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Deborah Casewell is Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at Liverpool Hope University. Deborah graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a PhD in Systematic Theology, and previously taught in Systematic and Philosophical Theology at King’s College London. Her current research is on developing theological and philosophical accounts of vulnerability, through post-war German theology in conjunction with contemporary feminist philosophy. This is done in dialogue with a retrieval of Christian asceticism as a response to our embodied, vulnerable existence. Deborah is also researching how nothingness is a source of modern selfhood in modern philosophy and theology.

The following post is an opinion piece. The Shiloh Project’s leads and participants hold a range of views on and responses to #MeToo and this post (like some other Shiloh blog posts) offers one such view in what we hope will be an ongoing conversation. We invite constructive comments, as well as responses to this and all our posts. Please write to shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

On Vulnerability and Victims: Does #MeToo perpetuate rape culture?

At the beginning of October 2017, both The New York Times and The New Yorker published articles reporting allegations of sexual misconduct spanning many years committed by film mogul Harvey Weinstein against several women. In the wake of responses to Weinstein’s particularly egregious and long-running sexual abuse and harassment, actor Alyssa Milano’s tweet, that ‘if all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’, echoes a phrase introduced long ago by activist Tarana Burke.

#MeToo is not the first of its kind. It harks back to the #YesAllWomen movement of 2014 in response to the motives surrounding the Isla Vista killings, where even if not all men (#NotAllMen) were misogynist, the hashtag claims that #YesAllWomen suffer from misogyny.

The circumstances that gave rise to this hashtag (#MeToo) persist. Unlike previous hashtags, there appears to be, in the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and its knock-on effect in Hollywood and beyond (e.g in politics in the US), increased attention to and acceptance of accusations of sexual assault and harassment. Despite those successes and despite the feeling of solidarity that many report in response to the increased visibility resulting from the MeToo hashtag, there have also been expressions of misgivings, doubt and criticism towards the campaign. The reasons are various: for some the barrage of MeToos triggers trauma, for others it is simply not enough. And whilst the campaign does give greater visibility to the widespread problem of sexual abuse and the culture that promotes it, it flattens them, like the women of Shiloh, into nameless victims and views them only in relation to the men who have acted upon them.

As someone reluctant to participate in #MeToo, yet glad of the openness and the seeming shift in culture, I am intrigued by my own discomfort, part personal, part professional. I work on articulating philosophical and theological accounts of vulnerability and the culture that gives rise to the silence around and acceptance of sexual abuse, as well as the belittling and covering up of incidents of harassment and sexual exploitation, strike me as indicative of failures to attend to widespread vulnerability. Furthermore, this perpetuation and acceptance of violence against vulnerable persons signify for me an especial failure to recognise first, vulnerability and secondly, responsibility towards vulnerable persons.

Despite how the campaign alerts us to the widespread nature of harm in our culture, it too perpetuates a view of women who are defined by how they are acted upon. And, in the process, this demands that they do so for a higher cause, as noted by recent cartoons, captioned ‘I’m Tired of Performing Trauma’.

At the heart of these images is the critique that what the #MeToo campaign has done is to call on the many to abstract away their experiences into a whole, and to place responsibility on victims to step forward. The artists express feelings of re-victimisation, and of another hashtag, another call, but still no real change. The re-victimisation also perpetuates a view of womanhood where a woman is acted on, rather than focusing on what people must do to prevent this behaviour, and change the culture that permits this behaviour: this is part of the responsibility that we all need to have towards each other.

Aside from insisting that women perform the emotional labour by participating in #MeToo, the hashtag has shown the limitations of the culture in which we live, especially in the public sphere. A way in which this can be shown in is the very origin of the hashtag itself. I noted above that Tarana Burke was the originator of the phrase ‘me too’. Burke is an activist and writer who started a movement and several organisations to empower and support women of colour and to aid sexual assault survivors in communities where there was no other support. She started the movement in 2006, following her inability to respond to a teenage girl who had been sexually abused. Burke wished she had been able to say to the girl, ‘me too’, and, as her campaign puts it, enable empowerment through empathy. The ‘Me Too’-movement has been around for more than a decade, but through all the previous hashtags, has never received the attention it receives now until promoted by a white actor and activist.

This is noted, for instance, by Alana Valens (here) and Zahara Hill (here), who both focus on how the #MeToo movement was largely co-opted, usually with little or no mention of its roots. These articles also mention a further point of contention. A boycott of Twitter was called for in response to Twitter temporarily banning the account of the actor Rose McGowan, who has been most vocal against Weinstein. Yet this sudden action in favour of a white actor again emphasised for these authors, the lack of attention to and solidarity with women of colour on Twitter, as Ashley C. Ford details here. Whilst understanding the reasons why the boycott happened, Ford argues that it is short-sighted. The call to boycott Twitter is symptomatic, Ford argues, of a grand action over choosing to understand and organise, writing that ‘even if the Twitter boycott is successful by some measure, it will also ultimately be a missed opportunity to stand together as women, our differences on display, bound in a unity we’ve yet to see so far’.

