Me too

In 2012, after Jyoti Singh Pandey was savagely raped and murdered on a Delhi bus, thousands of middle-class men and women took to the streets to protest the so-called ‘rape culture’ of the Indian capital, the failure of the government to provide adequate security to the city’s women, and the reluctance of the state to sentence rapists to death. Quite a few observers, mostly leftists, pointed out that the citizens braving the batons and water cannons of the Delhi Police had not cared enough even to write an angry letter when poor women were raped by employers, tribal women were raped by the police, or Dalits were raped by upper-caste landlords. They had been less than outraged when Muslims in Gujarat were raped by Hindu nationalists, and they generally refused to believe that Kashmiri and Manipuri women could have been raped by the Army and the CRPF. The protesters, it was pointed out, were not only insisting that they were the primary victims of sexual violence in India, they were appropriating the unspeakable horror that the woman on the bus had experienced. It was a reasonable observation. Ironically, the same critics of middle-class self-absorption have jumped on board the ‘Me Too’ bandwagon, which is a similar exercise in self-absorption and conspicuous outrage, this time by the denizens of the global First World, which includes the aspirational First Worlds within the Third.

‘Me Too,’ which began with actresses accusing a movie producer of harassment and assault, has  become a wider phenomenon. It remains, however, limited to middle and upper class women who have come forward to speak of their trauma. As with any declaration of victimhood by the privileged and the determination of the comfortable to weep for their moments of discomfort, this is both aesthetically and ideologically suspect. The ‘Me Too’ class of Americans, for instance, has shown no comparable outrage when it comes to refugees and migrants raped beyond the borders of America, or even those raped by American troops. Few who are flooding social media with their ‘confessions’ have given such eager support to Black Lives Matter, concerned themselves with the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan or Syria, or mobilized against the general violence of inequality. Yet the thought of white actresses being accosted by famous men in expensive hotel rooms was apparently enough to remind them of their own suffering, producing a rush of solidarity. This is not just a matter of selective empathy. Like the refusal of Indian protesters to ‘see’ rape in Kashmir and their conviction that sexual violence was their problem, the selectivity of ‘Me Too’ is a protection of one’s own complicity in the violence that is not protested.

Within the circle of elite protest, the need to declare ‘me too’ has produced strange conflations and contrivances. On the one hand, it has cobbled together – under a hashtag – revelations of child molestation and rape with narratives of ‘inappropriate’ conduct and innuendo, justifying the eclecticism with vague references to ‘the patriarchy’ and an absurdly simplistic notion of ‘power’ that eviscerates adulthood and consent. On the other, it has borrowed the vocabulary of law enforcement, criminal justice ('repeat sexual offender,' 'zero tolerance,' etc.) and tabloid media (a world of 'predators') and merged it with the language of campus bureaucracy (the domain of the 'inappropriate'), effectively stretching the boundaries of rape to the point where it is defined entirely by how the victim claims to ‘feel,’ and covers everything from extreme force to bad jokes and bad sex. Elie Wiesel is accused of an 'assault' (an unwanted ass-grab lasting a second) at a public function: his victim claims the incident (which she describes in lurid terms, using words like 'inserted,' 'molested' and 'shoved') left her with eighteen years of suicidal depression and panic attacks. She is not otherwise bothered by Wiesel's politics; her trauma stems partly from her belief that he is a great humanitarian. An actress has stepped forward to accuse the octogenarian George H.W. Bush of ‘sexual assault’ because he supposedly reached out of his wheelchair to pat her posterior and tell her a dirty joke. An article in the New York Times described Donald Trump’s dismissal of Megyn Kelly during the 2016 election campaign (she was, he had said, menstruating when she asked him difficult questions) as a ‘horrific sexual violation.’ Trump’s remark was certainly horrific in its coarseness and its sexism, but can it really be called sexual violation? And is Kelly's experience with Trump's oafishness automatically horrific? This is not just a debasement of language that inflates the significance of some violations and deflates that of others. It is the deployment of language to appropriate the pain of others to amplify one’s own discomfort.

‘Me Too’ exemplifies, also, the confessional culture that is the hallmark of the Internet age, and that has been embraced as feminist ‘self-expression.’ Women, it is assumed, not only may but should ‘confess’ their experiences - particularly sexual experiences, good and bad - publicly and heroically, as part of the recovery of the female voice that would otherwise be silenced by ‘power.’ Parts of the formulation are quite misleading. ‘Confession’ is a morally meaningful idea only if the confessing individual is going to admit a crime or sin, which is clearly not the case here. What is being invested with the heroic value of confession is actually exhibition: the narcissistic glow of revealing yourself to admirers and sympathizers in relative safety, like conspicuously carrying a mattress around campus as protest and as an ‘art project,’ expecting a grade at the end of the semester. Such exhibition reflects the cult of psychiatric selfhood that has become a middle-class entitlement. It is deeply reactionary, fed by decades of corporate incitement to self-love as self-expression, and now by the culture of the selfie shared on social media. The choice of 'me too' as the hashtag of this herd behavior is entirely apt.

In the process of that ‘heroic’ self-expression, accusation itself is enveloped in a halo of saintly suffering and ‘courage’ that apparently eliminates the need for skepticism, due process (including the presumption of innocence) and evidence. To accuse is to warrant protection, love and solidarity; to be accused is to be damned. This has generated a proliferation of irresponsible, damaging and malicious finger-pointing: mischief masquerading as justice, the confusion of empathy and ‘belief’ to the degree that the need to believe accusers has taken precedence over the concept of reasonable doubt, the substitution of ‘feelings’ for legality, and demands for 'zero tolerance,' the one-size-fits-all reaction to public anxiety beloved of administrators and politicians seeking to show their toughness. On campuses, it has generated the oddly sentimental kangaroo courts of Title IX, which are a travesty of due process and ludicrous enough that Laura Kipnis was subjected to Title IX proceedings for having criticized Title IX proceedings. Some ‘Me Too’ supporters have opined that since due process has ‘not worked’ as a deterrent to sexual violations, it is dispensable. By that logic, the failure of the criminal courts to prevent murder and theft should give us the license to lynch. Revisiting due process is entirely counterproductive if it means the enhancement of "victims' rights," a pedigreed right-wing ideology.

Those who are less comfortable with lynching have hedged by pointing to the urgency of systemic change. There is no doubt that systemic change is a good idea, just as there is no doubt that unsolicited pussy-grabbing is an especially repulsive masculine entitlement. But to jump from that to jettisoning all sense of proportion, wallowing in one's conviction of victimhood, and celebrating or defending the circulation of lists of ‘sexual harassers’ – alternately described as 'sex offenders' or 'sexual assailants,' named by anonymous accusers, compiled without question or corroboration – is to accept the doctrine of collateral damage, which makes (other) individuals expendable if one’s (own) cause appears worthy. It may be argued that scholars who have spent their careers celebrating hools, jacqueries and ‘political society’ should expect nothing more liberal than a well-intentioned mob trial. But it is a dangerous road for a movement to take, no matter what its bona fides. Few allies will remain when the fingers of accusation are so random and reckless.

October 27, 2017