When the Private Becomes Political
I think that there is a lot of good that can come from the #metoo campaign, but at the same time I am wary of the way this conversation about sexual politics is unfolding in the United States. On the one hand, it is good that we are addressing the ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment women face. On the other hand, I’m not sure the #metoo campaign can ultimately shift the status quo for reasons I want to discuss here.
I feel myself negotiating a tension talking about #metoo. As a woman who has experienced sexual harassment, assault, and rape, I feel a form of sympathy with the pure rage and even delight some women are publically expressing, calling men out on their inappropriate behavior. At the same time, I do not think that this personal, affective response can be constitutive of a politics. As a political theorist, I see a lot of problems with the way this public campaign is unfolding. And I want to focus on four specific elements: the politicization of private life, the language and concepts we are using to address these complex political issues, the effect #metoo is having on judgment and desire, and what this movement represents in the context of American politics today.
Private life is not political, it is often politicized
Private life is not political, it is often politicized. And when this happens the particularity of experience is subsumed within universal claims. The #metoo campaign exemplifies what happens to private life when it is brought into the public sphere of politics and weaponized to make moral arguments about right and wrong behavior. The moralization of politics appears to be an artifact of neoliberalism which reduces authority to subjective experience. Put another way, the rise of individualism in the United States has led to subjectivism. This is one of the reasons why the anonymous lists and public accusations have carried so much weight, costing many men their jobs and names. The rule of law is being flouted by individual claims of authority.
Simply accusing someone of sexual wrongdoing does not meet a legal burden of proof. It is one thing for women to speak out when they are sexually harassed, it is another for them to launch anonymous and morally motivated witch hunts against men. We have to retain our ability to discern particular accusations from anonymous allegations, and it is not clear to me that this is happening or being upheld as a standard of public judgment. This throw the baby-out-with-the-bathwater mentality is dangerous to collective life.
When the photo of Al Franken was originally published, Michele Goldberg writing for The New York Times advocated for his resignation, and casually noted that “as more and more men get swept up in this moment of reckoning, we’re going to have to figure out some mechanism by which those accused of offenses that fall short of assault can make amends and get their lives back.” She softened on this statement, but the fervor of her judgment and ensuing logic is exceptionally frightening. In moments of crisis, we need reason. If we let the cascade of accusations sweep away our ability to discern what is sexual harassment from flirtation from what is rape, we are allowing individuals to ruin lives without consequence. We must be able to rely upon judgment to discern fact from fiction.
The cases of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K., to name a few, are all different from one another, but in each case, there is a nameable accuser. It is one thing to publically accuse someone of sexual assault; it is another entirely to add a man’s name to an anonymous list or write an anonymous account, like what happened to Aziz Ansari. When someone is publically accused they have the ability to defend themselves, to make their case. When they are the target of semi-public, anonymous, vigilante justice they are painted as persona non grata and rendered silent.
And now, in the aftermath of so many firings and resignations the headlines have shifted to: “Men Are Losing Their Jobs Over Sexual Harassment. These Women Are Replacing them” and “9 Women Who Replaced Men Ousted by the #MeToo Movement”. Michelle Ruiz writing for Vogue unabashedly proclaims:
“It started out slowly, practically as a pipe dream on Twitter: What if we replaced the men ousted by the revelations of the #MeToo movement with the qualified, competent women who probably deserved those jobs in the first place? Now, voilà, it’s blossomed into a full-fledged trend, as no less than nine prominent women have been hired for—or in many cases, promoted to—plum jobs left vacant by predatory men. (One can only hope they have counterparts in industries across the country.)”
The struggle for recognition is not the same as the struggle for power. This current campaign might win some women power in the moment, but it is not going to permanently shift the status quo and help women be seen as equals in the workplace. Like the furies seeking vengeance in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, violence can never be constitutive of democratic exchange, it can only lead to more violence and claims to power. That feeling of glee, of excitement, the passions with which women are compiling lists and having men fired is a kind of moral judgment which is destructive of collective, political life.
Disagreement, civility, and judgment are vital to democracy. When we allow anonymous allegations to carry legitimacy, and resort to catch-all aspersions and ad hominin attacks, we rip at the fabric that holds society together, and this leads to an impoverished life. This is apparent in the effects #metoo is having on language and judgment.
The language of #metoo feminism
The sweeping and passionate language of #metoo enforces a lack of discernment, reifies normative gender roles, and forecloses conversation while provoking ire.
#Metoo as a slogan in itself exemplifies this problem. Rhetorically, it is a form of confession, deeply embedded within discourses of power. When individual accounts of sexual harassment, assault, and rape are lumped together under a blanket slogan there is a fundamental act of erasure. The word itself acts like a blunt rhetorical tool, levying the weight of individual authority. This kind of language washes over the nuances of individual experiences. When personal stories appear in public they are quickly reduced to political slogans, and then used to back up moral claims.
