The Selective Empathy of #MeToo Backlash

From Donald Trump to recent op-eds, the male perspective remains—stubbornly, perniciously—the default point of view.

Woody Allen speaks onstage during an American Film Institute gala in 2017
Woody Allen speaks onstage during an American Film Institute gala in 2017 (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty)

The tweet, as so often happens, was at once shocking and deeply predictable.

That was President Trump, on Saturday, ostensibly reacting to the fact that, this week, allegations of domestic abuse led to the resignations of two high-level staffers at the White House. He was also, obliquely, weighing in on #MeToo. The president’s 48-word assessment of the reckoning so many Americans are painfully but productively engaged in made for rich (but thoroughly unsurprising) irony: Trump, of course, has been accused of sexual impropriety by 19 women—and has also been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, and has also boasted, on national television, about advising friends to “be rougher” toward their wives, and has also been elected president of the United States. His tweet is revealing both in spite and because of those facts: “Peoples[sic],” in the plural; allegation, in the singular. The peoples meaning the “men’s”; the allegation—though in its context, the diminishing adjective is redundant—being a “mere” one.

The poet Mourid Barghouti talks about the political power of narrative order, the way sympathies can be shaped by the sequence of things, the cosmology of things, the omissions as well as the inclusions. Start the story with “Secondly,” leaving the “Firstly” for later, and the Native Americans can be seen as the aggressors; start the story with “Secondly,” and Gandhi becomes the victimizer, King the stubborn threat; “Start your story with ‘Secondly,’” Barghouti writes, “and the world will be turned upside-down.” It is simply a matter of selective vision. Perspective is a powerful thing.

Trump’s tweet, though he probably did not have Barghouti in mind while crafting it, did not merely, as a New York Times headline summed it up, appear “to doubt [the] #MeToo Movement.” It also attempted to undermine the #MeToo movement precisely by Secondly-ing its story. The presidential tweet overlooks the obvious Firstly, which is that “allegations”—plural, so profoundly plural—are their own suggestions of lives “shattered and destroyed.” It takes the common refrain—the he said/she said nature of such allegations; sexual abuse as epistemic ennui—and doubles down: It is framing the matter such that the he is the only party given words, given space, given moral consideration.

With a remarkable economy of words, then, the president is summarizing a lingering cultural paradigm, one whose stubbornness #MeToo, in its current iteration, is attempting to dismantle: an attitude that treats the male point of view as the default point of view. An attitude that prioritizes the experience of the man (who, anyway, probably had his reasons), over the experience of the woman (who, anyway, probably misunderstood). An epidemic myopia—one that has not been concerned enough with its blurred vision to take the trouble to correct the lens.

It is a widespread affliction. The day before Trump tweeted of “a mere allegation,” the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens weighed in on the case of Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, investigating the state of the claim the auteur’s adoptive daughter made against him decades ago: In 1992, she says, when she was 7 years old, Allen molested her. Stephens’s column Secondlys that story. The op-ed is titled “The Smearing of Woody Allen.” It is framed as a meta-narrative—What We Talk About When We Talk About Woody Allen—and its Secondly sympathies are in this case directed against those who take Farrow’s testimony seriously. “It goes without saying that child molestation is a uniquely evil crime that merits the stiffest penalties,” Stephens writes. “But accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious, particularly in an era in which social-media whispers can become the ruin of careers and even of lives.”

The allegations against Allen are complicated, certainly—and Stephens, cannily, makes that his point. He treats the complication itself as an object lesson not just about Woody Allen, but also about #MeToo: the smearing of Woody Allen, the person. The sanctity of Woody Allen, the idea. The way all of us, according to the transitive properties of American culture, are harmed when #MeToo’s angry gaze is aimed at Woody Allen. Accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious: The “someone” here—Woody Allen, and, by object-lesson implication, the collective of men accused of sexual impropriety, as #MeToo moves forward—is the premise from which everything else proceeds. What happened in 1992 is not the point; what is happening in 2018 is.

The story starts with “Secondly.” That framing allows the tragedy of the allegation—a 7-year-old girl, molested by one of the people charged with keeping her safe; that person, denying the charge—to become a rhetorical device: “If Allen is in fact a pedophile,” Stephens writes, “he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies exactly once.” The framing, too, allows Stephens to underplay this case’s obvious Firstly: how commonly those who come forward about sexual abuse are doubted and ignored and effectively punished for speaking in the first place. How rarely abuse of the kind Farrow has been describing for decades comes with the abundant evidence Stephens demands.

The “Secondly” stance has been on display in many other recent examinations of #MeToo—examinations that, while they generally acknowledge the societal benefits of a reckoning, focus their attentions on the pathos of the accused. The New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan has, on multiple occasions, condemned #MeToo as a form of sexual McCarthyism. Bill Maher has warned that efforts to make things “100 percent safe” for women could lead to a kind of “police state” that would attempt to regulate love itself. The journalist Masha Gessen has written of the potential for sex panics. Stephens’s New York Times colleague, Bari Weiss, transformed the generalized dictum of “believe women”—a corrective, of course, to centuries’ worth of people doing the opposite as a matter of default—into “believe all women”; she then argued that her own more strident version of the phrase risked getting “transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy.” The writer Katie Roiphe lamented the firing of Lorin Stein, the former editor of The Paris Review, not on the grounds that the harassment accusations against him were false, but on the grounds that the harassment itself was not as bad it could have been.

The self-conscious backlash to #MeToo often adopts epic assumptions, framing itself as a sweeping defense—of truth, of freedom, of reasonable, fact-based discourse in response to people who are scrambling to erode the Enlightenment, reaction gif by reaction gif. The defense posture, however, is often its own sweeping “Secondly”: Often, the arguments that employ it end up not merely endorsing double standards, but also relying on them to make their point. Bret Stephens’s argument that Woody Allen deserves the benefit of the doubt requires a minimizing of that benefit as extended to Dylan Farrow. Roiphe’s defense of Lorin Stein—“in fact, he lovingly, carefully, intimately, was this, like, transcendently amazing editor and promoter of [women’s] work,” she told NPR—requires its own selective vision. Trump’s lament that “peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation” demands, as well, a particularly myopic form of empathy.

#MeToo is often portrayed as a movement of sound, of voices, of volume: a collective of people who, enabled by technologies that are premised on the value of telling many stories rather than a single one, are sharing experiences that had for too long been silenced. The sonic paradigm has defined the public discussion of #MeToo, this version of it, from the outset: the whisper networks. The Silence Breakers. But #MeToo, for all that, is also a visual movement. It is arguing against failures not only of justice, but also of vision itself: cultural biases about who will be seen, and who will be left to the shadows. About whose perspective will be valued, as a matter of cultural reflex, and whose, reflexively, will not. About whose allegations are actionable, and whose allegations are “mere.”

Women, for so long, have come second in the story: Adam, and then Eve. Mr, and then Mrs. The second sex. History’s plus-ones, decorative and nameless and expendable. Now, though, women are coming forward to tell their own stories, to insist on the validity of their own perspectives. They are demanding to be heard, and even more fundamentally to be prioritized. That, too, is part of the broader purpose of #MeToo. On Saturday, on Twitter, Dylan Farrow responded to Bret Stephens. “To presume I invented this story and convinced myself of it is no less insulting than calling me a liar,” the subject of the op-ed informed the author. “I’ve consistently stated the truth for 25 years.” Farrow added, seconding herself: “I won’t stop now.”