I’m glad more women are speaking up about sexual harassment and abuse. I’m glad that predators who have been allowed to get away with this are getting their comeuppance. But I’m not entirely happy with where the #MeToo movement has been heading, and an incident which happened today has made me think about that …
I was at a doctor’s office in a hospital, to handle some billing and coding. One of the office assistants with whom I’ve been somewhat friendly was in another room close by. I went in to check with the assistant about something, and as I left, the doctor went into the room. The assistant was visibly uncomfortable from the beginning, as the doctor went right up behind this poor underling, stroking and grinning and murmuring: “You smell sexy today!”
Seemed unbelievable that anybody could be so blatant, but there it was. I then walked right back in, pretending that I had another question for the assistant, and the doctor skedaddled. That’s when I suggested to the assistant that we get some coffee. Sitting in the Starbucks, I let it be known what I had witnessed, and that I would back up any complaint filed against the doctor. The assistant was extremely nervous, but eventually agreed to go to the hospital’s Human Resources department with me.
The first HR person was not very helpful, even expressing doubt that this was for real, even with my corroboration. That’s when I insisted on seeing a supervisor. After a bit of hemming and hawing, the supervisor was called in, listened to the complaint, chastised the junior HR person, and promised that action would be taken.
Now, brace yourselves,…
The perpetrator here is a woman.
The victim is a man.
The first HR person we met – a woman – openly expressed doubt that a woman could actually engage in such misconduct.
The supervisor – a gay man – not only berated his associate, but disclosed that he had been sexually abused by an older woman in his youth.
That touches on the first thing bothering me about #MeToo – how the reality of sexual abuse is being oversimplified into “men abusing women” while ignoring the cases of women who are sexual predators and men who have endured harassment and abuse. So often we hear: “It’s not about sex, it’s about power,” and I fully agree. And when we forget that, like that woman in Human Resources, we quickly forget that what makes somebody an abuser is not their gender, but how they misuse their power to exploit those around them.
When we make it all about gender, we also ignore other ways in which people misuse their power. Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing a tendency towards such abuse of power, authority and influence within the #MeToo movement. When women like Jenna Wortham says she wants “every single man put on notice, to know that they, too, [are] vulnerable,” that sounds more like vengeance than justice. To me, justice is about assuring everybody is treated fairly, and as free as possible from fear. To decide that “every single” member of any group should be made to feel “vulnerable” as some sort of payback for others having felt the same way, is relying more on fear than fairness.
Another thing that opens the door for abuse is going from listening to victims of abuse to believing accusations without question. I have known people who were falsely accused of abuse – including one who was being accused by the very person who was abusing them – and it creates its own torment on the person targeted. Yes, false accusations are uncommon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the possibility seriously, and it certainly doesn’t mean we make it easier for the damage to be done. History is filled with examples of lives destroyed and whole communities disrupted when we discard the protections of impartial due process, even the very people who initially inflicted such damage. As Robert Bolt admonished in his play A Man for All Seasons, even the Devil must be given the benefit of legal protection, if only for our own safety’s sake.
Another abuse of power is the quick resort to punishment, to the point of abandoning efforts to educate and change our culture. Punishing perpetrators appeals to our rage and our desire to “even the score,” but how does it prevent others from perpetrating the same wrongs? Ultimately, it doesn’t – and when combined with categorizing all men as predators, and disposing of fair methods to get at the truth, it merely replaces one set of abuses with another. The solution is not to swap one form of “power-over-others” with another, but transform the entire paradigm to one of sharing power towards constructive ends.
One of those ends is to empower those victimized by abuse to heal. I experienced this after the woman who was entrusted to be my host in a foreign country violated that trust by heaping emotional and psychological abuse upon me. The man who helped me leave that situation wisely reminded me that my humanity was not diminished by her actions, and from that realization I was able to rediscover my power and complete my liberation from the prison she had created for me. That is what we need more of, and what I still hope for in the #MeToo movement.