I. Bring it on
Like many female authors digging for material in the darker recesses of personal history, I’ve written about my experience of sexual assault. And that of my sister, meaning my actual blood sibling. And that of my sisters through history, starting with the sanctified sexual assault stories I grew up with — those in the Bible where, on God’s command, daughters are sold to older men, virgins are counted as war booty and a rapist can be forced to purchase and keep the woman he has violated.
I’m a middle-aged woman, a daughter, aunt, sibling, cousin, surrounded by close female friends. If someone of my age and gender wants to write about sexual boundary violations, all she has to do is close her eyes and shuffle through her internal file of stories — first-hand, second-hand, and those handed down for generations. The first time I opened that folder, I was trying to find some combination of words that might prepare my daughters for the inevitable — or at least inoculate them against the secondary wound carried by so many women for so long — the sense that we bearers of bad memories are damaged goods.
All of which is to say that, to my mind, this #MeToo moment is long overdue. In my mind’s eye, the waves lapping around us are small ripples in a sea of history, and we women stand on the shore of that history, fists clenched, staring at a stone edifice of male sexual entitlement that spans our horizons, with foundations so ancient and deep that only a tsunami of mythic proportions could possibly bring it down. Despite my lack of belief in gods, I pray for that tsunami to hit.
Sweep it clean! hisses my well of bitterness. And oh, it is a bitter well! Because in my world, African girls are still traded in marriage by their fathers to disgusting old lechers, and married women in half the world don’t get to have a headache, and the much-celebrated Arab Spring meant streets full of angry men demanding rights they don’t actually want for women. And here in America where all men are created equal, black men got the right to vote half a century before black or white women, and still today there are only 30 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.
Sweep it clean! begs my maternal instinct. Because every time my young-adult daughter walks home from work at night, possibilities hang over me till I hear the door. And when she tells me that she jogs alone in the dark, I have to quell muffled memories. This week, when I put my other daughter on a plane for a foreign exchange program I wondered, will she be careful? Does she recognize that it’s harder to read a man’s intent when he’s not of your culture? Does she know what she doesn’t know? And then I get mad that she should even have to, and I think, Bring on a tsunami the size of the world.
II. Why now?
The pressures behind #MeToo had been building for decades, maybe centuries, when something, finally, broke. Harvey Weinstein’s sexual exploitations tripped the wire, but why were we so ready to go? Was it the outrage of watching a lecherous ignoramus destroy our dreams of a female president after a 200-year run of males? Was it having to explain this to our weeping daughters while we simultaneously prepare them for the touch of unwanted hands or the press of an unwanted penis? Was it witnessing oh-so-righteous preachers in the evangelical right so prioritize fetal “personhood” over female personhood, that they could glibly endorse Christian men stalking pubescent teens? Was it our broader sense of abject helplessness as we watch conservative men systematically erase Obama’s legacy — and ours? Yes, I think, and yes. And yes. And yes.
Of Americans who believe in democracy enough to vote, a majority asked to be governed by a woman who, though not perfect, was one of the most qualified candidates ever to seek the American presidency. Instead we got a bloviating narcissist, born with a silver spoon in one of his orifices. We got a man who boasts of his sexual predations, who imagines that his wealth and power make him irresistable when in reality few of us could imagine him with anything other than revulsion.
It is the juxtaposition of Clinton’s competence and Trump’s ineptitude that makes the gender contrast in the 2017 election so unforgettable. Love Clinton or hate her, a contest with Trump would have been no contest had their genders been reversed.
In the months since Trump took office, an endless stream of inane tweets and leaked revelations have only underscored the fact that powerful rich men get exempted from normal rules. Let’s just rub that in one more time. Small wonder then, that the man who tripped the wire was, like Trump himself, a brazen serial predator who believed himself untouchable. Trump couldn’t have laid a better trap for the Weinsteins of the world if he’d tried.
The election may be long over, but some of us are not over it, because for women who looked at the whole sordid affair through a gendered lens, Donald Trump’s degraded and degrading climb to the White House represented something much bigger. So does his daily invasive presence in our lives.
