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.