Politics is in flux – we need to have the #MeToo debate in Wales

Picture by GGAADD (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leia Fee

I have to admit that I sighed when I clicked on Nation.Cymru last Friday and saw, once again, two men debating the latest variation on “whether feminism had gone too far”.

But I realise that Nation.Cymru’s contributors are self-selecting. Anyone can send an article in. And I couldn’t really complain about the lack of a female voice in the debate if I didn’t contribute anything of my own.

And as it turns out, I don’t really agree with the way the debate was framed by either side in that article. The introduction to the article asks:

“Is misogyny a growing problem within the Welsh national movement? Or has the #MeToo movement gone too far, claiming the lives and careers of good men?”

I can only refer to Betteridge’s law of headlines which states that ‘Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no…’ It isn’t an either/or choice here – both are wrong.

So let’s take them one at a time, starting with the latter first, which is the claim that #MeToo has ‘gone too far’.

Grope

First of all, the ‘all perspective has been lost—a pat on the bum isn’t abuse’ argument.

This argument holds that if women complain about such ‘trivial’ things it will make it more difficult to get to grips with ‘real’ sexual harassment and assault, such as rape.

I can’t help but think that the people who put it forward would have told Rosa Parks to stop fussing about trivial nonsense like bus seats while activists for the vote were being murdered.

As if the two things were utterly unrelated simply because the bus conductor himself wasn’t beating anyone to death.

The fact is that the same culture that gives rise to casual misogyny also gives rise to coerced sex. Highlighting and dealing with all the symptoms, not just the most extreme ones, is essential in changing that culture.

The ‘men are men and women are women and this is how it will always be’ argument doesn’t hold either. Cultures can change we no longer laugh off drink-driving as a laddish prank.

You wouldn’t find someone defending drink driving on the grounds that the driver was only a little drunk, and only hit a tree, and didn’t kill anyone. You have to treat even the more minor symptoms with the same seriousness.

Society needs to be clear that the behaviour is unacceptable before the worst happens. For some things there needs to be zero tolerance. It’s time to put sexual harassment in that category.

Another argument is that ‘some women think it’s fine’. So what? Internalised misogyny is every bit as common as colonial mentality and any nationalist worth their salt should know how pervasive that can be.

Challenge

Another argument is that the #MeToo movement is destroying lives and careers.

First of all, how many men have had their lives and careers damaged, compared with the number of women who have been coerced into sex to avoid having their careers sabotaged?

Even on a count of ‘number of careers ruined’ the argument doesn’t hold.

But one argument which does give me pause is the genuinely challenging one that workplaces which suspend people accused of sexual harassment are treating them as guilty until proven innocent.

The claim here is that the accused is often identified and suspended from work, and is therefore punished whether they committed any serious sexual offence or not.

The problem here is that we’re conflating the justice system with a complaints procedure within your average workplace.

A person may not be guilty of criminal behaviour but their behaviour may still be unacceptable within a work environment. Watching cat videos isn’t illegal but I’d soon find myself out of a job if I did it at work all day.

A justice system can also protect accusers from retaliation. It’s illegal to name someone who has accused another person of any sexual offence, and a court can order to accused to stay away from the accuser.

Workplaces obviously can’t do this, so the next best thing is to suspend the accuser until the investigation is complete.

But when staff have been suspended there have been protests in some quarters that this suspension in and of itself is punishment – and before the investigation is even complete.

Except it isn’t.  It’s a normal part of the process.  It probably feels unpleasant to be under suspicion just as having to go through the bail system if you turn out to be innocent is something of a distressing experience.

But it says nothing about who is believed, whose ‘side’ the system is on.  It’s there to minimise the risk to the accuser while the facts are investigated.

Sargeant

Of course, given recent events in Wales, the likely counter-argument at this point would be “What about Carl Sargeant?”

But people should think twice before using his case in order to respond to the #MeToo movement. We simply don’t know enough about the accusations against him and what part they played in his decision to take his own life.

The almost universal assumption in the reporting that his death can be directly linked to the accusations against him goes against every best practice guidance supplied by mental health charities.

“Avoid the suggestion that a single incident, was the cause,” say The Samaritans.  “Be wary of over-emphasising community expressions of grief as this may suggest that people are honouring the suicidal behaviour rather than mourning a death.  Be careful not to promote the idea that suicide achieves results.”

Have any of those guidelines been followed by the media, or those who would seek to discuss his tragic death in the context of the #MeToo movement?

Nationalism

Despite my problems with the arguments of opponents of the #MeToo movement, I also take issue with the suggestion that there’s a growing misogyny within the national movement in Wales.

We’re living in turbulent political times and a lot of troubled, murky waters have been stirred up. Some of what’s floated to the surface has been rotting under there a long time and needed to be exposed.

Other things, like attitudes covering every -ism and -phobia in the book, which people would maybe have kept a bit quieter about in the past but now feel more confident expressing have also bubbled up, for better or worse.

