The selective empathy of the #MeToo backlash

The self-conscious backlash to #MeToo often adopts epic assumptions, framing itself as a sweeping defense—of truth, of freedom, of reasonable, fact-based discourse in response to people who are scrambling to dismantle the Enlightenment, reaction gif by reaction gif. The defense posture, however, is often its own sweeping “Secondly”: Often, the arguments that employ it end up not merely endorsing double standards, but also relying on them to make their point. Bret Stephens’s argument that Woody Allen deserves the benefit of the doubt requires a minimizing of that benefit as extended to Dylan Farrow. Roiphe’s defense of Lorin Stein—“in fact, he lovingly, carefully, intimately, was this, like, transcendently amazing editor and promoter of [women’s] work,” she told NPR—requires its own selective vision. Trump’s lament that “peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation” demands, as well, a particularly myopic form of empathy.

#MeToo is often portrayed as a movement of sound, of voices, of volume: a collective of people who, enabled by technologies that are premised on the value of telling many stories rather than a single one, are sharing experiences that had for too long been silenced. The sonic paradigm has defined the public discussion of #MeToo, this version of it, from the outset: the whisper networks. The Silence Breakers. But #MeToo, for all that, is also a visual movement. It is arguing against failures not only of justice, but also of vision itself: cultural biases about who will be seen, and who will be left to the shadows. About whose perspective will be valued, as a matter of cultural reflex, and whose, reflexively, will not. About whose allegations are actionable, and whose allegations are “mere.”