I stared at my coworker in shock.
Last month, I had a coaching session with a teacher to talk about his caseload. We have worked together for quite some time, at least 10 years I would say, and I consider him a friend. As we sat down at the table he asked me how I was doing and I the same of him. He sighed in exasperation and began to describe a situation filled with drama involving a dance group he and his wife manage. Because of his long time involvement with this group, his circle includes many from the local dancing community (that is code for: everyone knows everyone else who likes to dance and attend dancing functions).
He shared that several women in this community had come forth to say that a particular man had either made them feel uncomfortable or made inappropriate advancements and they no longer will attend functions if he is there and now they are having difficult conversations about what to do. As the words came out of his mouth, I couldn’t help but say, “Me, too.”
I belong to a very large Facebook hiking community and as a moderator of the page, I am involved in many behind the scenes situations involving its members. We had just spent that last week dealing with this very same thing. A female member had contacted one of the other moderators to say a male member had been inappropriate with her on a hike and she felt we should know (code for: do something about it). Needless to say, it was a very lengthy debate among the moderators as to exactly what that should be.
My coworker described his situation as awkward because they weren’t sure what the right response was. Was it up to them to let others know of this man’s behavior? Let him know he wasn’t welcome at dance events? If they did nothing than the women are left feeling like they must leave the group. If they do something, then the same goes for the man. What was their level of responsibility when it was just the women’s word, were they to be some kind of judge?
Our group had been having the very same conversation. Was it up to us to believe one person over another? Was it up to us to remove someone from the group based on another person’s accusation? Was it up to us to find out all the facts? What proof was there? Did rumors and other promiscuous behaviors warrant enough to lead to an action by the admins of the group? Whose comfort were we responsible for? Was he a predator or just a perv? Was there a difference? So many questions.
As I think about the fact that my coworker and I were both dealing with these tough issues at the same time our society seemed to be exploding with women coming forth to say, #MeToo, I couldn’t help but realize that these conversations aren’t just today’s headlines. They must be happening all over our country in all sorts of communities. They are not limited to just businesses, schools and other institutions governed by legal rules but informal groups of people with no such officiality. And more importantly, what are the guidelines of responsibility for us? Are we obligated or instead provided a loophole through which we can escape our duty due to lack of authority?
Even my fiancé and I had a conversation about it, and we don’t tend to have many like this. He echoed the same feelings that I have heard many others share, “Why now?” It is a common sentiment uttered when actions seem to come more from a quickly spreading wildfire than anything based on reality. Why don’t people come forth when these things actually happen? What is it about this that has everybody talking now?
Actually, the idea of #MeToo didn’t start with the run on Twitter started by Alyssa MIlano, it started over 10 years ago with a woman named Tarana Burke who works to empower young women of color. She was inspired by her reaction to a story of childhood rape told in confidence to her in 1996 when she was a youth camp director that broke her heart. When she could not deal with the emotions it caused for her personally, she directed the child to another counselor to deal with it:
Inaction happens for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around fear. Fear of not being believed. Fear of losing a job or relationship. Fear of being told it’s your fault. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of retaliation. Fear of being made to feel uncomfortable in social situations. And unfortunately, fear is not just an individual experience but a phenomena that can lead to an accepted institutional culture. Our inaction means every single incident of this type of behavior builds on another leaving victims feeling like that they can not speak up to stop it. I have my own #MeToo stories as I am sure many of you do. Too many of us do. But #MeToo is not about any one act. It is about the culmination of those acts over time that leads to the acceptance that those very acts are a part of life, a norm. That is just how things are. Campus rape, sexual harassment in the workplace, and domestic violence are just a few.
But “Me, too” is not about any one act. It is about the culmination of those acts over time that leads to the acceptance that those very acts are a part of life, a norm.
With the growth of #MeToo, I believe the hope is to bring an end to that fear. Fear loses its power the more we talk about what has existed for years in dark corners and in furtive whispers. In memories that never fade and are often subconsciously passed on to the next generation. The more we bring it out into the light, the easier it becomes for people to understand something that they themselves may not have experienced but stand in a position to help eliminate. And just as it took a multitude of these acts happening over time to create this culture of fear, it may take a multitude of #MeToo to end it. The conversation shouldn’t be about whether or not any particular person’s story is true or whether it is made up. It should be about ensuring space so that true stories are spoken and believed from this day forward.
I don’t know what my friend ended up deciding within his dance community and as for my group we finally came to the conclusion that it was not within our group’s responsibility to dole out judgment and consequence on to the particular situation we were presented with based on the information we had. However, we did commit to policies that create an environment where it is clear these behaviors would not be tolerated and people would be encouraged to speak up when they occur. And as I continue to think about how this is all playing out in the world around me, my heart prays that this very same phenomenon is happening in groups and across communities everywhere so that one day there doesn’t have to be any more #MeToo.