Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: The verdict in the Depp/Heard defamation case does not mean the end of #Metoo. This post explains why.
Many people on social media – all sorts, women activists, others, including many of the supporters of Depp – have been saying that it does mean the end.
This is also true on print media. Moira Donegan in The Guardian has just written a very down beat article saying that this looks like a turning point in the backlash against #MeToo.
The New York Times has also just published an article by Michelle Goldberg, with the headline ‘Amber Heard and the Death of #MeToo.’ That is not quite what the article says, and journalists are not allowed to pick their headlines. But the fact that the Times, which first exposed Weinstein, chose those words, matters.
So it’s important to understand why this is not the end. This article makes three main points.
First, #MeToo began as a movement in workplaces against sexual harassment by managers. It was a movement that depended on support from other workers in the same workplace or industry. The goal was not to take out or win court cases. It was to force the employer to discipline or fire the manager.
Second, the courts have always been a very hard place to win justice for the abused. A loss in the courts is not the end of the movement.
Third, there is a global movement against sexual violence, and the United States is not the world.
#MeToo was about sexual harassment at work
A global movement against sexual violence has been building for at least a decade. But in the United States the key moment was when Harvey Weinstein was exposed by several women he had abused, and then rapidly fired from his job as joint manager of an important corporation. Crucially, that destroyed his company.
This has been followed by hundreds upon hundreds of cases with lower visibility. These cases have been different, in important ways, from the politics of rape cases that preceded them. Until then, sexual violence cases were mainly about rape, and the feminist movement looked mainly to the courts to punish people. Most of the men who ended up in court were working class men, often poor men, often not white. These cases hardly touched the powerful.
In many ways the crucial force that made #MeToo possible were the movements against sexual abuse by Catholic priests and monks, and more generally the abuse by teachers, coaches and care workers in other settings. This movement was strongest among working class women and men in Ireland, and among indigenous First Nations women and men in Canada. They often led to court cases and compensation, but the central demand was for an apology and an inquiry that told the truth.
We owe the idea of sexual harassment to the feminist movement, however, and especially to Catherine MacKinnon and Anita Hill. Four things were crucial to this idea. The first was that sexual harassment was something a boss did. He used his power to fire and promote to force a subordinate to have sex or endure groping and jeering.
The second thing about sexual harassment was that the abused wanted, above all, to stop the manager. The goal was always his removal, and then perhaps compensation.
The third thing was that sexual harassment is in practice almost never an example of believing what the woman says over the man. The cases that become public reveal, over and over, that as with priests and care workers, the man who does it once does it over and over again. Once one survivor goes public, others who’ve been abused by the same person come forward. It is at that point that the employer or the abuser back off.
Fourth, anyone who takes on a manager at work for abuse knows that they are taking on a whole structure of economic power. No one does this lightly. Look at harassment cases at work that become public, and almost always you see a movement of other workers in support. Almost always you see informal leaders as well.
That collective support is the most important thing in these cases. Usually the issue is not belief. Women at work have protected themselves as best they can for generations with a whisper network that tells each other who to avoid. Co-workers often know already, although sometimes several people suffer in silence.
But co-workers also know the managers and the accusers as people. They can judge accurately. The problem is usually people convincing each other that is possible to win.
None of this makes it easy to get someone fired for sexual harassment. Employers, churches, universities, schools and political parties have long traditions of covering up for any abuser. They do that by punishing whistle blowers.
But after the Weinstein case, it got easier. And it is still easier to get a harasser fired than it is to go the police and get justice.
The Police and Justice System is Skewed
It is far more difficult to win a court case. Police forces, prosecutors, judges and all the customs of the criminal justice system are biased against people who have been abused, and against workers who complain about their managers.
It has long been thus, and not just in the United States. It’s global. The effect is that in most countries a large majority of people who go to a police station to complain about a rape do not obtain either a trial or a conviction.
Of course, some people are tried. But Harvey Weinstein, for instance, did not end up in court until long after he had lost his job, his company and his friends.
Prince Andrew in Britain was able to get away with a payoff because once Jeffrey Epstein had died and Ghislaine Maxwell had been convicted, the federal prosecutors announced that none of the many other people involved would be charged.
Indeed, most of the small minority of people who are actually punished for sexual violence are working class and poor. In the United States many of them are also black. And many of those black men are innocent. The survivor is almost never lying about being raped by a black man. But again and again, law enforcement push her into misidentifying the attacker, so the courts can punish someone black, anyone black.
Even in MeToo cases, a large proportion of the small number of wealthy men convicted are either black or entertainers, or both. Justice is skewed by race and class, something we know only too well.
Moreover, every day of the week the courts have long shielded and enabled abusers from management by accepting and enforcing Non-disclosure Agreements.
And Depp was able to win against Amber Heard because he learned about the legal system. First, he sued the Sun newspaper in Britain, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and lost. Then he sued Heard for an article she wrote in the Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos. But he did not sue the Post or Bezos.
Televising the Trial
Finally, the world of abuse that has descended on Heard’s head happened because the legal system decided that in her case it would be good to televise the trial globally. This was an appalling decision in such a case.
We have been arguing that workplace harassment cases about managers are not the same as court cases against other kinds of sexual violence and domestic violence. This does not mean we are against going to court. Far from it. But it does mean that the political terrain is different.
And of course, there are links and repercussions.
Heard was brave enough to write what she wrote in the Post because MeToo had taken off. That’s why the Post published it too. Victories against abuse of every kind make other cases easier. And the process works in reverse.
There are many people now saying how sick and despairing the misogyny, and the verdict, have made them feel. It is not hard to understand why. The pile on has been vile.
Many people are saying now that they know they will not be believed if they come forward. Others are saying that they will not get justice.
This is indeed one reason why a large majority of people who have been abused or raped do not report it. But the key thing to remember about MeToo cases is that you do not depend on whether media editors or strangers or judges believe you. You depend on whether your friends and workmates believe you. They know you, and they know the manager.
Moreover, the debate about whether this means the Death of MeToo is not an innocent debate. There are enormous social forces, among managers everywhere in the world, that want to break the movement against sexual violence. There are many others who have been done abuse of which they are ashamed, or they love someone who has been an abuser. They are, right now – in real time, weaponizing this verdict.
This a painful time for many. But simply to say this proves the system is too strong, or that men cannot be stopped, is to leave the field of struggle in the hands of the enemy.
India, Ireland and the World
The third point to this article is remind us all that the United States is only one country. The movement against sexual violence is global, and it has been building for a decade. We have written before on this blog about the movement in India, South Africa, China and Britain, but the movement extends around the globe.
People in the United States, including media commentators, scholars, feminists and leftists, routinely write as if what happens in America is more important than anywhere in the world. Indeed, many of them routinely write as if what happens in the United States determines what happens in the world.
This is routine, but deeply silly.
The Weinstein moment mattered because it removed a boss, and because it happened in a country whose news is seen around the world. But that was not the start of the movement. Events in India, for instance, were important in getting things started, and the movement of abuse survivors in Ireland was such an important moment.
Again, the riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 was a key moment in the creating of a global movement for Gay Liberation. But the LGBT movement in dozens of countries is now stronger than it is in the United States.
Moreover, the women’s movement in many parts of the world is advancing right now in struggles over both abortion and violence. Chile, Argentina and Mexico are outstanding examples.
Globally, the force is with us. In America, the force is with us at work.