Danielle Colburn: Why we keep saying #MeToo

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 5:42pm

It has been a few months since the initial Twitter storm of #metoo, but women aren’t done speaking out. Recent allegations have been brought against Aziz Ansari, James Franco and others. Art museums are grappling with how to treat artwork by artists accused of sexual assault, which was discussed by The New York Times in an article about artist Chuck Close. (Regarding separating the art from the artist, a column in The Michigan Daily by Sophia Kaufman addresses the issue excellently).

The movement has been likened to a witch hunt more than once. Maybe it seems like a witch hunt because many famous, well-known men are suddenly being held accountable for actions that had previously been protected by a status quo; maybe it feels this way because far more people than we expected have been exposed. Despite years of discomfort and whispered stories about dangerous men with the power to exploit, it still comes as a shock to some just how prevalent this issue is. The number of people finally being called out isn’t an indication that the movement has gone too far — it means that the movement was (and continues to be) incredibly necessary.

Beyond this, there’s more to why “witch hunt” is such an inappropriate phrase. Pacific Standard published an article breaking down why the movement isn’t a witch hunt. Specifically, the writer talked about how witch hunts are, historically, the oppression or exploitation of vulnerable minority populations by the powerful. That’s not what’s happening here. The men in question are not a minority group; they are not being systematically oppressed or prejudiced.

NBC News published an article about the struggles of the #metoo movement in France. A man quoted in the article discussed how he felt he wasn’t able to look at or speak to women anymore for fear of crossing the line between seduction and sexual harassment. If you’re able to look at this movement and see only your own concerns about being able to flirt with strangers, you’ve been lucky enough to live in a place of privilege.

I’ve seen from multiple Twitter accounts, articles, comments on social media, etc., people sharing their confusion about supposedly blurry lines. “Are we even allowed to talk to women anymore?” they ask.

If you have to ask that question, the answer is no. If your manner of approaching unfamiliar women or speaking to female colleagues is such that you think someone might call it harassment, that’s on you. That’s not a result of people being overly sensitive — it’s an issue that you should’ve corrected long ago.

I know plenty of people — men and women — who have been able to grapple with the movement, with the outpouring of pain, with the testimonies of survivors, without worrying about the hardships that being held to higher standards might entail. I’ve had innumerable conversations that never even got close to asking, “But how will this make my life harder?”

This is a long overdue reckoning. For each man who has fallen from grace (see Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK—the list goes on) there are numerous victims who suffered. They were taken advantage of by those who had the ability to destroy their careers and publicly humiliate them. And while there might be some kind of spectrum of aggressions, that doesn’t change that each experience is painful and traumatizing. We shouldn’t approach change slowly. It’s not enough to go after only the most heinous of abuses and shrug our shoulders at workplace harassment. Every act of oppression perpetrated must be held as unequivocally impermissible.  

Of course the conversations around these topics are tense — grappling with our ideas of consent and assault is tricky. Being forced to reflect on our past behavior can be uncomfortable. While it’s the responsibility of individuals to be accountable for their actions, there’s no questioning that society has conditioned men and women to approach sexuality and relationships in different ways. But discomfort doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have the conversations. Going through the process of reconsidering and relearning what is acceptable behavior is not too great a price to pay.

Powerful individuals having to face consequences is an important step forward. But the movement isn’t over. As long as people are resisting the breakdown of these misogynistic norms, there is more work to be done. The answer is not to run from the problem for fear of what confronting it will reveal. We owe it to every person who has been exploited, harassed, oppressed or any number of other verbs to work for change together.

Danielle Colburn can be reached at decol@umich.edu