Recently, #MeToo has been back in the news, as comedian Louis C.K. — along with other recently disgraced celebrities like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose — make their first tentative steps back into public life. It has stirred up an anguished discussion about what justice for these men might look like and whether the thirst to punish them has gone too far.
Comedian Michael Ian Black said that “people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives.”
(After the tweet, Black came under heavy criticism and walked back the comments.)
Comedy club owner Noam Dworman also defended C.K.’s return to comedy, saying, “There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.” SNL comedian Michael Che marveled that C.K. “can be shamed, humiliated, lose millions of dollars, lose all of his projects, lose the respect of a lot of his fans and peers, and whatever else that comes with what he did” ... and still people aren’t satisfied.
What are we to make of this instinct, this sympathy for the accused and concern over their fates?
The best place to find insight is to read the numerous smart women writing on the subject: at Vox, Laura McGann, Anna North, Constance Grady, and Hana Michels; at the Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis; at the New York Times, Roxane Gay; at the Daily Beast, Danielle Tcholakian; at the Independent, Gabrielle Noel; at Boing Boing, Maureen Herman; at The Hollywood Reporter, Mo Ryan; and many more.
All of those pieces are impassioned, eloquent, and, yes, angry about C.K.’s comeback. (Read Rebecca Traister on the “summer of rage” and then do yourself a favor and preorder her new book on female anger.)
In all of them, between the lines, there is a familiar plaint: I can’t believe I have to explain this shit.
I was reflecting on that feeling after I got into an exchange about #MeToo with an old hometown Tennessee acquaintance on Facebook. I was gripped by sputtering outrage, but he remained amused and bemused. Did I want C.K.’s blood? What could possibly satisfy me?
As we talked, it became clear relatively quickly that we were not so much reasoning differently as seeing different things. A great many things about the world that from my perspective seem quite obvious seemed controversial or dubious to him. We paid attention to different things, and so our realities were differently constructed — we lived, effectively, in different worlds. Without shared premises, our arguments couldn’t connect.
On this topic, accurate perception is as important as valid reasoning. That’s why the term “woke,” despite being overused to the point of parody, still has some resonance. When it comes to certain power dynamics in culture and their consequences, coming to perceive them really does feel like waking up, like noticing something that’s been in front of you all along.
It doesn’t happen in some blinding flash or revelation. It’s a fraught, fitful, and incremental process. But in my experience, among those I know or have witnessed, it proceeds less through being convinced of arguments than through an iterative process of opening oneself to seeing things anew.
Like so many men of my age and demographic, I am but half-woke, still reckoning with the instincts and perspectives my upbringing wrote into my code. But I think I can do a decent job explaining, for my more skeptical dude readers (like my acquaintance in Tennessee), the rudiments of #MeToo — just what it is women see that many men do not.
It goes like this: Sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse are everywhere. They are not isolated cases, not rare, and not confined to the powerful or famous. They constitute an ongoing, systemic crisis. #MeToo is meant to draw attention to that crisis. Talking about the perpetrators “moving on with their lives” at all, much less with sympathy and solicitude, is a clear signal that the moral weight and severity of the crisis has not sunk in. We’re still not taking this shit seriously.
It goes without saying that legions of women have said all this before and better than me, but for whatever (lamentable) reasons, there are demographics that may be reachable by a dudely voice that are not being reached by female voices. So I figure it can’t hurt to add my voice to the choir.
Let’s start here: what is #MeToo about?
The movement has been around for a decade (the current use of the term “me too” traces to civil rights activist Tarana Burke), but #MeToo was thrust into recent prominence by the exposure of a long string of high-profile sexual harassers and abusers, beginning with Bill Cosby. It is those high-profile abusers who have dominated the headlines.
But the movement is not about high-profile abusers. The point is not to punish a handful of powerful men to get some kind of vengeful thrill.
Highlighting the abuses of the powerful is meant to illuminate the fact that those sorts of abuses are ubiquitous. Sexual harassment and abuse go on all over the place, in virtually every institution of American life. Wherever there is a power differential — which is almost everywhere in a male-dominated society, whether it’s in a comedy club, a factory, a newsroom, a boardroom, or the home, where men are almost always physically more powerful — men very frequently use it to harass, intimidate, and assault women. It is going on all around us, as we speak.
Now, of course, not all offenses are the same and not all victims are the same. There’s a big difference between assault and derogatory comments.
