Things We Can Do Without
Katie Roiphe ignores the fact that gender inequality is a psychological condition, not just a material one [“The Other Whisper Network,” Essay, March]. She dismisses participants of the #MeToo movement as being motivated by “Trumpian” urges toward “grandeur,” but if anything has driven these women to such ends it is the denial of justice through our legal system, which more often compels silence. The 35 percent of women who have experienced sexual violence surely do not need Roiphe’s characterization of their efforts to now be heard as a performance “enticed” by the “drama of the moment.”
What Roiphe and Rebecca Solnit [“Nobody Knows,” Easy Chair, March] both acknowledge is that drama is sometimes the only weapon available to the powerless against the powerful. Unlike Roiphe, though, Solnit affirms what she sees as the writer’s essential obligation to society: “to hear and to tell the stories of the powerless.”
Sexual assault and boorish behavior are not the same thing. When we conflate the two, we trivialize the more serious issue, making it harder to fight genuine sexual assault and physical abuse. Such behavior, ironically, is anti-feminist: it implies that women are weak, constantly victimized by a world of men who see them only as sex objects. It also fails to recognize that human beings, no matter their gender, are complex animals navigating loneliness, desire, and the need for validation. Instead of demanding a legal document from someone before kissing them, we should build a culture of mutual understanding and respect.
I have voiced concerns similar to Roiphe’s regarding the damage done to our collective sense of legal and moral justice by the zeal of #MeToo, and have also been vilified for doing so. My career in the corporate world began in the mid-Seventies—a less enlightened time—and was fraught with issues similar to those described by many women today.
But while the times have changed, the choices available to women (absent physical or chemical coercion) remain the same: say yes, say no, or work around it. Whatever you choose, own it.
Roiphe has long acted as a female proxy providing cover for male grievance. All movements that confront the status quo contain elements of overreach; it comes with the territory. But for Roiphe to characterize the injustices some men might experience as equivalent to the injustices women suffer is ludicrous. And for Harper’s Magazine to devote so much space to this defense (and to anoint Roiphe its commentator above all other feminist writers) reflects an ignorance of the deep, long-standing, and constant abuses that women face because of entrenched sexism.
Stories of being hit on, touched, or even just approached by men imply a type of power held by the storyteller: the power to incite desire. If we are demanding that men interrogate their thought processes and the influence of subconscious desires, then perhaps we should consider whether there might not also be the barest hint of bragging in our stories.
Solnit understands what Roiphe does not: sexual harassment is about power, and #MeToo is about women wising up to that. Roiphe, it seems, would rather women continue to cower than shed light on this.
Nanaimo, British Columbia
The #MeToo movement doesn’t have power; it has influence. Enough women came forward that something finally had to change, but few (if any) of us have demanded that this happen without due process.
The question waiting to be answered, then, is why due process has in some instances seemingly been eschewed, with companies choosing to quickly dump men accused of sexual misconduct. Are they really so shocked at what has been happening that they must immediately eject the culprits? Or are these efforts actually gestures to placate the movement while hoping that momentum will soon swing back to the status quo and the cover it provided?
Dorothy C. Miller
Roiphe creates the impression that she and her anonymous sources have little personal knowledge of the structural oppression of women. Even though she does acknowledge the marginalized and powerless women who have been the targets of harassment and exploitation, she nonetheless finds a way to separate herself from them. This is a form of female tokenism. The force with which many of these women express their rage is not new, but they are now being heard in a context that demands inclusivity.
For too long now we have been listening to women’s accusations of sexual misconduct as though all such accusations are of the same merit or veracity. Women like me, who began in support and understanding of the movement, now find ourselves shocked by a blithe and arrogant readiness to dispense with due process and fairness, to castigate anyone who dares raise questions. Roiphe is far from alone in her views, and the number of women who agree with her is growing.
Roiphe compares two “whisper networks”: one used by victims to support one another in the absence of appropriate action by the systems tasked with protecting them, and another made up of private conversations with friends and acquaintances who keep criticisms of the former quiet lest they face backlash. This equivalence is wrong. Popular opinion changes over time, but people have always been restrained as to where and how far they can comfortably stray from it. For instance, where once you could discuss victim precipitation (she shouldn’t have gone back to his apartment, etc.) in “polite society,” now too many people know better.
Finding an agreeable audience with similar opinions has proved easy enough for Roiphe’s network—much easier than for victims seeking justice in the other.
I had concluded that the mainstream media industry was simply a cheer squad for a shared orthodoxy and that independent thinking was not allowed. Roiphe has given me reason to consider engaging again.
As Roiphe herself acknowledges, we live in a patriarchy. Our media, workplaces, schools, and political and cultural institutions raise men to believe they have power over women. Over time, they learn that intimidation or harassment not only goes unpunished but also, as Rebecca Solnit writes earlier in the same issue, often wins them opportunities. The public lists of accused men that Roiphe finds so hysterical are not intended to ruin or “castrate” men; they’re intended to undermine a culture that sanctions sexist behavior as a source of capital. In conjunction with undermining that culture, we must also educate people of all genders as to what healthy professional and personal relationships look like between women and men. No one—including men—is safe in a society where sexual exploitation is a ticket to success.
Roiphe says that she has never herself experienced sexual harassment. If so, she’s clearly had an easier path than most women. I’m glad she’s found some small cadre of like-minded folks, few and “deeply anonymous” as they may remain, with whom to weather this frightening moment, since any man will tell you that privilege is a terrifying thing to lose.
