Like many social media revolutions, #MeToo has praiseworthy foundations. Speak Up. Don't be Ashamed. We need to be having these Important Conversations.
Like all social media revolutions, the waters began to muddy. Soon the hashtag became omnipresent, splattered across Facebook posts and walls, attracting solidarity, and occasionally, comment.
Is it really that bad? I wondered.
You would think we lived in some terrible dystopia in which all women have been victims at some point.
To begin with, I take issue with claiming victimhood - for anybody. I don't think it's empowering and I don't think it's strong, and it should never be the strongest aspect of anyone's identity. And unless it is with the truly voiceless...
But I cannot presume to tell somebody how they should process their own difficult experiences.
So let me tell you a little bit about mine.
At 16, although I was an intelligent and perceptive teenager, in some ways I was still very much a child. I was pretty sheltered and 'experiences' were all distant or third-hand accounts. I remember my mother telling us often as children to never let anyone 'touch' us - and to alert her if we ever felt uncomfortable. I would nod, not quite understanding. And yet, the first time I truly did feel uncomfortable, I shut down. I froze. I couldn't comprehend the situation. Thankfully, the man took fright and weaselled out, making up a ludicrous excuse and asking me "not to tell my parents."
All the red flags were there; I should have understood what had happened immediately. Instead, I swallowed his excuse. I never questioned it. Not only that, I believed it was my fault for being over-friendly and over-bright.
So I dimmed my flame. I have no doubt that at a sub-conscious level it damaged most of my interactions with the opposite sex, especially boys my own age. I was an introvert to begin with, and now I was frightened, too.
It wasn't until I was 20 that it suddenly struck me how strange this man's explanation was. I wasn't really thinking about it at all; in fact, I had buried it deep within my psyche. Suddenly, I was horrified that I had believed him. Horrified and mortified. What was worse, I had allowed him, this cowardly predator who had destroyed a piece of my childhood and stained one of my best memories, to affect the way I dressed and acted, to affect the way I saw myself.
How is it that coming from an urban, educated background, growing up with a progressive, enlightened family, I had taken such a regressive stance? What made me finally see it for it was?
Education. Exposure. Reading people's accounts. Understanding consent and privacy, boundaries and the self, gender politics.
In other words, being told, indirectly, by all the brave women who chose to share, that it was not ok. It was not ok to be violated. It was not ok to have your agency taken away. It was not ok to shame or be shamed, it was not ok to tell a girl to behave with more decorum or dress more modestly because some men have been brought up not as human beings, but as animals with no sense of control, with no sense of the personhood, the humanity of the other, with a warped sense of entitlement and power and twisted way of asserting dominance.
I've mentioned how important I think it is for us to hear about each other's experiences. So what are my feelings about #MeToo?
At first, I was enthusiastic. This is great, I thought. #MeToo will do for hundreds of women and girls what feminist literature and first-hand accounts did for me.
But I slowly saw that it too could be watered down. I saw the counter-productive conflating of a range of experiences from mildly invasive to out-and-out rape under the inadequate umbrella of 'sexual assault.' I saw the brushing away of complexity, of nuance, a refusal to consider the complicated nature of sexuality, and the tangled nature of emotions and physicality. No, it is not always straightforward.
What seems most damaging is an outright hostility to debate and discussion. Forget being a devil's advocate; you cannot even question the screed of automatically believing an assertion of victimhood for fear of being labelled a victim-blamer.
I understand that historically the power dynamic has been extremely skewed. I understand also the statistics, the fact that mostly, these stories are true and must not be diminished or invalidated.
But that's not how justice works. You cannot condemn someone on the probability of their guilt. You shouldn't, anyway.
The thing is, I thought that we were trying to start a conversation. That we wanted to inform people about consent, about agency, about boundaries. That we wanted to talk frankly with men (and women) who were open and who might have unintentionally (or even intentionally) crossed a line. Because what we want is not vengeance, but progress.
That's not what I see. I see fear of reprisal and that people are afraid to ask natural questions for fear of seeming ignorant and backwards, or worse, for fear of being accused of being perpetrators themselves.
That's neither liberal nor progressive. This militant and aggressive tone, the strident nature of the moralizing op-eds we're seeing - I'm asking you to ask yourselves - what's your motive? What's your agenda? What are you trying to achieve?
I can't help feeling that #MeToo is gaining the quality of a witch-hunt. I'm not a fan of trial by media, or condemnation in the court of public opinion. All it takes is one allegation to besmirch someone and ruin their career and their life forever. Undoubtedly, it is sometimes deserved. But in the larger scheme of things...
I would like to close with this brilliant TED talk that shows that dialogue and progress is indeed possible, and that anyone might be reformed.