Dear trusted readers, I’m going to weigh in on the #MeToo phenomenon. No, I’m not stepping forward to dredge up the sordid details of my stories of sexual harassment and intimidation for inspection. Is there a female alive who hasn’t experienced a creepy power play by a male, one with sexual overtones? This blog is about 1) what’s triggering the opening of #MeToo floodgates; 2) how this phenomenal level of damned up exploitation happened in plain sight without bystander acknowledgement and intervention; and 3) what can all of us, females and males, do to prevent #MeToo turning into a manhunt that wipes out the potential for constructive, trusting relationships between ordinary women and men. There is so much at stake here.
The first question is the easiest. Harvey Weinstein’s mansplaining days are over. His outing as a dangerous sexual predator may go down in history as one of the greatest moments in women’s liberation. Yet this shift didn’t happen overnight. It’s been building. Who wasn’t shocked to the core by the line-up of women seduced by Bill Cosby with date-rape drugs? And, before that, it was the icky behaviour of the then most powerful man in the world, U.S. president Bill Clinton. Most of us are disgusted by the abuse, especially by people in positions of power, influence and trust. Doling out scarce favours—jobs, promotions, opportunity, endorsements, string-pulling—in exchange for sex.
#MeToo is contagious. It’s powerful. It’s a socially acceptable platform for the sexually abused to tell their stories. There is solidarity and critically, there’s safety. High powered women around the world from Hollywood to Bollywood, in political offices and the private sector, are speaking out. It reminds me of the critical point in the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes where a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” Everyone else should have seen that the emperor wore no suit but was afraid to criticize or be seen as going against popular opinion. Now, the child has spoken truth and everyone else can suddenly see and speak truth too. The facts haven’t changed.
Robert Cialdini has spent decades researching influence, what leads us to comply with the requests of others. Why don’t we just say no? In his latest book, Pre-suasion, Cialdini talks of privileged moments, identifiable points in time when an individual is particularly receptive to an idea or message. Right now is a privileged moment; we’re all ready to listen to what’s being said about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. The deluge of #MeToo stories is confirming the idea that sexual predators are abusing others in proportions never before perceived. That harassment has become weirdly normalized in our culture, and we’ve been blithely ignoring it. Now, our attention is focused on this issue. Having abused celebrities speaking out deepens our receptiveness to the message. And those with counterarguments or alternative positions have been silenced, even George Clooney.
I’m looking closely at the words and images used in the #MeToo stories. Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” Cialdini agrees. Describing crime as a wild beast rampaging through the city vs. a spreading virus infecting the city inspire very different responses. Right now, my go-to metaphor for sexual abuse is one of the predator and the prey. Like this bird, above, some predators aren’t that scary looking. This predator-prey metaphor would inspire very powerful containment solutions to catch-and-cage the offenders. If, instead, I saw sexual abuse as a spreading virus, my solutions would be more likely to emphasize remove-unhealthy-conditions.
Now, to my second question. Facepalm! How did all this sexual exploitation happen without more people knowing or intervening? People don’t like seeing others abused, so why did we fail to intervene? Why did we place an onus on the victim to justify the choice to speak out? There’s a fair amount of guilt swirling around right now.
To help answer this question, I’m going to again share Cialdini’s ideas, this time from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a book I’ve had on my desk for two decades. Cialdini answers the question: Why does one person say yes to another person, even to do things we really don’t want to do? Presumably most people do not want to be sexually intimidated or messed with, but they allow themselves to be manipulated, even abused. Manipulators use techniques, Cialdini calls these weapons of influence:
- Reciprocity – Another person can trigger a feeling of indebtedness by doing us an uninvited favour. If someone offers you an inside track in your job, an obligation is created. And, we’re wired to repay favours…maybe having a coffee or going for dinner with that person, which can lead to other favours that we’re far less comfortable with. If we don’t respond to the created obligation, we’re labeled a moocher, ingrate or welcher.
- Consistency – We prefer to be seen as consistent. To that end, we tend to automatically respond the same way in similar situations. We stop thinking, become preprogrammed and mindlessly respond. For example, our automatic response when we notice sexually inappropriate behaviour in the office may be: “None of my business.” It’s a safe response.
- Social proof – We’re human and we pay attention to what other humans do. Amazon has mastered this. You know the line: “Customers who bought this book also bought these books.” It suckers me in every time! If other people in your family or workplace aren’t doing anything to intervene in a sexually-charged situation, you are likely to do nothing too. This often explains why bystanders do nothing in a crisis.
- Liking others – It may be stating the obvious, but we do things for people we like. That’s the key to Tupperware’s success (you like the host, she’s your friend, hence you buy mountains of plastic bowls and lids that take over your kitchen). The halo effect of endorsements by sports heroes and celebrities is powerful. Clooney’s early defense of Weinstein even caught me off-guard.
- Authority – Our instinct to follow authority is powerful. It’s scary, actually. It’s been proven, again and again, we feel a sense of duty to formal authority: our bosses, the lab coat of a doctor, a military uniform, faith leaders and politicians. This propensity explains the inexplicable. How Catholic priests got away with abusing innocents. How coaches got away with abusing players. How Weinstein got away with preying on young actresses.
