#MeToo exists in an ethical twilight zone

What do we think about when we think of the #MeToo movement? #MeToo is many things—it’s complex and conflicting; it addresses our collective memory (or lack thereof) and history; it touches upon social and economic class, religion, race, and, of course, most of all on gender. And it touches upon the glue of our society: trust.

A few weeks ago, I heard that the Boston Review had decided to keep the writer Junot Díaz on as a fiction editor. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cleared Díaz of allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.

In many ways, the whole “Junot Diaz case” can be placed within the post-truth era of fake news, which again is one of ethics. For example, the journalist Ralph Keyes claims in The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, “Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life.” He goes on to consider that we may have reached a stage in our social evolution that is “beyond honesty.”

The era of post-truth is also an era of moralism. Everything is too easily reduced to good and bad, as if no grey areas exist. This is also part of the rigid identity politics that characterize US politics today, which far too often produce a mindless label—as if only a black person can speak against racism, a homosexual against homophobia, a woman against male abusers. Such assumptions show a lack of imagination. They also avoid staring at all the grey areas. For example, the grey areas are probably the weakest points in the otherwise powerful and very welcome #MeToo movement, in which the Junot Díaz case can be placed since it deals with a man of power accused of behaving badly.

Morality typically deals with whether something is right or wrong. However, being moral is not always the same as being right. For example, a story isn’t true because its moral is, and vice versa. Furthermore, morality is not something unchangeable; rather, it’s a social artefact. Our moral norms change as a result of new knowledge. This knowledge, of course, should be convincing, valid, reliable, and trustworthy. Unfortunately, lack of trust seems to be the protagonist in this particular case.

“Post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight zone,” Keyes writes. “It allows us to dissemble without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is reconceive our values.” Keyes’ point is interesting. One of Díaz’s main accusers was the writer Carmen Maria Machado, who referred to a Q & A session she had with Díaz, where she claims he was “abusive”, “bullying” and “misogynist.” However, when confronted with a recording of this particular discussion, Machado was forced to admit she had been exaggerating, saying, “I’m not a victim of Junot Díaz. I’m a female writer who had a weird interaction with him.”

Weird, of course, is not necessarily misogynist.

Why did she lie? Did she deliberately stretch her wording to fit the #MeToo vocabulary? So far, Machado has not apologized—perhaps because she is afraid of people’s hate and judgment, or afraid of losing face, or afraid of being accused of lack of empathy. Or, maybe, she doesn’t care, maybe she distrust the institutions who cleared him… no one knows. However, what’s “interesting” is that Machado’s accusations violate trust, which we all need to coexist, regardless of age, gender, religion or sexual orientation, etc.

In an essay entitled “Truth and Politics“, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and that facts themselves are not in dispute.” Truth, therefore, is not the same as having an opinion. For example, Machado might have the opinion that the she was verbally abused, but in reality she is fictionalizing the truth, or creating “alternative facts” as we call it today.


The Danish philosopher K.E. Løgstrup said that trust is elementary or fundamental to human existence. Would I leave my three children at a public school every morning if I didn’t trust the teachers? Would I cross the street with them if I didn’t trust people to stop their cars at a red light?

Trust binds us together. It affects marriages, friendships, parents, and society, including politicians and scientists who inform us about the ecological disasters that humans are creating. Løgstrup emphasizes that human interdependence only works if we trust one another. Trust allows me to surrender myself into the hands of another, to make myself vulnerable, because I expect a respectful, compassionate, and trustful feedback.

Therefore, when Carmen Maria Machado lied about Díaz, it was not just a little white lie. Her words impacted everyone. Not only because she accused a well-known writer but because we trusted her. Some may have been skeptical of the validity of the accusations—thinking of sensationalism, etc., but, at the same time, #MeToo taught us the importance of believing the girls and women who had come forward so courageously. For too long, the victim has suffered unnecessarily because being a victim has been associated with shame. Shame is the reason why many women (and men) and children don’t tell about abuse.

When I discovered that Machado lied and didn’t correct her words until she was confronted a month later with an audio recording of the interview, she became less believable. When she was confronted with a recording, she appears annoyed and defensive but, surprisingly, she also appears to be angry for being exposed. “Stop lecturing!” she said. “That’s what’s so fucking weird. The level of condescension.”

And this is perhaps the saddest part. It may cause people to doubt the sincerity of #MeToo. Machado’s behavior perfectly fits with our cultural acceptance of lying. As Keyes notes in The Post-Truth Era regarding the rise in the use of euphemisms for deception: “We no longer tell lies. Instead we ‘misspeak.’ We ‘exaggerate.’ We ‘exercise poor judgment.’ ‘Mistakes were made,’ we say.” It’s as if we—many, at least—have become careless of what is true or not true.

If we want to change society into something better—a society based on equality, respect, and compassion—then we must trust one another. Trust is also the foundation of critical thinking because we assume that people say what they mean for the sake of the truth, not their own agenda (read: self-serving).

We become wiser by admitting our mistakes, that is to say be accountable for our actions and words, but also by acknowledging all the grey areas when it comes to human interaction, not just between men and women but between all kinds of identities—gender, race, age, culture, beliefs, etc. Let’s not forgot that all identities are prisons. They might make us see something more clearly from our own point of view but are often blind to a lot of other aspects. Let’s not forget that men and women should be able to discuss things without fearing being labeled misogynistic. Let’s not forget that nothing is ever completely black or white. Sometimes women lie, use their power; sometimes men are falsely accused.

