Politics is in flux – we need to have the #MeToo debate in Wales
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 and is now destroying lives and careers.
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.
But you have to treat even the more minor symptoms with the same seriousness. 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.
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.
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.
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 hat 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?
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…