It’s fair to say that the #MeToo movement has been the most significant social upheaval of recent times. Triggered by the much-publicised downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the tremendous outpouring of stories of both sexual assault and everyday sexism faced by women on a regular basis became a force too powerful to simply be ignored. All of a sudden, the floodlights were on sexism, sexual misconduct and abuse of power like they had never been before. More and more women came forward. It was finally reckoning time for all manner of powerful figures – CEOs and politicians, celebrities and TV hosts – who, like Weinstein, were once thought ‘too big to fall’.
#MeToo has radically redefined how we behave, think, and speak about gender, sex, and power. But like any other revolution, it has its downsides as well. Last week, I wrote a review of fanSHEN’s interactive jury game, The Justice Syndicate, in which participants get to decide the outcome of a sexual assault case. There was a clear power imbalance: Huxtable, a top paediatric neurosurgeon, was accused by Hodges, the mother of one of his patients and a struggling single mother of two. The evidence was designed to be equivocal, as is often the case in many actual sexual assault cases, where non-penetrative assault can leave no signs, and where physical evidence is often lacking.
fanSHEN didn’t have the explicit aim of discussing the #MeToo movement. They merely wanted people to ‘think about a challenging topic’ and consider how they responded to ‘situations of fundamental disagreement’. Nonetheless, the way in which my fellow jurors responded to the simulated case was telling. Despite the paucity of evidence (both physical and circumstantial), many participants were quick to point the finger at Huxtable. Indeed, they claimed they ‘knew in their heart’ that the surgeon was guilty.
In truth, I found this highly disturbing. How could they assign blame with so much conviction when there was so little to go on? When questioned, their response was highly emotional. Comparing the case to Weinstein and other instances where men in power had abused their power, they refused to allow the ‘arrogant surgeon’ to ‘take advantage’ of someone in a vulnerable position. It was almost like reverse victim-blaming. Although it seems obvious, it was difficult to point out to them that the mere existence of a power difference doesn’t automatically mean that power is misused.
In the case of Harvey Weinstein, the case against him was solidified by the scores of women who came forward to testify, exposing his systematic abuse of power over years. But not everyone offends so serially and egregiously. What if there is only one victim, and the accused has no prior convictions? Do we believe the victim? And if so, how can we let the accused get off scot-free?
To be sure, it’s a hard call in any criminal case, not just sexual assault ones, when corroborating evidence is lacking. More than other crimes, however, cases of sexual assault tend to elicit strongly emotional responses. In this case, I certainly felt that my fellow jurors’ prejudices severely clouded their decision before they’d even viewed the evidence. The game developers told us about a previous session that ran just after the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh had been made public. That game jury quickly found Huxtable guilty, but it wasn’t even about the specific case anymore. In the wake of #MeToo, I fear that emotions are running so high that it is easy to bypass rational thought and jump to conclusions – a dangerous situation when assigning blame. There is little room for reasoned debate about such topics.
And yet reasoned debate is precisely what is needed when societal norms change. What was considered acceptable a generation ago would now be seen as sexual assault. Consider the iconic WW2 photo of the US sailor kissing a nurse on V-day. Last week, a day after George Mendonsa (the sailor)’s death, a statue commemorating the event was vandalised with graffiti reading #MeToo. Whether or not that kiss was wrong, there certainly is a great deal of uncertainty now about how men and women should behave around each other, in both social and professional spheres.
Sadly, the outraged response that #MeToo provokes does not lend itself well to open discussion. I find it disturbing, too, that the wave of fury extends to people who challenge the overwhelmingly positive reactions to the movement as depicted in the media. Those who voice doubt are subject to a swift and vitriolic backlash. Last September, for instance, Norm MacDonald’s appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ was cancelled after he said he was ‘glad #MeToo had slowed down’. Perhaps not the most sensitively worded, but hardly warranting a show cancellation. Actor Henry Cavill was, equally, roundly castigated on Twitter for being confused about when flirting could be misinterpreted as sexual assault. Both were forced to backtrack on their statements and make very public apologies. One wonders just how sincere those apologies were.
Instead of dialogue, there seems to be a growing culture of avoidance and silence. Unsurprising, when just voicing dissent can get a man in trouble, and a single accusation could ruin his career, or at least bring it to a grinding halt for the months of trial. What counts as harassment in the workplace nowadays? There’s been talk of a ‘Pence effect’ in Wall Street, named after U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, who avoids dining alone with any woman other than his wife. Back in 2017, I thought this ridiculous, but given the highly charged climate we now live in, I can see why men would avoid putting themselves in situations which might be potentially compromising. Unfortunately, this only makes Wall Street (and other places) more of a boys’ club than it already is, and hardly helps gender equality in the workplace.
In our little jury, the discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by the women in the room. The five men present were all noticeably quiet. Were they afraid to speak up because the case concerned sexual assault? To me it reflected the silencing effect that #MeToo has had: keep your head down and stay out of trouble. Some might celebrate the increased dominance of female voices at the cost of men’s, but it would be short-sighted to say that this is an actual advance in gender equality. True and lasting changes in attitude are not achieved by creating an atmosphere of fear. To effect social change, a conversation needs to happen. And it won’t happen by merely silencing people or having them make lip-service apologies. Men’s voices and voices of dissent have to be heard too, and their concerns addressed rather than dismissed.