Me Too, which began in 2006 but exploded into the mainstream only with the various Hollywood sex scandals of late 2017, might seem like a novel thing, a shiny new movement unprecedented and out of context, but I promise it is not. Depending on your views you might love or hate the movement, but you probably haven’t taken the time to contextualize Me Too as merely the latest act in a 2500 year old morality play, an exercise I hope deepens and enriches the current debate.
Me Too, like all names, is shorthand. In this case, it signifies that “I’m a victim of sexual crime.” “Oh really? Me too.” Indeed, movement founder Tarana Burke explained the name by saying that she wished she could have gathered in solidarity with other victims, listening to tales of sexual assault and saying “me too.” That seems pretty simple, but there is so much more under the surface. Why would someone proclaim themselves “also a victim?” What do they hope to gain by this? What are the moral assumptions by which dominance becomes bad, suffering noble?
In order to answer these questions, we need to examine a tradition deeply rooted in the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity. Starting with Judaism, we find stories where our heroes, like Abraham and Isaac, show their virtue through submission to God and the villains, like Satan, show their evil through rebellion. In only slightly different words, we learn that it is good to accept a position of submission and bad to strive for a position of dominance. In the Koran, we find that we should not weep for the dead, instead exalting in the martyrdom Allah has generously bestowed upon those who’ve suffered righteously. The early Christians go even further. From the Book of Luke:
Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled.
Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.
Woe to you who are rich; for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now; for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
In other words, the low status, the broken, the victimized and the suffering are morally superior to people who live well. Me Too takes this sentiment and runs with it. The participants, by proclaiming their shared victimization, are showing that they are among the morally blessed. By denouncing the dominant, and thus evil, male paradigm in Hollywood, they are merely updating the idea “woe to ye who are rich.”
This, then, puts the movement in some context. However, it does nothing to explain the opponents of the movement. Like Me Too, they are also the heirs in long traditions, although unlike Me Too, their forefathers come from two very different family trees. The first is the Greco-Roman stoic tradition, which espouses the importance of maximizing one’s dignity and sees embracing victimization as the polar opposite of dignity. The second is the Epicurean tradition. This tradition, basically the ancient version of the hippy movement, argues that pleasure and sexuality are positive goods.
The Stoics, then and now, objected to the Abrahamic paradigm on the grounds that being a victim is dishonorable. Nobody sane, they would argue, looks at a person who suffers and says “yes, this is morally good.” They further argue that by lionizing suffering, the Abrahamic practitioner allows pain and disease to last longer than they should. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, frequently suggests that grieving parents and terminally ill people should attack their suffering head on, conquer it and emerge victorious. To embrace the role of a victim, Seneca would say, is to throw oneself into the mud. The Christian tradition, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca claimed, was the diseased product of miserable and resentful minds. Indeed, this is almost exactly the line of attack typically employed against Me Too by modern advocates of dignity.
To the Epicurean the problem with Me Too and the other Abrahamic traditions is that it makes pleasure in general and sex in particular into a corrupting and evil thing. Indeed, Me Too gains much of its power from the quote-unquote “uniquely evil nature of sexual crime.” To a proponent of the sexual revolution, Me Too is backwards because it makes the case that a crime is worse because sex makes it uglier, more corrupting or in some way defiling. To embrace Me Too, the modern Epicurean would claim, is to cast aside the sexual revolution and re-instate Puritanism. Indeed, the French feminist Deneuve Group has attacked Me Too on exactly these grounds.
I’m absolutely not a fan of playing the victim card to win support or sympathy. All too often it’s just another form of manipulation. On the other hand, you’d have to be a fool to deny that bad people and bad systems, and by extension their victims, exist. And while there are aspects of the Me Too movement that make me wince – and not in an empathetic way – I think that when people who have been abused band together to resist their human or systemic abusers, that’s a good and constructive thing.
To respond to your Stoics: The Me Too movement isn’t intended to be about “lionizing suffering”. It’s about a group of people shining a light on the reality of sexual abuse and demanding that society as a whole take it seriously and make it stop. I see nothing admirable about silently enduring victimizing behavior when you have the means to make your voice heard and bring the behavior to an end and set yourself and others free.
And to respond to your Epicurians: No, the fact that the acts of victimization have a sexual nature isn’t what makes them ugly, except to people who already think sex is inherently bad. People who have been sexually victimized can and do welcome healthy sexual interactions – including flirting and all the way up to BDSM, if that’s your fancy. But healthy sexual interactions demand willing participants. If one participant is coerced, bullied or forced, that’s not healthy – that’s violence, and yeah, it’s ugly.
ANY undeserved violence by a powerful person, group or system against a weaker person or group is vile. But because violence is ubiquitous, and because most individuals are essentially powerless, it’s impossible for individuals to organize against it. Movements develop when groups of individuals who have experienced the same type of violence coalesce. Their common experience, and their shared determination to make such experiences end, is what gives them a voice. As Thomas Donahue said, speaking of unionization, “The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor. “Hence “Workers of the World, Unite!”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Make Love, Not War”, “Pride” and now “Me Too”.
I was trying to present this in as morally neutral a fashion as I could, partly because I think it’s more helpful that way but mostly because I think the moral standards involved are far too amorphous to take seriously.
As such, I would like to offer what I think the Stoics and Epicureans would say, hopefully in a neutral tone.