The great writer Terry Tempest Williams once said that she wanted to bear witness to both the beauty and pain of our world in her writing. By “bearing witness,” she said, “the story told can provide a healing ground.” With regard to the case of Machado and Díaz, healing arises if their conflict is not used to draw a deeper ravine between genders but, instead, to acknowledge that all parties have suffered, and that trust is only gained through apology and change of actions that will make the grey areas less grey.

All women are not angels

Recently, Zoë Bossiere raised some questions regarding male writers. For example—while referring to a character in Junot Diaz’s two collections of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her—she asks: Could a sexist character like Yunior have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered?

“Maybe not,” she answers.

Maybe not. But just as easily, maybe.

We tend to forget that imagination is a fundamental aspect of literature and art. I find it hard to believe that all the Scandinavian women writing crime literature are murderers. I doubt that Gillian Flynn, author of “Gone Girl,” has killed her old boyfriend, or wants to. Stephen King is probably not wildly evil, or even all that mean. And Han Kang, who wrote “The Vegetarian,” might not be a vegetarian, or like to be painted naked by her sister’s husband, or even have a sister.

Bossiere goes on and ask, “Some might argue that these works [by men]contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is ‘good’ art actually worth?”

I personally feel that it is not worth s–t if someone deliberately suffers in the process. By suffering I do not mean that, say, children might suffer due to parental distraction or absentmindedness. I mean suffering in a violent and abusive way.

Yet, I agree with the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård who has defended writers who “run up against the limit of what cannot, shall not, should not or must not be written”, arguing that every time an author “refuses to shy away”, the arbitrary nature of such limits is revealed.

It may be difficult for many to distinguish the writer from his or her work, but it is important to do so. When we too quickly equate a person’s work of fiction with the person him or herself, it shows more a lack of imagination than moral reasoning.

Readers of course have every right to become political consumers and stop reading books by writers whose actions may be reprehensible. But I know that not everyone is Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama, and I can accept writers with flaws. I can read Jean Genet or Ulrike Meinhof (the brain behind the Baader-Meinhof Gang that operated in Germany in the 1970s), and not feel the urge to steal or kill. Sometimes the best literature can confuse us, nauseate us, show us our moral flaws as well as our ignorance.

Still, men should not be excused on the basis of their literary genius for what they do in real life. Never. The same goes for women. It is not chauvinistic in the slightest to state that all women are not angels, just as all men are not sexual predators. Writing this, however, feels like putting a rope around my neck, because gender issues, especially in the #MeToo era, have become so contentious. Today discussion of the topic is governed by a cowboy mentality, in which everyone shoots first and asks questions later.

For example, in today’s gender debate, some men and women treat one another as men and women—not as human beings. It’s as if gender gets in the way of an unbiased interpretation of what is happening. I think it’s important to acknowledge that all kinds of judgement—about right and wrong, true or false—require time, reflection, and analysis. Today, perhaps due to social media—especially Twitter—it’s easy to contribute blindly. There is a strong herd mentality on social media.

Do we take time to dwell, to reflect, to add perspective, to provide nuance? Or do we just blame? And when we blame, are we doing so out of instinct, out of some latent hatred? And do people—writers included—consider what kind of words they are using to blame other human beings? For example, the term misogynist has become so popular and broadly used that it soon will lose its meaning.

The philosopher Kate Manne defines misogyny as not about hatred toward women but about controlling and pushing women who challenge male dominance. The crucial aspect is how men and women challenge one another—that is, whether the dialogue conveys respect, trust, and equality. In the literary and academic world, people will often defend their ideas or positions. Sometimes people do this with respect and care, other times with hostility. Sometimes it’s women being hostile; sometimes it’s men. Sometimes hostility is due to vanity, arrogance, insecurity, or plain stupidity, and sometimes it’s due to men (or women) being afraid of losing their powerful positions to women—or other men.

A recent example is a recording of a Q and A session with writers Junot Diaz and Carmen Maria Machado, during which Machado describes Diaz as a misogynist and a bully. To me, this interpretation seems wrong, but according to Manne, it’s the potential victim who defines whether Diaz is securing his power or not. And then, of course, we can interpret Machado’s actions and words, words she probably—being a writer—chose deliberately. Nietzsche said thinking is interpretation. It’s an ongoing process, and I would be very careful about labeling Diaz misogynist only on this recording or Machado a liar. Which leaves us where? Perhaps we are witnessing a power game fueled by both historical and current frustration, irritation, and hate—a situation where fiction and nonfiction merge, a situation where we no longer read novels based on their literary qualities but morally on whether the character is a good human being.

In an essay published in The New Yorker, Toni Morrison writes: “The choices made by white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.” In other words, perhaps many of the problems debated today are not only about gender but much more about power.

We tend to forget that all human beings are worth the same when we focus too much on gender, skin color, or socioeconomic status. I know there is good reason for doing so (cf. Morrison’s essay on white men); still, the challenge is to encounter the present moment with an open and neutral mind full of compassion.

In short, in this quest for living equally and respectfully together, I think it is crucial that we all keep our heads cool and our hearts warm.

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