It is a common phenomenon, this impulse to crowd many things under a single tent that goes from big to bigger. Those who gathered, in January of 2017, to participate in Women’s Marches across the country did so to protest a wide mix of grievances, from the new president’s misogyny to the threats the just-installed administration represented to immigrants, to civil rights, to LGBTQ rights, to reproductive rights, to human rights, to science, to kindness, to the fate of facts. The March for Our Lives, a year later, not only protested gun violence in schools, but also asked wide-ranging questions about who gets heard within a political system that remains deeply biased toward power and wealth and maleness and whiteness. This weekend’s Families Belong Together rallies made good on their core proposition—participants marched and chanted for the reunification of migrant families separated at the U.S. border—but were also about Roe v. Wade, and also about immigration more broadly, and also about, coming as they did just before the Fourth of July, what it really means to be patriotic.
#MeToo, that vast and disembodied and ongoing protest march, has been subject to similar dynamics: the big tent, flinging its flaps ever wider; the entropic impulse as both a matter of promise and a matter of peril. Does being about everything, though, mean that the movement runs the risk of being about nothing? Has #MeToo, reconfigured as a broad attempt to rectify a broad host of wrongs, lost the plot? Has it dilated to its detriment?
Tarana Burke says, emphatically, yes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Burke pointed back to Milano’s October tweet—which was not, Burke noted, about pay equity, or representation in the workplace, or power dynamics in a misogynistic culture … but about sexual violence, full stop. “Part of the challenge that we have right now,” Burke said, “is everybody trying to couch everything under #MeToo.”
That attempt—and the instinct that leads to it—is understandable, of course. And it’s natural that the anger of people who have been made to argue for their own humanity, a rage that has been simmering for so long, would eventually boil over. But equality as a broad aim and #MeToo as a precise goal, Burke emphasized, are two different things. And #MeToo, she suggested—as a media phenomenon and as an activist movement—would do well to reclaim the specificity that defined it at the outset.
“We’ve been busy talking about the individuals,” Burke said, “and we’ve been busy talking about the predators and the backlash, and all these other issues.” In that mix, sexual violence itself has been treated as a crucial thing, but also as merely one thing of the many that live under #MeToo’s vast umbrella. That is a category error, Burke suggested. “What happened on October 15 was a tweet that went out that said, ‘If you have been sexually assaulted or harassed, say, “Me too,”’ she said. “And I’m telling you that I’ve talked to these people—hundreds of people, and if you count online and offline, it’s probably thousands—and they are in pain. And they’re trying to find some kind of recourse for what they’re dealing with around sexual violence.”