It seems that, politically, anything goes:

  • Trump can be president
  • The UK can walk away from its largest trading block
  • Wales is having a conversation about independence
  • Women can speak out about things they wouldn’t otherwise have done
  • LGBT hate-speech can be heard in the Siamber.

What’s politically normal is in flux and probably won’t settle down for a while.

But does Welsh nationalism have a greater problem with it than the rest of the political sphere?  I don’t really think so.

For one thing, even defining “Welsh nationalism” as one thing is almost impossible.  Are we talking civic nationalism? Cultural? Nativist? Something else? Some civic nationalism is as far to the left as some nativism is to the right.

Both have their extremists and both sets of extremists – and using them to argue that the whole movement has a problem is wrong.

So, the answer to both sides of the debate is “no”.  Betteridge’s law of headlines…

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15 Comments

  1. As an older woman, I applaud the younger generation who are making a stand to stamp out misogynism and sexual harassment, as many of my generation laughed off this behaviour rather than upsetting our male colleagues. A thought provoking article.

  2. Marilyn Griffiths

    “Internalised misogyny is every bit as common as colonial mentality and any nationalist worth their salt should know how pervasive that can be.” Excellent article. Thank you.

  3. Good article – there’s been a lot of hysteria recently about women and Plaid. On the centenary of most women getting the vote, let’s not lose sight of how women have had to battle for even basic rights and how they continue to be attacked consciously or unconsciously by some.

  4. Margaret Hall

    Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and well-balanced article. Today’s media tends to run on hysteria and exaggeration, which doesn’t help people to form a realistic view of what is happening in politics or society. To those who say, “it was just a pat on the bum, there are more important issues to deal with,” if we dealt with the world’s problems by ranking all the problems by level of seriousness and then starting at the top of the list, nothing would ever change. You start where you are and improve things around you, even if it’s just a small change in attitude as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this and giving voice to what so many of us were thinking, but either couldn’t find the time, or the energy or the courage to write. Diolch!!

  6. Great article. I didn’t mean to say that misogyny is more prevalent within Welsh nationalism than anywhere else. I should’ve been clearer. It was simply a warning that it does exist, to a greater extent than we previously realised, and that we should beware.

    I don’t think that’s unique to Welsh nationalism, since this populism is getting….well, popular everywhere. But since I’m a Welsh nationalist too, I want us to be better. I want us to nip it in the bud. I’m just not very optimistic.

  7. “I have to admit that I sighed when I clicked on Nation.Cymru last Friday and saw, once again, two men debating the latest variation on “whether feminism had gone too far”. Well said Leia and very pleased to see an article on a topic central to a woman’s experience from a woman in Wales!

    A very good and very timely article and i would encourage others to share it widely.

  8. Isabel Adonis

    I am woman and I am mixed race. I do not see myself as black, though others clearly do. I was raised by a white Welsh woman,so that I culturally at least am both white and Welsh. It’s tricky place to be in, especially with regard to this issue of sexual harassment as I find it impossible to separate out my gender from my race and hard to separate out the sexual harassment meted out to me by men and the harassment meted out by mainly white women(and some black ones too!)

    When I was just six years old a middle aged man forced himself on me in a toy shop and pressed his tongue in to my ear. I managed to run away. When I was a young teenager I was groped by man I was working for in a hotel.(Welsh) When my mother complained on my behalf he just laughed it off.

    When I was in my early twenties I was hit upon by my driving instructor. The implication was that if I succumbed to his desires I would pass my driving test.

    Some years ago I went to an open evening at a local secondary school, where I had never been before, two male teachers parodied two dope smokers in front of me. I left the school immediately feeling violated. Was this sexual harassment?It certainly felt like it. When I brought up the issue with a white woman friend..she just brushed it off as not important. My own sister claimed that this kind of thing happened to her all the time?! Was I too prudish? And when I informed the headmaster of their behaviour he claimed they had a wonderful sense of humour?!

    Then there is all the harassment and vindictiveness meted out by women which also relates/colludes with the culture of men. Women do raise their sons this way after all. The way they behave is also part of the way men behave and they are not always responsible. I include myself in this unawareness. Jews were employed to drive their fellow Jews into the gas chambers, black women in slavery had to raise their children to be submissive to the ubiquitous white man. In the same way white women have been conditioned to Play the Game in a culture dominated by white men. It is difficult to draw a line here. It seems tome that everyone…men and women need to take some responsibility, and do what little they can to change this culture.

