The Me Too movement is a powerful social movement outlining the strength and agency women have both individually and collectively. In “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo,” the author Andrew Sullivan articulates his position on the movement as a moral panic which has developed into unsubstantiated mania and unfair punishment of men. However, the Me Too movement is not inherently about men and their transgressions but about a movement designed to support survivors and build solidarity among men and women while giving women a voice like never before.
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It is apparent that some of Sullivan’s cynicism and criticism toward the movement stems from his deeply-personal political ideology. As a gay, conservative, Catholic man, Sullivan fancies himself as a libertarian who favors “limited” government and claims to oppose interventionist policies. However, he was an ardent supporter of the U.S. invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and opposes affirmative action and other egalitarian policies for women and minorities, but spoke out against the Republican party’s anti-gay policies that affected him personally.
His political inspiration comes from Michael Oakeshott who is a strong supporter of inactivism. They are both of the same mind that “change should only ever be incremental and evolutionary.” This is the antithesis of the Me Too movement. It is hard to distinguish how and where a social movement will originate. Movements such as these are built of a million injustices that pile up and up, and then, suddenly, spill over. Typically, one incident becomes the spark that catches, turning individual injustices into an inferno. Contrarily, Sullivan believes that society evolves without anyone realizing unconsciously and forever. His stance is interesting considering his support for marijuana legalization and visibility in the LGBTQ community as an openly gay man, albeit one who has opposed policies expanding legal protections for transgendered people. In fact, in 2006 Sullivan was named as an LGBT History Month Icon. Adhering to his beliefs and ideology, Sullivan argued that “old-fashioned liberalism brought gay equality to America far, far faster than identity politics leftism.”
Although Sullivan argues that the movement seems happenstance and without regard for assailants, this is not the case. The point Sullivan seems to be missing is that these incidents are not necessarily just individual misconduct but rather representative of a larger societal problem. According to the Pew Research Center, “overall, two-thirds of Americans (66%) say the recent sexual assault allegations “mainly reflect widespread problems in society,” compared with just 28% attributing them mainly to individual misconduct.”
Like so many movements that appear spontaneous, the #MeToo movement is built on the work of longtime organizers. Tarana Burke has worked for decades with young women of color who survived sexual violence, and in 2006 she named her campaign “me too” as an expression of solidarity. Though it can be agreed that the foundation of the movement is not solely to target or out perpetrators, this has been an unintended consequence. This focus is to some degree a reaction to a system designed to fail survivors of violence and harassment. Under the existing legal system, “justice” for sexual violence requires convincing first the police and then a court of law that what was done to someone actually happened, and then that it counts as a crime. Women coming together to publicly speak out against their assailants is how we got to the moment when sexual harassment stories are big news. The structures of the legal system and workplace were not just going to change “gradually over time” as Sullivan would have wanted. The system needed to be ameliorated and disrupted to effect change. Tens of thousands of women said yes, me too. Then, rather than wait for men to absorb that knowledge and decide whether to change or not, they started using names, making lists, and talking to each other.
In Sullivan’s article, “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of the #MeToo,” he addresses the now-infamous “Shitty Media Men” list initialized by one journalist Moira Donegan. Sullivan characterizes this list as an “online forum in which anonymous people could make accusations about men whose careers and reputations would potentially be destroyed as a consequence.” Sullivan goes on to admonish the list for including a “chorus of minor offenses on the same list as brutal rapes, physical assaults, brazen threats, unspeakable cruelty, violence, and misogyny. Sullivan praises French women who “don’t see themselves as helpless, powerless, forever-victims of men.” Sullivan, with his characteristic lack of empathy for others, insinuates that women can and should enjoy being the sexual objects of men.
Sociology professor Christy Thornton has noted that in our culture, part of what it means to be a powerful man is to have unfettered access to women’s bodies, or the bodies of others who are less powerful-- transgender and queer people, and people of color are especially vulnerable to such sexual violence. Sullivan attempts to characterize himself as not an opponent of the Me Too movement, but slightly uncomfortable by its breadth and attempts to censor the movement or narrow its parameters. However, the wide scope is the point. The movement is not just about Hollywood, just about the worst of the worst serial rapists, or even just in the workplace. It is a rejection of a core piece of patriarchal power-- and the beginnings of imagining what a society without that power looks like.
Throughout his article, Sullivan goes on to say that “no one is defending abuse of power. It is foul. I’m glad certain monsters have been toppled. But nuance, context, and specifics matter. Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinistic aggression.” Here it is where it is most easy to disagree. Yes, context and specifics matter, and though insistent and clumsy flirting is not a crime it is to be admonished and discouraged. In order to effect change and topple the systems of power that have been put in place and the unfair systemics which work to disempower women it is increasingly important that men see repercussions even for what some may only consider “insistent flirting.”
Throughout the article, Sullivan makes the mistake of consistently drawing comparison between the #MeToo movement and McCarthyism. Sullivan reprimands women for consistently conflating major crimes with minor ones. Violent sexual assault is not the same as a minor offense of unwanted flirting. This is a straw man argument. There is hardly evidence of a single woman claiming that any of these things are equal. Most women do, unremarkably, know the difference between an incident where their personal safety or job security is being threatened and an incident where it isn’t. Moira Donegan’s list does include allegations of simple transgressions rather than just workplace harassment and assault. The reason for that is largely why its called the “Shitty Media Men” list and not the Serious Sexual Harassers and Rapists in Media list. This list was not for men nor for 99 percent of people who eventually saw it, since it was conceived as a private way of sharing information between acquaintances, not a McCarthyite effort intent on ruining careers. The list was a warning, not a witch hunt. It had no purpose beyond better enabling other women to protect themselves from men whom other women had unpleasant experiences with, big and small. Rather than demonize what Sullivan would imagine people might want, it would be well worth it for Sullivan and the like to listen or even better, ask. As Moira Donegan wrote, this moment isn’t about “a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors, but the desire for a kinder, more respectful and more equitable world.”
Sullivan’s concerns about “witch hunts” and McCarthyism ring hollow to anyone with a knowledge of his previous work, when Sullivan was the proud leader of his own witch hunt in the aftermath of 9/11. Sullivan’s attacks on the Me Too movement and its supporters bear a grim similarity to his attacks on the anti-war movement, suggesting Sullivan learned little from the experience in spite of the massive costs to others.
Perhaps one of the scariest realizations of the #MeToo movement, and one Sullivan does not yet understand, is the realization that more often than not, the reality is that we live in the gray areas around sexual violence. There is a spectrum of abuses of power, some tiny and some huge, that all add up to a world where women’s voices, women’s work, and women’s sexual desires are ignored or devalued. What most women and men who’ve told their stories want is for that to stop happening. It is a huge demand, perhaps unrealizable in our lifetimes, one that is bigger than any perpetrator outed in the media: It is not a demand for men to go to jail but rather a demand for men to do the work of learning.
In sum, Sullivan’s opinions on the Me Too movement are another example in his history of ignoring problems that do not affect him personally, clinging to reactionary opinions in the service of the status quo, and a career defined by bad-faith concern trolling. Hopefully, Sullivan will come to realize that the Me Too movement is not necessarily about outing perpetrators but rather about being purposeful in effecting change in our society.