Sexual harassment and harassment with a gendered aspect built into the exercise of workplace power are pretty commonplace in ordinary workplaces around Australia, a point barely taken up in the Me Too frenzy. So is sex between workmates and between people on different levels of workplace hierarchies. The two shouldn’t be confused. Right now, with Prime Minister Turnbull’s ban on sex between ministers and staffers, people are scrambling to make the necessary distinctions. Sensible commentators are making clarifying statements (one this morning said Me Too has nothing to do with the reaction to Barnaby Joyce), but the problem is that sex and power are everywhere in public discourse at present, and not just as particular scandalous cases.
Even though Barnaby Joyce’s sexual affair is clearly consensual and loving (whatever you think of his various hypocrisies), it has been revealed in the context of the Me Too campaign, and a resurgent, if identity-driven and social media–charged, ‘new feminism’. The features of this broad movement are a background that I think must be taken into account if a certain social hysteria, and knee-jerk measures like Turnbull’s in response, are to be grappled with. Me Too and new feminism, or new gender-based politics, are fuelling the uncontrollable feel of the present moment. There is something more broad-ranging afoot. From a critical point of view, the issue isn’t just about being fair or just in relation to individuals—justice for the women, fairness towards the men—but rather the question balloons out to more embracing concerns about the nature of social relations today. Moreover, given the tendency at present to ‘keep us safe’ (see Simon Cooper’s editorial in our last issue) by instituting formal, often state-based measures, with more or less subtle surveillance and disciplinary features inherent in them, we need to be clear about what these movements actually want, and ask whether they have a grasp of the possible consequences of their approaches.
Me Too has been felt to be a game changer by many because—perhaps like revelations around child sexual abuse—stories are coming out years after abuses have taken place that have clearly been carried in the bodies and emotional memories of those now telling their stories. For some women, the particular incidents they have revealed have had lasting effects on their lives and careers. The view is that the social-media basis of the campaign has ‘empowered’ women to take a stand, and that these revelations will lead to protocols and protections that can be generalised across industries and workplaces. Depending on the fine print of any such protocols (not rules), these may be a welcome feature of workplace relations. It is not a bad thing to aid discussion about and lay down some sort of guide to ethical behaviours in workplace situations; to change and improve, for women especially, aspects of workplace cultures. But Me Too and its social-media modus operandi signify much more than this potential outcome. Indeed the consequences of certain kinds of social-media campaigns are exactly what are not typically thought through; their own consequences can be devastating for individuals, radically divisive rather than healing, and tend towards a generalising of sentiment rather than deeper, thoughtful assessments of their targets or tactics.
One obvious feature of Me Too is its focus on gross violations, in very particular industries, involving high-profile men. This has led coverage in the mainstream to be salacious and scandalising, to promote as always the media’s sine qua non of reporting lore: the ‘story-based’ account around personality and downfall, with unfolding revelations, and promoting feelings of schadenfreude, if not a dark mixture of envy and revenge, in their readers (not to mention some of their writers). Where are the stories about sexual harassment and analysis of how that works corrosively on victims over time in ordinary workplaces among ordinary men and women? Where are the exposés of companies that punish victims while offering protection to harassers through legal assistance to them, as part of protecting their own names?
As social-media campaign per se, the ‘simple’ message/revelation mode of Me Too is amplified differently from the mainstream media, and is arguably more treacherous in its outcome. It relies on the wildfire, networked, instantaneous, short-fused, ‘democratic’, one-level dissemination of judgements/opinions with huge reach, leading to radical exposure—of victims as well as possible perpetrators—and accusation without access to any structured or considered protocols for fairness. Justice may be the aim, but as concept and practice it can be effaced, while ‘harassment’ by media campaign can become a form of exercise of power, the legitimacy of which may never be raised for deliberation.
Standing further back, can other aspects of Me Too provide clues as to its broader social meanings, or the reasons for sex and power being so much at the forefront of contemporary thinking and movement politics?
