January 20, 2019

Me Too Versus Not Me

I’ve never been much for crowds. I remember once at a music festival pushing through a mass of people waiting to see Thom Yorke. As my friend and I tried to get closer to the stage, I felt my chest tighten as bodies closed around mine. After a brief but awkward explanation of my discomfort, we moved back out of the crowd, away from the center and toward the edge.

Some people like the energy of being part of something larger than them — being surrounded by bodies and voices into which they can disappear, becoming one of many. But I prefer the margins, where I can be both inside and outside of something.

The crowding that happens on social media is no exception.

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, countless people have taken to social media with the hashtag #MeToo. In fact, my entire Facebook newsfeed has been dominated by the hashtag and by women’s stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted.

Some of the confessions have moved me to tears. Some have shocked me, and I recognize the bravery behind such admissions. But as a crowd of confessors began to converge, I also saw posts lamenting that some women who could say #MeToo are choosing not to — the implication being that refraining from doing so makes one an accomplice to all sorts of nefarious behaviors.

Well, I chose not to.

It felt intuitively wrong for me. Not for others, but for me. It goes back to being part of crowds and mass movements. In the midst of a crowd, I discover that I can’t see everything. My vantage point has changed. I become caught up in something that has the potential to turn back on itself and become counterproductive if not nurtured in the right way.

In fact, when I first saw the hashtag, I thought to myself: If I were going to create a hashtag, it would be #NotMe. Not me, I would say to potential abusers and harassers. Not me, I would say to everyone.

It’s not because I haven’t experienced what many of the #MeToo movement have experienced. I have. But I think I must have been saying all along, instead, on some level: Not me. I will not be your victim. I am no one’s victim.

I remember, nearly 20 years ago, standing near the wall of a nightclub, watching my friends dance. Even then, I preferred the safety of the perimeter to the chaos and energy of the center. A man walked by and slapped my rear end and made a crude comment that he thought I would appreciate. He hit me hard. And I was enraged. I turned around and pushed him with all of my strength without thinking about it. He was inebriated, and so he fell easily.

He was terrified. And I felt powerful. I was vindicated.

I share this not to criticize those who have shared their stories of victimhood or to suggest that they should have fought back, but to raise the question of what happens next.

What happens after #MeToo?

What happens after scores of women make themselves vulnerable as they prove how normal it is to be harassed or assaulted? What effect does highlighting the apparent pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault have if it becomes a movement that demands that every woman identify herself as a victim?

My fear is that we will begin to see ourselves as powerless. That we will begin to see ourselves as victims first, and women second. And that in doing so, we will turn on those women who resist the #MeToo crowd, who opt for a response of a different nature.

As for me, I’m not sure I owe anyone a confession of victimhood right now.

In most cases, fighting back physically is not an option, but we can all fight back in a way that feels right to us. For many, #MeToo is the beginning of fighting back. Words create worlds, and stories string those worlds together into a meaningful chain.

But not everyone needs to be part of every movement.

We need people willing to stay on the margins as much as we need people who are willing to be the crowd that moves things along, makes things happen and makes them happen better. Crowds can carry with them the possibility of change, but let’s not forget that one voice, from the margins, can also be powerful.

Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published later this year.