Time magazine’s person of the year tells us much about 2017

Of course Time magazine has named the actors, journalists, musicians and many thousands of people who have taken to social media to speak out against sexual harassment as person of the year. Of course the famous, beautiful and defiant ‘silence breakers’ adorn the front cover. The Me Too phenomenon epitomises 2017. But what does this tell us about 2017?

It tells us that women are applauded for having suffered far more than for anything they have achieved. The breakthroughs made this year by female scientists, engineers and academics are overlooked in favour of celebrating women as victims. The Me Too Tweeters are praised for speaking out but public assertions of victimhood, however loudly made, do not make women strong. In order to speak out, women must first suffer; in order to have a voice they must first be passive. The elevation, in 2017, of those who have suffered and now bare all, tells us that being a victim today comes with a powerful moral authority that garners attention and status.

The collective craving for innocence and desire to believe without question redefines bravery. In 2017 being brave is not a personal struggle to overcome adversity. It’s not battling against the odds for a cause you believe in when the powerful and influential in society are against you. It’s not even taking a perpetrator to court and giving testimony to ensure justice is done. Being brave in 2017 is, it seems, receiving public affirmation through social media ‘likes’, photoshoots, press conferences and newspaper columns. Declaring ‘Me Too’ puts you beyond interrogation and firmly in the moral majority. It’s the most conformist thing a woman can do.

Making ‘silence breakers’ the person of the year tells us that in 2017 not just sexual harassment but rape has been trivialised. Some of the allegations against the likes of Harvey Weinstein are horrendous. If he is found guilty of even half the charges against him he deserves to be locked up for a very long time. But with the Me Too phenomenon we moved in a heartbeat from accusations of rape and serious sexual assault to allegations of knee touching, unwanted kisses, inappropriate text messages and clumsy passes. All got lumped together under the assumption that one led to the other, that the hand on the back was on a continuum with rape.

Grouping together rape and bad behaviour allows all women to cast themselves as victims. But in the process, criminal acts that need to be taken to the police get blurred with far more trivial incidents. This does neither women who have been abused nor young women about to take on the world any favours. When everyone is a victim then the nature of the crime committed becomes meaningless. Instead, all interactions between men and women are shrouded in suspicion.

The celebration of Me Too tells us that in 2017 justice has been redefined. The accusers are all holy now. Courts of law have been replaced with trial by social media. Innocent until proven guilty has been jettisoned in favour of believing women. Women are positioned as childlike creatures incapable of ever uttering an untruth. Men, meanwhile, have lost their livelihoods and their reputations on the word of an accuser. Evidence of crimes having been committed and opportunities for the accused to defend themselves are no longer deemed necessary. As this year closes we must not forget Carl Sargeant, Labour member of the Welsh assembly, who committed suicide without even knowing the nature of the accusations against him. This tragedy shows the barbaric personal consequences of turning back the clock on enlightened principles of due process established over centuries.

The Me Too campaign, dominated by the voices of actors and journalists, joined by those with time to Tweet, tells us that the concerns of an elite group of privileged women carry far more weight than the problems experienced by women in countries where to be female is still to be oppressed. In the UK, more media attention has been given to the plight of middle class women who may have had their knee touched or experienced the horror of an attempted kiss than was dedicated to the teenage girls, groomed and raped, in Rochester, Oxford and Rochdale. The patronising assumption that the great and the good are speaking out on behalf of the voiceless is belied by the narcissism inherent in the phrase ‘me too’.

I hope that in 2018 we see the end of Me Too. The sexual revolution of the 1960s overturned assumptions that women had no sexual appetite of their own and needed chaperones, curfews and regulations to protect their chastity. It seems we are reinventing this view with consent classes, workplace anti-harassment policies and social media mobs. In 2018 let’s celebrate the many achievements of strong and powerful women who scorn being protected for their own good.