What will be the legacy of the extraordinary expression of solidarity that has unfurled with the #metoo social media phenomenon? It was launched on the back of the allegations by actress Alyssa Milano of abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein—but has travelled a long way from these celebrity elites. It has been clear, even from a cursory glance at comments on Facebook, that for some women it has been a life-changing step from the darkness of isolation into the light of understanding, as they realise that they have not been the only ones to experience unwanted sexual advances from men. Every kind of abuse has this isolating effect—of making the victim think ‘Am I going mad? Am I the only one who thinks this is not acceptable? Am I the only one who sees the world this way?’
If there has been a change of solidarity for women, then there has been an accompanying challenge to men—and they have responded in different ways to this. I can only agree with Martin Saunders’ assessment: that men need to take a deep breath, consider the experience of half the human race, and be committed to doing something about it:
I personally received a lot of criticism when I suggested than all men should feel at least a little ashamed in the face of all the #metoo stories. Shaming an entire sex isn’t the answer, I was repeatedly told. I respectfully disagree. I think we should feel some reflected sense of shame, because that not only acknowledges that we’re part of the problem, but also that we could form part of the solution.
At the same time, many have felt quite serious reservations about the way that the hashtag has been used, including many women I have spoken to. (The power of social media is a two-edged sword, and it can do as much damage as good at times.) In part this was because it began to move into portraying all women as victims; in part because both the serious and trivial were being grouped together without distinction.
Is awareness-raising such as this useful in and of itself? I felt, yesterday, the same vague despair I feel at the proliferation of “Let’s Talk” campaigns and journalism around mental illness. What began, in that case, as a well-intentioned encouragement to do away with personal shame around your diagnosis, transformed eventually into a slick and meaningless catchphrase which puts the burden on the sufferer to heal themselves without any resources.
A clear example of this was the list a journalist compiled of offences committed by MPs in Parliament. Not only did it juxtapose serious offences with actions of no consequence, by attributing names which were then blacked out it perfected the art of trial by media, with no court of appeal. There is little that anyone can do who is named on such a list. We might be less concerned about the reputations of powerful men—until we read of the tragedy of Carl Sargeant, the 49-year-old father of two who took his own life as a result of allegations made against him.
Former Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said Mr Sargeant “clearly felt he had been found guilty before he had a chance to defend himself. “So I think we need to develop a system which is fair to everybody, which defends everybody, but doesn’t place people in a position where they feel they have no opportunity whatsoever to fight their cause.”
As Mark Woods highlights, Christians have a better story to tell about wrongdoing, accountability and forgiveness. We should be unafraid to call for justice—but equally unafraid to offer hope to both sides:
Let’s be clear: no one can justify Weinstein-like behaviour, in Hollywood or in Westminster. But anyone can denounce evil. The Church is called to go further: to call sinners to repentance, and to offer the full and free forgiveness of Christ to all who want it. It’s hard to argue for mercy when the whole world is howling for vengeance, but that’s what we’re for.
But this whole episode has raised so many issues about debates in contemporary culture that I have struggled to get my head around them—and most commentators have passed over them. Perhaps the most obvious concerns our cultural narrative about the virtues and vices of men and women. It is well established the most violence against women is perpetrated by men—but so is most violence perpetrated against men. I was physically assaulted twice when I was a teenager, once seriously enough to need medical attention—but have never actually talked about this before. It was striking that the (rather weird) Newsnight debate on this was titled ‘The Problem with Men’ and suggests that men are, largely, viewed as problematic in many of our cultural narratives. In an earlier post on the differences between men and women, I cited the intriguing thought experiment suggested by Roger Olson:
Image a world without females. (There are at least a couple of novels that do this.) Only male humans exist in this imaginary world and cloning is the means of reproduction. What would be missing besides breasts, internal genitalia, etc.? No one I know thinks this would be a good world; it would be missing some very essential qualities. I think everyone agrees with that. What would those missing qualities be? I suspect we don’t even need to answer that; everyone has his or her list. This is why there is such a push in academic circles to get girls and women into STEM disciplines and careers—because those professions (it is said) will be “better” with more women in them. Women as women contribute much to the world and every profession in it. I have never met anyone who would argue with that other than patriarchal “complementarians” (neo-fundamentalists).
Now imagine a world without males. (Again, there are a couple novels that do this.) Only female humans exist in this imaginary world and some means has been discovered for reproduction without males. What would be missing besides external genitalia and Adam’s apples? I think many people think this could be a perfectly good world; it would not be missing any essential qualities. And those who think it would be missing some essential qualities are reluctant to say what they are. I am—because the push back can be very harsh (in my world). Could this be why nobody is saying that any discipline or profession would be “better” if more men were in them? At least I have never read that in The Chronicle of Higher Education or any other journal or article or book about gender in academia and the world of careers and professions.
