Kava-Nah: Trump won the battle, but #MeToo will win the war

by The Listener / 11 October, 2018
A protest against Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the US Supreme Court. Photo/Getty Images

A protest against Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the US Supreme Court. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump #MeToo
Anyone who construes the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court as a telling blow to the #MeToo movement is, as they say over there, whistling Dixie.

This issue brings the US closer to a historical tipping point in its political and social democracy. Republican triumphalism at “winning” the Kavanaugh fight can only be interpreted by women as a further sign that the battle needs to be taken right to the heart of the Establishment.

The ugly circling of wagons by the powerful around this most unsuitable of judicial titans can only strengthen the popular uprising against current and historic bullying and sexual abuse of women. President Donald Trump’s characterisation of Kavanaugh, and men in general, as the victims of vindictive women has further intensified opposition to his administration just in time for the forthcoming Senate elections.

Most of the states involved are Republican-favourable, and the Kavanaugh issue has stoked pro-Trump fervour as well. But the President’s supporters should not confuse the battle with the war.

Contrary to some initial punditry, #MeToo is a durable global movement. It’s not unlike what happened when Princess Diana spoke publicly about her eating disorder, emboldening others to bring their shame-ridden struggles into the light. After such performers as Taylor Swift, Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd spoke out about their experiences, women from all walks of life have begun to do the same.

It has been both cathartic and empowering. It has also been revealing. A sense of urgency has propelled #MeToo beyond a mere “truth and reconciliation” exercise over historical issues. Disclosures such as those by New Zealand women lawyers about the entrenched bullying culture in some law firms show mistreatment of women is not historical but continual. It’s not just the old “casting couch” hazard, nor is it mostly low-income, down-trodden women who are liable to suffer ill-treatment, but pretty much any woman in any workplace. And, it’s important to add, quite a few men, too.

From supermarket checkout operators to corporate chief executives, every story of sexual abuse and bullying has come to have equal weight. That genie’s not going back in the bottle.

Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

Whatever the still-disputed facts are of Kavanaugh’s treatment of his main accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, the broad outlines are all too familiar. Something of life-haunting horror was done to a young woman at a party. It was done by a young man or men who were steeped in privilege, saw nothing wrong with their treatment of her and who look back now either in aggressive denial, or shrugging, “That’s how it was back then.”

A critical change is that the presumption is shifting from, “She shouldn’t have got drunk and hung out with drunk men”, to, “Men shouldn’t abuse women”. As the SlutWalk movement so crisply puts it, the ethos is “Don’t rape”, not, “Don’t get raped”.

That Ford, a respected professor of psychology who had nothing to gain and everything to lose by speaking out, has done so anyway also underlines a growing acceptance that the historical mores that licensed this behaviour should no longer be a free pass.

To say today, “I abused women back then, but everyone was doing it; it wasn’t illegal”, is a bit like saying, “I kept slaves back then, but everyone was doing it; it wasn’t illegal”. The #MeToo movement freights women’s need for men to not only admit their past and current ill-treatment but to make a decent effort to understand how much pain and fear it caused/causes.

Had Kavanaugh shown the slightest remorse or attempted to gain some insight into how Ford experienced his and his cohort’s behaviour, he might have emerged with some honour. But she got not so much as a, “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable”. At heart, this all comes down to common courtesy and human kindness. As London’s Times noted, these are not gender wars, “they are decency wars”.

Kavanaugh’s victory will prove hollow. He will be remembered as an emblem of social reform all right, though not through any magnificence on the bench, but as the last-straw poster boy who galvanised #MeToo into achieving lasting change.

This editorial was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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