#MeToo may turn into extremist feminism

16 January 2018

The purpose of feminism is to equalise the position of women in societies and environments that are often perceived to be dominated by men. Its purpose is not to establish a female-dominant society.

One of the great success stories of 2017 was that of the #MeToo movement, a large-scale outpouring of past tales of sexual harassment shared on various media using hashtags like #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc that brought to light the disturbing frequency of such behaviour across the globe today.

On the surface these appear to be exactly what we need: encouragement for women to speak out fearlessly about the things they went through that they should never have had to endure. In reality, however, #MeToo is too close, for its own good, to becoming a glorious laugh at due process, not to mention a classic example of emotional over-sensitivity. In effect, it is turning into an extremist form of feminism—and extremism is never a good thing
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There are generally two kinds of stories one might want to share in this context: things you want to get off your chest and sexual harassment. The latter is why the #MeToo movement exists and should thrive; the former is what it has been mistaken for #MeToo fodder once too often. What prompted me to write this article were three similar outcries across the media and the Aziz Ansari story reported by a staunch feminist website called Babe with unnecessary details blown unnecessarily out of proportion.

The story published by Babe was great as an entertainer that would have people talking about Mr Ansari and dish the dirt on him. It was not a #MeToo story and, in jumping onto the #MeToo bandwagon, it devalued everything the hashtag stood for and risked devaluing stories about real sexual harassment that have come out as a result of the #MeToo movement. As Bari Weiss wrote in her article for The New York Times, the article published by Babe 'transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness'.

Babe got its moment of fame promptly followed by criticism but, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. Equally important, journalists breaking #MeToo stories—not just publishers—are being extremely cautious in gathering evidence and presenting it in a manner that makes legal action against the accused possible. In other words, not only is a typical #MeToo story one about a painfully real case of harassment it is also one that offers reasonable evidence against the person, male or female, that it is accusing. This is acceptable and no different from any other exposé from a journalistic perspective.

In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion.

The trouble, as the Canadian author Margaret Atwood pointed out, was that after someone was accused people were in such a rush to support the harassed—and, perhaps more so, were weary of being branded as anti-feminists if they did not do so—that all due process was thrown out the window when any actions were taken against the accused.

Ms Atwood was referring to the case of Prof. Steven Galloway of the University of British Columbia who was sacked following allegations of harassment, several of which were never substantiated; nor were the university administration's reports released in full. The who event was, essentially, that a professor was sacked following certain allegations with no details being given as to any evidence supporting said allegations or of the investigations that looked into these allegations.

A group of about eighty people including the famous typographer Robert Bringhurst and Ms Atwood signed an open letter to the university demanding due process. Ms Atwood went on to ask, 'If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? ... In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion.' The author was soon branded as a 'bad feminist' in a move that casts a doubt on what the #MeToo movement is becoming: an outlet that can solve the issue of widespread harassment or flat out extremist feminism?

Why would the people speaking out about harassment not want due process; in fact, why would they not demand it? Is the goal simply to get someone fired? Of late that seems to be working, and a fine example of what happens when due process is not observed is evident in how broad a definition the word 'harassment' now boasts.

As with Mr Ansari's incident of faux harassment, and more so with the case of Prof. Steven Galloway, there are ample examples now where 'Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs, when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss', as a letter published in Le Monde by a a group of famous French women points out.

In this group are the likes of the Oscar-winning actress Catherine Deneuve and the author Catherine Millet. They point out that the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements which started out as a legitimate protest against the sexual violence that women are subject to has now turned into a mindless witch-hunt. Another french actress Brigitte Bardot went so far as to calling the movement hypocritical and ridiculous
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However it is not so much what they said as the rift this movement has caused that is most troubling. On the one hand for any movement to be taken seriously it must tolerate opposing views and offer fair debate, which the #MeToo movement failed to do. The french women were in effect branded as traitors to feminism. Such name-calling does #MeToo no good.

Acknowledging a story and acknowledging that due process must be followed will only help #MeToo. It will also set right the myriad definitions of 'harassment' so people can judge better if something is acceptable or not. The trouble with #MeToo—sincere as its attempts are and as much as such issues ought to be addressed—is that we have not yet agreed on where we draw the line; and without such an agreement people are bending and breaking that line and demeaning what #MeToo is. On the one hand are oversensitive attention-seekers like Babe and on the other are Ms Deneuve and her fellow signatories who believe 'Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not—nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack'.

Laura Kipnis offered an interesting perspective on this, writing in The Guardian last week. Hers is, so far, the most balanced view on the issue. Ms Kipnis points out that we need explicitly defined 'liminal' zones that make it obvious as to what is okay, so it also becomes obvious as to what is not. She writes—

It’s the question of where to draw the lines – and whether there should be lines drawn at all – that’s up for grabs, and we’re all drawing them in different places. What used to be liminal is getting co-opted and redefined; that makes us nervous ...

... birth control was illegal [in France] until 1967. What kind of freedom does a woman have who can’t prevent a pregnancy because male politicians have denied her that right?

It’s the historical amnesia of the Deneuve document that’s so objectionable. To the extent that women’s bodies are still treated as public property by men, whether that means groping us or deciding what we can do with our uteruses, women do not have civic equality. To miss that point is to miss the political importance and the political lineage of #MeToo: the latest step in a centuries long political struggle for women to simply control our own bodies.

This is quite what #MeToo comes down to. A political movement above everything else that, not unlike women's suffrage, can yield fruitful results if done right. That means taking the right path to making a lasting impact: respect due process and use the mass backing #MeToo has, from men and woman alike, to make fundamental changes in society that offers freedoms to women and uplifts them while drawing lines that both men and women can live with and where grey areas—and, consequently, questions about what counts as harassment—are few and far between.

This is the only way a movement like #MeToo can make an impact. If it wavers and rakes in meaningless stories, like the accusations against Mr Ansari or the unfortunate sacking of an accused without ample substantiated evidence just so employers can appeal to their feminist supporters, the #MeToo movement risks becoming an example of extremist feminism and fizzling out. The movement is a promising one if it communicates across society patiently and through due processes and far too many journalists and writers deserve credit for shaping this; but the next steps have to be taken more carefully than any previous ones or #MeToo will unfortunately snowball out of control and reach a messy end.

  1. I understand, of course, that #MeToo is by no means restricted to women and, therefore, is not necessarily feminist. However, apart from Terry Crews and a couple of others, I am yet to come across several men sharing their stories which is what, for the time being, makes #MeToo a largely feminist movement.

  2. Undoubtedly both Ms Bardot and Ms Deneuve were somewhat harsh in their criticism (the latter has since apologised specifically only to victims of harassment) but have both indicated that they stand by their statements.