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I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?” Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. Thus, when the Guardian (Dec. 17, 2017) reported Matt Damon’s remarks that there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated,” Minnie Driver blasted him: it’s not for men to make distinctions; “there is no hierarchy of abuse”; men should just shut up for once. “If good men like Matt Damon are thinking like that then we’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” she said. “We need good intelligent men to say this is all bad across the board, condemn it all and start again.”

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once. No wonder those of us in the boring older generation, who have lived through cycles of anger and protest, are so annoying. “Wait!” we keep saying. “Be careful! Remember the stupidity of ‘zero tolerance’ programs in schools, where a kid who brings a pocket knife for show-and- tell, or a 6-year-old boy who kisses a 6-year-old girl, got expelled?” We have also learned that while there is a time and place for revolutionary zealotry, the hardest challenge comes next, because change will not be accomplished without allies.

While many celebrate the courage of the accusers who are coming forth to tell their stories, let’s keep in mind that in today’s climate it also requires courage to raise dissonance-producing dissent. In case you missed this essay—and you might have, considering how hard it was for the author to get it accepted anywhere—here is some of what Claire Berlinski wrote in “The Warlock Hunt” for The American Interest (December 6, 2017)…:

This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?

But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, over-night costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.

Of course she has been “more hesitant to speak about this” than about Al-Qaeda, not only because of the predictable tsunami of attack, but also because we are always more hesitant to criticize people on our side, or those whose goals we share. It feels…disloyal. And disloyalty feels dissonant.

In a previous column on the belief in the “cycle of abuse,” I noted that if you created a fourfold table (“abused as a child? yes/no”; and “abusive as a parent? yes/no”), most people pay attention to only two cells: the abused children (yes) who become abusive parents (yes). They don’t attend to the many people in the invisible cells: abused children who do not become cruel parents (yes/no), and the nonabused children who do (no/yes). Thus, in the current intoxicating rush to accuse and bring down sexually coercive, abusive men, what cells are we overlooking?

The men and women who do not conform to the stereotype; the women who are not victims and the men who are. In the legitimate exhilaration of hearing women’s stories being believed and accepted at last, what voices are missing?

  • The voices of women who thoroughly enjoyed their years of sexual freedom and experimentation; who slept with professors and bosses and coworkers for pleasure and excitement, and whose careers were not ruined thereby.
  • The voices of women who had some awful encounters, or boring ones, or regrettably stupid ones, but would never blame, let alone sue, their partners on the grounds that they were at least 50% of the people in the bed.
  • The voices of women who enjoy being groupies, who seek celebrities and other powerful men for trophy sex and bragging rights, just as men have done with glamorous women.
  • The voices of shy men and boys who have felt pressured or even coerced by women, whether the women were their employers or dates.
  • The voices of men who would not dream of having sex with a woman who is blotto drunk, unconscious, or unwilling. The negativity bias dominates: we hear and remember so much about the bad guys that the good ones become invisible. Further, the good ones who would and should be allies are demonized and dismissed because they are not 100 percent ideologically pure.

I asked my friend Leonore Tiefer, a sexologist and feminist, for her concerns on the “Me, Too” movement and she responded: “There’s a rush to judgment. A conflation of all offenses. An underlying truth about the lasting effects of shame. Little room for complexity. Some bastards getting their long overdue due. Lots of lawyers looking for cases and money. Lots of institutions needing to cover their asses for money/legal reasons. Opportunists galore with axes to grind.”

That about sums it up.

Whenever a movement is fueled by rage and revenge, it is more important than ever to tolerate complexity and ask questions that evoke dissonance. We can all imagine the ways in which “Me, too” might benefit women, but how might it backfire? Because it will. Moralistic crusades to censor “sexist” pornography, for example, led to suppression of lesbian books, sex-ed books, and plain old sexypleasure books that someone thought offensive. What might be the consequences of a moralistic crusade to root out any behavior that might be misconstrued—now, next week, in 10 years—including affectionate touches, supportive hugs, jokes? Do professional women really want a Mike Pence world where they cannot have a business dinner or go to a party without a chaperone? When feminists find themselves in bed with right-wing puritans, they are going to get screwed.

What, exactly, are the goals here? The answer is clear in the case of hotel housekeepers, fast-food workers, and immigrant women who are routinely subjected to disgusting sexual harassment and who rarely have recourse to protect themselves from the powerful men who feel entitled to abuse them; in the case of women who enter formerly male-only occupations (tech, science, the military), where hostile harassment and rape are weapons to convey “you don’t belong here; get out.” The answer is always clear when the goal is to bring down some bad guys and protect the powerless.

But the goals of “me, too” seem eerily non-political, other than “bring down the patriarchy and by the way let me tell you about me.” For the vast majority of women in their personal and professional lives, where the complexities of sexuality abound, surely another goal is to become more assertive and clear about their wishes. If women seek true sexual equality, they have to do some hard thinking about their own behavior. As Laura Kipnis observes in Unwanted Advances, when did “empowerment” for women come to mean filing an assault claim months after a drunken night rather than developing the ability to say to the guy, “take your fucking hand off my knee”? She writes:

Why would she go to the apartment of a guy she already didn’t trust? This isn’t victim blaming. It’s grown-up feminism, one that recognizes how much feminine deference and traditionalism persist amid all the “pro-sex” affirmations and slogans… And that’s what has to be talked about, along with changing male behavior. (p. 219)

Finally: What do we learn when we follow the money? When schools and companies feel they must expel or fire someone without due process, solely on hearsay and unfounded allegation because they are terrified of lawsuits, how is justice aided, how is it impeded?

Epidemics are always clearer in hindsight. In the 1980s and 1990s, I watched as the recovered memory hysteria, aided by beliefs that Satanic ritual abuse cults were proliferating across America and that daycare centers were run by pedophiles, tore hundreds of families apart. In 1981, Ms. magazine had a cover story on Satanic cults, with the overline: “Believe it!” Without evidence? No, thank you. But the mere fact that there was no evidence for recovered memories of trauma, Satanic sacrifices, and other preposterous claims did not slow the steamroller—and steamrollers always leave the wreckage of human lives in their wake.

And so, in 1993, I wrote a review of the many best-selling books promoting this dangerous nonsense—most notably The Courage to Heal and Secret Survivors—showing that their psychological claims would be obliterated in any Psych 101 course. I was deluged with hate mail, and this was before the echo chamber of the Internet. A sociologist colleague wrote to express her dismay and fury that I, a feminist, could possibly disbelieve any of the women coming out of therapy having newly “remembered” that their once-beloved fathers had sexually molested them for 15 years, somehow doing so without leaving any corroborative evidence from family members or others. A few months later, she wrote to me again, to apologize—and to ask if I knew a lawyer who could help her brother. Who was being falsely accused.

I hadn’t thought about that essay in many years, until journalist JoAnn Wypijewski sent me an email:

I reread that NYTBR piece of yours last night, amazed to see that you had written this: “To raise these questions does not mean that all ‘reawakened’ memories are fraudulent or misguided. It does mean that we should be wary of believing every case of ‘me too’.” The very phrase…down the decades … and what have we learned? END

About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes were made (but not by ME). Watch the recording of Science Salon # 10 in which Tavris, in a dialogue with Michael Shermer, explores cognitive dissonance and what happens when we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people.


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