What Olson is highlighting is that, as we have moved from a culture which has, for centuries or more, imagined that the male of the species is normative, and the female is a poor derivative, the corrective response to that has not been to re-establish equality between and an equal appreciation of the two sexes, but more often to reverse them. The female is often seen as normative or even virtuous, and the male is a poor imitation.
This feeds into the second reality that this issue highlights: men are different from women. (Please note that any statements of this kind need to be treated in the same way as the claim that ‘Men are taller than women’. It does not mean that every man is taller than every women. It means that men as a group are taller than women as a group, and therefore that the average man is taller than the average woman.) This was ‘front and centre’ of the Newsnight discussion, where Evan Davies introduced the programme by saying ‘It’s hard to put it any other way—but there is something animal when it comes to men and sex’. For Christians who believe in the ‘traditional’ view of marriage as between one man and one woman as the right place for sexual intimacy, this is non-trivial. It is not a reason for believing such a view, but it is an important consequence of it. Part of the negotiation of male-female marriage is (typically) the negotiation between differential interests in sex. As Glenn Stanton put it on the First Things blog:
Women settle men down. Other men do not.
If men are (fundamentally?) different from women in this regard, then same-sex sexual relationships are going to be (fundamentally?) different from other-sex sexual relationships.
The third reality is about differences in power. With his customary eloquence, Will Self lamented (on Sunday’s Point of View) the failure of the ‘first wave’ feminism of his mother to have actually ‘reclaimed the night’.
The only reason that I can walk down the streets of London without fear, and others cannot, is that I have a penis.
That is not quite true. The reason that he can walk without fear is that he is very tall and, as a man, has something like 40% greater upper body strength than the typical woman. Sexual harassment is an issue of power as much as anything else, and it is no coincidence that it is powerful men who are most often guilty of sexual assault. They are in positions of power, and so have the opportunity—and they are highly motivated by power (else they would not be in the positions that they are in) so have ample reason.
It seems if you give men huge amounts of power, whether the power of celebrity (in Trump’s self-confessed case), or the power to destroy careers (Weinstein), or power in the workplace (O’Reilly, Fish), or just plain male privilege, we will abuse it. Charles de Montesquieu once said, “Experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.”
Hear that? As far as it will go.
Seventy-six women have come forward to charge Harvey Weinstein with harassment or assault. The next worst offender is film director James Tobak with 31 women going on the record (although the Los Angeles Times claims he has been accused of sexually harassing over 300 women). That’s the unchecked power of men who feel they can act without consequences. We simply can’t be trusted with impunity. Give an actor, a director, a film producer, a reality TV star, a publisher, a politician, or a minister of religion, power with impunity and they’ll exploit it.
In the neoliberal economics of the West at the present time, we appear to be happy living with massive inequalities of power. As long as that is the case, then we will be faced with the offence of abuse. Will Self highlighted the concerned in feminism with the ‘male gaze’. But with the all-pervasive power of the internet, we have provided men with the opportunity to indulge that gaze more than ever. Where is any government in the West who is prepared to take on the distribution of pornography on the net? Once more, it appears to come down to power—the power of lobbying, the power of commerce and taxation, and the power of PR, in that no government wants to be seen to restrict freedoms.
But Mike Frost’s observations about power include a pointed challenge: if women were like men, would they be any different?
And in saying this, I’m not suggesting the abuse of power is only a male issue. Would women treat men this way if we lived in a matriarchal system where women had significantly greater power than men? We haven’t had a chance to find out. But since I’m pretty skeptical about most gender stereotyping, I’m inclined to think that, yes, they would.
When we speak about the inevitability of the abuse of power we always use male language or male examples because men have had all the power. But if Lord Acton’s old axiom that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is true, then it ought to be applicable to both men and women.
This points us to another phenomenon in our cultural narrative: the universality of human corruption. Even the Queen, it seems, is not above minimising her tax bill with some borderline off-shore practices. Next time you listen to the news, and hear tales of dishonesty, greed, selfishness and corruption, it is perhaps worth having Romans 3 to hand:
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Paul is being polemical, but he is using this catena of OT verses to highlight a pervasive reality of the human condition: ‘All have sinned’…so the gracious offer of God’s forgiveness is of relevance to all. He is, of course, very clear that this polemic is not one that can be used by ‘the righteous’ to point to others—it includes us all. But it is striking how easily we talk of human sin in others, and much we all resist the reality of human sin in ourselves. Are we all guilty? #metoo
In one online discussion, a friend of a friend asserted ‘The Church has nothing to say on this until it gets its own house in order’. That is wrong on two counts. First, the Church (or any institutional expression of Christian faith) will never be perfect, so if we wait for this we will be waiting forever. Second, though we need a credible testimony of change, in the end we are not pointing to ourselves, but to another—one who never abused power or sex, and who laid down his life for us. Our own failings should never make us hesitate to point to him.
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