Tag Archives: #MeToo

The Problem With Dogma

A recent column by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times focused on an impediment to positive social change that routinely drives me nuts: activists for causes I agree with who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good.

It isn’t just the MAGA ideologues who are prisoners of their own ideology. Goldberg’s column focuses on organizations on the left that have been roiled by internal conflicts pitting purists against pragmatists.

In June the Intercept’s Ryan Grim wrote about the toll that staff revolts and ideologically inflected psychodramas were taking on the work: “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.” Privately, I’ve heard countless people on the professional left — especially those over, say, 35 — bemoan the irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism of some younger colleagues.

Recently, Maurice Mitchell, who heads up the progressive Working Families Party, has written about  what Goldberg calls “the left’s self-sabotaging impulse.”

Mitchell’s piece systematically lays out some of the assertions and assumptions that have paralyzed progressive outfits. Among them are maximalism, or “considering anything less than the most idealistic position” a betrayal; a refusal to distinguish between discomfort and oppression; and reflexive hostility to hierarchy. He criticizes the insistence “that change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale,” an approach that keeps activists turned inward, along with the idea that progressive organizations should be places of therapeutic healing.

As Goldberg notes, these impulses are not new. She points out that “destructive left-wing purity spirals are at least as old as the French Revolution.”

I can think of two relatively recent illustrations of that tendency, one local and one national.

On the local level, I am personally aware of two incidents where internal insistence on maximal (and performative) devotion to non-discrimination resulted in the very public ejection of leaders who were accused of encouraging  a less-than-ideal racial environment; in both of those situations, the executive found to be imperfect was anything but a bigot. (In one, there was actually an investigation by an outside company that found absolutely no evidence to support the allegations.) To the contrary, both had been involved in anti-discrimination activities for several years.

On the national level, I am convinced that dogmatic excesses actually diminished the beneficial impact of the #MeToo movement. (Admission: I still resent the unnecessary loss of Al Franken from the U.S. Senate thanks to indignation over a dumb joke told before he ran for office.)

When #MeToo first emerged, I applauded. Like all women, I had encountered unwanted “approaches” from men ranging from boorish behaviors to significantly worse and I certainly recognized the unfairness of blaming the victim (complaints about sexual assaults being dismissed with “well, what was she wearing?” or other responses suggesting that the woman was somehow “asking for it.”) Holding predators rather than their victims responsible was long overdue. Sending a message that unwanted touching and worse are not amusing, not a male prerogative, and not to be tolerated was also long overdue.

That said, there is a difference between unwanted attention and assault.

Inappropriate behaviors occur on a continuum–and responses to those behaviors should be calibrated to the severity of the behavior. Furthermore, fundamental fairness requires rejecting essentialism– all men are not dogs, and all women are not saints. Taking women seriously is not the same thing as uncritically believing anything and everything any woman says. An accusation of impropriety should be considered a rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.

More generally, those of us old folks who have been “in the trenches” for a long time generally recognize that “strategy” is not a curse word, and a focus on strategic considerations is not evidence of insufficient devotion to the cause at hand.

Over the years, most of us learn to favor evolution over revolution, recognizing that sustainable progress is almost always incremental and that half a loaf really is better than no bread at all.

Recognizing that we aren’t going to change the world tomorrow to meet activists’ most exacting specifications doesn’t make people traitors to the cause.


The #MeToo Dilemma

This is a hard post to write, because I want to be clear about what I am–and am not–saying.

When the #MeToo movement emerged, I applauded. Like most women, I’d encountered unwanted “approaches” from men ranging from boorish to significantly worse; like most of the women I know, I get livid when complaints about sexual assaults are dismissed with “well, what was she wearing?” or other responses blaming the victim or suggesting that the woman was somehow “asking for it.”

When #MeToo accountability began, I was saddened to learn about Bill Cosby, but the number of accusations made it plain that he wasn’t the person he portrayed on TV. And while it doesn’t speak well for my surrender to schadenfreude, I was actually thrilled with the verdict against Harvey Weinstein.

Holding predators–not their victims– responsible is long overdue.

But. (You knew there was a “but” coming…)

Taking women seriously is not the same thing as uncritically believing anything and everything any woman says. An accusation of impropriety or assault should be considered a  rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.

In criminal law class in law school, we learn that rape is both the most under-reported and most over-reported crime. Under-reported because victims were reluctant to come forward for all of the reasons that have been highlighted by the #MeToo movement–over-reported because there were also unfair and untrue accusations leveled, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by emotionally unwell persons.

The biggest problem is determining the facts in these situations, because that they are inevitably “he said/she said.”

Lawyers who specialize in prosecuting sexual assault charges must evaluate whether evidence and testimony are consistent with the accuracy of an accusation. And that brings me to a comprehensive review of the complaint lodged against Joe Biden by Tara Reade, a former staffer, recently written by one such prosecutor. 

I really urge you to click through and read the entire column.

The alleged assault occurred in 1993. As the prosecutor notes, the 27-year delay itself is not reason to disbelieve her. But the story she tells has changed significantly since she first came forward.

As a lawyer and victims’ rights advocate, Reade was better equipped than most to appreciate that dramatic changes in sexual assault allegations severely undercut an accuser’s credibility — especially when the change is from an uncomfortable shoulder touch to vaginal penetration.

Reade said she complained at the time to Biden’s executive assistant, and to two top aides– all three adamantly deny that she ever approached them. (They didn’t simply have “no recollection.” They strongly refuted the claim). She also says she filed a written complaint with the Senate personnel office, but reporters could not find any record of such a complaint there, and when the Times asked her for a copy, she said she didn’t have it. Yet she had kept and provided a copy of her 1993 Senate employment records.

She has told wildly inconsistent stories about why she left Biden’s employ, and in the years following her stint on his staff, she has been highly complimentary of him. Evidently, it wasn’t until she had become a fervid Sanders supporter that the accusation of assault changed from “rubbed her shoulders” to digital penetration.

There’s much, much more detail in the linked article, and most of it suggests someone emotionally unstable rather than intentionally vindictive–but none of it enhances her credibility. Quite the contrary.

And as the writer notes, most men who assault women are serial abusers.

Last year, several women claimed that Biden made them uncomfortable with things like a shoulder touch or a hug… The Times and Post found no allegation of sexual assault against Biden except Reade’s.

It is possible that in his 77 years, Biden committed one sexual assault and it was against Reade. But in my experience, men who commit a sexual assault are accused more than once … like Donald Trump, who has had more than a dozen allegations of sexual assault leveled against him and who was recorded bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia.

I particularly agree with the final paragraph.

We can support the #MeToo movement and not support allegations of sexual assault that do not ring true. If these two positions cannot coexist, the movement is no more than a hit squad. That’s not how I see the #MeToo movement. It’s too important, for too many victims of sexual assault and their allies, to be no more than that.


The #MeToo movement was a major step forward for all women, especially but not exclusively those who have been victims of sexual assaults. If it is perceived as an indiscriminate anti-male crusade rather than a pro-justice remedial effort– if it is bullied into becoming a chorus that will automatically defend all accusations irrespective of their credibility– it will lose the hard-won and very important legitimacy that makes it effective.