In Ken Burns’ essential series on the Vietnam war, a former American soldier recounts his worst day. It fell after an especially horrific battle to take and hold a village that had left him and his comrades terrified, exhausted, and enraged at the deaths of so many of their friends. During a lull in the fighting, in the throes of this emotional tsunami, one of his buddies emerged from a hut with a teenage South Vietnamese girl and informed them that she’d have sex with anyone who would give her K-rations. Egging each other on, every man in his platoon had his way with her. Nineteen years old and too afraid to stand up to his buddies, he did too. As this man tells his story, his eyes well up and his face contorts in grief. Despite all of the killing he did during the war, it was this act – this abuse of a starving, desperate woman – that he is most ashamed of. To this day, he is stricken by his cowardice.
I thought of him again today as the #MeToo storm flared and subsided.
It began on Sunday, when in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted “Suggested by a friend: “Me, too. If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "Me too." as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
The response was overwhelming. Within 24 hours, her post had been retweeted almost a half-million times. By Sunday night, my Facebook feed comprised almost exclusively Me-too postings. Some were simple copy-and-pastes, some much more detailed elaboration of specific incidents. Some were stories of routine sexual harassment — catcalls, leers, uninvited touches — and some were accounts of rapes. A few were written by men.
It was the perfect social media campaign. After all, if your laudable goal is to show how endemic sexual harassment and assault really is, what better way to do it than through a social media meme like this one?
But by 8 a.m Monday, the unease that this wave had engendered began to percolate, particularly among millennials, it seemed. “Reminder that if a woman didn’t post #MeToo, it doesn’t mean that she wasn’t sexually assaulted or harassed,” tweeted one young woman, a writer named Alexis Benveniste. “Survivors don’t owe you their story.” And in a similar vein, one particularly dear Facebook friend of mine wrote, “It’s not the job of women to fix the problem of men sexually harassing women by sharing our trauma. I hate #MeToo. That said, me too.”
Like them, I felt ambivalent, though for somewhat different reasons. They were objecting to women having to reveal and potentially re-live their traumas. In contrast, I welcomed any action that would help to dissolve the persistent stigma associated with sexual abuse, but wondered if this met that objective. They resented the notion that it still seems more incumbent on the victims to resist and raise awareness than it is on perpetrators to behave differently and prosecutors to hold them accountable. I bristled at the notion that agitating around and remediating oppression isn’t everyone’s job. They had a heartbreaking understanding of how it feels to face what seems to be the impossible choice between advancing in life or capitulating to the vile demands of powerful people. I have an old person’s understanding that the choices we make when young are rarely as constrained or influential as they feel; I know the power we derive if and when we have the physical freedom and the will to say no.
But mostly what I felt after reading posting after posting — some with color-block backgrounds, some with childhood photos or public service announcements or hearts — was fatigue. Like the rainbow filters in support of gay marriage rights and green ones in solidarity with Iranian opposition voters, like "Je suis Charlie Hebdo," #MeToo takes a defining cultural challenge inadvertently turns it into cultural ephemera.
For all that is powerful and progressive about #MeToo, there is a crucial quality that it lacks. It fails to haunt.
By making it so easily replicated and transmitted — by making a cry of outrage copy-and-pasteable — we inadvertently commoditize it. Despite our best intentions, what so often begins as a protest rapidly turns into a commercial for a protest, one that runs so often that we quickly become desensitized to it.
But that Vietnam vet, a man who was both perpetrator and victim, reminds us of the power of one. His anguished face, his lingering grief, his wrenching, singular remorse will endure in all of us who witness his story.