#MeToo feminist war, using fake logic
Is it possible to make a case for #MeToo using rational and reasonable arguments? Probably, depending on which flavor of #MeToo is on offer. But sometimes, what seems rational and reasonable is anything but, involving all sorts of dirty tricks.
In this Guardian article, Moira Donegan purports to analyze “the central rift within feminism today”. She describes it as a dispute between #MeToo and many feminists—mostly of an older generation—that have been critical of it. This seems like an accurate observation. What is more dubious is her air of impartiality, the impression she gives that she understands both sides and weighs their relative merits reasonably. And that only at the end — after careful consideration — she arrives at a conclusion that leans toward the #MeToo side.
What she actually does is something quite different. Her key “refutations” of the #MeToo critics (she labels them “anti-#MeToo feminists”) are a litany of logical fallacies: straw man, circular reasoning, false dichotomy. She twists words and mixes up concepts. She avoids pejorative labels and conspicuous hyperbole, and yet projects powerful negative connotations onto the critics. To me at least, the genre is depressingly familiar: polemic masquerading as analysis.
There are hardly any quotes in the article, and only a couple of relevant links to statements by the critics. So her portrayal of the critics is based mostly on claims about their objections to #MeToo. Furthermore, what little is explicit and traceable is not particularly compelling. She states that “Bari Weiss emphasised the youth and naivety of an anonymous woman who made allegations against the comedian Aziz Ansari”, but Weiss mentions neither youth nor naivety explicitly. And is Donegan’s term “anti-#MeToo” fair and accurate? She notes some male critics, presumably the lowest in her pecking order, but according to her, even they were just complaining that #MeToo had “gone too far” rather than rejecting it altogether. Then, later, she attributes a “call to sympathise more with the perpetrators of sexual assault” to the feminist critics. I’m probably more critical of #MeToo than any of her “anti-#MeToo feminists”, and I would never ask anyone to sympathize with the perpetrators of sexual assault. Sympathy with the falsely accused? Yes. Due process? Of course. But sympathy with the perpetrators of sexual assault? No, and at best irrelevant to this discussion.
She takes on the male critics first, mentioning and dismissing them summarily.
In the media and in private life, conversations about consent, hostile environments and power began, and there was a growing acknowledgment that a man’s unwanted sexual overtures were a symptom of broader social and political forces. Soon, these discussions were interrupted by hand-wringing and anger from male commentators.
Arrogant interruptions do occur when people are talking face to face. In the world of written media on the other hand, women should be able to carry on a conversation between themselves and simply ignore any unwanted male input, but here she claims they were “interrupted”, suggesting obnoxious “mansplaining” behavior. But of course, these men were not having considered opinions, they were performing acts of handwringing and anger.
This is neither surprising nor particularly relevant to the main thrust of her argument, but sets the mood, which is highly confrontational while pretending otherwise.
To summarize the controversy, she first gives her version of the critics’ solution to the problem at hand:
[The critics] argued that by grouping together such a wide spectrum of sexual misbehaviour, #MeToo had lost a sense of nuance. They called on women to toughen up. Whatever happened to no-nonsense rejections, they asked. Those who complained about harassment and assault, Merkin wrote, “perceive themselves to be as frail as Victorian housewives”. By this logic, women could solve the problem of sexual harassment and assault with good humour, patience and a high tolerance for pain.
This paragraph starts out saying that the critics were skeptical of loss of nuance in #MeToo and then attributes to them an attitude totally without nuance: that women can not just mitigate the problem, but solve it. And not just harrassment, but sexual assault, which by defintion includes rape. So have the critics argued that even rape is a problem can be fixed by “good humour, patience and a high tolerance for pain”? I doubt that anyone actually believes that.
She also correctly points out that the two sides tend to emphasize different values. The critics tend to highlight individual empowerment and agency.
The central claim of the anti-#MeToo feminists is that the movement does not treat individual women as moral agents with the capacity to say no, to enjoy and pursue sex, and to do wrong…This thinking partakes in a long moral tradition – one that’s highly compatible with capitalism – in which personal responsibility, independence, and willingness to withstand hardship are revered as particularly valuable virtues.
The observation that the critics are more concerned with these values is certainly correct. And it’s true that they are highly compatible with capitalism. On the other hand, they are compatible with any society or culture that requires actually doing something to survive. Since that applies to practically all societies, the specific mention of capitalism suggests that it is a trigger word used to make the ideas of the feminist critics seem suspect to an anti-capitalist audience.
Then she discusses the “broad array of behavior” targeted by #MeToo:
On the other hand, there is the #MeToo movement. It might seem strange to assert that #MeToo can be spoken of as a single ideology at all – that this cultural moment, which has exposed such a broad array of bad behaviour across so many industries and disciplines, could ever be coherent enough to have an agenda.