We can’t take down Trump—yet. But look who we can take down.
Most women have experienced sexual boundary violations, which means closeted offenders are all around us—guys who have been inept or pushy in their sexual overtures, handsy bosses who exploited power differentials, cocky frat bros, serial predators like Weinstein and Trump, and rapists. They must be terrified, because we are loaded and locked, armed with stories that some of us have been carrying concealed for decades.
III. Uprising fast and slow: The fast part
Taking down liberal icons, men whose transgressions are less archetypal and clear than those of Trump and Weinstein and who in other parts of their lives have been champions for gender equality, may not seem like a rational way to solve the problem of sexual boundary violations. But right now, many of us aren’t feeling terribly rational about the whole multi-millennial history of male dominance and the assumption that female bodies — especially our sensual and reproductive capacities — belong to men.
#MeToo is fundamentally not rational; it is a primal scream, and like Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, even movement leaders don’t really know who’s running the show.
Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his work on behavioral economics, which laid to waste the idea that we humans are rational actors in the economic sphere — or elsewhere. His book "Thinking, Fast and Slow," lays out the evidence that human beings have two very different modes for processing information and generating action. One is intuitive and preverbal, optimized for survival in our ancestral environment, designed for making and executing instantaneous decisions. To that end, it simplifies complicated information, applies rules of thumb, relies on hardwired instinct, and generates emotion that produces judgments and behaviors that we rationalize after the fact. It can set our bodies in motion even before we consciously recognize why. The other kind of information processing — thinking slow — makes use of our higher-order reasoning skills, the cerebral cortex, which evolved to help us survive in situations where those instincts and rules of thumb don’t work so well.
#MeToo, so far, is fast twitch — an eruption of raw aggregated emotion, with lots of big-brain words on top to make our outrage and punitive impulses sound reasoned. They are not. I’m far from the only woman brimming with bitterness about humanity’s priest-sanctioned history of sexual abuse and exploitation. I’m not the only one whose sense of violation feels raw and primitive, even primate. Little Capuchin monkeys notice when they are getting a raw deal relative to their peers; most women do too.
So, we talk about justice and outing the truth and all those things that our cortexes tell us are necessary to justify this moment and build toward real, durable, social change. But down in the deeper structures of the brain we’re just pissed as hell, and wounded or scared or scarred — and above all, feeling done being done to.
The conscious self is — to borrow a metaphor from another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt — simply a rider on an elephant, and in a collective uprising, our conscious minds are riders on elephants that have been triggered into a stampede. We think — we hope — that we are stampeding toward a better future, but we won’t know for sure till the stampede stops and the riders have a little more say. And in the meantime, invariably, a bunch of folks on the ground get trampled.
We care about that, kind of, but not wholeheartedly, because we’re caught up in the fearsome euphoria of the ride, and casualties — whether fair or not — signal that the stampede is big and powerful, that we together may comprise a living tsunami capable of leaving the landscape permanently altered.
IV. On power
Power is exhilarating, including — perhaps especially — for those among us who have long been denied it.
If #MeToo is upon us because anger and frustration built to the point of eruption, it is also upon us because women, and other victims of systemic oppression, are more powerful now than we have been in recorded history. It is precisely our increased power that has given us the courage to revolt.
How long has it been since goddesses ruled the netherworld of the human imagination and their female proxies ruled society? Since the golden age of Inanna? Since the age of the Amazons? Or are both hazy histories simply figments of female yearning and New Age fantasy?
And yet, the bleeding left edge of American culture is a domain of goddesses. In the new progressive order, status comes from membership in traditionally oppressed tribes: queer dark women on top, drawing standing and power from lived experiences of sexism or racism or poverty or better yet, all of the above. Narrative trumps data; emotion trumps reason; the bonds of solidarity trump the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment; and social sins trump all others.
In this reversal, white males sit at the bottom, their testosterone a liability, their proper role defined by circumstances of birth as it has been down long eons of history for those now on top. Socialized to think of themselves as leaders and initiators—and, often, the smartest guys in the room—they have been stripped of rank. Keep quiet, they are told, be listeners, but not too active because that’s mansplaining, and don’t ask us to explain our feelings because that’s asking us to do your emotional work, and don’t share yours because we really don’t want to hear them; you can be allies but not leaders, or better yet give us money and go away. Know your place. Brown Is the New White and The Future Is Female.
