Continued from Beyond Fear and Fury – Eight Musings on #MeToo, Parts I-IV
V. Moral Matrices
#MeToo is a moral movement. Liberals don’t like the word, but dig deep enough into a devoted feminist or anti-racist or environmentalist and the language that emerges is unmistakable. We experience our causes as righteous, even spiritual.
Liberal activists are as driven by moral instincts and emotions as any street preacher, and it is these that drive how we use the growing power associated with victimhood: moral indignation, disgust, outrage, vindictiveness, empathic anguish, protective nurturing, love—and, of course the sweet, sweet sensation of righteous superiority; we are only human after all. All of these get attached to the battles we fight; for many of us they get activated when we even think about sexual harassment, exploitation and assault.
Seven or eight years ago, psychologist Jonathan Haidt briefly starred as the darling of the progressive left. Liberal thought leaders and progressive organizers were struggling to understand the moral (and immoral) priorities of the Right, and Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, offered an analysis that made some sense.
Haidt said that shared community requires “moral capital,” which he defined as “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” He defined a moral matrix consisting of six factors:
Conservatives place fairly equal value on all six, he said, while liberals build moral community around the first three of these, with a strong emphasis on the first, care/harm. “For American liberals since the 1960s, I believe that the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression. Anyone who blames such victims for their own problems or who displays or merely excuses prejudice against sacralized victim groups can expect a vehement tribal response.”
Sacralized victim groups—that includes #MeToo. It includes me, too.
A decade has passed since Haidt began the inquiry process that led to The Righteous Mind, and in the intervening years, the currents he described have become bifurcated torrents, carving canyons so deep that people on the left and right can’t see each other across the divide.
And yet, in many ways, we are not as different as liberals like to think (nor as conservatives like to fear, but that is another topic).
Liberalism can be understood as liberation, as freedom from old orthodoxies that used to bind thought and speech and the right of individuals to live and die as they see best. Progressivism can be understood as progress, as growth beyond outdated social structures rooted in the Iron Age patriarchy of the Bible, or the class structure of the European monarchies, or the slavery of colonialism, or the wage slavery of the industrial revolution. When liberalism is understood as liberation of individuals and progressivism understood as progress toward a more free, fair and healthy future; then uncoupling morality from authority, loyalty and sanctity seems natural. These three parts of the moral matrix activate people to conserve the status quo and protect insiders.
But I can’t help wondering: In the deep ideological trench we now have dug, has progressivism become a new kind of anti-liberal orthodoxy with a new set of taboos and commands? Trust victims is one of our Ten Commandments, because such trust has so long been in short supply. But we forget sometimes that the experience of oppression or violation confers neither perfect memory nor pure motivation. Victims are ordinary people—complicated and imperfect—not saints. Have we created a new tribe of believers to whom we owe loyalty and a new set of authorities to whom we owe subservience? Maybe those parts of the moral matrix we thought we had left behind were simply dormant, now called back up to protect a new status quo.
At the leading edges of culture—on college campuses, in social media, in the world of celebrity, and in places like Seattle—insiders compete to signal their fidelity and heretics are met with swift reprisal: loss of social standing, derision, name calling, accusations of giving succor to the enemy, shunning, and—for public figures in particular—calls for further punishment.
I can’t help but think of Matt Damon, whose crime against #MeToo was to voice what millions of people, including many liberal women, were thinking. “I do believe there’s a spectrum of behavior. There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
Minnie Driver, who co-starred with Damon in Good Will Hunting, countered in the Guardian with “There is no hierarchy of abuse—that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if a woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for.”
There’s a simple test for the truth of Damon’s statement and the falsehood of Driver’s: Ask yourself which you’d prefer to experience if you had to pick one. But the quest for truth doesn’t neatly fit into Haidt’s moral matrix, and outrage against Damon swept across the internet—including demands that his role in an upcoming movie, Oceans 8, be cut.
VI. Crime and Punishment
Progressives believe in restorative justice—except when we don’t.
When oppressed people do things that hurt themselves or their kids or others, we point to a vast web of systemic and structural factors as contributing causes. No one is an island, we say, and we argue for second chances and the kinds of remedies and services that help people change. But when it comes to bad things done by rich white guys we adopt a different mental model—one that is, in fact, almost identical to the model of justice that conservatives apply to poor brown folk.
Suddenly, we are all rabid believers in free will and personal responsibility, and we want bad behavior punished. We look at a harm-doer, and all we can see is the crime and the victim. Down where our moral emotions swirl, our yearning for justice isn’t social or restorative; it’s retributive. We experience something remarkably like hate. We want them to suffer.
