Earlier this month, journalists exposed Hollywood’s open secret that movie executive Harvey Weinstein harassed and assaulted female actresses. Weinstein denies allegations of non-consensual sex, and he deserves his presumption of innocence in a courtroom, where evidence can be tested and weighed. The conversation has, rightly, moved to larger cultural forces that sustained and facilitated Weinstein’s abuses of power. Last Sunday, social media exploded with the hashtag “MeToo,” so that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed can share their stories. Soon after that, the meta conversation began about whether men, or gender non-conforming women, should also share their stories.
I believe that answer is a resounding yes. Calls for silencing certain comments as irrelevant are an illegitimate, and counterproductive, way of simplifying and impoverishing a conversation.
The “Me Too” movement is, in my view, a generally good thing. The movement has its problems, like conflating sexual assault and sexual harassment, which are not just different in degree but different in kind. When speech becomes legally actionable harassment can be a difficult line-drawing problem, especially in a culture that recognizes the value of broad, robust free speech protections. Cat-calling is often protected speech, and for good reason, whereas touching a stranger in an offensive way is an actionable battery. But because “Me Too” is more about cultural change and the spectrum of ways we treat each other, perhaps all motivated by the same social forces, than about legal categories, the conflation between harassment and assault isn’t wholly wrong.
Others have complained that the “Me Too” movement places the burden on women to speak out. This does not seem entirely problematic to me, especially because no one is required to share her story. Those who call for social change, and for men to help solve a problem to which they may not be personally contributing, do have some onus to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. Survey data is not as compelling because many surveys, especially ones involving self-reporting, have selection bias issues, where only motivated people decide to participate. The “Me Too” movement, especially from participants who provide more detail than simply the hashtag, has illuminated a pervasive problem and allowed many who have never spoken before about their experiences to share them in a more public way.
Unfortunately, like any social movement, the “Me Too” conversations have also become about who is allowed to speak, and who has something relevant to say. Men in Hollywood are also speaking out about their experiences being sexually harassed and assaulted, and more men than I realized are sharing stories of being sexually exploited, threatened, or placed in uncomfortable situations at work. Those who think “Me Too” is solely about patriarchy and the extra burdens and fears experienced by women want these voices to remain silent for this cultural moment.
To me, the shaming of men, gender non-conforming women, and those who have been preyed on by women, out of these conversations represents a desire to simplify a narrative that is not just about sexism. Sexual assault and sexual discrimination have recently become conflated, especially under Title IX, but are two separate concepts. Maintaining a simpler version of a narrative by silencing others is not only an illegitimate way to achieve social change, but will ultimately backfire. The statement that sexual assault is wholly a problem of sexism, because men feel like they own women’s bodies, is descriptively wrong.
We should refine our view. Sexual assault and harassment affect more women than men, and are thus a problem that women disproportionately face. Perhaps that is why these problems have been ignored for so long. But we must discern how much of these problems are due to sexism verses other forces, forces that impact other genders and forces that can be exploited by women as well. Broadening the range of people who can “Me Too” helps accomplish that goal.
Here’s something I tell my students. “Good, academic conversation requires no shaming. If people have something relevant to say, they are always welcome to speak. No one deserves a monopoly on a conversation.”
Those who seek to silence others signal that their views are not as coherent as they wish, and their motives may not be as pure. Silencing is a straight power grab, and it simplifies every issue.
It saddens me how often people tell me privately things they are not “allowed” to say publicly. Important things. Relevant things. Facts and viewpoints that would make a conversation richer and more complex, and would force us to refine our views. Silencing, as a cultural tactic, does not lead to good results, inter-personally or politically. In fact, I think that’s part of our current cultural problem.
Of course, part of the rationale behind free speech is that views that are unsound, biased, or uninformed, will not be credited. Perhaps some amount of self-censorship is good, when people realize they may be misguided, or they are not contributing productively to a conversation. I think we have reached a place where too much self-censorship is happening, where some people assert special authority to define the boundaries of a conversation, and where relevant information is excluded. This impoverishes us all. The silencing effect is also counterproductive, because, as the “Me Too” movement should understand, fear- and shame- induced silence leads to anger and resentment. We are increasingly polarizing, due to our inability to speak to each other, appreciate opposing perspectives, and add nuance to our views.
Perhaps we cannot expect nuanced, fair-minded conversation from a movement connected to a hashtag. We should try, anyway, because this movement is important.