And here’s what we really don’t want to hear your feelings about. Male-female stuff. Or what it’s like to be male right now. Or that things aren’t what you were expecting. Or your sense of irrelevance and confusion and worries about what comes next. Or what you think about #MeToo.
My home city, Seattle, even more than most of America, is a place-time juncture where poles have flipped, especially in young and activist circles. Victimhood has become a kind of power that can compete with—and sometimes outcompete—money and brute force, the currencies that have long put men and colonizers on top, letting them take what they can and touch whom they will.
Human beings, as social animals, orient to status and power the way that many animals orient to water. We instinctively know where it lies; we practically smell it. And we instinctively do what we can to get some for ourselves. In our quest for social standing, we play the strongest cards life has dealt us. Some people — like models — lead with beauty; some — like scholars — lead with intelligence or education; some — like neoNazis — lead with whiteness; some — like old Olympians — lead with glory past. But none of us is unidimensional, and when the path to power changes, we reorient, centering on whichever parts of our identity give us the most standing in the new order.
I can think of a half-dozen women of color who, when I first met them five or 10 years ago, led with competencies including strategic thinking, management skills, knowledge, education, and raw analytic ability, and who now lead with race and gender, or sexual orientation, or all of the above.
In this new order, each of us becomes both more and less than we are — more, in that we are taken as representatives of our respective tribe — spokespersons for the whole under some circumstances, guilty of the sins of the whole under others. And less, because in the heat of tribalism our individuality, our character or idiosyncrasies, our hard-won knowledge of subjects other than tribal experience (or lack thereof) become invisible.
Tribalism is ascendant on both left and right, the difference being that the right rewards and seeks to protect the old social order while the left seeks to upend it. Either way, the temptation to play the identity card is almost irresistible. I’ve done it myself. In a recent debate against a male opponent, Religion Good and Bad, I barely made it through five minutes before saying, “Look, from my vantage as a woman there’s no way I can imagine that biblical religion has done more good than harm.” Bada boom. I’ve got positionality that you can’t touch. Debate over. After an appropriate pause, the male moderator and my gracious opponent, author Jonathan Tweet, moved on to the next question. Because what could they say? Nothing that wouldn’t get them pegged as mansplaining jerks.
That’s power, baby.
V. Moral matrices
#MeToo is a moral movement. Liberals don’t like the word, but dig deep enough into a devoted feminist or anti-racist or environmentalist and the language that emerges is unmistakable. We experience our causes as righteous, even spiritual.
Liberal activists are as driven by moral instincts and emotions as any street preacher, and it is moral emotions that drive how we use the growing power associated with victimhood: Moral indignation, disgust, outrage, vindictiveness, empathic anguish, protective nurturing, love — and, of course the sweet, sweet sensation of righteous superiority; we are only human, after all. Each of these gets attached to the causes we fight, and all of them get activated when we talk about sexual harassment, exploitation and assault.
Seven or eight years ago, psychologist Jonathan Haidt briefly starred as the darling of the progressive left. Liberal thought leaders and progressive organizers were struggling to understand the moral (and immoral) priorities of the right, and Haidt’s book, "The Righteous Mind," offered an analysis that made some sense.
Haidt said that shared community requires “moral capital,” which he defined as “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” He defined a moral matrix consisting of six factors:
Conservatives place fairly equal value on all six, he said, while liberals build moral community around the first three of these, with a strong emphasis on the first, care/harm. “For American liberals since the 1960s, I believe that the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression. Anyone who blames such victims for their own problems or who displays or merely excuses prejudice against sacralized victim groups can expect a vehement tribal response.” Sacralized victim groups — that includes #MeToo. It includes me, too.
A decade has passed since Haidt began the inquiry process that led to The Righteous Mind, and in the intervening years, the currents he described have become bifurcated torrents, carving canyons so deep that people on the left and right can’t see each other across the divide.
