The Guardian’s long read addresses How #MeToo revealed the central rift within feminism today. I’m going to comment on some of Moira Donegan‘s arguments.
When the #MeToo moment began in earnest last October, many women felt optimistic, galvanised; others felt uncomfortable. As stories of abuse and harassment accumulated in the media, men began to experience consequences for their treatment of women. Some lost jobs, others were demoted, many faced public embarrassment.
Many more saw that this was happening in many cases on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, and became more careful in their interactions with women.
Others saw the movement as coopted by feminists pushing the goal of gender equity.
Some feminists urged caution; others wanted the reckoning to go further. But the most common complaint about #MeToo came from those who felt that the whole movement had very quickly become silly. Self-described feminists such as Daphne Merkin and Bari Weiss in the New York Times, Katie Roiphe in Harper’s, Germaine Greer in the Sydney Morning Herald and 100 French women in Le Monde complained that many of the incidents of harassment were too minor to warrant opprobrium. They argued that by grouping together such a wide spectrum of sexual misbehaviour, #MeToo had lost a sense of nuance.
And in doing so, harmed its chances of doing any good for women who had suffered actual assaults.
In part, the notion of a generational divide came from the feminist opponents and supporters of #MeToo themselves. In Harper’s, Roiphe derided the #MeToo movement as “Twitter feminism”, giving the impression that only narcissistic, social media-obsessed millennials want a reckoning over sexual assault. In her article criticising the direction #MeToo was taking, Bari Weiss emphasised the youth and naivety of an anonymous woman who made allegations against the comedian Aziz Ansari.
And she said nothing about the fact that Ansari had his career and livelihood put in jeopardy over a bad date.
Meanwhile, the feminist website Jezebel, whose readers and writers skew young, ran an article headlined “The Backlash to #MeToo is Second-Wave Feminism”, gesturing vaguely at a misguided crop of older feminist thinkers but not engaging much with those thinkers’ actual achievements and failures. Each side used age stereotypes, with varying degrees of cynicism – older women were crotchety or out of touch, younger women were egoists or spoiled children.
And yet woefully little was done to address their arguments.
A closer look at the arguments being made by these two camps reveals a deeper, more serious intellectual rift. What’s really at play is that feminism has come to contain two distinct understandings of sexism, and two wildly different, often incompatible ideas of how that problem should be solved. One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency. The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity. The clash between these two kinds of feminism has been starkly exposed by #MeToo, but the crisis is the result of shifts in feminist thought that have been decades in the making.
This sounds a lot like the Y axis of the political compass: libertarian vs. authoritarian.
The central claim of the anti-#MeToo feminists is that the movement does not treat individual women as moral agents with the capacity to say no, to enjoy and pursue sex, and to do wrong. From this perspective, women who come forward about their experiences of harassment or assault should often be given more responsibility for those experiences than the rhetoric of #MeToo assigns them. This thinking partakes in a long moral tradition – one that’s highly compatible with capitalism – in which personal responsibility, independence, and willingness to withstand hardship are revered as particularly valuable virtues. It’s an ethos of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps – from poverty into prosperity, or, in the anti-#MeToo feminists’ logic, from “feminine” victimhood into “masculine” strength. They believe that the pervasiveness of sexual harassment suggests that it is inevitable, and that the best response is not anger, but resolve. Theirs is a feminism that posits that individual women have the power to make choices to diminish the negative impact of sexism, and to endure any sexist unpleasantness that can’t be avoided – if only they have the grit to handle it.
And this strikes me as noble, and something worthy of respect.
On the other hand, there is the #MeToo movement. It might seem strange to assert that #MeToo can be spoken of as a single ideology at all – that this cultural moment, which has exposed such a broad array of bad behaviour across so many industries and disciplines, could ever be coherent enough to have an agenda. But #MeToo, as a social movement and as a personal gesture, makes certain assumptions that aren’t compatible with the intellectual habits of most mainstream feminisms that have preceded it. By saying “me too”, an individual woman makes herself a part of a broader group, and chooses to stand with others who have been harassed, assaulted or raped. This solidarity is powerful. It is still rare to see such a large group of women identifying their suffering as women’s suffering, claiming that they have all been harmed by the same forces of sexism, and together demanding that those forces be defeated.
This neatly encapsulates the appeal of collectivism.
Call it, then, a conflict between “individualist” and “social” feminisms. In part, the rift is between visions of how to undertake the feminist project, of which tactics are best: whether through individual empowerment, or through collective liberation. But there is a greater moral divide between these two strands of thought, because #MeToo and its critics also disagree over where to locate responsibility for sexual abuse: whether it is a woman’s responsibility to navigate, withstand and overcome the misogyny that she encounters, or whether it is the shared responsibility of all of us to eliminate sexism, so that she never encounters it in the first place.
Notice the writer avoided the obvious term “socialist”. Personally, I would have given them the moniker “collectivist”. The insight that this is a divide over tactics, rather than objectives, is a good one.
This tension, between individualist and social feminisms, has dogged the women’s movement since its revival in the mid-20th century. According to the individualist model of feminism, personal responsibility, individual freedoms and psychological adjustments offer a woman meaningful routes out of the suffering imposed by patriarchy, and into equality with men. Many of the most famous western feminists have been working in this tradition. For instance, Betty Friedan, author of the hugely influential 1960s feminist text The Feminine Mystique, argued that sexist cultural codes prevent women from achieving personal happiness. Friedan, a psychologist by training, focused on the inner lives of white, American, middle-class women at midcentury. More recently, individualist feminism found a high-profile advocate when Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, published her memoir-cum-manifesto Lean In in 2013. Sandberg laments the lack of women in leadership positions, and her book is a how-to manual for women with lofty corporate ambitions.
