In the last two weeks, there has been a great deal of controversy and commentary on recent comments from the actor Matt Damon about the #MeToo movement. This has ranged from substantive critiques to complaints that the problem is that he, as a man, is speaking at all. There has even been a petition to remove him from the movie Ocean's 8.
Some of Damon's most quoted remarks (here in context) include: "I think we're in this watershed moment. I think it's great. I think it's wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories, and it's totally necessary." I do believe that there's a spectrum of behavior, right? And we're going to have to figure--you know, there's a difference between, you know, 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, right?... We're so energized to kind of get retribution, I think. And we live in this culture of outrage and injury, and, you know, that we're going to have to correct enough to kind of go, 'Wait a minute. None of us came here perfect.'"
He went on to talk about a couple of different cases on this "spectrum" where, for criminal charges, there should be prison time, but for lesser crimes, there would have to be transformation, "reflection and dialogue and some reconciliation."
Are these statements basically right or wrong? They are basically right! Not just in talking about the way we ought to approach different cases in terms of punishment, but by pointing correctly to a negative trend that has emerged from the #MeToo movement. And this is something that is vital to get right if this movement is going to go forward on a positive basis. We need to get to a world free of all forms of exploitation and oppression, all the underlying economic and political structures and relations that give rise to them, and all the ideas based on--and reinforcing--those structures. But to even have a chance of getting there, we need to get right how we're fighting right now, today, for changes. I want to focus here on three questions concentrated in this controversy over Damon's remarks.1. Are we going for retribution or transformation?
In response to Damon, actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted a thread about how it's "the micro that makes the macro." She compared sexual assault to cancer: there may be different degrees but it is all still cancer. She explained: "I have been a victim of each component of the sexual assault spectrum of which you speak. They all hurt. And they are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted--even welcomed--misogyny."
She upheld the "culture of outrage" in a way that could lead to justifying the aspect of retribution that Damon was criticizing. She said: "Sexual harassment, misconduct, assault and violence is a systemic disease. The tumor is being cut out right now with no anesthesia. Please send flowers." Alyssa Milano should pursue her metaphor. In the history of breast cancer, radical mastectomies were once the one and only treatment known. When cancers returned after the surgery, as they often did, the doctors concluded that they had not cut deeply enough. So they operated again, cutting out even more, and often crippling the women so treated without preventing recurrence. It was only when medicine identified a genetic component to certain breast cancers--that is, it was only when the underlying causes were correctly understood--that a more effective treatment could be designed. If we allow this moment and this movement to be reduced to targeting of individuals and if no distinctions are made between them while the actual underlying and truly systemic causes are ignored and the institutional factors are untouched, a few tumors may be removed--along with some healthy tissue--but after the initial surgery the cancer will surely return.
Given the ways our whole world is saturated and shaped by this kind of misogyny, do we think we can or should try to punish our way out of this? For men--who have maybe never considered or understood the depth of the horrors visited on women--what is the kind of debate and struggle needed for real transformation? What kind of broad debate and struggle has to go on for men and, yes, for many women, to recognize the swamp we're all swimming in and shaped by? To really recognize and uproot all the ways women are viewed--and frankly, view themselves--as less than fully human? The depth of enforced gender roles, the way degradation has embedded itself into our most intimate relations, the way women have been trained to view themselves as commodities... all this flows from a system and needs to be put back at the feet of the system--not by some kind of individualized bloodlust that actually lets the system off the hook.
Without overturning that essential point here, there is something important that Milano was speaking to: the ways in which women are forced to walk through the world surrounded and assaulted at every turn--on the street, in the workplace and in their most intimate spaces. Let us also add in the culture as a whole (including in the way it is saturated with porn, a point way too little noted in today's movement), and in the family. The abuse, harassment and worse now being righteously called out is systemically intertwined with the larger system of patriarchy, which is not just a curse word but a system of subjugation that arose with the division of society into classes and is now completely interwoven with the system of capitalism-imperialism.
The widespread and ubiquitous character of this is something that men in this society do not spontaneously understand or appreciate, and are trained to be blind to. The institutional character of it is not spontaneously understood by anyone, and one of the original strengths of this movement in drawing out and focusing on that institutional role and complicity is now in danger of being lost.
Damon himself has clearly been learning a great deal through this outpouring. Later in the same interview with him, he talks about how surprised he has been at how widespread sexual assault is. He said, "I think one of the surprising things for me has been the extent to which my female friends, as, I think, of all the ones I've talked to in the last year since all this stuff started happening--I can't think of any of them who don't have a story at some point in their life. And most of them have more than one."
In addition, it's clear that Damon doesn't fully understand the ways in which all men are brought up to regard and treat all women, and the way in which all women are oppressed by this. But again, there is inculcated and enforced ignorance about this which comes from and is shaped by this system and prevailing culture. What is needed is serious and principled struggle about all this.
A recent revcom.us article, "The #MeToo Movement: Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize," made the following point:
This profound fault-line contradiction, which negatively affects every girl and woman on the planet (and yes, more than a few boys and men as well), can and should be understood as a profound contradiction "between the people and the enemy" in that sense. But this contradiction--which truly stems from the workings of this system--nevertheless often, or even typically, manifests as a contradiction among the people. This is a very important issue to reflect on and grapple with when figuring out how best to lead in relation to this current battle and more generally: a key contradiction "with the enemy" that often presents as a "contradiction among the people."