By Megan McArdle
Me too. Me too. Me too. When our friends and colleagues are the accusers, when our neighbours and peers are the accused, the problem stares us in the face from a proximity so intimate that we cannot dismiss it with a simplistic response. All that’s clear is that the problem is real, and the solutions will not be simple.
In early October, the New York Times and the New Yorker published allegations that Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein had spent decades aggressively sexually harassing women he worked with — and women he might be willing to work with, if only they would first hold still while he mauled them.
By early November, allegations were breaking left and right about men in all walks of life that offer even a little bit of fame: politicians, journalists, and even Ryan Lizza and Glenn Thrush, who worked for the publications that had broken the Weinstein story. We got a hashtag, #MeToo; we got people proclaiming confidently that we were seeing the dawn of a new era. And then, scant months into the revolution, we got a backlash. Did we really need to destroy so many men?
A group of 100 Frenchwomen, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, published an open letter this week that basically said: Yes, we have gone too far — lumping merely flirtatious men together with rapists.
Daphne Merkin eloquently raised the troubling questions in a recent article. “What happened to women’s agency?” she writes. “That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands. … And what exactly are men being accused of? What is the difference between harassment and assault and ‘inappropriate conduct’? There is a disturbing lack of clarity about the terms being thrown around and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is.”
But Merkin’s plea suffers from the same flaw as many of the entries in this genre (and I include my own): She is no clearer than the people she criticizes about where the line should be drawn. What exactly are the boundaries we are supposed to inculcate in the next generation? What should we tell them to do and not do?
The pontificators (again, including me) are struggling to articulate solutions. For the first time, we must grapple with crime not just as a social problem, but also as a social matter — as something that affects large numbers of the nation’s content generators as both accusers and accused.
Coincidentally, I read Merkin’s piece just as my Twitter feed was lighting up with outrage about Thrush, the New York Times reporter who was suspended for hitting on young women in the industry and then was restored to work. This apparently became the focus of a panel on gender inequity and sexual misconduct in American newsrooms, which was covered by the Atlantic. Carolyn Ryan, an assistant managing editor at the Times, defended the still controversial decision as a matter of “nuance,” which met with derisive scorn.
But Ryan apparently said something else which caught my attention:
“The people who worked most closely with Glenn in the bureau — men, women, young, old — were supportive of him and did believe that he could contribute and hadn’t seen the kind of behavior that had been described. … I keep kind of dancing up to the line here, but I think this is a conversation that not only are we having more broadly at The New York Times, but that we had as we were trying to figure out the punishment.”
This mirrors earlier reporting about the fissure at the Times over the case: He was supported by the Washington bureau, who knows him personally, while millennials in New York, who didn’t, were calling for his head. What a vast difference it makes whether you actually know someone.
I vividly remember discovering that a man who lived in my building had been arrested for possession of child pornography. He was a nice guy. I babysat for his family (and no, never had any inkling). And knowing him, knowing what he’d done, really changed the way I thought about his crime.
By which I don’t mean that I decided society should rethink its tough stance against child porn. It is a vile crime, and it should be punished accordingly. But knowing someone who had committed a terrible crime forced me to see him as a human being rather than a statistic, or a figure on the news. He was a criminal, but that wasn’t all he was. His life was more than his crime.
Whether they come from a tough-on-crime Republican or a bleeding-heart, “close all the prisons” Democrat, discussions of criminals in the media tend to have a detached quality; we are arguing over policies that affect other people, not people like us.
That’s the intended effect of the #MeToo movement: demonstrating that sexual predation is ubiquitous, not distant and rare. This is an offense that we cannot view from a safe distance.
Consider the failure to delineate acceptable behavior: The chattering class knows that whatever lines are drawn and penalties are applied could wreck the lives of our friends, our relatives, our spouses, ourselves. And yet, if they aren’t applied, people like us will also suffer. Perhaps we are getting an inkling of the complex attitudes about crime and policing in minority communities that are eager to reduce crime, but also, somewhat paradoxically, to protect the lives of the husbands and brothers and sons who commit it.
It’s an opportunity for a sheltered elite to make a broad reassessment of how we think about all sorts of malefactors. The discussion of sexual harassment and campus rape neatly inverts the normal ideological stances on justice: Conservatives suddenly become very worried about what overzealous enforcement might do to the lives of the accused, while feminists — who in all other areas can be counted on to defend the rights of the accused against the power of the state — suddenly forget tedious niceties like due process. In both cases, these positions are driven by empathy, which is commendable. But in both cases, the empathy remains one-sided; they have merely switched the side they care about.
People who live among both criminals and victims don’t have the abstract luxury of hoarding all their empathy for one side of the discussion. And as it turns out, we all are those people.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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