If ‘we’ didn’t know, now ‘we’ know

If ‘we’ didn’t know, now ‘we’ know February 10, 2019

I wanted to see if I was really hearing the phrase “the #MeToo Era” as often as it seemed. This is just from the first page of Google results:

  • “Google Is Struggling to Remake Itself for the #MeToo Era”
  • “Democrats grapple with Fairfax accusations in the #MeToo era”
  • “How to Find Mentors in the #MeToo Era”
  • “Digital marketing in the #MeToo era”
  • “R. Kelly and the Complexities of Race in the #MeToo Era”
  • “Shakespeare in the #MeToo Era”
  • “In #MeToo era, will Democrats rally around accused of their own?”
  • “What does real leadership look like in the #MeToo era?”
  • “The financial service industry has largely escaped a reckoning in the #MeToo era”

So if you didn’t already know it, it has been decided that we are officially now in “the #MeToo Era.” (There remains only some dispute, apparently, as to whether the word era should be upper-case.)

This recent, widespread use of a phrase sets off copyeditor alarm bells, but that’s not my point here. My point it that this can help us better understand how to think about folks like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and Charles Hodge. (And also about Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, etc.)

(Wikimedia Commons)

“#MeToo” refers to the movement on Twitter and other social media that was begun Tarana Burke back in 2006 and then later was popularized by the Charmed ones after the inauguration of President Pussy-Grabber and the public acknowledgement of allegations against film-mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017.

The phrase “Me Too” became a way for the victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment to make their previously ignored voices heard and to support one another. In October of 2017, millions of people used the #MeToo hashtag to speak up on social media, forcing the subject onto the front page of our public conversation.

The effect of this is often described as a new or increased “awareness” of the scale and magnitude of this problem. This is what all those articles above seem to be referring to when they talk about us now being in “the #MeToo Era.” It suggests a before and an after. The commencement of the #MeToo Era removed the possibility of innocence via ignorance going forward. To paraphrase Biggie, if we didn’t know, now we know.

This idea of before and after is partly true. The #MeToo movement certainly did make the pervasive scope and gravity of sexual assault impossible to ignore thereafter. Now we know.

But who exactly is this “we” who didn’t know before the arrival of the “#MeToo Era”? Clearly any such “we” has to exclude the millions of people — mostly women — who posted their “Me Too” testimonies. They already knew. So did any of their friends or loved ones who had shown themselves capable of being trusted with knowing.

Another group that must surely have known all this prior to the “#MeToo Era” would be the millions of other people — mostly men — who have been perpetrating all of this sexual assault and sexual harassment. The massive scope of the problem wasn’t just something they knew, but something they reassured themselves with as a rationalization for their behavior. The same goes for all of their enablers and fixers and the assorted bystanders who participated in keeping their open secrets.

Much of the reporting on the viral explosion of “#MeToo” in late 2017 cited statistics from a World Health Organization report finding that a third of all women worldwide were the victims of sexual assault and harassment. Those women all knew. Billions of them.

And so did the World Health Organization — that widely cited statistic is from a 2013 report. It was in all the papers at the time, even though that was before what we’re now calling “the #MeToo Era.”

So it’s not that “we” didn’t know any better before this new era of awareness. It’s that “we” had not yet been forced to acknowledge that we knew better. “We” had not yet been forced to listen to the millions of voices it was easier not to listen to. And so “we” were able to go on pretending that we didn’t know what we should have known.

We can’t excuse or absolve our complicity or our willful (or, at best, semi-willful) ignorance by claiming that it was just a different time, a different era, way back in the hazy yesteryear of September 2017. We can’t excuse ourselves by saying we were just people of our time, so thoroughly steeped in and shaped by the zeitgeist of mid-2017 culture that we could not possibly have realized what was happening all around us.

It’d be nicer if we could. “We” would be much happier and more comfortable if we had recourse to such a free pass. But since it would be unseemly for us to plead such a shield of invincible ignorance for ourselves, we instead work hard to establish the principle by projecting it back onto our ancestors. If we can convince ourselves that “they” could not possibly have known any better, then it becomes possible to reassure ourselves that “we” could not possibly know any better. If we can assert the precedent that “they” should not have been expected to listen to the millions of voices they refused to listen to, then we can exempt ourselves from any obligation to listen to the voices we have been ignoring.

This is why, again, when I read “Let’s not be too hard on poor Jonathan Edwards,” what I’m also seeing is “C’mon, let’s go easy on ourselves.” I don’t think that’s necessarily the primary intent of this plea, or that it’s such a deliberate, consciously cynical and calculating maneuver. But it’s difficult to consider the former bit without finding the latter bit tangled up in it somehow.

It’s kind of like those awful “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven” bumper-stickers. The idea isn’t necessarily wrong if considered as an abstract claim existing in the theological equivalent of a frictionless vacuum. But in almost any real-world application it will be abused as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for hypocrisy.



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