But my dudes: Women know there are gradations of abuse. They are scholars on the subject. They know there’s a difference between making suggestive dick jokes and waving your dick at her, and waving your dick at her and holding her down, and holding her down and penetrating her, and penetrating her and hitting her, and hitting her and later freezing her bank account and threatening to kill her if she tells anyone — and actually killing her, which happens to roughly three women a day here in the US. Women are quite sensitive to these differences. They rarely need them explained, by even the most well-intentioned man.
Of course harassment and abuse exist along a spectrum. The point is not that everything on the spectrum is the same, but that it’s all the same spectrum — a range of expressions that trace to a core set of ideas, namely that women are objects, adjuncts to men, there to soothe, coddle, please, or serve men, subject to their control and abuse.
Those ideas lodge themselves in us, men and women, from an early age: in our language, in our instincts and perceptions, in our institutions and practices, in the way we are treated and see others treated. They assert and perpetuate themselves in many different ways, from full-on violence and repression down through subtle patterns of exclusion, coercion, and favoritism in the workplace.
It’s all the same set of ideas, though. They’ve been around for centuries. (And they’re finding recent expression in alt-right and Gamergate circles. Read, if you can bear it, about the “Incel Rebellion.”)
Arguing over the exact percentage of women who have been violently sexually assaulted, as so many conservatives seem to find irresistible in this context, misses the point. Virtually every woman has experienced something along that spectrum. Virtually every woman knows other women who have experienced things all up and down that spectrum.
And every single woman wakes up every day knowing that no matter how careful she is, anything along that spectrum could happen to her. Perhaps she encounters a fondler on the subway, or has to face a flirting co-worker or persistent ex-boyfriend. Perhaps she’s just on the wrong block at the wrong time. Plenty of triggers that small or smaller have led to women being beaten, raped, or killed. Plenty of women have been as careful as they could, to no avail.
There is an undercurrent of danger in even the most mundane parts of a woman’s day, in any space containing a man or to which a man might have access. It often recedes into the background, becoming less conscious than instinctual, even cellular, but it never entirely disappears. (And if it recedes too far, some man will soon be along to dredge it back up.)
All those experiences, the direct ones and the ones shared through women-supportive networks, communicate to women, in various ways and with varying severity, that same core set of ideas: Your body is not entirely your own. You are, on some level, always and everywhere, subject to men. If you step out of line, you will be punished.
And if you stay in line, you will, at least sometimes, be rewarded. As philosophy professor Kate Manne told Vox’s Sean Illing, “misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women — instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.”
All those signals, large and small, from dick-waving to sly condescension, levy a kind of cognitive and emotional tax on women. Watching for those signals, defending against them, working around them, just thinking and worrying about them, eats up some portion of every woman’s attention and drains some portion of every woman’s energy.
And it’s not just the sexism — it’s the ever-present possibility of it, in every context. Knowing misogyny is everywhere, but never knowing for certain how much of it is involved in any particular interaction, is crazy-making. (Just ask any female politician.)
Even more crazy-making, to return to my original point, is to see misogyny all over the place, plain as day, and to have the culture around you pretend that these are isolated incidents and bad apples and gosh, why are women so hysterical?
If sexual discrimination and abuse are as common as women say they are, it’s a crisis
So that’s what #MeToo is about, as I see it: not powerful public figures, but what the behavior of powerful public figures tells us about the epidemic of sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse in America’s homes, schools, workplaces, and institutions. The message of the movement (of the slogan itself!) is that this problem is ubiquitous. It’s unfolding all around us, ongoing.
What would it mean to take that seriously? What are the implications?
Well, if you grant that women matter as much as men and are due equal rights, and you operate based on some kind of universalist moral code that says all people are worthy of moral consideration (these are not small caveats), then there’s no way to see the ubiquity of sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse as anything but a five-alarm moral emergency — a crisis.
After all, half of us are suffering regular harms, with consequences ranging from death to injury, psychological trauma, lost professional and economic opportunities, or just a lifetime of weary, wary cynicism. How could that be anything other than a crisis? How many obvious and ongoing injustices are suffered, in varying degrees, by fully half the species? (And, yes, it’s always worth noting that men also suffer sexual abuse, and patriarchy harms men in all sorts of other ways, too, so really this crisis is species-wide.)
It’s not just a crisis of enormous scale; it’s also a transformative opportunity. We are denying ourselves the full participation and potential of half the species, even though we know that numerous social ills (including climate change) would be ameliorated by better educating girls and emancipating women. Imagine all the great things they could do if they didn’t have to deal with this shit!
