When we hear about a #MeToo story, our initial reaction may depend on our relationship with the accuser or victim. That's why a #MeToo story must ultimately transform into a #NowUs story.
What can we do to stop sexual harassment?
Last week, Creative Loafing published a cover story on a local woman who chose to come forward with sexual harassment allegations against a well-known Charlotte artist and studio owner. We knew the story would elicit responses, and we knew that many of those responses would be emotional. Perhaps naively, we did not expect the levels of vitriol we've seen on social media over the past few days among people in the different camps, pointing fingers at one another rather than engaging in productive conversations about sexual harassment.
I say "perhaps naively," because in the wake of some of the more high-profile, national #MeToo scandals — particularly those involving ostensibly progressive politicians like former congressmen Al Franken and John Conyers — we saw similar finger-pointing on social media. After reports that Conyers had made repeated sexual advances to staff members, his friend, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, went on Meet the Press and initially failed to clearly stand behind Conyers' accusers. Instead, she defended his political career, calling him an "icon in our country" and tacitly dismissing the five women who had come forward by saying, "I don't know who they are. Do you?"
The pushback against Pelosi was strong and swift. While some of her Democratic colleagues offered measured criticism of Pelosi's tone-deafness, many commenters on social media were vicious.
Such is the way of social media.
On Creative Loafing's Facebook page following last week's story, there was some healthy discussion, but far too many friends of both the accuser and the person implicated ripped each other apart rather than talking productively about the elephant in the room: sexual harassment.
In an attempt to ameliorate the situation, I posted a message to CL's Facebook page that read, in part, "Our cover story this week on sexual harassment allegations has stirred anger and ill feelings throughout Charlotte's arts community. We have seen calls on social media for boycotts of local arts businesses. We think this is unfortunate and unnecessary." I then reported that CL is in the process of organizing a public forum for the arts community to come together and discuss issues of sexual harassment, face to face, to figure out how we can work together, support each other and help make the arts community a safer environment for everyone.
My post was a dismal failure — in part, I believe, because I used NPR platitudes like "healing" and "teachable moment," failing to acknowledge the very real anger this case had brought to the surface in our community.
In discussing the story with a friend over the weekend, I realized how tremendously selfish and destructive sexual harassment is — not just for the victim, but for all involved. When someone sexually harasses another human being and that human being shares their #MeToo story, the impact of the story does not stop with the two individuals directly involved.
There's a ripple effect.
It extends to the friends and family members of the person sharing their story. Those friends and family members are angry and hurt. They may ask themselves, "Why didn't I see the signs?" "How can I comfort my friend?"
It extends to those who love the person accused of harassment. They may ask themselves, "How did I not see this behavior in my friend?" "Did I see it and brush it aside?" Their initial reactions may be to rationalize the friend's behavior or pick apart the #MeToo story itself, in an attempt to try and find stability in a world that has been rocked by an incident they weren't expecting to hear about.
The power of the #MeToo movement is that it has created a layer of digital distance between people that allows for a public discourse in which those who have been sexually violated can feel they are not alone in their experiences. The hashtag is a bonding mechanism, showing there are millions who understand, first hand, the weight of sexual violations. By putting a #MeToo hashtag on social media, we validate the experiences of others who have been traumatized.
But that layer of distance also allows space for us to criticize one another without having to talk to each other directly. And that's why this conversation cannot stop with the #MeToo hashtag alone. When the hashtag is removed and the story in the feed transforms into real people, the ripple effect it's created has the potential either to hurt more people or to offer us productive ways to work together, in person, to change a culture that has allowed sexual violations to make the #MeToo narrative a trending topic in the first place.
#MeToo must become #NowUs. What can we all do together, as a community, to end this vicious cycle?