The new post-#metoo puritanism must focus on justice and equality
I find myself on International Women’s Day more confused than ever about my feminism and where the pendulum is now swinging. And frankly, I’m worried.
It’s five months now since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein broke and in their wake, the façade of respect that entombed our revered institutions began to crumble as women’s stories of everyday abuse chipped away at the very foundations of structural mores.
From Hollywood to Holyrood and through all the institutions in-between, women found their voices, named names and chronicled the misogyny that blighted their lives.
And rightly, they would not be silenced.
Such was the scale of the outpouring that followed Weinstein that no one could be left under any illusion that this was not for real. This is how women live their everyday lives – forever in the shadow of a threat from men.
I said back then, and still feel it now, that this is an exhausting way to live our lives. But times they are a changing and I welcome that, of course I do. It is a revolt for which women have been preparing for generations. I have waited all my life for what has happened this last few months and I am not prepared to see that momentum falter.
So, while calls for an end to abuse of women, for equality in the workplace, and for more diverse representation in positions of power are nothing new, particularly on International Women’s Day, this time, bolstered by the triumph of the #metoo and #timesup campaigns, things really could change.
How we structure our lives, as men and as women, is being viewed through a whole new lens now. People notice things that before just passed as the accepted norm, like all-male board rooms or where gender balance does not exist.
The SNP MP Mhairi Black was right – brave, even – to stand up in Westminster last week and read out the very graphic nature of social media messages that she receives, day-in, day-out. She’s the first MP to use the ‘c’ word in the Palace of Westminster. And she used it repeatedly. It was necessary and illustrated how misogynistic language can be so easily normalised. And how you can become desensitised. Accepting, even. That is wrong. But the fact she could now do that without being criticised for doing so shows how the world has moved on.
A veil has been lifted and we are seeing the world through new eyes. But in this new climate of hyper-vigilance, there is also a creeping hyper-sensitivity, an intolerance of nuance and a disregard for the mistakes and mess-ups inherent within human behaviour. There are no shades of grey.
Call it the new puritanism, if you like, but it has some dangers.
The former SNP MSP, Mark McDonald, will be the first political scalp of this new era of intolerance. And rightly so. He accepts his behaviour was not acceptable and is now paying that price.
And while some will still question the gravity of what he did or didn’t do or how low the bar has now been set – so many questions - it is, all the same, a significant moment when something that has long been tolerated is finally recognised as being intolerable.
Behind that shift is an understanding that for those that thought this was not a problem, they have finally recognised the suffering of those for whom it was. In this case, men are waking up to the consequences of their behaviour.
But as we move further down this road towards equality, of a right to equal justice and of equal value, I want us, as women, to apply those same principles to all. Including men.
Even Margaret Atwood, the feminist author of The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian tale of female oppression in which women are told what to wear, what to think, what to say, has been swept up in the angry backstream and been accused of being a bad feminist for daring to suggest that in relation to allegations of harassment, justice should still prevail.
Atwood was relegated to that special place in hell for signing an open letter that asked whether the University of British Columbia had followed basic principles of natural justice when it publicised allegations against an academic who wasn’t given details of the accusations until he had signed a confidentiality agreement, which then stopped him from defending himself publicly.
He was ultimately found to be innocent. But his career was shattered. And Atwood was condemned.
There is so much bravery, strength and determination in the air. It is time to exploit it for positive change. Let’s not waste it by rushing to conclusions, always being ready to condemn.
As a feminist, I want to show compassion, see remorse, but also demonstrate the good in us women. I want to see due process, transparency and fair play and that we can recognise that behaviour can change and that we are, where possible, willing to accommodate that change. Feminism, for me, is about the justice inherent in equality. Currently, I am seeing little evidence of it.