The revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment and abuse of women — largely young, aspiring actresses in a position of vulnerability — have triggered a viral phenomenon where women who were harassed or abused by men in the past have felt suddenly empowered to reveal to the world their own hidden hurt, posting under the hashtag #MeToo in an act of solidarity and consciousness raising. The experience of women in historically patriarchal societies is one of vulnerability, and there are few women who have not endured emotional or physical suffering at the hands of powerful men, simply because they were women. But the intensity of the response shows not just the scale of the phenomenon but the degree of pent-up pain felt by so many women, as well as diffuse anger at a society that has continued to tolerate it.
The causes lie partly in sexist cultural norms as well as in physiological differences — realities that we need to take into consideration in our efforts to make society safer for women. While cultural evolution takes time, the explosion of this issue has made many men aware of their responsibility — not for the past actions of other men whose gender they happen to share, but for their own actions, which should include greater self-awareness and sensitivity, support for women and condemnation of perpetrators.
But harassment and sexual abuse are not exclusively a phenomenon experienced by women, even though women are far more frequent victims. Some of the #MeToo posts explicitly invited both women and men to copy-paste them if applicable. One male friend used the opportunity to disclose his own past experiences as the victim of sexual abuse, going back to his childhood, that he had been carrying with him for so many years. Although most comments were supportive, one of the first was a snappy, “This isn’t about men. Sorry.” followed later by “For once men, this isn’t about you — except as perpetrators.” Someone else dismissively commented that child abuse is a different issue.
Although I believe I understand where these reactions came from — essentially, the perception that the aspect of the phenomenon that is specific to women was being overlooked, and that their common suffering was being misappropriated — I was also perplexed. First of all, that a human being who had been sexually abused and finally felt safe to unload the burden was perfunctorily reprimanded (and on his own Facebook page to boot). As if to say, this is our catharsis, not yours — wait for your moment (if it ever comes). But more generally, I wondered, as many others have, whether this whole hashtag wave was meant to be about the abuse of women or about the victims of sexual abuse of power in general.
It certainly started with the first. But it seems ultimately to have been less of a “political” statement than an outpouring of suppressed grief, and men who identified with the experience of abuse felt permitted to unload their pain as well. Because from the victim’s point of view, the pain is gender-neutral.
If we see the phenomenon as being about the actions and experiences of two distinct gender tribes, then it is understandable that the members of one would resent any apparent relativizing of their pain by the other, especially given the overall asymmetry. But seeing it more broadly as being about people causing suffering to other people they have power over may actually teach us a deeper, more universal message: that each person we interact with is in some ways a vulnerable being, and that we should remember to practice empathy and kindness towards one another, regardless of gender, status, age or other factors. This is actually a simple truth that goes to the heart of our being, and is arguably a state of conscious awareness we should all be aiming for.
The story goes beyond men and women, however. Another friend of mine reposted photos of abused female animals — cows being forcibly impregnated, pigs nursing their young in narrow, sterile farrowing crates, and egg-laying chickens confined to narrow cages — with the same #MeToo hashtag. Again, one of the first comments was “super insensitive” followed by accusations of hijacking and deflecting the main issue. Although I disagreed with the tone of these criticisms, I was unconvinced by the post.
On the one hand, as an animal rights activist myself, I knew that the underlying point of the post was legitimate. The way that animals are treated on factory farms is comparable to the worst ways that humans have been treated by murderous dictatorships, and the suffering is certainly comparable. On the other hand, I felt it appropriate to give space to the spontaneous campaign that was just peaking and to acknowledge the pain of human victims of sexual abuse. As individuals, we each need our own pain to be acknowledged by others, and it can seem like a diversion when people say, “yes, but them too” — especially when it is a different kind of pain and less of a shared experience. Strategically, I felt that the timing of this post would, if anything, make it counterproductive — especially since it was a simple meme without nuance.
And yet, there is a clear, common thread throughout these issues: that abusing power is wrong, because it causes unnecessary, often intense suffering to others. And it also points to a common path towards a solution: that we each do what is needed to both practice and promote empathy in our society, and ensure that none of us takes advantage of our power to harm others.
Most of us are or have been, to some degree, both victims and perpetrators of abuse of power, sexual or not, conditioned by our society in our beliefs about what is appropriate, about what is normal, about what is “right” and “wrong”. But the transformation we need to aim for in our society is not just about codes of conduct. It has to go beyond simply learning a new set of rules and regulations about what kind of behavior is appropriate for this day and age and enforcing current norms. It is fundamentally about our inclination to respect and care for one another, to nurture the capacity we all share to feel empathy for others. For both women and men. For both adults and children. And for both humans and animals.
I believe that virtually everyone who has used the #MeToo hashtag cares about the pain and suffering of others and deplores the abuse of power. What we need to do is promote a society where these principles become widespread and part of our culture, our institutions and our individual identities. And by giving high priority to these qualities at home and in educational systems around the world, the children of today may become better adults of tomorrow. Human beings who use their power, not to harm, but to protect.
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