The problem is systemic. That’s what women see, what they want men to see, and what #MeToo is about. Which brings us back to Louis C.K.
The fate of abusers ought to be the least of our worries ... but it isn’t
If you see sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse as an ongoing moral crisis, as so many women have encouraged us to do, then you can only regard the discussion around Louis C.K.’s reentry into public life with surreal bemusement. (And rage, of course. Always rage.)
Consider: C.K. admits he spent years cornering women, waving his dick at them, and masturbating in front of them. When he was exposed and cornered himself, he issued an “apology” (which nowhere featured the words “I’m sorry”) and went quiet for nine months. Then he appeared, unannounced, at a comedy club, making jokes about rape whistles.
And somehow the question that burped to the surface of our culture was, “Why can’t Louis C.K. get a break?”
This is what I went around and around with my Tennessee acquaintance about. He seemed very taken with the question of restorative justice. Was C.K. to face a life sentence? Could the man never make a living again? And what about poor Al Franken, railroaded from the Senate? When is it enough for you people?
Well, one answer is: Don’t worry. A culture soaked top to bottom in misogyny will not visit undue suffering on these men, if they are your concern.
C.K. got a standing ovation at his unannounced appearance. Al Franken will either return to politics or find a job that pays him millions of dollars. Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose will probably show up on TV again. Roger Ailes died rich; Bill O’Reilly will too. Reportedly, Les Moonves could get $100 million on his way out the door at CBS.
If the welfare of men is your concern, take heart: For every Cosby or Weinstein, there are hundreds of floor managers, vice presidents, boyfriends, and college students whose abuses will never be exposed and for which they will face no consequences at all. Most men will never need a “road back,” though most would get it if they did.
But let’s zoom out a little. The question of justice for C.K. is coherent only via a weird sort of tunnel vision. The only reason to narrow the focus to the individual abuser is to activate an entirely unearned empathy, to frame a set of options that limits rather than opens further discussion.
There is no conceivable moral justification for narrowing the focus this way. It feels loopy to even have to say this, but here it is: Any moral system that takes women seriously must judge the damage done to the victims a more grievous harm than anything C.K. might experience in his quest to “move on with his life.”
C.K. hurt people. He scarred young comedians for life, sent some of them out of comedy. The women to whom this happened are real, actual human beings with their own aspirations, talents, and stories. Who knows how their lives might be different if they hadn’t found themselves in a small room with a sweaty, panting shithead who had the power to make or break their careers?
Before we speculate what art C.K. might or might not make in the future, why don’t we ask what art his victims might have made absent the trauma he visited on them? As Caroline Framke asked in a great piece last year, “What about the great art we lost?”
By any sane moral calculus, concern for restorative justice or redemption ought to focus on the victims. The women. What is their “road back” from the harm C.K. did to them? How will they be restored or redeemed? What are we doing for them? What is C.K. doing for them?
This is what women see: that somehow, we’ve made men the protagonists again. Somehow or other, it always ends up being about the men, their struggles and second chances, our feelings for and about them. The victims become extras, a Greek chorus to accompany a story of failure and redemption.
Victims of sexual abuse are real people, protagonists of their own stories
If you take women seriously as full and equal human beings, and you contemplate the hundreds of thousands of victims of abuse who will never be heard or receive any recompense, and you contemplate the untold thousands of abusive acts and relationships ongoing in the US as we speak, and you contemplate the hostility and skepticism with which victims are still met when they come forward, and you contemplate the thuggish misogyny of the current administration and the real damage it is doing to American women, it just becomes really difficult to gin up a lot of sympathy for, oh, Al Franken.
It’s not that I wish suffering on him, or believe that you should. I just don’t think about him a lot. I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine.
Has C.K. suffered enough? Has he shown that he takes what he did seriously? C’mon. Of course not. Some people will care, most probably won’t, but call it what it is: He’s blowing this off. What he ought to be doing, what all men ought to be doing, is taking concrete steps to improve the treatment of women in his industry and in culture more broadly, through example and educating other men.
I don’t think about him a lot either, though. I don’t think much about any of these creeps. When I survey the milieu of our culture, the countless women who are hurting, their potential being stifled and their peace of mind destroyed, I have no concern left over for the last few chapters of these guys’ memoirs.
#MeToo is meant to focus our attention on an ongoing crisis, one that is no less tragic or urgent for being so familiar. Has the movement gone too far? It will never, in our lifetimes, go far enough.