There are a few things happening within the MeToo movement that are worth talking about.
What the movement gets right
To start, women are rightly voicing their concerns about their overall treatment in society and what they see as cases of misogyny and patriarchy at play. I say rightly here because I believe there is much merit in these concerns, and they should be addressed. It’s silly to say that since 1920 we’ve totally eradicated sexism in our society, and all of our institutions have fully adjusted to provide women with just as much opportunity as men. If women feel as though there are inequities, it is our duty as a society to hear everything they have to say.
The movement is also seeking different ways in which sexism and male dominance can manifest, and attempting to redefine what constitutes sexual misconduct — which is also a good thing. Many of our concepts and mental frameworks, e.g., what classifies as sexism, come from a time during which many of us would be appalled to live. We need to reexamine how we think and operate as much as possible, to ensure that adhering as much as possible to our collective ethical standards. What might have been considered a playful flirtation in 1950 might now be wholly inappropriate.
These things are not the reason the movement is facing such indignation, however. Within its supporters, there exists certain fraternities and sororities that are entirely unwilling to reason with virtually anybody that opposes or doubts what they have to say. This response to criticism of the movement can be seen in a few different ways.
Males cannot ever understand the plight of women
The touchstone of identity politics, and the reason it has become so stigmatized, is claiming that one’s identity makes them more or less of an authority on a given subject. In this case, women of late tend to use this as a way of bolstering the argument they are trying to make, and indeed to discredit the source of any criticism, whether it be from a man, or a woman who has not been the victim of sexual indecency.
Ironically, men arguably need to understand what women are going through in order for this movement to make any lasting impact. Not only from a logistical standpoint, but from an efficacy one too. If want the movement seeks is to reshape the sexual landscape, men need to understand emotionally and intellectually how their actions can affect women.
Far from being something men could never understand, it’s imperative that they do — and they want to. Most men are not misogynistic monsters that only think about the next lay. They are brothers, husbands, and fathers that care deeply about the women in their lives. They want women to be treated fairly and with respect, and to have every opportunity that is given to a man. Men of the world will listen to cogent voices of this movement, but must be able to reason openly alongside of its supporters, and not be treated as wholly ignorant on the topic.
Failure to acknowledge the different degrees of sexism, sexual misconduct, etc…
Many within the movement associate this with normalizing. Minnie Driver most famously popularized this position in her response to Matt Damon, who claimed there is “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.” Not acknowledging the fact that different cases of sexual misconduct will warrant different responses precludes fruitful conversation about how to solve these problems.
Failure to accept responsibility for any of women’s behaviors that may have led to undesirable outcomes
The recent Aziz Ansari story is a good example of what I mean here. The article chronicles a woman’s night with Ansari on which she ended up performing regrettable sexual favors for him. You have to read the full story to get the entire picture of what happened, but essentially the author of the piece felt as though she was unduly coerced into having sex with Ansari, even after making multiple attempts to end the encounter.
Despite all of the good reasons the author most likely had for not just walking out of the apartment that night, the fact of the matter is that she didn’t. One of the problems with the MeToo movement is that many of its supporters reject the idea that she is in some (perhaps small) way responsible for what happened that night. Instead, many choose to see instances like this as a result of “society” and cultural norms aimed at dominating women.
A Vox article on the story said, “Not for nothing, that charge of “why didn’t she just leave” was a frequent one even when Louis C.K. admitted to cornering women in order to masturbate in front of them; apparently, intimidation and contextual power dynamics don’t mean anything if a woman has working legs that could help her leave a room.”
Responses like this signal a significant position of the movement: that women (victims) bear no responsibility for what happens in a case of sexual misconduct. The fear of “victim blaming” effectively closes off a large segment of productive conversation that could be had with respect to how we can prevent future incidents.
Obscuring facts about biological sex differences between genders.
Everybody wants women to be treated fairly and respectfully, the issue is that many disagree about the ways in which women are currently mistreated, why they exist, and how to rectify them. The movement’s seemingly unflinching commitment to not altering any of its views gets in the way of its broad acceptance in society, and usually can be seen as one of the above manifestations.
For example, Andrew Sullivan recently wrote an article about the MeToo movement and the fact that many of its supporters disregard the role of nature and genetics in gender behavior, and is still licking his wounds from the wave of ire that he received. Rather than accepting that, for a variety of reasons, psychologists have observed significant differences between men and women on a number of traits that can be attributed to biological processes (prenatal exposure to androgens, for example), many decided to take that statement as not only wrong, but an indication that society is only concerned with male biology. A response to Sullivan’s article came from The Week, in which it says, “This is beyond vapid. Not only is Sullivan bafflingly confused about nature and its realities, as Colin Dickey notes in this instructive Twitter thread, he’s being appallingly conventional. Sullivan claims he came to ‘understand the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman’ thanks to a testosterone injection he received. That is to say, he imagines maleness can be isolated to an injectable hormone and doesn’t bother to imagine femaleness at all. If you want an encapsulation of the habits of mind that made #MeToo necessary, there it is. Sullivan, that would-be contrarian, is utterly representative.”
The point of Sullivan’s article was that the MeToo movement tends to reflexively attribute differences between men and women to the “patriarchy”, and views society as being structured against them, when there are definitive, measurable reasons for some of these things. And the response from The Week should have recognized that point. Instead, it took that statement to mean that we should only care about the male biological realities. This kind of obscurantism gets us nowhere.
The path forward
Discovering a firm foundation from which to start the discussion for how to move forward is essential. We need to discover if and where sexism exists, and come to a mutual understanding of the solutions. Barking back and forth on Twitter will get us nowhere.