Perspectives On The 'MeToo' Movement Almost two years into the "Me Too" movement, NPR's Michel Martin talks about what justice in these cases should look like with Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic and Vox's Anna North.

Perspectives On The 'MeToo' Movement

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These are tumultuous and intense days in the #MeToo movement, the global grassroots effort to address sexual misconduct by powerful men. This summer, The New Yorker raised questions about the complaints that caused former Minnesota Senator Al Franken to resign, suggesting some elements of the complaints were false or overblown, and there had been a rush to judgment. Last week, writer Emily Yoffe wrote a lengthy piece for Reason magazine raising questions about accusations that cost a former Los Angeles Times correspondent his job, noting that the reporter, Jonathan Kaiman, was struggling with thoughts of suicide. Her piece prompted several angry responses from other journalists accusing Yoffe of shaming and undermining women.

It's in that context that we wanted to talk about some of the issues that are emerging in this increasingly passionate debate about whether the #MeToo movement has gotten off track or perhaps not gone far enough, so we've called two writers who've taken this on. Caitlin Flanagan wrote for The Atlantic about the comic Aziz Ansari.

Caitlin, thank you for joining us.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Anna North is a writer for Vox who critiqued Flanagan's piece among others, and I thank you so much for joining us once again.

ANNA NORTH: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Caitlin, I'm going to start with you because you wrote a piece last year entitled "The Humiliation Of Aziz Ansari." And it kind of described a lengthy piece that had been posted that described an encounter that a young woman had with Aziz Ansari. And you've written about #MeToo since then. What concerns you about what you're seeing?

FLANAGAN: Well, the #MeToo movement - you know, it came at us from zero to 100, which is often the way that powerful social movements operate. You know, there's oppression that lasts and lasts and lasts, and traditional techniques to overcome it don't work. And then suddenly, there'll be one thing that happens that - you know, in this case, the Harvey Weinstein case - where there's just this explosion. We can't take it anymore, and we're going to fix this problem by any means necessary.

So, on the one hand, I was astounded by how many really terrible things men whom I've had professional dealings with as a journalist were credibly accused of and lost their jobs over. And at the same time, you could see standing to the side that there was a lot of collateral damage that was going on and that when things slowed down, there'd be a reckoning. You know, if #MeToo was a reckoning, this moment as well is a reckoning.

There are a lot of women who say it doesn't matter. If a few men get hurt in this reckoning, that's OK. And there are other people who say, you don't solve injustice with further injustice. And in that case of Aziz Ansari, I thought that was a really scurrilous thing that that website did to post that piece about him.

MARTIN: And just - as briefly as you can, because you wrote a lengthy piece about it - what exactly did you consider scurrilous about it?

FLANAGAN: Well, there was a young woman who had met him, and they went out to dinner, and they had a sexual encounter. And at one point, she said, I don't feel comfortable. And by her own very self-serving account, he immediately said, I never want you to feel uncomfortable. Let's put our clothes on. And to me, that's the sexual revolution. That's what a lot of women worked hard to gain for young women - the right to do that.

And if just the fact of saying I don't feel comfortable - if she wants something even more than that to be sort of perceived or mind-read by a sexual partner, I thought that was opportunistic. I thought it was vengeful. And I thought that what was really going on is that she wanted something from him that had to do with a very different thing from being sexual partners. She wanted affection. She wanted to matter. And that's not necessarily part of a casual sexual encounter. So I thought there was a bit of a grift that was beginning to work its way into the movement. And I thought we're all going to end up having to account for this. And ultimately, it's going to undermine the movement.


FLANAGAN: And I think, to a significant extent, it has.

MARTIN: Anna North, let's go to you now because the title of your piece for Vox says a lot, too. Your piece says, #MeToo's latest critics say they want to help the movement. Why are they shaming women? What's your take on the criticism of the movement, and what concerns you about that?

NORTH: I think that at this point in #MeToo - you know, we're two years into the sort of latest, most public phase - you know, it's been, as Caitlin said, you know, these two years of many very public allegations. And I do think it's a really great time to think about what consequences are appropriate, how do we do investigations correctly? I do think it's a great time to think about what justice looks like and how to really serve that for all parties involved in these kinds of things.

But the concern I have is that a lot of the conversations that I've seen around what does justice look like seem to sort of treat it as a zero-sum game where if we say we're concerned about maybe someone faced consequences that were too severe, maybe we don't like the way the investigation went, then it seems to go so quickly to shaming the women who came forward. So women who had allegations against this man who has worked at the LA Times - they came forward. They said certain things. And we can say, you know, we think, well, how should the LA Times have handled this, or how should we handle this as a public responding to these allegations?