#MeToo didn’t start as mob justice. It started as an outcry of anger and anguish. But retributive justice swiftly followed, with members of the victim’s social network whether large or small, real-world or virtual, acting as judge and jury. At the primal level, down where we are driven by frustration and empathic pain, each violation represents all others and each violator represents every man who has ever left a woman feeling soiled or crushed. Matt Damon or Al Franken or Charlie Rose or Garrison Keillor . . . we don’t really know how guilty they are and we don’t really care because they are Man.
We Americans—as offspring of a Christianized culture— believe in the power of substitutionary atonement. Christianity’s core story is that one person can suffer for another, the innocent for the guilty, and this somehow sets the world right. Guilty party or scapegoat or something in between? It’s all ok—as long as someone pays. For without the shedding of blood is no remission of sin. So says the Iron Age text.
And if we can mete out that punishment ourselves, following trial by Twitter or a Facebook feeding frenzy, we are more than glad to do so. “Due process is for legal crimes,” commented one progressive lawyer on my Facebook. “These are social crimes and social consequences; they don’t require due process.”
Don’t they? Is not our criminal justice system a formalized extension of social consequences for social crimes? Have we not spent millennia formalizing process and proportionality precisely because we humans are prone to acts of reactive retribution that we subsequently recognize as unjust? Is it any less grave a matter to end a person’s career, strip his art from public fora, shatter his reputation, or break his marriage than to lock him up?
VII. Silent No More
Pain is a mammal’s most powerful motivator; anger our most powerful activating emotion; and the two often go hand in hand. Pain and anger drive us to do whatever it takes to stop whatever is harming or threatening us. Most people have heard that animals, when threatened, tend to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. For eons most women have responded to sexual violations by freezing or fleeing, adopting the posture safest for the weaker creature, suppressing the anger that urged them to fight back.
But strong emotions, especially when they have built up over decades or lifetimes, can be contained only at a cost. Even if we try to keep them walled in, maintaining the dikes takes energy. The energy required to contain trauma or anger or fear diminishes what we have left over for growth and discovery, curiosity and creativity, longsuffering and love. And because we are social creatures, intimately bound to each other, it necessarily diminishes those around us.
Harm cascades, and those in power who think they get away with it are mistaken. The deeper an injustice, the more energy required to perpetuate it, and the more it defines both perpetrators and victims—and the communities in which they live. Years back, our family visited a South Africa still reeling from the anger and anguish of apartheid. One of my most enduring images of Johannesburg is of the razor wire that surrounded shopping malls and posh developments and ordinary middle-class homes and schools. And the armed guards. And the metal detectors (which American schools and public buildings now share). Maintaining injustice has costs that those in power don’t recognize until they are forced to let go.
I used the word forced deliberately, because that is what #MeToo is—a show of force. This messy stampede of disclosures and accusations and demands and recriminations may leave us all a bit shaken, but we need to move forward through it, not retreat. The voices of the wounded must be heard.
A dam has broken, and dark waters are draining out. They have been slow in building; they may be slow to empty. It may be a while before the flood shrinks to a trickle, and we can ask ourselves—if we dare—what kind of social structure we might want to build to together to replace the old. What is the form of the “Peaceable Kingdom” if it isn’t a kingdom—if power and status aren’t accidents of birth and nobody holds rights to any body but their own?
VIII. Uprising —The Slow Part
The old hippy bumper sticker said If you want peace, work for justice. It wasn’t just a nice sentiment, some at-a-safe-distance allusion to revolutions in Central America or central Africa, or suffragettes or labor movements past. If you want peace in the home or workplace, work for justice. If you want peace in the streets, work for justice. If you want peace in Hollywood, work for justice.
That is more complicated than it might sound.
The first mass reactions against injustice are seldom just, because when pain and anger burst forth, they rarely are well-targeted. In this #MeToo moment, culture is in motion and sexual rules are changing, and some broadly decent–but handsy or clumsy or boundary-pushing or simply unlucky men–are going to end up as collateral damage, along with those who love them. Some already have, just as surely as some women have begun, finally, to heal.
Movements, as I said, are messy. Angry people shoot buckshot. Opportunists play opportunities. Decent people lose their way while trying to navigate uncharted territory. #MeToo is no exception, and some recent excesses are ugly to the point that they threaten the movement. (What greater threat to a movement banking on the power of sympathy than excesses which diminish that sympathy before the stories of the wounded have been fully told and heard?)
To make matters even more complicated, we actually do need to reach a point that we can care about those accused of doing harm as well as their accusers—not because we have toggled away from caring for victims or have trivialized their injuries, but because our circle of compassion is big enough to include both.
After the reactive “thinking-fast” part of the movement comes the part where we breathe deep, look around, figure out where we are and—most importantly—remember who we are. For liberals and progressives, the most fundamental element of our shared worldview is a sense that we’re all tangled in this beautiful, painful web of life together, that nobody—even a bloviating pig—is a self-made man. And one of our most significant corollaries is this: Whether we have been victimized or victimizers each of us is more than the sum our worst moments. There is beauty and value in the most broken among us, right here on earth, no blood atonement needed. No exceptions for skin color or gender.