I feel that the following is harsh, when new feminism is young and energetic, but even the notion of Me Too is a problem, and that no one in the movement seems to see it is a big, blaring warning. One problem with the phrase ‘Me too’ is that its presumed meaning of ‘It happened to me, too’ simply doesn’t transfer into the shorter phrase. ‘Me too’ has a distinctly negative valuation when used in other (linguistic and social) contexts—and a distinctly pathetic ‘voice’. It is a phrase that implies, if not jumping on a bandwagon, then following suit, rather than taking an independent position—one based in reason rather than unthought-through emotion or assertion. Kids, for instance, say it rather a lot. Focused on the object ‘me’, rather than the active subject ‘I’, it is simultaneously assertive and pleading; it insists on some kind of recognition but from a place that remains rather undefined. This assertive ‘me’ possibly accounts for the feeling a lot of people have of being ‘put off’ by the campaign, even if the testimonies of the women coming forward are compelling.
This, then, is the worry that the notion ‘Me too’ carries the connotations of a certain (cultural) narcissism, and yet, or integral with, a frailty around identity; and this coincides with the preoccupation with identity in contemporary feminist, or better, gender politics and activism. Identity politics among other things is the break-up of the political field of embracing political ideologies and their universalising potentials, and dangers. Even if identity politics has a supposed ‘left’ and ‘right’, it is focused through a primary emphasis on the self, and on identity as a personal creation. It is the contrary situation of the assertion of identity yet identity itself being in question (which is a view of identity that is celebrated in various strains of contemporary theory). As some older feminists have pointed out in relation to the no-platforming of critics of some transgender politics, activist focus has shifted from a politics around structures of oppression or exploitation to opprobrium fixed on individuals. There is a brittleness about identity politics, and perhaps in turn it is more inclined towards a focus on perpetrator individuals.
This is not to say that ‘patriarchy’ as some kind of structure has disappeared from the debate or the lexicon of the new activists, but its meaning and emotional ‘charge’ have changed. As power has come to be understood as being everywhere, patriarchy is no longer quite or only the structure of institutional power that second-wave feminism revealed but rather a currency passed between actors everywhere, and thus charged as political, everywhere. ‘Felt’ everywhere, as the new ideologies of power propose, patriarchal power is an inescapable, ever active target. Of course patriarchy is, as well as a big institutional structure, a psychical structure and set of cultural assumptions that are instantiated in and shape daily, intimate situations. But the putative omnipresence of it, as an active force, always of oppression or abuse, and in some way an implacable force, makes the battle endlessly pitched. Patriarchy, as so understood, seems to be the linchpin concept that makes for the collapse of many distinctions, including that between sexism (discrimination) and misogyny (woman hatred), for instance, and that makes heterosexuality per se a term of abuse, as it is in some quarters. This is likely another reason many onlookers feel uneasy, and thus, too, why there are accusations from various quarters of a ‘witch hunt’: given the promiscuous notion of power now so current, will the search for sexual impropriety ever end?
With these concerns in mind, various questions arise. Are there no distinctions to be made between the types and levels of the behaviour of the men accused (public shaming seems to make no distinction)? Whatever happened to the modern idea of punishment being proportionate to the crime? Aren’t we underrating the real difficulties around the sexual encounter: its insecurities and false moves, misunderstandings and gaucheries? And isn’t there often an imbalance in who puts themselves forward to ‘offer’ and who ‘accepts’ sex, and in any case isn’t every sexual encounter larger than its parts, taking on an energy of its own? And so on.
Such questions, I think, point not only to unease about the Me Too campaign style but also to a sense of the inherent difficulties and challenges in what is a fundamental cultural need to negotiate the differences between men and women—their different bodies being a rather basic illustration. Such questions are likely also a statement or intimation of a sense that patriarchy is not everywhere; that it is not totalising. That women and men exactly negotiate and challenge its oppressive grasp daily in ordinary relations on the basis of their difference and the power afforded by it.
To totalise an enemy, to experience it everywhere, and thus to feel your identity constantly potentially voided by it, or that one must autonomously construct one’s identity against it, is a dire situation. These aspects of gender politics and the focus on ‘patriarchy’ today, together with the capacity of social media to propagate a sense of urgency and imperative, shift the focus from scandal and accusation to the context in which Me Too has taken hold. For me they chime with the fault lines and brittleness of key features of the high-tech society we live in: the thinning out of social relations, the burden on the individual for social integration, the precariousness of identity, the technologisation of the body, and the excessive production of affect. Fighting patriarchy without a deep reflection on the nature of the emergent social whole won’t get us far enough.