And feminism is being driven by this kind of ideologically charged language. Words like “mansplaining”, “toxic masculinity”, “rape culture”, and the counter “feminazi” are troubling concepts that we rely on to make political arguments for us. This kind of threadbare language might strike a blow in the gender wars, but it is not going to change the status quo between the sexes. These catchall terms are continuously used in debate to stop one side from talking. Today, people want to argue that they do not have to have a conversation with people they disagree with, because the other person’s opinions, or mere presence, causes them harm. And with #metoo, anonymous allegations are being used to not just stop conversations, but to ruin people’s lives and silence them altogether.
When we use terms like this in conversation, we overlook the political problems we are trying to address, like the struggle for equal recognition in the workplace. Instead of attacking the problem, we attack the person. And when we use jargon like this, we abdicate our ability to engage with one another by asserting a position of power that cannot be maintained. “Calling people out” has taken on a certain cultural cadence, because it implies a claim to truth and authority, but it is ultimately masking a moral argument.
In order to move forward, we should avoid words like this that cause more harm than good and engage in the work of thinking, debating, and addressing one another in a way that is mutually constitutive. This is a civic responsibility we have to one another, to remain in the muck of political recognition, to be attentive to the words we choose. Even when we are confronted with someone who does not think that we have the right to speak.
Disagreement and judgment
In this spirit, The #metoo campaign is shaping the way we discuss and think about our sexual experiences publicly. This manifests in the chilling effect our current conversation is having on desire, romantic pursuits and sexual experiences. The way we have and judge sexual experiences are changing.
Aziz Ansari is a good example of how #metoo language is effecting sexual experience. Babe’s questionable reporting of an anonymous allegation against Ansari sparked controversy within the #metoo campaign. The poorly written narrative details a date gone wrong, where a woman left feeling taken advantage of and Aziz left thinking they had a good time. The responses that appeared after the publication of the story painted Grace as a power-hungry femi-nazi and Ansari as a foolish womanizer. These gender stereotypes are illustrative of what happens when we think about sex through the language of politics. We only end up affirming gender identity. Instead of talking about the experience in itself, there was a debate about whether or not Ansari had assaulted the anonymous woman at hand.
When we judge our sexual experiences, we are not judging the experience itself, but rather the after-effects of experience. And we are trying to find a way to control unwanted feelings or fall out. This is a premise of “affirmative consent” and sexual contracts. These are not the solution.
Power is at play throughout any sexual encounter. There is no golden moment of consent that greenlights an experience and assures participants everyone will feel happy afterward. Instead of focusing on the language of power and consent we should be asking: How might that date have gone differently? How might Ansari have picked up on her signs? How might Grace have communicated them in a way that he could understand? How might we affirm our desires?
The nature of human action is unpredictable. We cannot know how we will feel five minutes after a sexual encounter, let alone a year after a sexual encounter. And people should not be judged, or humiliated, or punished for the unknown. Unless we want to move closer to a Mike Pence world, where men never eat alone with women, and the door is always open for others to peer in, because we do not think that we can trust ourselves, then we should radically reconsider the way we are discussing consent.
Trump and #metoo
Finally, I just want to add that despite the politics of the day, the United States is still a fairly socially conservative country, especially with regard to gender politics. One of my fears is that political campaigns like #metoo is going to lead to a resurgence of conservatism, a backlash to the backlash we are experiencing right now. It is worth mentioning that 53% of white women voted for Trump. Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say that more work needs to be done for gender equality. 49% of Democrats say that men have it easier than women, while only 19% percent of Republicans agree.
We cannot disentangle gender from politics in the United States. In many ways, I think that this moment of reckoning had to happen before we could elect a woman president. It is not a coincidence that the #metoo campaign began during Donald Trump’s presidency. Hillary Clinton’s camp nearly declared victory the day the video of him talking about grabbing pussy emerged, only to realize that Americans do not care if the future President of the United States has a debauched lifestyle. And now that he is in office, the sexual scandals continue to unfold alongside his political agenda: multiple counts of sexual harassment, paying off porn stars, getting spanked in a hotel room with a magazine bearing his face, rumors of sex tapes.
In this sense, the #metoo campaign feels like it is also venting pent-up frustration. Some women are fed up with American politics more generally, with Clinton’s loss to Trump, with the gender dynamics that shape public life. The slogan “time’s up” exemplifies this point. One can translate it as: “You’ve had the floor for long enough; it’s my turn now.” And while I understand the desire to demand one’s turn, I also think that this demand is ultimately doomed to fail. Grabbing power might feel good in the moment, but it is not going to change the status quo.