And yet, in many ways, we are not as different as liberals like to think (nor as conservatives like to fear, but that is another topic).
Liberalism can be understood as liberation, as freedom from old orthodoxies that used to bind thought and speech and the right of individuals to live and die as they see best. Progressivism can be understood as progress, as growth beyond outdated social structures rooted in the Iron Age patriarchy of the Bible, or the class structure of the European monarchies, or the slavery of colonialism, or the wage slavery of the industrial revolution. When liberalism is understood as liberation of individuals and progressivism understood as progress toward a more free, fair and healthy future; then uncoupling morality from authority, loyalty and sanctity seems natural. These three parts of the moral matrix activate people to conserve the status quo and protect insiders.
But I can’t help wondering: In the deep ideological trench we now have dug, has progressivism become a new kind of anti-liberal orthodoxy with a new set of taboos and commands? Trust victims is one of our Ten Commandments, because such trust has so long been in short supply. But we forget sometimes that the experience of oppression or violation confers neither perfect memory nor pure motivation. Victims are ordinary people—complicated and imperfect—not saints. Have we created a new tribe of believers to whom we owe loyalty and a new set of authorities to whom we owe subservience? Maybe those parts of the moral matrix we thought we had left behind were simply dormant, now called back up to protect a new status quo.
At the leading edges of culture — on college campuses, in social media, in the world of celebrity, and in places like Seattle — insiders compete to signal their fidelity and heretics are met with swift reprisal: loss of social standing, derision, name calling, accusations of giving succor to the enemy, shunning, and — for public figures in particular — calls for further punishment.
I can’t help but think of Matt Damon, whose crime against #MeToo was to voice what millions of people, including many liberal women, were thinking. “I do believe there’s a spectrum of behavior. There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt, and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
Minnie Driver, who co-starred with Damon in "Good Will Hunting," countered in the Guardian with, “There is no hierarchy of abuse—that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if a woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for.”
There’s a simple test for the truth of Damon’s statement and the falsehood of Driver’s: Ask yourself which you’d prefer to experience if you had to pick one. But the quest for truth doesn’t neatly fit into Haidt’s moral matrix, and outrage against Damon swept across the internet, even including demands that his role in an upcoming movie, "Oceans 8," be cut.
VI. Crime and punishment
Progressives believe in restorative justice — except when we don’t.
When oppressed people do things that hurt themselves or their kids or others, we point to a vast web of systemic and structural factors as contributing causes. No one is an island, we say, and we argue for second chances and the kinds of remedies and services that help people change. But when it comes to bad things done by rich white guys we adopt a different mental model—one that is, in fact, almost identical to the model of justice that conservatives apply to poor brown folk.
Suddenly, we are all rabid believers in free will and personal responsibility, and we want bad behavior punished. We look at a harm-doer, and all we can see is the crime and the victim. Down where our moral emotions swirl, our yearning for justice isn’t social or restorative; it’s retributive. We experience something remarkably like hate. We want them to suffer.
#MeToo didn’t start as mob justice. It started as an outcry of anger and anguish. But retributive justice swiftly followed, with members of the woman’s social network, large or small, real-world or virtual, acting as judge and jury. At the primal level where we are driven by frustration and empathic pain, all violations can seem equal because they represent all others, and each violator represents every man who has ever left a woman feeling soiled or crushed. Matt Damon or Al Franken or Charlie Rose or Garrison Keillor ... we don’t really know how guilty they are and we don’t really care because they are Man.
We Americans, as offspring of a Christianized culture, believe in the power of substitutionary atonement. Christianity’s core story is that one person can suffer for another, the innocent for the guilty, and this somehow sets the world right. Guilty party or scapegoat or something in between? It’s all ok—as long as someone pays. For without the shedding of blood is no remission of sin. So says the Iron Age text.
If we can mete out that punishment ourselves, following trial by Twitter or a Facebook feeding frenzy, we are more than glad to do so. “Due process is for legal crimes,” commented one progressive lawyer on my Facebook. “These are social crimes and social consequences; they don’t require due process.”
