Into the Grey Areas

Top Stories of the Year: #5

It’s time to count down the top five stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2018 and reviewing my coverage of them.

Last year, one of the top stories was the Great Sexual Harassment Awakening, which was rapidly turning into the Great Sexual Harassment panic.

At the time, I defended the origins of the phenomenon.

The original offenses that touched off this round of cultural self-examination were not ill-defined or ambiguous. Run down the list of accusations against Harvey Weinstein and you can’t escape the conclusion that he was a monster who used sexual harassment and assault as a way of asserting a sense of power and imposing humiliation on his victims….

The real story here is that grotesque forms of sexual harassment have been known and tolerated in a lot of places. “Everybody knew” has been a running theme, prompting the question: if everybody knew, why didn’t they do anything before now?

Yet we all knew the #MeToo campaign was going to go too far, and 2018 was the year it went charging into the grey areas.

It began with minor television star Aziz Ansari, when a little-known website published the lurid tale of his sexual encounter with a star-struck young woman who accused him of behavior that was…boorish.

So why call it “coercion”? Because that’s all feminism has got as an instrument of moral thinking when it comes to sex. In their ideological framework, everything is about power and force—taking it away from designated oppressor classes and wielding it on behalf of designated victim classes. A whole range of other concepts—love, dignity, self-respect, self-restraint, prudence, commitment, responsibility, and the actual power of individual choice—are hard to process within their moral and philosophical framework….

We end in the same place we arrived with restrictive codes of sexual conduct on college campuses. Faced with the need to rebuild a code of sexual morality and etiquette in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution, these are the only terms on which the left can do it. There is “sexual assault” and then there is “anything goes,” so anything you don’t like had better be redefined into the category of “sexual assault.”

Oddly, this spread of #MeToo into an attempt to police ordinary sexual behavior didn’t just end up targeting men. As is often the case with feminism, it was “loud sloganeering about women’s choice and empowerment—behind which there is a small subset of women looking down on other women and telling them that they’re making the wrong choices.” In this case, feminists were telling women that they are consenting to sex wrong and have to follow a whole new set of rules because, as one activist tells them, it is “necessary and important if we are going to move forward.”

But most of the time it’s about men and about hating men. Don’t blame me for that formulation. I got it from a “gender studies” professor who penned a Washington Post op-ed titled, “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” The question is intended to be rhetorical. The author concludes that women “have every right to hate you,” and offers men this progressive program for equality between the sexes: “Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything.” As I observed,

[B]eing a “woke”man is a lot like being a “woke” white person. The only way to do it is to disappear, to expunge yourself from existence.

Again, I don’t think we can interpret this as an actual plan or vision for the future. Rather, it’s an excuse to vent anger and resentment, which seems to be the actual political and cultural program. To paraphrase Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine an apoplectic protester screaming at a human face—forever.

All of this came to a head in late September, when #MeToo culminated in a case that provided plenty of factual ambiguity, but a totally unambiguous ulterior motive. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of briefly forcing his attentions on a girl back when he was a teenager, and while much of the corroborating evidence was missing, that didn’t matter, because Kavanaugh was no longer just an individual. He was the Generic White Male.

The main thing we know right now about the accusation against Kavanaugh is that it is somewhat vague. The accuser doesn’t remember the exact day or month of the event, which makes the charge impossible to answer or refute. That vagueness is what I find interesting, because it fits with a broader theme in the arguments coming from the left: that they don’t need to wait for more evidence because they know that people like Brett Kavanaugh are the bad guys.

Here’s Jamelle Bouie at Slate: “Kavanaugh is the perfect vessel for a view that puts the most privileged and powerful beyond the reach of public account…. To look beyond individual pundits and politicians is to see a world where responsibility and culpability is structured by race, class, gender, and your overall proximity to disadvantage…. He is both the product of a political movement devoted to the protection of existing hierarchies of race, gender, and wealth, and a representative of the power structure that sits at the top of those hierarchies.”

