A couple of weeks ago I got my regular installment of the NY Times’ “On Leadership” newsletter, and the first line was this: “The #metoo movement claimed perhaps its most powerful figure yet, as CBS announced Sunday that longtime chairman and chief executive Leslie Moonves would resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct.”
My hackles were raised before I got to sentence two. Did anything in there piss you off? Because I’ll tell you what I saw. I have beef with the ‘claimed’ language four words in. Yeah, it’s not even close to the first time verbiage like this has been used to describe the consequences that befall a man in power in the wake of #metoo revelations. But when the Times uses it in their opener, I get worried about how pervasive that language is becoming.
Hurricanes claim people’s lives. Earthquakes and fires. Mass killings and other horrifying devastation. When we use the same language to describe what happens to an offender when some form of justice is achieved, it feels to me like we are equating an empowering social movement with disasters that take the lives of innocent people. That last part is important. That false equivalency belies the most dangerous undercurrent of the #metoo backlash: the suspicion that many of the ‘fallen’ men are innocent (or at least, innocent enough), being picked off one by one by a mob of reckless witch hunters.
I’ve been in more than one room at this point, filled with dozens of people, that raises the issue of the #metoo movement and sexual misconduct in the theatre field. Pretty much every time the discussion opens up, one of the very first concerns mentioned, by people of all genders, is what will happen to the lives of the accused. Do we really want to see meaningful careers torched because of a personal transgression here and there? Without so much as an acknowledgment of the countless survivor lives and careers ruined, the conversation begins with a presumption that #metoo is a threat more than a tool for social change, out to get people who don’t deserve to be gotten. Somehow in these conversations the aftermath is given more weight than the precipitating harm, and until some wise person mentions that we might want to center the damage done to the victims, the natural tendency seems to lean toward anxiety that the movement is getting carried away, and undeserving decent people are getting swept into the floodwaters.
Until this morning, I hadn’t felt truly angry about the political dumpster fire that is our country in awhile. Mostly, because I won’t let myself. Some time ago I began to break the promise that I made to myself after the 2016 election that I would stay highly engaged, and I wouldn’t normalize, and I would continue to fight and make noise. I’ve been able to stay true to the last piece, but that looks different than I thought it would. It turns out that the best way for me to fight in any kind of resistance is not to make a lot of signs and retweet a lot of hashtags, but to read, to vote, to raise my kids with integrity, to listen to smart people debate the issues I refuse to be mired down in, and to pour myself into my work with a renewed devotion to equity—because the work I do has the potential to influence a great deal of people, in its own way. But personally, I haven’t stayed engaged in the day to day drama. There’s too much of it, and it’s becoming harder to tell substance from diversion. So, I do whatever I can to avoid images or sound bites of the man we’re supposed to be calling President. I never speak his name at home, and I buckle down into my artistically-driven, community-building, sometimes incredibly depleting work, tickling my kids and hoping that the next two years goes by quick and without the entire geopolitical system as we know it imploding. It’s not particularly honorable, but it’s how I stay healthy.
This morning, as I walked out of my therapist’s office, I put my headphones on and clicked the NPR livestream of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. As soon as I hit play, I heard the question a Senator asked of her about what she remembered most from the assault on her in 1982, by the worm of a man now nominated to occupy the highest judicial seat in the country.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter…”
It was the first time I’d heard her voice. It was light, nervous, and as she talked, audibly shaking with decades of trauma. She described the feeling of the two boys laughing together at her expense, as one of them—the one in the middle of a job interview process to share a bench with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—grinded into her and groped her like she was a blow-up doll.
I know that indelible feeling, and so do you, if you’ve ever experienced humiliation and been temporarily stripped of your humanity by someone who is exerting power over you, just because they can. Remember when that happened? For some of you, remember all the times it happened?
They don’t. The old white ringleaders of the circus that is our government. The weaselly liar in the hot seat. Those people were by and large born into a wonderland of privilege and sent on the yellow brick road to power, shrouded in beer-stained, monogrammed sweater vests before they left middle school. This is not a feeling they can access. This is not a truth they can comprehend, because it’s never been theirs. Oppression has always been someone else’s problem. And so they may actually believe her (because really, who doesn’t) but they just don’t care.
It’s all of this that brought my anger back to me this morning; the kind of rage and disgust I felt when I nursed my newborn daughter the morning after He Who Shall Not Be Named was elected and thought about the 51%. I sucked in my tears as I listened to Dr. Ford talk through hers. And as today went on and I listened to more than one Senator apologize to Brett F*cking Cavanaugh for the way he’s been treated, to Lindsay Graham’s remorseful, unhinged tirade about the “hell” that Cavanaugh’s been through for a whole two months, and the perpetrator himself talk about how hard this has all been on him and his family, I nearly ordered an American flag on Amazon just so I could burn it.
I’ll meditate through it all in the morning. I’ll stretch. I’ll breathe deeply. I’ll focus on getting my kids to school. I’ll try not to be too distracted to get my work done.
And somewhere in there a sexual predator will be approved to the Supreme Court. Joining the sexual predator in the White House. And Al Franken will be off fishing somewhere. While Louis CK wanders into another comedy club.
No news outlet will need to publish an opening sentence like “The #metoo movement claimed another soul in the highest profile he said-she said showdown since Anita Hill made history.” No man will lose his life tomorrow. No hashtag will leave scars on the psyche of a traumatized judge and his brave family. No enraged and fragile Senators will need to bring down a firestorm of indignation at the mistreatment of a good, decent man (according to 60-something of his drinking buddies). Dr. Ford may continue to receive death threats until she disappears into the quiet life of an historical artifact, but that will seem an adequate cross to bear. A couple of years from now, millions of women around our country may lose access to legal abortions, but hey, at least we will have done the right thing by the poor guy who never saw the witches coming.
I hope I’m wrong. The margin is narrow, so justice is still within reach. But I’ve made the mistake of presumptuous optimism before, so I’m gonna err on the side of history when I place my bets on this one.
And while we wait for the hearings to happen and the decisions to come in, do me a favor and read this story that my organization’s magazine put out about where several public survivors are now, and what it cost them to do what they did in pursuit of justice. And then take a guess about how many times someone with power apologized to them.
Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of my employer, TCG. Also, I want to acknowledge that not every perpetrator of sexual violence and misconduct is a man, and not every survivor is a woman.