As I see it, this dichotomy of grand gesture over specific action applies to #MeToo as well. In Tarana Burke’s original rallying call the movement was not meant to be simply a show of solidarity, or something to show men and the world the magnitude of the problem. For Burke the first step to changing a toxic culture and its structures is empathy, and for her ‘me too’ seeks to express this. Now, too, Burke is calling for an acknowledgment of the humanity and personal story behind each ‘me too’, as a first step towards positive change.

The abstraction of the distinctiveness and purposefulness of the original campaign into something very widespread but for me ultimately purposeless (because the focus is less on empathy and more on displaying the widespread nature of sexual assault and harassment, which is hardly new knowledge) echoes the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s critique of the public, which he calls ‘levelling’, in the way it abstracts ‘me too’ from a campaign for and by women of colour into a statement on womanhood as a whole.

My invocation of Kierkegaard – a solitary, difficult Danish thinker, living in Copenhagen in the nineteenth century and famed for his individualistic existentialist philosophy and pseudonymous writings – rather than someone like womanist, activist and influential contemporary writer Audre Lorde, for example, might be surprising. However, considering the public nature of the hashtag, and with his focus on the individual and the different, Kierkegaard’s concerns over talk in the public sphere provide a useful framework for a critique of #MeToo.

In his essay The Present Age Kierkegaard warns against levelling: that is, the practice of reducing all differences to the same level and of speaking about them as one. This is not for him about merging the individual with the group or a kind of conformity of the masses, but a process that ‘destroys everything that is relative, concrete and particular in life’.[1]

Levelling involves detachment from local practices, in which specific issues grow and can be resolved through some committed action. The levelled public sphere, for Kierkegaard, is one where opinions can be shared without any responsibility being taken, or repercussions being experienced. Furthermore, as these opinions occur in the abstract, the solutions also remain abstract, rather than committing people involved on a local and directly engaged level. Kierkegaard notes that ‘what … the speakers at a meeting understand perfectly presented to them as a thought or an observation, they cannot understand at all in the form of action’.[2] As the critiques I have linked to above show, I am not the only one who has observed this being a risk with the hashtag as well.

Levelling has the effect that information can be shared and held without anyone having to act on it or be required to change their behaviour. For Kierkegaard, this tends to focus on opinions – one could opine on a subject without any relation to it or any intention actually to act on that opinion – and, as I see it, the parallels with #MeToo are striking.

In its abstracted, universal form, #MeToo entails no possibility of decision of action, but just perspective and critical commentary (the irony is not lost on me). Kierkegaard’s response to this malaise in his own present age is to plunge into action with passion. Hence, he writes:

There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in swimming in shallow waters. But just as a grown-up, struggling delightedly in the waves, calls to those younger than himself: ‘Come on, jump in quickly’ – the decision in existence … calls out…. Come on, leap cheerfully, even if it means a lighthearted leap, so long as it is decisive.[3]

Talk, even if it raises awareness or brings something into the public sphere, is meaningless without decision and action. There is also the risk that #MeToo, even in raising awareness of the magnitude of the problem, perpetuates a view of women as ontologically ever-victim, and never moves us beyond that. To that end, #MeToo has prompted hashtags that hint at this, such as #HowIWillChange. But unless those words are followed through on, they remain an opinion in the public sphere, disassociated and abstracted. And, as Alana Massey notes, the instinct when faced with #MeToo has been to apologise and seek absolution.

Massey does not take solace in #MeToo. For her it is too late, too inadequate, and too much on her to apologise and forgive, to absolve men of crime and responsibility. #MeToo cries out that all women have been subjected to violence, all women are victims. One response to finding this inadequate, as this piece puts it, is to return to the particular spaces and work outwards from there.

That follows the established pattern of advocacy for change in the culture. Another approach is the French #BalanceTonPorc, or ‘expose your pig’, which instead of emphasising victimhood puts the responsibility on perpetrators. Yet I believe that recent philosophical and ethical work could contribute to a way of changing the culture without making so many demands on the marginalised group. Arguing that vulnerability is universal, constant, and inherent in the human condition, can provide a foundation for ways forward.

Several feminist thinkers have considered philosophical accounts of vulnerability. This is in part due to philosophy’s elevation of supposed masculine traits, such as being invulnerable, rational, unfeeling, or independent, in contrast to a view of women as vulnerable, emotional, embodied, and dependent. Ethics of vulnerability challenge such presumptions in the history of philosophy and argue that we need to think and consider the vulnerable subject: all are subject to harm, all are fragile, dependent on others, and capable of acting on the vulnerability of others.[4] This must not be taken as acceptance of wrongs done because they are just part of the way things are. The ethics of vulnerability involve care and attention to others, because we ourselves need care and attention. Ideally, the victim cannot be blamed because the victim is not responsible – the perpetrator is, for abusing their responsibility towards the vulnerable other. It also accounts for shifts in power, where everyone is, ideally, aware that they are both vulnerable and able to harm others.