- Scarcity — When something we want becomes hard to get, we get agitated. We feel the competition. Our blood rises, focus narrows and we get emotional. And, our rational, cognitive nature retreats. Lots of the things we want are scarce: Articling positions for new lawyers, promotions at work, roles in films. Cialdini calls this “brain-clouding arousal”, a scary weapon in the arsenal of a sexual predator!
Saying ‘no’ to influencers wielding powerful weapons of manipulation isn’t easy. But, now, we are at war with sexual exploiters. We all are. Even George Clooney. Momentum is building. “Every industry has its own version of the casting couch,” reads a letter circulating among political-types in Illinois. Companies led by (sometimes angry) white men are getting nervous about the liability of having crime in their workplace. Professional bodies are taking sexual harassment claims more seriously, bringing in police to investigate and press charges. This brings us to the third question: What can we do to prevent this sexual harassment crisis turning into a manhunt that wipes out the potential for constructive, trusting relationships between ordinary women and men? I don’t want to spend the rest of my life walking on eggshells. I bet you don’t either.
How can decent men (and women) help in the wake of the viral #MeToo movement? It’s a critical question, one that Nicole Stamp answers beautifully in a Facebook post, an annotated and much abridged version below:
- Practice these phrases: “That’s not cool” and “That’s a shitty thing to say.” (I prefer “Ick!!”)
- Follow some feminist writers on social media. Put aside your discomfort. (That includes this blog…nice.)
- Boost female voices. Listen to female perspectives.
- Boost what women say at work. (And especially don’t take credit for their ideas!)
- Be mindful of how you introduce women- particularly at work functions.
- At work or out in the world, don’t call female colleagues or strangers cutesy diminutive names like “honey, baby, darling, kiddo, young lady, sweetheart…”.
- Seek enthusiastic consent in your sexual encounters.
- Don’t use gendered or misogynist insults. Bitch, cunt, slut…“Asshole” is a nice multipurpose choice- we all have one. ( A very practical suggestion.)
- If there are little boys, teen boys, and young men in your life, role-model that the feminine is not less-than. (With three sons, this is my life’s work!)
- Be wary of constantly or only telling little girls they’re pretty and cute or commenting on their hairstyle & clothing.
- When a woman is walking alone and you end up walking behind her- especially in dark or secluded areas- give her space.
- Teach your elders to do better. (Tough work, especially with your parents, but necessary.)
- Don’t argue so much in conversations around types of oppression that you don’t personally experience. (Check your privilege)
- If you feel uncomfortable during conversations about sexism…the only correct response is to be quiet and listen.
I’m going to add one more idea to Stamp’s list. If you happen to be one of those losers who bought this best-selling hunting guide, get rid of it…now!
There will be people who hope this #MeToo campaign goes the way of the #ArabSpring, gets subsumed by the next great crisis of our time. And, others will want to get more strident, bringing in the police to investigate every allegation, creating more rigid rules to enforce. We could swing from one extreme (ignoring the harassment) to the other (turning men into the prey). Smashing together these two conflicting ideas isn’t going to shake out workable solutions. We’ve got decades of experience in the debate of misogyny. There are armies of experts, politicians and advocates ready with polished position papers, talking points, policy speeches and press releases. Stop!!! Let’s not eke out some half-hearted compromise, some false legislated harmony. And, let’s not feed polarized, argumentative stagnation either. In ordinary workplaces, homes and communities, we need to create safe space for dialogue on practical options. This is a precious moment in gender history, and real change is possible.
Let’s make this moment about ordinary people. Let’s make #MeToo more than a Hollywood moment.
That means we have to do far more than simply “like” or “share” on social media. A bright young woman I mentor is articling to be a lawyer. In the face of daunting sexual harassment and intimidation, she has chosen to speak out. Some of her friends are supportive, others chastise her for not “toughing it out”. She sees the irony: People who told me I should have stayed quiet or “made a big deal out of nothing” are social media activists who hashtag or share posts in support of women’s rights. Where is their hashtag for me and all the nameless ordinary women who deal with these issues in silence every day?
Ten years ago, I published this book on gender equality. I’d spent fifteen years in Yemen, a rare window of time when that poor country was open to recalibrating relationships between men and women. The book shares what I’d learned about how “breathing spaces” emerged to supplant chauvinism and confrontation, in even the harshest environments. It was a book to honour the Yemeni women I worked with, and the decent men too. It was also a book for my sons. What’s the biggest thing I came away with from that experience? The need to recognize these special moments in history when not just individuals, but whole societies, are presented with the opportunity to diffuse previously intractable gender dilemmas.
As humans, the dialogue demands reciprocity, an in-breath and an out-breath. Women aren’t going to single-handedly save the world, neither are men. This moment in time is an invitation for all of us to face what we have turned our eyes away from, and to do so with moral courage and sincerity. Aren’t you tired of living as predator or prey? #MeToo
Donna Kennedy-Glans, October 28, 2017