I’m not there yet.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Nuance, Valerie. You’re peddling nuance in a black and white world. What a challenge you’ve undertaken. I thank you for every bit of nuance you put forth.
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Valerie, thanks for adding color to issues which we love to paint as black and white. Any movement can be like warfare. Kill an ISIS fighter by bombing the building he stands on top of…even if there are 20 civilians inside.I probably all like to think of myself as righteous, even when I shout “I’m not righteous!” because it seems like the righteous thing to say. .
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Thanks for the full series.
Haidt’s name jumped out at me, and I might have read between the lines that you did not care for his framing or conclusion. Regardless, I would like to see your take on him–a deeper analysis of his book and his appearances. My first reaction to the book you referenced was to brand him as a social Darwinian with a layer of obfuscation that allowed his book to sell to us liberals.
Also — do not think I have subscribed to your writing, and should. Do you take donations for writing? Besides better known alternate information outlets like Truthout, I feel better paying something for Paul Street’s and Stonekettle Station’s essays, and yours are as informative.
Thank you, Joe. That’s an interesting take on Haidt’s book. It’s a long time since I’ve read it; maybe I’ll have to go back and look again. Either way, I think his matrix offers some interesting insight into what triggers our moral emotions. And thank you for asking about donations. I don’t have a way to take donations, but the mere fact that you asked makes me feel very valued.
Thank you Valerie. No doubt about the right to revolt against women oppression, which has almost become institutionalised in so many life aspects, not the least the professional one, but to read how you address the feelings that motivates us to accept mob justice and the notion of nuances did me good. I believe your voice and reflection will help move us as a species to a better us. Great contribution. I share like most readers should do to help spread what is better in us humans. I have read several of your contributions over the years and I think you bring the Gauss of humanity in a sustainable more human direction. Thanks again.
Thank you, Jacques. That is my deepest hope.
I know messages should always stay simple but of course your two forward looking points
(i) It may be a while before the flood shrinks to a trickle, and we can ask ourselves—if we dare—what kind of social structure we might want to build to together to replace the old. What is the form of the “Peaceable Kingdom” if it isn’t a kingdom—if power and status aren’t accidents of birth and nobody holds rights to any body but their own?
(ii) “we actually do need to reach a point that we can care about those accused of doing harm as well as their accusers—not because we have toggled away from caring for victims or have trivialized their injuries, but because our circle of compassion is big enough to include both.”…
are actually more important than the “nuances” argument, but indeed first has to come the “Nuances” argument. The second is reminescent of the birth of several spiritual movements that will later be called religion. The problem is what we do with the movement once it has momentum but like you often say, that is another story.
Some provocative follow-up readings:
I was. maybe, one of the first among the collaterally damaged in the early 1980s. Basically, I was nudged out of divinity school for my social awkwardness which was construed as harassment. I had no such intent and all the parties were always entirely clothed, but be that as it is I was judged not fit for the cloth. After I was told this I felt as if my soul was bleeding to death. No one at seminary really wanted to hear my side then either except my classmates of color.
I was either lucky or watched-over though: I had help in putting myself, emotionally, back on my feet. Since then I’ve been married and widowed and am remarried now. During much of the time between leaving seminary and my first marriage it was touch and go whether I would keep dating (or asking) or just decide that I was a hopeless relational failure and even stop looking. And, of course, it was just after I decided to look no more that I met the woman who became my first wife. I guess it made a difference that I didn’t think of myself as hopeless when I did stop looking.
If you’re not up to extending a hand to the collaterally damaged yet, chances are almost no white American woman is. When you do get around to it, you may be faced with many damaged and unhealed men who will spit in your newly-outstretched hand. Will you, and others like you, be ready for that?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and story; and I’m really sorry you had to live through that. It sounds intensely painful.
When I said, “I’m not ready” I meant I’m not ready to think compassionately about Donald Trump specifically, who continues to do immeasurable harm in the world. As to feeling the pain of men who have been awkward in their sexual overtures, or have misread cues, or have been pushy in ways that didn’t work–well, that is one of the reasons I wrote this article the way that i did, carefully circling back several times to the fact that there’s genuine injustice and harm as well as healing being enacted in this moment and by this movement. It may feel like I said that too softly; that is because I was trying to say it in a way that could be heard by people who right now are feeling both righteous and victimized.
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I’m not sure whether you said it too softly but, as my dear wife would say, my crystal ball’s in the shop and I guess I was thinking of more than Trumpelthinskin–and that designation likely tells you I’M not ready to feel compassion for him either! As a middle-aged (not rich) white man myself, I too tend to judge such a wrongdoer more harshly than any other, mostly because they have the most chance to learn better and the most power to be real societal benefactors. Many thanks for your prompt and understanding reply!