  9. Diolch o galon am yr erthygl, Leia. Thank you so much.

  10. Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro

    “You wouldn’t find someone defending drink driving on the grounds that the driver was only a little drunk, and only hit a tree, and didn’t kill anyone. You have to treat even the more minor symptoms with the same seriousness”
    No you don’t.
    With drunk driving there is a threshold. Under 36 units of alcohol in your breath, “a little drunk” and you will not be prosecuted. This is how good laws work. They set thresholds. The trouble with MeToo is that there are no thresholds. And the consequences are every but as serious as any other serious crime, getting sacked, social ostracism, in CS’s case death. This is why we have laws and public prosecutors, to try to bring some shape and fairness to allegations of harm.
    Workplace allegations are a particular problem because the police and EOC don’t normally get drawn in. A right mess. One answer will be that work places segregate. You can see this in the number of firms which are in fact women-only strongholds. If men did this we’d hear about it!
    The present wave of activism/hysteria will pass because it will not survive contact with real life, or injustice or death. Humanity will have advanced a little bit. But don’t forget the innocent casualties, by-catch, collateral damage caused by the wave of mob rule. They will have suffered too.

    • leigh Richards

      I guess it was sadly inevitable that leia’s thoughtful and balanced piece should elecit such a disappointing and negative response from… a man 🙁 But at least reponses like jonathan’s show why leia is correct to state we need to have the ‘me too’ debate in Wales, as it appears there are some in the Welsh national movement who still dont get it. Regarding workplace allegations of sexual harassment the police should be brought in as a matter of course, and it was somewhat surprising Welsh Labour chiefs didn’t do this when a number of women contacted them to make complaints against Carl sargeant. Had they done so maybe events would have turned out differently. But i have to inform Jonathan that what he disappointingly refers to as ‘the present wave of hysteria’ wont pass – as increasing numbers of women are thankfully no longer willing to be treated as fair game for the attentions of a few lecherous men.

  11. Erthygl ardderchog. Diolch.

  12. Stephen Lake

    Excellent article: concise well-reasoned and to the point . Diolch yn FAWR

  13. A bit disingenuous of the author to try and associate genuine concerns about the MeToo campaign with the line “All perspective has been lost- a pat on the bum isn’t abuse”.

    As the writer of one of the original articles, the exact term used was ” a stray hand on the knee” if I remember rightly. This was a pointed reference to the recent incident when a Government minister had to fall on his sword after it was revealed that he had placed his hand on the knee of a female journalist 12 years ago. A bit of context is always handy.

    This was AFTER the two had spent time wining and dining in one of Westmister’s watering holes, no doubt engaging with each other on an equal footing as politico and journo. The incident wasn’t reported to the Police and was never mentioned until it suddenly shot to the media’s attention recently.

    Are we really arguing here that “Zero Tolerance”means that touching between men and women is completely off-limits now in these type of social situations from now on if no explicit consent for that is provided? What do you have in mind- that people carry contracts around with them to be signed by both parties before anything untoward can happen?

    Human relations between men and women have always had their complications, and they are replete with misunderstandings and false starts: and no amount of Political Correctness can ever remedy that.

    I really worry at the growing totalitarian language used in this debate, when one type of behaviour is conflated with another type of behaviour completely. It infantilises the debate and patronizes all of us as it assumes that people aren’t able to look at the issue rationally and dispassionately. Orwell warned us about misappropriation of language- the party’s slogans pf War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Slavery is Freedom showed what can happen when language is hijacked for political purposes.

    I really must take issue with the author as well when she dismisses the issue of suspension in the workplace following complaints of this nature as no big deal. This is an absolute minefield!

    Of course a duty of care must be extended to complainants( be they women or men) in such cases. But surely the duty of care must also extend to the accused( women or men)? In such situations, it is only reasonable that they be told what the complaints are and who the complainants are as soon as possible. Granted, this may cause in-house problems for the employers concerned, but it’s surely not unreasonable to think that it could be managed somehow to ensure fairness for both parties concerned.

    I think the author is also on shaky ground by suggesting that Carl Sergeant’s suspension following anonymous complaints about him weren’t directly involved in his tragic death.

    Let’s not forget, the late politician was suspended AND sacked the same day. If that was not an implicit assumption of guilt- well I’m a virgin.

    To be suspended and sacked and not to know for a whole weekend what the complaints were or who the complainants were despite repeated attempts from his solicitor to garner some information must have been an absolute nightmare for him. For a man so proud of his political achievements from such a humble beginning ,it truly was the end.

    I’m sticking to my gun on this one.

    But- you are right it’s good to have a debate about all this.

    • I think what is being argued Cymru Rydd is that groping someone is off limits – in fact it’s hard to know how anyone could even argue about that. And it has nothing to do with so called ‘political correctness – groping someone is sexual assault pure and simple. You’re right in the points you make about duty of care to all parties concerned in such cases, but on a point of clarification it should be noted that Carl Sargeant wasn’t sacked he resigned. He in fact agreed to step down from his position in the welsh government in light of the allegations against him. Regarding what followed we can’t be certain of anything very much, and it will be interesting to discover the findings of current independent inquiry into the matter. PS Jac has some very interesting things to report about Carl Sargeant on his latest blog post that you should read.

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