One account of this is by the US philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, famous for her accounts of gender as performance and for her recent work on ethics of care. In Precarious Life, written in the wake of 9/11 and the devastation it brought to the US, Butler sees that the experience of vulnerability, of being injured, hurt, or mourning, entails that we are fundamentally dependent on anonymous others. Whilst reluctant to speak of a generic, universal human condition, she notes that as loss happens to everyone, it has ‘made a tenuous “we” of us all’.[5] This experience of vulnerability is an experience of our embodiment, in part as ‘the body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own’.[6]

Butler’s point here is pertinent in terms of how to proceed from the hashtag back into the roots of the movement. #MeToo has, like the hashtags that preceded it, been a good way to raise awareness, but it risks leaving women there. Even as I am glad that there is now this increased awareness, #MeToo, for me, enables and risks an unhelpful levelling of those who participate in it. I see that it does this on a number of levels, and I worry that #MeToo has perpetuated rape culture through this levelling, by making participants, like the women of Shiloh, indistinguishable victims, only known in relation to the misdeeds of men.

I worry that #MeToo levels all incidents of harassment and abuse – with verbal harassment, for instance, levelled with violent assault – and in doing so, it abstracts. This second level, the abstraction, removes the situated, personal experience of the individual and subsumes into a whole, into another instance of a hashtag. Whilst this critical mass has some power, it is overwhelming, as noted by those uncomfortable with not only reliving their trauma but seeing it become another drop in the ocean. My other concern is that it leaves participants in #MeToo hanging: that they have exposed themselves, made themselves vulnerable, torn open the curtain on the huge abuse of power and a profound neglect of those harassed and abused, but provides no way forward from there.

I readily acknowledge that the hashtag has been helpful in providing a means of talking about shared vulnerability and to raise the question of how to work with that so that culture changes for the better. Yet there is the risk that, like with the previous hashtags before that have insisted that women share their trauma, no cultural change will occur. Whilst there has been action, that action reveals the continued limits of the culture. Action from the perpetrators has often taken the form of belated acknowledgement, resignations from people seen to be expendable (for example, compare Netflix’s rapid dropping of Kevin Spacey whilst Danny Masterson, under investigation for rape since March 2017, remains employed on their show The Ranch), and apologies or denials sufficing for those who have enough goodwill to continue in their current roles (see the reaction to the cases of George Takei, Al Franken, and Roy Moore). In a number of cases the impetus has fizzled out, as it has in UK politics. The culture is still not strong enough to affect Donald Trump, and I thus worry that despite all the bandwidth that #MeToo has expended, it continues to place the responsibility for changing the culture, advocating for change in the culture, and maintaining interest in the cause, on the victims.

What action can then be taken? If the internet takes us out of the local sphere, perhaps a move away from the public sphere to the local sphere is a step towards an adequate response. A way of enacting and working around vulnerability can be gained from the source of the phrase ‘me too’. Tarana Burke, after recognising her own failure of responsibility to a young girl who confided in her about sexual abuse, founded Just Be Inc, a youth organisation that runs programmes focused on empowering particularly young women of colour. Burke continues her work in the role of Senior Director of Programs for Girls for Gender Equity. Whilst her organisation may not have the reach that the hashtag has had, Burke, beginning with empathy and awareness-raising, moved on to active programmes of victim empowerment. She also determined that this had to happen on the local level, by going directly into communities and working there.

There are indeed signs that the conversation is moving beyond #MeToo, and beyond the reach of the previous hashtags. A recent piece in The New York Times gives examples of those advocating in specific, marginalised situations and says to go beyond the headlines, beyond those who are famous and who can be called out publicly, to support those who do not have a platform, or voice. #MeToo should not be the last word, and my worry is that in taking solace in it, action ends there, and the culture remains fundamentally unchanged. The focus must continue, and on ways forward that can prevent #MeToo happening again.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 62.

[2] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 39.

[3] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 36-7.

[4] The work of Virginia Held is hugely important here: see Virginia Held, Feminist Morality : Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1993) and The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[5] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London/NY: Verso, 2004, p.20.

[6] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London/NY: Verso, 2004, p.26.

Tags : #MeTooDeborah CasewellLiverpool Hope UniversityPhilosophyVulnerability
Deborah Casewell

The author Deborah Casewell

1 Comment

  1. Absolutely. As a survivor of abuse I support people talking as secrecy is poisonous for the individual but I worry what #metoo will achieve? If I disclose details of the very worst things that ever happened to me I want more than just likes on twitter. I want action. With all these disclosures the world should shake; the world should change – is it? Or are we just acknowledging people’s disclosure of trauma and moving on with our day? That’s my worry and why I haven’t joined in. I want it tied to something solid; funding the processing of rape kits, the eradication of child marriage or better funding for trauma based mental health care, for example. Give it a point besides awareness raising. Who isn’t aware by now? And if not, why not? That’s not my responsibility but theirs.

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