In the months since the Weinstein allegations proved to be a watershed moment, and the #MeToo campaign delivered belated consequences to a number of prominent sexual predators, there’s been a public reflection on the successes of the movement thus far and its prospects for the future. Some are pessimistic about the movement’s longevity, and predict a coming backlash that is fueled in equal parts by misogyny and the inherent discomfort of incorporating these revelations into our understanding of reality.
The cases made for those predictions are often convincing, but they almost always see the impending reversion as a near or at worst medium term phenomenon. Perhaps its a need for optimism even in the face of bleak forecasts, a desire for this hard won moment to be, if not the beginning of a new era, at least some indication of progress. These silver linings seem to always rely on the idea that young people, millennials and their successors in the Snapchat set, get it. Unlike the “old dinosaurs” like Weinstein or the President, or even the women hardened by long careers in industries (and a world) that reward abusers, it’s believed that young people today simply won’t stand for such behavior or the systems and bystanders that abet it.
But it’s never explained, at least not convincingly, why we can rest easy with the knowledge that the coming generation will succeed where their predecessors fell short. There’s the qualitative argument – that I admit feels correct – that says that the term “sexual harassment” didn’t even exist before the 1970s, and wasn’t widely understood until the Anita Hill hearings. Now that the generation coming into adulthood has lived their entire lives in a society grappling with this concept, they’ll represent a constituency more understanding of claims by victims and more skeptical of perpetrators defenses. This is often paired with attempts at quantitative arguments, that look to polling data to show that younger cohorts have a different understanding of sexual harassment and assault.
At the same time we’re being asked to believe in the inherent “wokeness” of millennials, we’re also grappling with widespread sexual assault on and off college campuses. And despite the handful of individuals – largely in fields that attract public and media scrutiny – who have been called to account, there hasn’t even been enough time for workplace systems or cultures to change in any meaningful way. That will take time, and more importantly, it will take work.
Young people can’t simply believe that sexual harassment and assault is wrong and expect reforms to leap out of their hearts and into the world without them noticing. We live in a world where the incentives are already baked in, where behaviors that have been reinforced since childhood are shaping our actions today. The reality that predatory behavior is easy and confronting it is hard is a feature, not a bug, of a fundamentally unequal and self-reinforcing system that has brushed off attempts at reform before. Millions of dollars paid out in settlements are just the cost of doing business in Hollywood, Congress, Wall Street, and universities. In other industries, where workers are less powerful and more at risk, the cost is lower if it even exists at all.
The challenge will be to not only resist the backlash to this moment when it arrives, but also to create a lasting change where justice doesn’t mean a gentle fall from grace after collecting a critical mass of victims over decades.
I believe it’s likely that my peers may be more open to reforms than those that came before us. But realizing those changes requires taking on a system that gains its power not from the opinions of individuals, but by distributing spoils to those who either support or simply choose not to challenge it. It cannot be willed away, it has to be banished.
“The only real solution,” Rebecca Traister argues in her searching and deeply affecting piece in New York, “may be one that is hardest to envision: equality.”
There are plenty of good reasons to be hopeful that this current moment will lead to lasting change, but simply living through it is not enough. If millennials (or anyone!) truly believe that the behavior that’s been on display that past few months is truly unacceptable, then our reckoning needs to deepen. That means the work begins today, before another generation of women are subjected to years of assault, derailed careers, lost earnings, and otherwise forced to bear the costs of our inaction. It also means preventing another generation of men and women from being brought into the fold, building their careers and lives on the blood money gained from the suffering of others.
(Image Courtesy of Paul Townsend)
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