And this is why it’s so odd to see third wave feminists banning grid girls and taking other measures that disempower women.
Social feminism has a similarly long, if less well-known, history. Soon after Friedan’s book became a bestseller, Italian feminists such as Leopoldina Fortunati and Silvia Federici began to formulate a different way of looking at the problems that women faced. As Marxists, they sought to analyse how men as a class related to women as a class. They were less interested in ideas of empowerment and self-actualisation than they were in divisions of labour, living conditions and cold, hard cash. They argued that so-called “women’s work” – everything from mopping floors to dressing wounds to breastfeeding, cooking, prostitution, laundry and tending to the elderly – should not only be seen as work, but as essential to the capitalist wage-labour system. If men did not have these functions performed for them at home, these women argued, they would not be able to return to work and produce effectively. Male work in the factory relied upon female work in the home.
I’ve never seen the neo-Marxist roots of third wave feminism exposed as actual Marxism before.
Something similar is at stake in #MeToo’s assertions that sexual harassment and assault are systemic, and that women can unite to demand an end to them. While individualist feminists such as Friedan and Sandberg have examined the problem of sexism by zooming in, to consider women’s psyches and attitudes, Wages for Housework zoomed out, to examine how women were oppressed by the economic forces of capitalism. #MeToo has a less ideological, more ad hoc approach to its analysis of patriarchy. But its gesture proceeds from the assumption that misogyny is structural, and that women have a shared interest in fighting it.
I believe that the assumption that misogyny is structural is incorrect. I also believe that fighting it (i.e., treating all men as though they hate women) will actually engender more of it.
#MeToo’s sheer number of testimonies has vindicated theories of sexism as a universal, but not uniform, force –that is, as something that every woman will experience, but that every woman will experience in different ways. But in its solidarity, its public gesture of women coming together to demand an end to harassment and assault, the movement also continues the tradition of women’s class consciousness, unity and need for confrontation with systemic injustice. Call it the “too” of #MeToo: the understanding that meaningful liberation from misogyny will only be achieved collectively, with changes at the structural, cultural and institutional levels. Social feminism does not aspire to enable a few women to gain positions of power in patriarchal systems. It’s not about giving women “a seat at the table”. It’s about taking the table apart, so that we can build a new one together.
And this reveals the problem with the movement. It has been co-opted by ideologues who want to use it as a sledgehammer against the structure of society. Marxist ideology left a trail of dead bodies in the tens of millions from the gulags of Russia to the killing fields of Cambodia. If third wave feminists were to succeed in “taking the table apart”, what would result? Building a new one together seems an unlikely outcome.
#MeToo, however, has made it clear that solidarity among women is possible. The working definition of “women”, as #MeToo has constructed it, can be understood simply: as everyone who has experienced misogyny. It’s a bleak kind of solidarity, this acknowledgment of shared suffering. But #MeToo has transformed that mournful acknowledgment into something much more hopeful. If the #MeToo movement has prompted many women to focus on misogynist behaviour with a unifying grief and anger, it has also led many of them to contemplate our shared power and common vision for a different world. When the social feminists of #MeToo call for changes that would make harassment, assault and other forms of misogyny rare, their very act of collective imagining makes such a world more possible: the more we stand together in this demand, the easier it becomes to imagine a world where respect is common, where cruelty is rare, where all of us think with more empathy and intelligence about the lives of others, and where being women will not doom us to suffering or limitation.
The Marxists said much the same thing before they went on to kill more people by far than the Nazis ever did.
This is a common, but still very strange belief: that the epitome of maturity and personal strength is the resigned acceptance that the world cannot be better than it is, that we cannot be kinder to one another, that male entitlement, crassness and predation are permanent and unchangeable and must be endured. It is a bizarre conception of strength, one that dismisses as childish weakness any demand for a better world, any hope that things might one day be different. There is a way of thinking that makes this approach by the anti-#MeToo feminists seem strong and pragmatic. But there is another way of thinking that makes it seem very sad.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of individualism. It is rather than you can make the world a better place, but only by your own individual actions.
Anti-#MeToo feminists’ call to sympathise more with the perpetrators of sexual assault, and to place greater responsibility for those assaults on the choices of women who experience them, is part of an effort not to feel implicated in the suffering of others, not to share that burden of pain. #MeToo and the reckoning that it has provoked has given us all knowledge we would rather not have – knowledge of just how normal some terrible things are, of just how much some of us have suffered. The anti-#MeToo feminists of the world are not the only ones who feel tempted to look away. I urge them not to.
I haven’t heard anyone call for sympathy for actual perpetrators of assault. If you aren’t responsible for the suffering of others, you should not be implicated and you have no obligation to share the burden.
Will authoritarian collectivists triumph over libertarian individualists? I certainly hope not. We have seen Socialism creep back in to Europe and Canada despite the abject failure of Communism in the last century. And yet, like the individualist feminist backlash against the third wave neo-Marxists, we’ve seen a backlash in America’s election of a populist centrist and the UK’s rejection of the authoritarian Euro state. These have both been serious blows to the establishment, yet the globalists roll on, led by China and Germany. Vive la liberté!