The thing about viral campaigns on social media is that, while it can be argued they may raise awareness to some degree, they can also make it possible to feel good about doing something without actually doing anything of major significance. The recent surge of #MeToo posts seems to be a welcome exception, if nothing else sparking innumerable conversations that go far deeper than a simple click-and-share.
Being connected to alums of this school on social media, I find it gratifying to watch and listen as they dive in deep. Early on, reacting to my own sharing of the version that invited “all women and femmes” to post, one alum wondered, if the goal is to illuminate how widespread sexual harassment and assault are, whether we ought to include any and all victims. Near the end of the conversation, to broad agreement, my friend and colleague Hillary Hoffman said she understood the importance of wording but also felt it important not to lose the main point, “that the aggressors have been those in power, due to status, number, or physical strength, and the affected have been mostly (yes, not all) women who have not had societal support to combat it.”
One of my friends in that conversation, a UCC minister, later posted an excellent blog by her mentor Susan Thistlethwaite, “#MeToo: See Beyond the Hashtag.” The central theme was “So we need to focus on unequal social relations and how they are produced, maintained, policed, and punished if transgressed. If you don’t know that, then you don’t know how to interrupt them and eventually change them.” In the process, Ms. Thistlethwaite made the fundamentally important point that Tarana Burke, a Black woman, originated the #MeToo hashtag over a decade ago; in fact, Ms. Burke has been doing this work for over 25 years.
Another of my former students independently reinforced this point, noting that all too often the contributions of women of colour get erased in our society, including in social justice work. She also posted the observation that a danger with the #MeToo hashtag is that it applies an implied pressure to targets of sexual harassment and/or assault to share a deeply painful and personal experience. Finally, she observed that in thus focusing on the targets of sexual violence rather than the perpetrators, we implicitly and unfairly place the onus on them to address the issue.
Meanwhile, my cousin Tamsen Snyder Webster decided to engage her own Facebook community by asking: “Trying to understand#metoo and what women go through everyday? Try this: If you’re a man, or identify as such, tell me what you do — every day — to avoid being sexually harassed or assaulted. If you’re a woman, or identify as such: same challenge.” Most women and a number of other people who have been personally affected and/or who have been listening to those affected will recognize the list, which includes items such as:
- Never walk with earbuds in
- Acknowledge compliments from men on the street, with the right balance of (false) gratitude and (real) disinterest
- Perfect looking through people to avoid eye contact without it looking like you’re consciously ignoring
- Always wear shoes I can run in when walking through the city at night
- Know where all open restaurants and bars are, especially those with staff I know, so I can duck in, if necessary
- Update someone else about when I’ve left, where I am, and when I’ve arrived
While the conversation was in some ways depressing for everyone involved, it also allowed women a chance to share with some degree of safety and solidarity the many things they do every day because of this. It also allowed men who were aware to confirm and expand their awareness, and men who were unaware to have their eyes opened. There was only one "Now wait just a moment here" guy who responded, and he was politely but firmly told that what he was saying was missing the point.
There and in many other places, I’ve seen people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds saying, “This is great. But what next?” Good question.
In her opening words to this year's Convocation, Pastor Shayna Appel ‘78 P’04 invited us to “Challenge norms.” The #MeToo campaign, whatever flaws it may have, has sparked conversations about how best to go about doing that. Eventually, possibly before I even publish this blog, something else will be spreading all over social media, tempting us to (once again) shift our focus. But we can’t. As Tarana Burke said in an interview on Democracy Now, this isn’t a moment but rather a movement. Her notion of ongoing conversations, “empowerment through empathy,” provides a guiding principle as we work to understand, interrupt, and change this toxic power dynamic in our society.