I picked the wrong week to take a break from Facebook. Or the right week, depending on your take. Following the accusations leveled against Harvey Weinstein and the chain reaction of revelations and confessions about sexual harrassment in the film industry, a pair of hashtags swept across social media (or at least across my feed, which is an echo-chamber crossroads between liberals and show-business professionals).
The first hashtag, #MeToo, is devastating in its simplicity. Women who have suffered sexual harrassment post it, either letting the sentence fragment speak for itself or else following it up with personal accounts of cat-calling, slut-shaming, groping, emotional pressure/abuse, rape, or all of the above. Sometimes the writer acknowledges the internalized obstacles she faced when sitting down to write the post: a deeply ingrained resistance to “taking up space” or “sounding hysterical”; the fear of being dismissed or disbelieved (usually not for the first time); or even a degree of confusion or doubt over whether her experiences “count” as harrassment — even when, based on the descriptions, they absolutely do.
It’s a brave stance for anyone to take, and I’m in awe of all the #MeToo posters for placing themselves in such a vulnerable position (in 2017, what could be riskier than stating controversial personal truths on the internet?). I also believe them – every one of them. Anyone who reacts to victimhood by suspecting ulterior motives has never been a victim – or perhaps is just submerged so deeply in their own myopic cynicism that it’s easier to think the world is filled with petty selfishness than with systemic misogyny. In either case, it’s sad that all the #MeToo posters need to convince anyone that the problem exists. Deniers of sexual inequality have an even weaker case than climate change deniers, yet they are so firmly entrenched in their delusions that it takes a tsunami of testimony to make them take notice.
The second hasthag may be the result of that painfully slow recognition process. The hashtag is #IHave, and it precedes admissions by men (and some women) that yes, they’re aware that our culture is sexist to the core – and yes, they are, or have been, part of the problem. This trend has not caught on as quickly. It’s asking a lot from people to confess their wrongdoings – or even their blindspots – in public forums, and for time immemorial. To make matters more fraught, many of the supporters of the #MeToo movement have condemned #IHave as a band-aid solution. “A Twitter apology won’t do it, I’m afraid,” tweets one tweeter, “You better be handing yourself over to the coppers tomorrow.”
For instance, consider the case of Chris Craddock, an Edmonton playwright and improv actor. Craddock rose to the #IHave challenge on Facebook, acknowledging that he has contributed to rape culture. “I have acted as though women were objects, to be won, to be obtained, to be used,” he wrote. Craddock blamed his bad behaviour on several addictions, but concludes that “the clear lens of sobriety has opened [his] memory to the realities of [his] actions, micro-actions and things more overt.” I’m in no position to doubt the sincerity of his remorse. If we believe the women who state they’ve been abused, shouldn’t we trust the men who own up? If he wasn’t sincere, why post anything at all?
Regardless, Craddock’s confession had consequences. Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, an improv company with which Craddock has been closely connected for years, broke ties with him in accordance with their zero-tolerance harassment policy. Craddock didn’t turn himself in to the “coppers,” but he submitted himself to the court of public opinion, and his peers found him wanting.
I honestly can’t tell if this is justice. I’m not close to Craddock – in fact, I avoided working with him when I was in Edmonton because I found him arrogant – but I have to acknowledge feeling a troubling pang of sympathy when somebody’s career evaporates. Rapid Fire is not punishing him for his confession (though others might want to); they’re taking steps to protect their own staff and artists because of his actions. At the end of the day, even though this bumpy wave of progressive social change is unfolding in 140-character exchanges, actions do speak louder than words.
For this reason and others, I’m not going to take my turn at the #IHave podium. A part of me wants to, even though the consequences can’t possibly be good for me, or even all that good for others. There are people I may have harmed in the past, either through inaction (knowing, but ignoring, signs of harassment by others) or direct action (pushing boundaries, acting with entitlement), but I don’t believe it’s going to help them to read my side of their stories. In my worst nightmares, there may be women I have ignorantly traumatized, but what would my confession do, except revive that trauma? If I’m wrong, I hope those women, or others, will set me straight. Presumption is a cornerstone of misogynistic culture, so I will try not to presume.
#IWill do that and more. #IWill strive daily to make safe spaces for women – in my classrooms, in rehearsal halls, in public spaces. #IWill call out sexism and harassment when I see it, and make it awkward for harassers to continue, even if that means I get the heat directed onto me instead. #IWill teach my students to recognize and question patriarchal tropes in the media they consume and the work they create. #IWill write plays that challenge or subvert misogyny. And #IWill raise my daughter to fiercely defend her right to dignity, respect and autonomy. Plus I hope she will grow up to see culture for what it can be, at the best of times: an ongoing experiment, full of missteps and egregious acts, but forever pregnant with the hope that one day, in the not-so-distant future, we will no longer need these hashtags.