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Voices / Column

The structures must change

A deeper look at what we can learn from the #MeToo movement

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

It’s been some time since the Harvey Weinstein revelations opened the floodgates of personal stories about sexual harassment and assault. Still, women’s stories keep coming, and so they should. We must bear witness if things are going to change, not only in the halls of Hollywood studios and Capitol Hill offices, but everywhere people live, work, and carry on their lives.

We’ve learned good lessons in the telling of those stories, and in the copious commentaries that followed.

We’ve recognized that zero-tolerance policies must be implemented and enforced, that non-disclosure agreements, buyouts, and retaliation must end, that the real issues behind acts of aggression against women and girls — culture, misogyny, male privilege, and power, for example — are big, complex, and urgently need to be the center of exploration, discourse, and social change.

We know that we have to educate our children, both male and female, about what is acceptable and what is not in human behavior.

We need, as one columnist put it, “to move away from the narratives of victimization and sympathy.”

* * *

There is a deeper analysis occurring now, and it is beginning to help us understand the dynamics involved when one person hurts, attacks, terrifies, and traumatizes another, based on gender.

In her important book Women and Power, English scholar Mary Beard reminds us that the silencing of women was ever thus. Aristotle thought women’s voices proved their wickedness and that virtue lay in masculine tones. Mythology shares stories of women who’ve had their tongues cut out to silence them, while in other tales women have been turned into inanimate objects.

Such attempts at silencing females have long trailed women, from Odysseus’s wife Penelope to Hillary Clinton and other women in the world’s public spaces.

Stories of silencing women are part of our personal stories, too — “mansplaining,” not recognizing the value of our ideas until they think they were theirs first, ignoring our leadership skills.

As Beard says, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”

So have Eastern cultures. A recent NPR story exposed schools in China to which girls are sent to learn that their purpose in life is to silently serve their husbands, even those who rape and beat them.

Beard urges us to “interrogate our notions of power,” and to examine why they exclude women. Why are our ideas about authority, mastery, and knowledge perceived as gender-based? she asks. And how, when institutional structures are “coded as male,” can you ask women to fit into them?

Clearly, the structures themselves must change.

* * *

Greg Weiner, writing in The New York Times, reminds us that character matters when it comes to moral behavior, which calls for “a deep capacity for judgment.” True morality, he argues, must be cultivated and must exceed private, coded actions.

Adding to the #MeToo tsunami, Paul Bloom’s recent discussion of new books in The New Yorker includes Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others, an exploration of humans’ capacity for cruelty, by philosopher David Livingstone Smith, who quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe,” the noted anthropologist said.

Here, the tribe consists of men bound by deep-seated misogynistic feelings that render them incapable of seeing, and treating, women as equally human. That’s why it’s easy to “slut-shame” and to say you can grab women by their genitals; after all, they are not “like I am.”

In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, makes this observation about sexual violence: “The idea of rapists as monsters exonerated by caricature.”

Manne argues that we must recognize “the banality of misogyny,” much as Hannah Arendt argued that the world had to acknowledge “the banality of evil” after the Holocaust. She raises “the disturbing possibility that people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.”

Like others, Manne argues that that there is a larger truth in this tendency. Misogyny, she says, is “often not a sense of women’s inhumanity as lacking. Her humanity is precisely the problem.”

Men, she explains, have come to expect things of women, including attention, admiration, and sex. “Misogyny,” adds Bloom, “is a mindset that polices and enforces these goals, it’s the ‘law enforcement branch’ of the patriarchy.” Bad women must be punished.

* * *

This is heady, important, and sometimes difficult stuff. But it offers the possibility of deeper examination that could lead to necessary exploration of factors that explain why so many men do what they do to women, especially in the workplace, where females may be highly threatening.

Such analysis leads to other important considerations: How does this psychological and sociological reality within cultures influence media coverage of stories about women? Who gets to frame issues and how? What language do we use in interpreting women’s experience? Who tells their stories? What impact can this deeper grasp of human psychology have on decision-making in the halls of governance?

That’s just for starters.

Still, we must begin somewhere.

As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has said, “This is our moment.”

Oprah Winfrey sounded a clarion call to action in her Golden Globes speech. Now, poised for the moment when we do move forward, women’s voices, experiences, and insights are leading the way.

Surely, that is how it should be. Their time has come.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #443 (Wednesday, January 24, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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