Stoics: Seneca, at least, would say that there are lots of ways to stop abuse that do not involve labeling oneself a victim or calling oneselft weak. Rather than emphasizing the pain one has suffered, you might mock the malefactor. You might simply work to destroy them and, indeed, MeToo has some of this virtuous, destructive power. By weilding victimhood as a weapon, the MeToo people have already destroyed a great number of men. They will likely destroy a great many more before it’s over. However, to the extent the people involved show themselves shattered, weeping, etc, they are also surrendering their sense of dignity. If a comedian were to mock Weinstein’s lechery until he committed suicide or resigned, the attacker would have maintained her dignity.
The Epicurean: I think this is pretty simple. People get hurt and killed all the time. We usually don’t care very much. Now that sex is involved, we care a lot. Seems a pretty simple relationship to imply.
And then for myself: I think I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I differ in that I generally fear the oppressed more than the oppressors. The oppressor has an interest in the survival of the system, the oppressed is happy to see everything burn down. Historically, the oppressed in control ends up with things like the Haitian Revolution, the sans culottes, the Russian Revolution, Liberia and, more recently, the newly liberated Burmese common people’s passionate campaign to exterminate the Rohingya.
Ben, I read your response to Belladonna’s comments as trying to re-represent your post in a morally neutral fashion, but that’s not possible when your first post’s opening belied non-neutrality through the expression “What are the moral assumptions through which dominance becomes bad, suffering noble?” Such word choice suggests a negative bias toward anyone who has been victimized while also insinuating that #MeToo members view themselves as noble sufferers. Who are you to say, or anyone to say, but those who have experienced violation. And while “victim” is currently the only word that adequately suggests one person losing out to another’s violence, another term might be as useful. Some say “survivor” for those who have survived (unfortunately, not all do).
#MeToo may simply be a way of letting others know that they are not alone, or a showing of support for others whose shared experiences cry for redress. Why generalize or stereotype them? Citing the writings of the ancients is as useful as stereotyping all oppressed people as “happy to see everything burn down.” A few grains of truth may remain but the whole does not apply.
And what is gained by fearing the oppressed? Fear will not help solve their problems or our own. Compassion and an attempt to understand seem more useful tools for bridging a divide. Not all people are the same in all things, nor are they unalike in all things.
Rather than going through point by point, I think it might be better to explain why I think Me Too is a pretty strong analogue to the early Christians and why I think it makes victim-hood into a virtue.
The first thing I’d like to share is an experience I had attending a “Poetry Reading” a couple years ago. Going in, I had the typical view of sexual assault – women almost never lie about sexual assault, it’s super terrible, you should never question or criticize the victim. However, one of the performers really changed my mind and made me think that the victimized are not deserving of automatic sympathy.
This woman, between appeals to cosmic justice and gently weeping for the audience’s benefit, told the story of her horrific “rape.” She had been in high school and was dating her first boyfriend. After several months of dating, he said he wanted to have sex. She wasn’t ready. He said, “I understand, but I’m not going to remain platonic forever.” She said “don’t leave.” He said, “okay, so let’s continue dating but have sex.” She agreed and regretted it later. That, evidently, rose to the standard of rape.
My initial reaction was to just dismiss the woman as unforgivably weak, but upon further reflection, I saw that it was something far more. She was telling this story in front of an audience and it wasn’t her first time putting on that particular show. She was clearly doing this for a reason. She was getting something out of a story wherein she portrayed herself as, frankly, a pathetic weakling. She was getting something out of making “I regretted consenting to sex” into “I was raped.”
I can only think of two possible reasons for this. The first, which was pretty obvious from the crowd and performance aspects, was that this theater brought her admiration and status. The audience got off on pitying her and she got off on believing that “blessed are those who mourn,” exactly the same sentiment portrayed in the Beatitudes. The only other reason I can imagine is that she was using the story as a form of revenge against her ex, who she got to portray as craven, gross and crappy in the sack. This sentiment is almost perfectly created in the works of Church Father Tertullian as entreats the sacred martyrs to destroy dominant Roman society through the power of their shared victimhood. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0323.htm
Perhaps this woman was a weird exception, but I kind of doubt it. Her story almost exactly follows the story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace,” another flower too delicate to to stop herself from consenting to sex. This shows the exact same pattern, subtle signs – “I prefer red wine but he gave me white,” consent, regret, glorious public martyrdom and revenge, all wrapped in a frame of her extreme helplessness – “I gave hints, mumbling and not moving my lips,” “when he asked where I wanted to fuck, I thought the question was too tough,” “he pointed at his penis and told me to go down and I did. I felt pressured,” when she finally said she didn’t want to have sex, he stopped and THEN she decided to feel violated, the obligatory pitiable weeping on the Uber trip home. https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355
The fact that so much of MeToo is about the supposed evils of “cat calls, uncomfortable situations, standing too close on the train” seems to fit within this narrative as well. A cat call is so terrible because the victim is so weak (good) they can be violated by the passing words of strangers. This also ties in with the early Christian view of sex as polluting and inherently evil.
Is this wrong? I don’t know and I honestly don’t care. I feel that the moral judgment just gets in the way. We sometimes do need extra legal ways to destroy people. Resentment is natural and we all love to root for the underdog. I honestly don’t even have a problem with women making themselves into sacred vessels of martyrdom and I unironically and truly support the idea that men are less valuable than women. People will always turn whatever they come across into moral high ground. However, my purpose here and with the article is to show where the road of the sacred victim has led in the past and I think I stand by it.