But in the next paragraph, this broad array of behavior — in other words, many different behaviors — is actually “the same behavior”:
After all, if so many women, with so many different kinds of lives, have experienced the same sexist behaviour from men…
So now a broad range of behaviors has been redefined as a single behavior which is then implicitly attributed to a single cause, sexism.
The sentence continues to this conclusion:
…then it becomes easier to believe that the problem goes beyond individuals and instead relates to wider cultural forces.
That it “goes beyond individuals” is trivially true unless every single case is unique. And since she has already labeled all the behaviors sexist, they are by definition related to a “wider cultural” problem called sexism. This is circular reasoning.
But the full structure of this rhetorical device is perhaps even more interesting: The conclusion has already been “arrived at” in the beginning by identifying the label (sexist) with the behavior. The label implies a cause-effect relationship (sexism causes harassment) which is never made explicit, making sure no other explanations besides sexism are on the table. Then she adds what is an appropriate logical step in principle: arguing that the behavior tells us something about the cause. But it’s abstracted and generalized to the point where it is basically uncontroversial. So there is really no point at which the conclusion about sexism can be challenged, but it looks like valid logic.
Then she has another go at the idea that the critics believe women can solve the problem individually:
The ubiquity of sexual harassment means that an individual can’t simply avoid it by making the right choices, or by steeling herself with forceful determination; the demand that she do so begins to look absurd.
Here she imputes to the critics the idea that “an individual can simply avoid” sexual harassment. This is like her previous assertion, except that here she uses the term harassment instead of assault. Does she even distinguish between the two?
But there is a greater moral divide between these two strands of thought, because #MeToo and its critics also disagree over where to locate responsibility for sexual abuse: whether it is a woman’s responsibility to navigate, withstand and overcome the misogyny that she encounters, or whether it is the shared responsibility of all of us to eliminate sexism, so that she never encounters it in the first place.
Here then is a false dilemma: there is of course no conflict between individual action of the potential victim, political and collective measures, and efforts by other individuals such as bystanders. All of these can occur concurrently. One responsibility does not exclude the other.
Once again we see how she conflates cause and effect. The terms for the behaviors themselves (sexual harassment and assault) are used interchangeably with the terms for their alleged causes (sexism, misogyny). Thus the connection is made implicitly, and the simplistic causal hypothesis appears as established even though no reasons are given to support it.
Another false dilemma comes up. This time the alternatives are either changing everything or keeping everything the same. Total transformation or a stationary, changeless status quo:
But another reason why #MeToo has been framed as a generational conflict is because the individualist feminists of the anti-#MeToo backlash have framed their own resistance to the movement as grounded in wisdom, realism and, above all, maturity. To them, all this talk of a reimagined, recreated new world sounds hopelessly naive. Daphne Merkin summed up the tenor of the anti-#MeToo assessment in her article in the New York Times, when she wrote to the women coming forward: “Grow up, this is real life”.
This is a common, but still very strange belief: that the epitome of maturity and personal strength is the resigned acceptance that the world cannot be better than it is, that we cannot be kinder to one another, that male entitlement, crassness and predation are permanent and unchangeable and must be endured. It is a bizarre conception of strength, one that dismisses as childish weakness any demand for a better world, any hope that things might one day be different.
Either you believe in a “reimagined, recreated new world”, the wild hope of a golden utopia, or you think that absolutely nothing can change. There is no middle ground and no possibility of compromise.
And finally, the clincher, where she insinuates that the critics are not merely misguided, but have misplaced their loyalties and perhaps lack empathy:
In her book Trauma and Recovery, about the treatment of rape victims and other psychiatric patients who have undergone horrible abuse, the Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman writes of the temptation to sympathise with a patient’s abuser. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator,” she writes. “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain.” Something similar may be at work in the anti-#MeToo feminists’ desire to advocate for an individualist feminism. Their call to sympathise more with the perpetrators of sexual assault, and to place greater responsibility for those assaults on the choices of women who experience them, is part of an effort not to feel implicated in the suffering of others, not to share that burden of pain. #MeToo and the reckoning that it has provoked has given us all knowledge we would rather not have – knowledge of just how normal some terrible things are, of just how much some of us have suffered. The anti-#MeToo feminists of the world are not the only ones who feel tempted to look away. I urge them not to.
The implication that feminists can be tempted to have more sympathy with rapists than with rape victims flies in the face of all feminist writings on the subject. It is patently absurd. For that matter, it’s absurd when applied to non-feminists as well. A fear of getting involved is hardly the same thing as sympathy with the perpetrator. More importantly, the feminist critics are involved already, having raised their voices.
But apparently, it is not enough for Donegan to merely argue that their approach is the wrong one; she needs to make them out as siding with the bad guys. Like the male critics mentioned at the beginning, the feminist #MeToo critics must be seen as having a hidden agenda, even if they themselves might not be aware of it. It’s not that they think that they have a better approach to the problem, they are basically traitors, women who side with perpetrators to the detriment of victims. Donegan carefully avoids making this fully explicit, but opens the door for others to do so.