Roiphe’s essay is another instance of an elite group demanding that an oppressed group censor its frustration in deference to diplomacy. Roiphe’s argument rests on women being able to distinguish for themselves a predatory man from a flirtatious one (forgoing the need for a “burn list”), but then somehow doesn’t grant these women the discernment to responsibly receive the same opinions from others. Why is the gray area in our society always reserved for men? I am concerned that Roiphe and the “deeply anonymous” are bending the forward path of this movement, circling back around to disagreements between women and thereby restricting the conversation to an ineffective orbit.
Ian MacDougall describes well the real-world impact of “strategic lawsuits against public participation” [“Empty Suits,” Report, March]. Although corporations intent on eliminating public participation by filing SLAPPs rarely win in the courtroom, they are effective in silencing citizens with the threat of court battles and lawyer fees.
But readers should know that many states have anti-SLAPP laws that permit counterclaims for “vexatious litigation,” and fee-shifting provisions that can enable private citizens and public interest groups to collect from litigious corporations. Also, when citizens prevail in court, they can “SLAPP back”—sue the corporation, using the common-law intentional tort action of “abuse of process,” and recover damages for certain harms suffered, such as loss of reputation and credit, humiliation, and mental suffering.
Early use of this information can deter corporations from filing SLAPPs by sending the message that citizens and their lawyers have litigation tools, too.
Office of the Community Lawyer
Grace Under Fire
Sallie Tisdale expresses what I’ve felt for several years while caring for my mother, who has vascular dementia [“Out of Time,” Miscellany, March]. I braced myself stoically for heartbreak at first, but time and again she surprises me in small, positive ways: spontaneously hula dancing to a favorite hymn; sitting still reading with me at the library; learning to knit, a completely new skill for her. Despite the behavioral problems and incredible time demands, her condition has taught me that being open to positive surprise takes effort—small moments are easy to miss—but that effort is often rewarded.
For the decade it took my wife to slip into the abyss of dementia, I felt like a sidewalk gawker watching a house burn to the ground. My efforts to save her only compounded my feelings of helplessness, and yet the endless, all-consuming mystery of this undeserved fate never gave way to anger or pity.
The recollections of caregivers, professional or otherwise, mean little to me, but then maybe that’s because mine is a story more about love than about sickness. That we lived through better and worse was our shared fate, which nothing can shake and not even death alter.
Merion Station, Pa.
My mother developed vascular dementia in her early sixties and died years later in a memory care unit, slumped over in her wheelchair. She had broken her leg a few years earlier, and although she was able to recover, she basically forgot how to walk during the healing period. Thank God she never knew what she had come to, this beautiful woman who once took such pride in her appearance, eventually reduced to a lump of uncomprehending, suffering flesh.
Tisdale’s experiences do not remotely reflect mine, and she is in no position to interpret my feelings about this patient’s—my mother’s—identity. It is simply her opinion, and a hurtful one.
Lake Worth, Fla.
I’m seventy-two and have been a dedicated runner for decades. I feel that Barbara Ehrenreich goes too far in her critique of fitness culture, giving those less committed the relief they need from trying [“Running to the Grave,” Readings, March]. Ehrenreich does make a passing reference to “my gym,” suggesting she has not discarded the notion entirely, but concludes her essay with a graphic description of biology’s ultimate victory and the comment “So much, then, for the hours—and years—you have devoted to fitness.”
But reasonable efforts to stay fit are generally not directed at defeating the aging process. Rather, it is about quality of life. Sure, we know no one’s getting out of this alive—and I agree with Ehrenreich’s criticism of fad diets and expensive potions and treatments—but I fear her belittling of any attempt to stay moderately fit because of inevitable decay may deprive those who accept this absolute conclusion of prolonged quality of life.
Just One Small Thing . . .
I wasn’t surprised by Alan Lightman’s initial dismissal of the supernatural in favor of a verifiable material world [“The Infinity of the Small,” Essay, March]. After quoting Emily Dickinson, the poet who chose to wed the two, he remarks that “nature in her glory wants us to believe in a heaven, something divine and immaterial beyond nature itself,” while science proves the world material. And yet he doesn’t seem to appreciate how he tempts us to believe in the supernatural when he concludes that this material world, in its essential form, dissolves into “mansions within mansions” of space with energy, a world “so thin that it dissolves into nothingness”—“a ghost world.”
Why resist the supernatural world and the way so many of us seek to access it, choosing instead to contain it with equations or terminology suspiciously poetic?
Lightman mentions Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, but he ignores Bertrand Russell’s solution to that paradox. If space is indeed infinitely divisible, then time should likewise be infinitely divisible. Therefore, although we must make an infinite number of journeys to walk from the chair to the door, are we not in fact able to do so, since we have an infinite amount of time to spend on these journeys?
Near the end of his essay, Lightman writes: “At the Planck scale, time itself randomly speeds up and slows down, perhaps even going backward as well as forward.” I strongly suspect this is a conscious oversimplification to avoid having to explain the scientific concept of time to people who probably don’t understand it, but it bugs me. If physicists keep saying things like that (which they do say quite often when speaking to the rest of us), then those of us who know a little physics will keep doubting ourselves unnecessarily, and those of us who don’t will simply be misled.
Time is not a thing but a label we place on experience. I assume what Lightman means is that if we could shrink an observer to Planck scale, that observer’s experience of time could be that it was speeding up, slowing down, or even reversing. And that’s pretty interesting. I’d like to learn more about why that is.