Last month, Katie Roiphe wrote an alternatingly brilliant and incoherent essay for Harper’s on the #MeToo cultural moment. The combination of brilliance and incoherence accounts for the extraordinary volume of discussion it has provoked. Response essays continue to pour forth; two more, by Katha Pollitt and Adele Stan, appeared just yesterday. It bears a close enough resemblance to reality to demand widespread attention, but also contains enough distortions to provoke widespread attack.
Roiphe paints a convincing portrait of women forming “whisper networks” for sharing unfashionably skeptical views about #MeToo, which she likens to the whisper networks used by women to identify dangerous men in their workplaces.
Her complaint about the tenor of discussion, and the way in which angry and extreme rhetoric crowds out more nuanced thought, has some merit. Social media has made this dynamic more acute — not only in feminism but across the political culture, which has grown more polarized into communities in which the most strident iteration of the community’s shared belief is assumed to be the most authentic.
In a contentious and illuminating interview with Roiphe, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner contends that the antagonists Roiphe describes “don’t have the power of a crazy person as president behind them.” Roiphe replies, “You are saying they don’t have power, but I think they do have power. I guess that is what I am trying to point out in my piece.”
This disagreement about power, and who has it, has formed the main basis for the argument between Roiphe and her critics. They point out that she was able to publish her essay in a prestigious magazine. (Power!) She points out that in the course of attempting to stop it, they subjected her to a torrent of abuse. (Power!) They note, in response, that the attempt to suppress her story was intended to protect Moira Donegan, the author of the Shitty Media Men list, who they thought Roiphe intended to out, “possibly subjecting her,” Pollitt explains, “to Gamergate-type stalking.” (Power!) Donegan instead published her own account for the Cut, and has probably enhanced her stature as a result. One lesson here is that what looks on the outside like a cabal or a mob often looks on the inside like a community.
Framing her complaint in terms of power is Roiphe’s central error. It invites her critics to compare the dynamic she describes to sexual harassment itself. Roiphe embraces the comparison by calling her circle of friends who don’t wish to be named criticizing #MeToo a “whisper network.” It preposterously turns their antagonists in a debate into the equivalent of Harvey Weinstein.
The real issue she identifies is not oppression. It is the increasing popularity of the strident discourse found on social media, in which the truth is seen within the community as fixed, and opponents motivated by evil. Hardly anybody disputes the existence of this dynamic any more, or bothers to defend it. As a substitute for a positive defense, the common reply is the one Chotiner made: So what? They have no power.
The answer is that, while they may not have a great deal of power over their victims, who are free to ignore their social-media mentions, they have power over their own community. The call-out culture is not something women are inflicting upon men, or the left is doing to the right. It is something the left is doing to itself. It is increasingly adopting norms and protocols of discussion that treat debate and deliberation as unnecessary or threatening. In these subcultures, which are mostly found in academia and online, but also sometimes in regular politics, the most left-wing position is axiomatically associated with oppressed groups, and any criticism of it with privilege. Any further search for truth or examination of the facts of a given case is superfluous, and an ever-expanding list of buzzwords can be deployed to categorize and foreclose any conceivable objection: it is #whitetears or #notallmen or or #whiteinnocence or #mansplaining, etc., etc.
You could see the poisonous dynamic unfurl when the Rolling Stone story alleging a rape appeared. You could see it when the initial, erroneous narrative that Michael Brown had been shot with his hands up while trying to surrender formed. I can’t claim to have had a sharp enough eye to detect the weaknesses in these eventually discredited stories. I passively accepted both accounts before they blew up. But I did notice the swarms of angry progressives on social media, rallying to dismiss any and all skeptics of the factual accounts as rape deniers or white-supremacist defenders of police execution.
The issue isn’t that the many women who are telling Roiphe they’re afraid to share their views on sexual harassment are being oppressed. The issue is that the left is being denied the opportunity to hear their perspective, to probe its own case for weaknesses. Progressives should take the fear Roiphe is describing more seriously for what it says about their movement’s internal health and long-term prospects.
Roiphe goes awry when she attempts to conflate extreme feminist rhetoric about the post-Weinstein reckoning with the operation of the reckoning itself. Here is the odd thing: the total number of men identified by Roiphe as having lost their jobs or suffered unfair consequences as a result of overblown sexual-harassment accusations is zero. Pollitt writes, “Roiphe thinks that was unfair” that Lorin Stein lost his job as editor of the Paris Review, but Roiphe doesn’t actually say that. She simply notes in the essay that he was fired and disavows any judgment one way or another: “I’m not equipped to investigate or arbitrate acknowledged misconduct or any other allegations that may surface in the future.”
It’s easy to see why so many people believe Roiphe has made this case, though. I had to read her essay several times to notice the absence of any position about the subject on which everybody believes it has taken a strident stance. Instead she makes an argument about the discussions people have about the #MeToo movement. Roiphe is a skillful enough prose stylist to hide this gaping void. So, for instance, she states, “Josephine Livingstone issued a fresh dictum in The New Republic: ‘You probably shouldn’t kiss anybody without asking … The world has changed, and affirmative consent is now the standard.’” Having previously spent 16 years writing for The New Republic, I can confidently state that an opinion shared within its pages is not a “dictum” and has no force of law whatsoever.
What would the world look like if the kinds of militant, uncompromising views Roiphe is grappling with had controlling power? It would look a lot like the kangeroo court process that is found on many campuses. Writers like Emily Yoffe and Jeannie Suk Gersen have reported out and analyzed the illiberal norms used to prosecute sexual-assault allegations in this environment, and have produced a litany of accounts of injustice. There is precious little evidence these methods and norms have been adopted within the news media and Hollywood, let alone corporate America writ large, which is more conservative.
The kinds of miscarriages of justice Yoffe collects are conspicuously absent from Roiphe’s argument. Possibly this is merely because there is so much low-hanging fruit available — decades of overdue reckoning with very bad actors like Weinstein, Mark Halperin, and so on — that the feminist police haven’t gotten around yet to tormenting the innocent. But I would say that on the whole, the #MeToo movement is acting in a measured and responsible fashion. The most culturally influential voices at the moment are feminist critics like Michelle Goldberg and my colleague Rebecca Traister, who take seriously the possibility of false accusations and the need for responses proportional to the offense.
Many a revolution has started off persecuting only the wicked, only to veer off track later. Perhaps the troubling signs Roiphe detects are portents of a dark future. Alas, her overwrought imagery makes no allowance for this possibility. Roiphe’s totalitarian imagery — they are “low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state,” she has a “feeling of not being able to speak” — makes barely any allowance for a debate that has very much been joined. It has not yet been lost. It may not be at all.