Get that? If we look “beyond individuals,” Kavanaugh is a “vessel” and a “representative” of larger, collective social forces. His punishment, as a symbolic setback for white men, will make up, somehow, for the collective victimhood of women and black men.

Despite the failure of the campaign against Kavanaugh—who is now Justice Kavanaugh—there are plenty of warnings that none of this is over. “The feminist website Jezebel, I noted, “announces that the next step is to charge into the ‘grey areas.'”

#MeToo’s next direction is toward a deeper look at some of the most common and harder-to-define experiences. It’s looking toward a more equitable world in which women and other marginalized genders can live less fearfully, by digging deeper into the gray areas and educating all of us about the harm they perpetuate….

How do we talk about behavior that is harmful and inequitable but isn’t illegal? How do we talk about the women affected by it? And what happens when accusations of such behavior are made against someone who is supposed to be an ally? These “gray areas” are embodied in a story Jezebel has been reporting since June, an example of the ways in which the messy contours of alleged coercion and manipulation are far more nuanced and more difficult to trace than behaviors that violate the law.

As I noted at the beginning, this sounds less like a crusade against sexual assault than it does like an attempt to reconstruct a new, restrictive sexual morality. In that regard, I also noted how the focus on Brett Kavanaugh’s college drinking habits gave the whole affair an aura of weird neo-Puritanism.

For younger people who may be reading, I have to point out why a lot of us are shaking our heads in amazement right now. Back in the day, we all grew up—as a rite of passage during the teenage years—watching movies like 1978’s Animal House in which old Hollywood liberals brought us the celebration of the wild college party as a countercultural act of rebellion against uptight authority figures and their obsession with bland, conformist, middle-class respectability. There was never any doubt that the dour, fun-hating bad guys we were supposed to be making fun of were the conservatives and Republicans, particularly the senators and judges.

This anti-establishment rebelliousness was usually not in the service of any particularly edifying positive value of its own, so it’s a good thing most people didn’t take the specifics seriously. Most of us could figure out that it really was true that “fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.” But the sense of rebellion remained as the one appealing aspect of the old countercultural left. They were going to liberate us from hypocritical puritanism.

Now Britain’s Guardian describes Animal House as a “celebration of rape culture and male entitlement—if not a training manual.” A shocked examination in USA Today concludes that it “feels less like a comedy classic and more like a toxic showcase of racism, homophobia, and jokes about sexual assault.” The author asks, “Is it still OK to laugh?”

That may well be the epitaph of our age: Is it still OK to laugh?

The left has gone full circle from counterculture rebels thumbing their noses at convention and middle-class respectability, to blue-nosed prudes who are shocked by fraternity parties, imagine dark secret meanings behind flatulence jokes, and are basically encouraging a whole new generation of young people to live their lives from puberty on as timid little résumé-padding conformists.

You can also see this in the recent crusade against “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a playful holiday song about seduction that has now been targeted by neo-Puritan scolds. You know who else didn’t like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, who inspired al-Qaeda. So it’s good to know whose side our “Progressives” are on.

This may all seem like a mass of contradictions, but there is a deeper kind of consistency to it.

It’s not that they want to impose a blanket new policy of college teetotalling. They just want to use their sudden and selective suspicion of college drinking as a rationalization to torpedo this particular judicial nominee. Yet even that is consistent with the spirit of puritanism, which tends to be applied with a certain amount of arbitrary selectiveness. The point of puritanism is never to ensure exact conformity to the prudish standards of authority figures. It is to remind us of their authority.

This is what happens when every aspect of the culture, from sex to art (more about that higher up in this year’s countdown), has to be made subsidiary to politics. It all becomes about power and authority, about taking it away from some people and imposing it on others. That is how a movement for moral reform was instead turned into just another partisan bludgeon to be wielded arbitrarily.

In this environment, the only genuine political reforms are being pursued outside of the national limelight, almost in secret—a story I will cover in the next installment.

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