more delicate than “zero tolerance.” It’s going to be unpleasant for a lot of people for a long time, and it might never be perfect. But the possibility of real “empowerment” for both women and men who want to thrive in a harassment-free workplace is worth it.