It has only been a year since the flood of #metoo sexual assault and harassment reports surfaced to sink the careers of powerful men with long histories of abusive behaviour. It took a tidal wave of voices to support the women who called Harvey Weinstein to account for his behaviour. Many others in the U.S. and Canada were caught in the same current and followed Weinstein out of sight. The door closed behind them. For most, it is unclear where they ended up or how they are processing what happened. Do the banished actually consider their actions and make changes toward redemption in their lives? Or, are they brooding and resentful for having been caught and humiliated in the public square, waiting it out now to make a come-back?
It is bound to be different for each man, with the possibilities of redemption and resentment hanging in the balance. What can proponents of #metoo do to tilt the response one way and not the other? Inevitably flood waters recede and the rebuild begins. Does the world get put back together exactly as it was or is there a possibility of radical change in the hearts and minds of individuals and institutions? We have to figure out how to play the long game if social change in the direction of gender equity, human rights and world peace is the goal. We have to decide what we want beyond accountability. But first, we have to figure out how to avoid the pendulum swing from one extreme to another, the swing from not believing survivors to dismissing perpetrators without due process, from inaction to unthinking action, from it’s just the way things are to these men have no place in our society.
The rush that came with having sexual violence taken so seriously by so many was breath-taking. Hope flared and ground was gained as alleged predators were so quickly removed from elevated positions. Finally, after decades (centuries) of struggle, there was a whiff of a ‘win’ in the reckoning. In many cases, the speed with which allegations turned into pink slips raised lots of discussion about the importance of due process, but the dye was cast. Accusations were made, men’s reputations and careers ended. The way back for them is still unclear. A few are making the attempt but it’s too early to tell if they will find a place at the table, especially if nothing has changed.
The dominant system is fully able to maintain itself by absorbing the possibility of radical change into the status quo. This is a status quo that depends on the polarity of ‘us and them’. We are mired in it. When men are kicked out without any discussion for what comes after the fall, without any thought for how society creates the conditions for sexual violence and without any consideration for how common are the beliefs and attitudes that hold women in place as the inferior ‘other’ that can be used up and discarded, then the opportunity for real change is lost because the pole is set at an extreme end.
Next, sexual violence is reduced down to a few ‘bad’ individuals, and when those bad apples become pariahs, the emphasis for the majority of men shifts to not being ‘that guy’. Especially not that guy who got caught. In this space, well-meaning men who have been socialized with the norms of toxic masculinity shy away from reflection. Instead they are more likely to mount a strong defense that precludes consideration for how they might be implicated. For those accused, the outcry of resentment for having to account for oneself as an outlier in a deeply sexist society is a perfectly logical reflex.
With the events of the past two weeks and the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the rising trajectory of #metoo to propel real change feels a lot less possible. The backlash is an equally powerful storm that is still gathering strength. Other powerful and self-proclaimed predatory men like U.S. President Trump mock Dr. Christine Blasey Ford openly and warn the Republican base that ‘not me’ young men are in peril.
‘Us and them’ will always be a fight to the death. There can only be one winner. Our current status quo is a rigged game that oppressed people will never win. All of humanity (and the planet) is the big loser. That is the sad irony that is also reality. Ultimately we will learn one way or another that there is only ‘us’. If we are going to be successful in realizing our potential as a species, or maybe at this point it is more realistic just to want to be successful in surviving as a species, we have to figure out how to fundamentally change the social game.
It is a time to keep hope alive. For those who have been deeply disheartened by the ugliness of the Kavanaugh spectacle, do whatever you can to support yourself, avoid falling into the hate trap and keep a sharp eye for opportunities to shift the play. Be the change in large and small everyday ways that insist upon dignity and human rights for all. Small actions count. The personal is still political. And, physics tells us that inevitably, pendulums swing back. It’s not over until it is.