We are limiting the potential of this campaign if we insist that everyone get in a box and become one of three things: perpetrators, victims, or allies.
I was a young woman in college when I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When Freire talked about Che Guevara’s concept of revolution as an act of love—specifically, love for the oppressor—something inside me that had been clanking around loose for decades suddenly settled into place. Revolution as an act of love made so much sense. It espoused agitation not acceptance, and active resistance instead of passive. It contained but also transformed my anger. Guevara’s concept left no one behind. And it gave me the language for what I already knew—that abusers in an abusive system suffer. And that the amount we stand to lose, in the way of power, privilege, authority, money, opportunity, often exists in direct proportion to our blindness about what’s wrong with the status quo. It’s the simplest concept in the world—that we maintain systems that benefit us. From Freire, and Guevara, I learned that when we live in an oppressive regime, we are assigned roles from birth, and it is almost impossible for individual people to reject their roles entirely.
Almost two decades later, it’s Guevara’s tenderness toward—and, more than that, his commitment to—the oppressor that comes to mind as I watch this #MeToo social media phenomenon unfold. #MeToo has been most compelling, for me, in terms of the open conversations it has instigated about sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Nearly all of my female friends on social media have by now announced that “#MeToo,” that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted in their lifetimes, as have I. Some transmen and transwomen have joined us. A few cisgendered men have, too.
Various people are asserting that “#MeTooHasNoGender”… which, for the record, I don’t agree with; it’s a well-meaning but dangerous oversimplification of the truth. Somehow it smacks of that clunky “I don’t see color” response of some kindhearted white people and has the unwitting effect of cutting short crucial conversations. Yes, sexual abuse can be done to people of any sex and every gender expression, but to assert that #MeTooHasNoGender obscures the real purpose of the original hashtag, which is to start a global conversation not just about sexual violation, but about misogyny.
The thing is, misogyny—which is at the root of this cultural disease of sexual violation of women, and also of transmen and transwomen, and even of cisgendered men—is really hard to talk about. We can see this in the messy dialogue #MeToo has provoked.
A male friend—a lifelong feminist raising a fierce daughter with her equally fierce mama, a man who thinks about social issues like this for a living—confessed this week that he was feeling great sadness about all of it. For one, as a victim of predatory sexual behavior as a kid himself—and from a woman, no less—he felt excluded from the catharsis of sharing about the experience. For another, he felt like he was on trial. He’s a self-professed flirt. He didn’t think he had sexually harassed women, but what if not all of his flirtations were welcome? And either way, wasn’t he complicit? And on. We talked some, and he landed at “I’m probably just feeling male guilt and discomfort at being the ‘wrong’ gender.”
Another male friend tried a joke on Facebook along the lines of: “No disrespect, but I would totally let Harvey Weinstein harass me to get my movie financed or distributed.” The thread blew up with comments from women and men who found the joke completely disrespectful, on a daunting number of levels. With honesty and grace, he turned all the way around, exhaustively explored his own motivations, and apologized. No one commended him for that.
Now I hear numerous men (cisgendered, all)—men I work with, men on the subway, even men I’m close to—admit they are “starting to get annoyed” by the #MeToo posts.
Others are scrambling to profess their allegiance to the women in their lives, and to posit themselves as allies. A few brave souls have identified themselves as past perpetrators, trying to acknowledge their part in the problem and do better.
Both women and men have discussed how we socialize boys in ways that set them up to become harassers, violators, and abusers.
Meanwhile, a woman I know joked privately: “Wait… I’ve never been sexually harassed! WTF!”
But really, I’m itching to live in a world of empathy, where none of these reactions is wrong—and where we can engage with each other openly about the venomous stuff inside us that has resulted from having been trained, all of us, to behave in our different but interlocking fucked-up ways.
Movements like #MeToo can be powerful in many ways. But we limit their potential and pervert them when we insist that everyone get in a box and become one of three things: perpetrators, victims, or allies. How many of us don’t neatly fit any of those categories? How many of us are weakened by the divisions?
I think, for instance, of women of color. Alignment with this #MeToo movement forces them into an oppositional stance with men, including men of color, with whom they might naturally be aligned in other transformative moments seeking justice. Quite frankly, that’s a pretty shitty choice.
Something similar happens when we talk about race and racism—and about racists. People of color are the victims. Outright bigots are the villains. And among the rest of us, we make a mad dash to position ourselves as allies. To be allies, we have to publicly condemn the racist “other.” And not only condemn him, we have to hate him. When a white cop shoots a black man, well-meaning white people are the most bloodthirsty of all. We want to see that one, representative bigot pay. As if the cop is himself the poison, and we can rid ourselves of him. As if he even matters at all.
#MeToo has given voice to the rage many female friends of mine feel at specific perpetrators of harassment and violence in their own lives. Fair enough. But the truth is that no one human being is to blame for this sickness of the culture we are a part of. And our scramble to crucify the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world only obfuscates the issue, just as our scramble to line up simply as victims does.
In this oppressive system—where women’s bodies are not safe, where people of color’s bodies are not safe, and where women of color’s bodies are unspeakably violated terrain—we are all suffering. And in this system, where men’s internal and emotional landscapes have been violated from birth, as well as the bodies of women, we are all victims. We are playing out our roles, or we are resisting our roles when and where we can. We’re enormously alienated from one other. Our most radical option is to undo that alienation, but easy labels that are unjust oversimplifications deepen it. We are all responsible for saving each other.
Joanna Bock wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Reprinted with permission.