But what I really don't want to see is saying, well, women have to be quiet. They shouldn't be allowed to talk about what happened between them and men or their experiences or the way that they felt violated. I think the really, really strong thing about #MeToo is that women finally felt like they could come out and say certain things publicly that they've been holding back for a really long time. And I just wouldn't want to go backwards and not have that happen anymore.

MARTIN: Maybe the question becomes down to this whole argument of believe women. What does that mean in this context? Does it mean that women are never to be questioned? Like, what standard of due process and factual investigation apply?

NORTH: I think the most appropriate way to understand that phrase is not that you believe everyone without question but really that you listen. I think what's not OK is to say women shouldn't be talking about this.

MARTIN: Caitlin?

FLANAGAN: Well, you know, I've had a lot of conversations and with colleagues that are - whom I respect very much at the Atlantic about this phrase, believe all women. And I said, I really don't understand it. You know, are we people who just don't lie ever about a sexual encounter? And my colleague explained, just as Anna is, that it's more about listening to women, which I completely understand. But I think language matters, and it's a terribly imprecise term. People who use the phrase - I think they should perhaps change to what Anna's saying in terms of listen to all women.

MARTIN: I just want to be really clear - we're not talking about friends talking to friends or friends talking to private individuals. You're talking about people who are bringing these encounters into the public sphere and demanding a public response. This is the gray area we're talking about here. Anna?

NORTH: I think it makes sense for us to be serious in the way that we interrogate these things. And, of course, we would say, you know, you can't bring a false complaint. But what I don't want to do is say women shouldn't be speaking publicly if what they say is true. Instead, I think we can look at how we're responding.

Something I've been doing a lot of reporting on recently is restorative justice. You know, it doesn't speak necessarily to punish but is about, how do we repair the harm that was done? And I think this is something that has a lot of promise - you know, getting people together, saying, OK. This person feels that they were harmed. What was the harm? How do we make it better? And that's, you know, not necessarily always about someone losing their job. It could be something completely different.

So I think there is really an opportunity for all of us to come together and figure out, you know, how to not have this always be about punishment. In some cases, I think there can be a restorative solution.

MARTIN: I still feel like we're talking past each other here because we're not talking about things that - I mean, the Jonathan Kaiman case is not something that took place in an office. These are two adults of equal stature. He had no control over these women's careers. We're talking about private encounters between two consenting adults where they have very different views about what happened. Caitlin, you have any final thoughts?

FLANAGAN: You want to know what I really think about that?

MARTIN: Yes, I do.

FLANAGAN: Listen - when you're in a private sexual encounter outside of work, and you're in this world that a lot of women fought hard to make where you can have private sexual encounters with men and not be shamed, and when the real problem really comes down to you both had too much to drink or he wasn't very nice to you afterwards. He didn't follow up. He didn't call you. You perceived something later. That is an unfortunate and emotionally painful thing that is part of having a free sexual life, and it usually hits women more hard than it hits men. But that should have no place and no role in any kind of public sphere.

And to turn around your pain, your hurt, your hurt feelings about it and to claim that you are now a victim of some kind of abuse - I think that's a grift because you're stealing from women who fought so hard to tell the truth about sexual assault, and there's long-range consequences. And in the heat of a movement, no one wants to think about long-range consequences. You know, we don't really have any impartial reporters on this because all of us who are women, at some time or another, something bad probably happened to us. So we've all had an experience, and it's there. It can be very hard to keep those experiences out of how we perceive the story or listen to the story.

But I think that a lot of good has been done by the movement, and a lot of damage has been done by the movement. The good outweighs the damage so far. But I don't want to see even in the much smaller sphere the idea that women can have free, consensual sexual relationships with men without strings, and that their hurt feelings can somehow be transubstantiated into an assault story. I think that's ugly.

MARTIN: That was Caitlin Flanagan, contributing editor at The Atlantic, and Anna North, senior reporter with Vox.

Thank you both so much for talking to us.

FLANAGAN: Thank you.

NORTH: Thank you.

[Editor's note on Sept. 5: In this report, we refer to Reason magazine’s story about the accusations against Jonathan Kaiman. After our broadcast, one of the women who has accused Kaiman of sexual misconduct contacted NPR. Felicia Sonmez’s concerns about how the accusations against Kaiman were described in Reason are posted online here.]

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