Resolving the #MeToo Controversy May Offer Transpartisan Opportunity

Transpartisan Note #80

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

On January 15th, French actress Catherine Deneuve apologized to “victims of horrible acts … and to them alone” who felt “attacked” by the recent open letter published by French newspaper Le Monde stating the #Me Too movement had gone too far.

Five days earlier, on January 10th,  100 French women writers, entertainers, historians, academics and intellectuals signed a letter published in Le Monde challenging the #MeToo Movement and its French equivalent, #Balancetonporc (‘Expose Your Pig’), for publicly prosecuting private experiences and creating a totalitarian climate.

While condemning actions like those by producer Harvey Weinstein, the French women, led by the iconic French actress, deplored as ‘witch-hunts’ and a ‘new puritanism’ the public revelations and denunciations of sex scandals that have ruined dozens of men.  They decry public exposure of people who are seen as sex offenders without giving them a chance to defend themselves, and they argue that the movements threaten sexual freedom, promote hatred of men, and jeopardize the rights of women.

‘This expedited justice … already has its victims,’ they write, ‘men prevented from practicing their profession as punishment, forced to resign, etc., while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee…’  (The latter comment clearly refers to the resignation of former UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who resigned in November after admitting to touching journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee in 2002.)

The subject of private sexual advances raises issues of the most intimate, subjective kind, and the letter clearly means to address them.  All actions that cause sexual discomfort cannot be treated as if they are equivalent to rape.  They go on:

[W]e defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom…

Above all, we are aware that the human being is not a monolith: A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a ‘whore’ or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy.  She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense.  She can even consider this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.

Incidents that can affect a woman’s body do not necessarily affect her dignity and must not, as difficult as they can be, necessarily make her a perpetual victim.  Because we are not reducible to our bodies.  Our inner freedom is inviolable.  And this freedom that we cherish is not without risks and responsibilities.

The subject calls forth widely different responses from both women and men.  They range from women who are discomfited by any workplace sexual innuendo to a reaction exemplified by one woman who said she would be insulted not to be hit on by male colleagues at work.  (She thinks different attitudes toward the issue may be influenced by differences in self-confidence – whether people are confident they can handle unwanted advances — and also in different power relationships.)  On the latter point, the threat of public exposure may to some degree equalize the vulnerabilities resulting from power imbalances.

They may also be influenced by differences in how the French versus Americans view sex.

As transpartisans, we suggest that these issues involve the same tension between freedom and order—and the desire to integrate them—that defines most if not all public issues.

This issue is greatly complicated by the fact that it is about individual responses to individual acts, with no objective standards to guide judgments—and no objective standards that are even possible.

In a January 17 article, Bloomberg writer Megan McArdle put the matter directly:

‘Me too.  Me too.  Me too.  When our friends and colleagues are the accusers, when our neighbors and peers are the accused, the problem stares us in the face from a proximity so intimate that we cannot dismiss it with a simplistic response.  All that’s clear is that the problem is real, and the solutions will not be simple.’

She wrote in another article, ‘Sex panic harks back to the days of coddling women: there must be some way to find justice for women who have been abused without rushing to punish men who may not have abused anyone…’  We must ‘find some middle ground,’ she wrote finally, ‘between “Boys will be boys” and “Burn the warlocks!” else we may discover that in trying to build a better future, we’ve accidentally resurrected our repressive past.’

The real issue here is about engagement, just as many or most other political and social issues are about engagement.  With real engagement, people achieve extraordinary equality.  It is true in public school communities mobilizing to reform schools, in community-based law enforcement and public health centers, and also in all relationships when people approach each other sexually.  Mechanized relationships without engagement do not work in any social or political sector.  That is one of the primal transpartisan principles.  #MeToo and its critics both present an opportunity to solve this problem with that principle.

Note: The LeMonde letter was co-written by five French women: Sarah Chiche (writer/psychoanalyst), Catherine Millet (author/art critic), Catherine Robbe-Grillet (actress/writer), Peggy Sastre (author/journalist) and Abnousse Shalmani (writer/journalist). It was signed by some 100 others. See the full list of signatories.

Photo Martin J. Kraft / Wikimedia

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