The #MeToo Movement and the Refusal to Draw Distinctions
This is a public post, and I thank you for reading (and perhaps, sharing) it. If you’d like the full experience, with additional subscriber-only posts, please explore some options by clicking the button below!
“Look for the similarities, not the differences.”
If you’ve spent much time in Twelve Step groups, you’ve heard that mantra. The idea behind it is an excellent and necessary one: alcoholics and addicts are prone to a sense of “terminal uniqueness,” the misapprehension that no one else can possibly understand their particular problems and traumas. We are reminded that we share a similar disease with similar patterns; recovery hinges on bonding with people who are outwardly very different from ourselves.
One of my early sponsors in AA was George. By 1989, George had 15 years sober. George had gotten sober in prison in the 1970s, doing a stint for rape and an unrelated charge of vehicular homicide. I liked George – he had a twinkle in his eye and a gentleness in his manner and a lot of wisdom on his tongue. The rape and the homicide gave me qualms, though, when I first considered asking George to sponsor me. Friends in the program reminded me that if I kept drinking and using, I’d probably end up doing something just as bad. “Distinctions are just illusions,” they said, “They keep us separate and alone.”
George turned out to be a wonderful sponsor, and his memory is a blessing. I am grateful I worked through my queasiness.
It’s not just AA that is leery of gradations of misconduct. For better or worse, America owes much to the Puritans who colonized New England four centuries ago. In Puritan theology, all human beings are subject to “total depravity,” and each of us is foundationally undeserving of salvation. In Puritan doctrine, rooted in the teachings of John Calvin, sin is part and parcel of our nature, and it cannot be rooted out through effort or will. Our only hope is divine grace, which is freely given and never merited. Calvinist theology makes all sin equal, because all sin is worthy of the same damnation. It doesn’t matter if you’re a serial rapist, or if you lost your temper with your spouse – whatever sins you commit, you do so because of your fundamentally warped human nature. Since every sin is worthy of damnation, it’s not helpful to create hierarchies of wrongdoing. If you think you’re better than others because you are merely hot-tempered rather than predatory, you are guilty of vanity and pride – and just as doomed to hell as the unrepentant murderer.
(To be fair, the Calvinists have Scripture on their side. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus suggests that getting angry with someone is as likely to get you damned as murder itself. Sin is sin, baby, and we all fall short.)
This same allergy to distinctions shows up, of course, in the Great Reckoning. Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Ryan Adams, Bill Cosby, Anthony Weiner, Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, Jeffrey Toobin, R. Kelly, Al Franken, Hugo Schwyzer? All are guilty, and all should be removed from public life. For the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct functions very much like sin does for the Calvinist: it becomes pointless, even dangerous, to draw distinctions. Just as for the Calvinist all sin merits hell, for the #MeToo movement all misconduct merits ejection from public life. To say that some men’s misbehavior is not as disqualifying as others is to minimize the harm done to the victims. If we say that maybe Al Franken isn’t as wicked as Harvey Weinstein, we’re both letting Al off the hook – and potentially exacerbating the ongoing trauma of Al’s victims by implying that “they didn’t have it as bad as other people did.”
“All sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad.” That’s what 20th-century Calvinist theologian Cornelius Plantinga declared. What he meant, of course, is that while any and all sin merits hell, civil society has a right and even an obligation to draw distinctions. In terms of salvation, anger and murder are identical; under the law, they are of necessity very different. It is good, Plantinga wrote, for the government to lock up murderers and rapists but leave people who think lustful thoughts uncharged. Divine justice and earthly justice can and must operate differently. (To Dante, of course, hell itself also operated on gradations – every sinner suffered separation from God, but some had it considerably worse than others.)
The Great Reckoning over sexual misconduct is too new, and the emotions too fraught and fierce, for anyone to start drawing meaningful cultural distinctions. While the state may choose to see some sexual misbehavior (Epstein, Weinstein, Cosby) as worthy of prison and other sexual misconduct (Toobin, CK, Franken) as not, public hostility to the notion of comebacks or restorations is the same across the board. Some of you deserve jail, and others get to keep your freedom, but all of you must be cut out from society.
My friends and readers get frustrated with me when I write that I feel an intense identification with each man (or occasionally, each woman) who falls from grace because of sexual impropriety. They write things like You’re not Blake Bailey! You’re not Anthony Weiner! Stop identifying with these men; you didn’t do anything like what they did. In one sense, my friends are right. Sexual affairs with one’s consenting, enthusiastic adult students are not as dreadful as what some of these other gents are accused of doing. But if I look at the outrage and venom directed towards me over the years, and if I look at the extent and the degree and the duration of my fall, I have paid at least as high a price as any man who did not do extended jail time for his sins. More importantly, if I do what I was taught to do in AA, and look for the similarities rather than the differences -- or if I do what the Calvinists want me to do, and see all sin as equally offensive – how can I not identify intensely with each person who is outed by #MeToo?
If I judge my offenses by the consequences to my life and the lives of my loved ones, my misdeeds are as grave as any man’s.
As a culture, we are not ready to draw meaningful contrasts about different degrees of sexual misconduct. We are still in the heat of the revolution. Too much focus on due process and caution only serves to protect the predators. We are like the apocryphal Crusader, who when informed that the about-to-be-sacked Jerusalem contained many Christians as well as infidels, shouted impatiently, “Kill them all, for God will know his own.”
Fire them all, and bar their return. The urgency is too great for distinctions.
And as for me, I do not think I will be able to draw those distinctions for myself until the culture is willing to do so as well.
Sometimes, I prefer covers to originals, and that’s the case with Sunny Sweeney’s gorgeous take on Jerry Jeff Walker’s classic, I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.
Anyone who knows how to match a song to a mood can relate to these lyrics:
I play classical music when it rains
I play country when I am in pain
I won't play Beethoven, cuz the mood's just not right
I feel like Hank Williams tonight.