MeToo is good

In Locker room talk, I suggested that apparent coordination to shield sexual assaulters, harassers, or abusers might be much more local than it seemed. Since then, Donald Trump won the presidential election with a narrow majority, and the MeToo movement took off. The way the two phenomena have played out seem like strong evidence for the hypothesis that there were multiple strong coalitions with very different priorities, hidden from each other.

Half the country was at least willing to hold their noses for Trump, which I felt was a somewhat surprising display of tolerance for unambiguously awful behavior, but the apparently entrenched Harvey Weinstein was quickly dethroned, and a sitting Senator was removed, suggesting that in some places the coalition against sexual abuses has great power.

What's amazing to me, though, is how discriminating the MeToo phenomenon has been, and how resistant it's been to spurious scapegoating dynamics.

I've heard people complain that it "goes too far," but in my experience the cases referred to that way tend to be cases where someone was criticized publicly, was probably embarrassed for arguably bad behavior, and didn't endure much in the way of additional consequences. Hardly a Maoist perpetual revolution. As it turns out, public discourse can actually lead to error-correction!

For instance, I know of two famous and influential Democratic senators who were accused of sexual harassment as part of the MeToo campaign - Al Franken and Chuck Schumer. In the former case there was a pattern of behavior established by multiple accusers and corroborating evidence and he stepped down, in the other case a consensus rapidly formed that the accusation was spurious.

The MeToo movement has gotten other little things right, like internal credit-allocation - for instance, celebrity Alyssa Milano, whose name is most prominently associated with it, has been careful to credit Tarana Burke for her relevant prior work under the same name.

Of course, the mass media impression of anything can be deceptive, which is why I followed with interest a recent case in a community I'm socially connected to.

In the SF Bay Area EA / Rationalist communities, some people decided to write publicly about someone they'd dated who they felt had engaged in a pattern of abusive behavior. 1 What happened next was that other people with relevant info or perspectives to offer spoke up, people with questions asked them, people who were known and trusted by the community compiled the public information (including some mitigating evidence), and gradually the community seems to have formed a consensus that this guy is bad news and no longer welcome.

There's no substitute for telling people things, and there's no substitute for actually wanting the truth. No official procedure can take the place of people deciding to invest in shared accurate models of reality. MeToo is just ... people publicly testifying about about what happened to them personally, and other people listening to them and evaluating what they're saying, and that's really encouraging.

A lot of my writing about public discourse has focused on its failings, and it's nice to have a thing to praise every once in a while. In the spirit of post-hoc rewards for behavior one wants to encourage, I reached out to at least one of the accusers I knew who I felt had made a particularly strong contribution to the discourse and offered them some money as a token of appreciation of their public service. This isn't an open offer going forward, I can't afford to do that on an ongoing basis (and don't want to be accountable about what I consider a credible/helpful account), but it would be nice if people with substantial surplus income considered things like that.

(Speaking of prizes for good behavior, I'm retiring the Oops Prize permanently, since there were no new nominations. This still isn't terribly strong evidence of much, since I didn't bother trying to promote it very hard this year. It's also kind of a difficult test. Note that my own recent post on the Berkeley REACH wouldn't have qualified since I didn't actually repudiate anything I'd said before.)

Thanks to everyone who's honestly spoken up in public about what's happened to them, and contributed to better public discourse about hidden abuses. Thanks for your courage. Sometimes it works out.

Thanks for everyone who's listened carefully and neither automatically believed nor automatically dismissed, but thought for themselves.


1 I was pleased to be reminded, when checking my communication logs about an unrelated matter, that I'd encouraged one of them to speak up publicly if and when they felt comfortable doing so, several months prior.

9 thoughts on “MeToo is good

  1. C.H.

    For datapoints against your experience that "metoo *doesn't* goes too far", there's the case of Steven Galloway, the case of Mustafa Ururyar, and there's the firing of the editor who published the Jian Ghomeshi essay, among others.

    I would consider those as all situations where MeToo went too far.

    1. Benquo

      Galloway was accused through a secret unaccountable process prior to the prominence of the MeToo campaign. Uruyrar was convicted in a court of law, again not the same methods as MeToo and before the campaign took off. These seem like evidence that the *old* regime is going too far, not that MeToo is. I didn't bother looking into the third case.

      1. C.H.

        Not quite. Galloway was exonerated through the legal process, but his "additional consequences besides emabressment", i.e. losing his job and getting ostracized by over half of the literary community, came from the MeToo movement.

        Mustafa likewise was exonerated by a court of law (Ontario Court of Appeal overturning the trial court, and then the prosecutor deciding to drop the charges), but his personal and professional reputation was likewise destroyed by the MeToo social / public shaming.

        1. Benquo

          It doesn’t seem like you’re distinguishing MeToo from other ways people have tried to punish what they perceive as sexual misconduct. Maybe you can go into more detail about why this seems attributable to MeToo?

          1. C.H.

            It seems disingenuous to me to distinguish between MeToo and what you call "the other ways people have tried to punish what they see as sexual misconduct". Your post tries to frame MeToo as "just ... people publicly testifying about about what happened to them personally, and other people listening to them and evaluating what they're saying", but in practice (and in the original conception of the movement ala Harvey Weinstein) that is not what is going on.

            A big part of MeToo has always been about tearing people down from positions of power, in hopes of preventing future abuses by the same person. It makes sense for people like Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, but it has the unfortunate effect of ruining a number of innocent people as well. And this is made worse by the outrage culture, victim mentality culture that is on the rise right now.

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    1. Benquo Post author

      Mariah Carey's bodyguard seems like an example of someone who worked with the old regime (lawsuit, little public information) rather than following the MeToo protocol, and therefore got results characteristic of the old regime rather than MeToo. Scott's article doesn't give any other examples.

      By contrast, Terry Crews was widely praised by people prominent in the MeToo movement for coming forward, and as far as I can tell no one could be ostracized in response because he didn't name names, suggesting he didn't particularly care to direct punishment at anyone. There was some amount of confusion around Asia Argento's accuser but it seems like the discourse quickly converged on listening and taking his accusation seriously as well.

      I remember people yelling about harassment in a way that exaggerated the gender asymmetry long before MeToo. Why do you think MeToo amplified that specific thing? I guess one possibility is that it generically increased the salience of sexual harassment, but there were Dilbert comics and Senate committee hearings about sort of thing that decades ago.


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