Don’t they? Is our criminal justice system not a formalized extension of social consequences for social crimes? Have we not spent millennia formalizing process and proportionality precisely because we humans are so prone to acts of reactive retribution that we subsequently recognize as unjust? Is it any less grave a matter to end a person’s career, strip his art from public fora, shatter his reputation, or break his marriage than to lock him up?
VII. Silent no more
Pain is a mammal’s most powerful motivator, anger our most powerful activating emotion, and the two often go hand in hand. Pain and anger drive us to do what it takes to stop whatever is harming or threatening us. Most people have heard that animals, when threatened, tend to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. For eons most women have responded to sexual violations by freezing or fleeing, adopting the posture safest for the weaker creature, suppressing the anger that urged them to fight back.
But strong emotions, especially when they have built up over decades or lifetimes, can be contained only at a cost. Even if we try to keep them walled in, maintaining the dikes takes energy. The energy required to contain trauma or anger or fear diminishes what we have left over for growth and discovery, curiosity and creativity, longsuffering and love. And because we are social creatures, intimately bound to each other, it necessarily diminishes those around us.
Harm cascades, and those in power who think they get away with it are mistaken. The deeper an injustice, the more energy required to perpetuate it, and the more it defines both perpetrators and victims—and the communities in which they live.
Years back, our family visited a South Africa still reeling from the anger and anguish of apartheid. One of my most enduring images of Johannesburg is of the razor wire that surrounded shopping malls and posh developments as well as ordinary middle-class homes and schools. And the armed guards. And the metal detectors that American schools and public buildings now share. Maintaining injustice has costs that those in power don’t recognize until they are forced to let go.
I used the word forced deliberately, because that is what #MeToo is — a show of force. This messy stampede of disclosures and accusations and demands and recriminations may leave us all a bit shaken, but we need to move forward through it, not retreat. The voices of the wounded must be heard.
A dam has broken, and dark waters are draining out. They have been slow in building; they may be slow to empty. It may be a while before the flood shrinks to a trickle, and we can ask ourselves — if we dare — what kind of social structure we might want to build to together to replace the old. What is the form of the “Peaceable Kingdom” if it isn’t a kingdom — if power and status aren’t accidents of birth and nobody holds rights to any body but their own?
VIII. Uprising fast and slow: The slow part
The old hippie bumper-sticker said If you want peace, work for justice. It wasn’t just a nice sentiment, some at-a-safe-distance allusion to revolutions in Central America or central Africa, or suffragettes or labor movements past. If you want peace in the home or workplace, work for justice. If you want peace in the streets, work for justice. If you want peace in Hollywood, work for justice.
That is more complicated than it might sound. The first mass reactions against injustice are rarely just, because when pain and anger burst forth, they rarely are well-targeted. In this #MeToo moment, culture is in motion and sexual rules are changing, and some broadly decent — but handsy or clumsy or boundary-pushing or simply unlucky men—are going to end up as collateral damage, along with those who love them. Some already have, just as surely as some women have begun, finally, to heal.
Movements, as I said, are messy. Angry people shoot buckshot. Opportunists play opportunities. Decent people lose their way while trying to navigate uncharted territory. #MeToo is no exception, and some recent excesses are ugly to the point that they threaten the movement. (What greater threat to a movement banking on the power of sympathy than excesses which diminish that sympathy before the stories of the wounded have been fully told and heard?)
To make matters even more complicated, we actually do need to reach a point that we can care about those accused of doing harm as well as their accusers — not because we have toggled away from caring for victims or have trivialized their injuries, but because our circle of compassion is big enough to include both.
After the reactive “thinking-fast” part of the movement comes the part where we breathe deep, look around, figure out where we are, and most importantly, remember who we are. For liberals and progressives, the most fundamental element of our shared worldview is a sense that we’re all tangled in this beautiful, painful web of life together, that nobody—even a bloviating pig—is a self-made man. And some of our most significant corollaries are these: Whether we have been victimized or victimizers, each of us is more than the sum of our worst moments; and there is beauty and value in the most broken among us, right here on earth, no blood atonement needed. No exceptions for skin color or gender.
I’m not there yet.