Letter to the editor: On the civil rights movement and #MeToo

It’s Black History Month. I am remembering my childhood in the ‘60s when my father said that violence followed Martin Luther King, Jr. everywhere he went. That’s Martin Luther King, Jr., considered so dangerous by the FBI, whose voice and dream these days is being used to sell trucks during the Super Bowl. I pointed out to my father that King’s most basic principle was nonviolence and that his peacefully protesting followers could be seen on TV taking the blows from police and from counterprotesters rather than fighting back. I reminded him that it was people who violated all of King’s most cherished beliefs who were initiating the violence. My father replied, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.”

The majority of Americans didn’t want to hear King’s message. They didn’t want to think that the country they lived in was so unjust that African Americans were treated that badly. Separate could be equal, right? They didn’t want all the turmoil that can come with change. I think of the picture of that brave young black girl, Elizabeth Eckford, head held high as she walked into a white high school in Little Rock in 1957. The picture also shows hate-filled faces screaming at her, threatening her. Blaming her for challenging their way of life, their fantasy that African Americans were treated just fine. Or that when they weren’t they deserved it.

Fast forward to the present. I see the #MeToo movement playing out much like the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. People don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to think that things are that bad for women. They blame the women who are finally telling their stories of abuse for the actions of those who are making false accusations. False accusations are being made both against men and against women who speak up. One crucial way to address this is to assess the evidence carefully and not hastily pass along whatever we hear or read that supports our position. Both journalists and people posting on Facebook or Twitter who don’t check their facts and consider their sources are guilty of contributing to a culture that destroys innocent people. We have a duty as ethical human beings and good citizens to exercise a degree of care in what we say.

Dreams come with a price. Martin Luther King had a dream of equality, of African-Americans being safe and treated with respect. Many people unfairly blamed him for the violence and abuses that came along with the struggle. People are doing the same to women speaking out today. It is hard to speak up, to know that you will be condemned for your views and suffer the wrath of those who think that speaking up is too dangerous, too risky, that there will be collateral damage. Yet I feel I have to speak up to support these women and, in the process, to point out the kinds of subtle forces that motivate women to be silent. It sometimes takes the form of, “I support women’s rights, but …” People who mean well but contribute to the problem. Good, well-meaning people who would have said, “Now Martin, I agree with everything you are trying to do, but if you give that ‘I Have a Dream’ speech people are going to get all riled up and someone might get hurt.”

It’s not just women and minorities who are criticized for trying to be treated with respect, civility, and equality. Gay people are condemned for engaging in behavior that straight men take for granted. We live in a country where gay people are legally allowed to marry, where they have not only legal rights but the right of all people to be treated with humanity. Yet this seems to be news to some straight men. Why can’t a straight man react the same way to being asked out by a gay man that he does at being asked out by a woman? It shouldn’t be a big deal — all he has to do is say no. Just like a woman does. If he makes a big fuss, tells everyone he knows, and gets outraged, then he is being homophobic, hysterical, and kind of silly.

You’d think it would be a lot easier for a straight man to say no to another man because he is unlikely to face the threat of violence that is the reality of women’s lives when they stand up to men. Women spend a lifetime getting unwelcome advances from men they find repulsive. Why should a man not be able to deal with the same thing? Women are speaking out about being harassed at work by their bosses, their jobs threatened if they don’t submit; they are grabbed, groped, and raped. Yet some straight men seem to think it is an outage if a gay man simply asks them out. Maybe it is because many men seem to assume that women bring unwanted attention onto themselves by their behavior or the way the dress. Maybe some men make such a big deal about being approached by a gay man because they think others will say they were asking for it. Maybe men would feel more comfortable just saying no and not making a big deal of it if they weren’t used to thinking about women in terms of “You must have been asking for it,” “What were you wearing?” or, “Did you flirt with him then say no? We all know that no can mean yes.”

It really is pretty simple. What women and gay people wish for is to be able to exist in the world with the same degree of consideration, respect, and safety as straight white men. We are far from achieving that wish. While it is unconscionable that men are ever unjustly accused, the vast majority of abuse continues to be heaped upon women, gay and transgender people, and minorities. False accusations against men are no more a goal of the #MeToo movement than violence was a part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy. Let the focus be where the problem is greatest, not on the few exceptions. Just when they are starting to receive some justice — or at least being listened to — after years of violence and abuse, don’t let the voices of women and other vulnerable groups yet again be silenced by the powerful and privileged of the world. Or by those who refuse to see the forest for the trees or the lessons of history.

One of the most disappointing reactions to the #MeToo movement is how when women tell their stories of harassment, abuse, violence, and even just the downright rude and obnoxious behavior of some men, immediately the conversation turns to the behavior of the women. The first thing you often hear is, “Why didn’t she …” and “She should have just …” or even, “I would have …” Well, maybe she could have handled it differently, but the real question is why people don’t seem to be looking at the fact that so frequently the men acted like jerks. Or criminals. During the civil rights struggle, there were times when some African Americans got so angry they didn’t choose the best strategy for dealing with the overwhelming discrimination and abuse that was a part of their daily lives and part of the very structure of American society. What was needed at the time (and still is today) was to take a hard look at how white people could change their attitudes and behaviors and change the structure of society so that it was one of respect, equality, and civility for black people. What is needed in response to the #MeToo movement is not a focus on how a woman might have better handled a particular situation but on men’s behavior and how to create a society where rude, obnoxious, disrespectful, and abusive behavior by men is not tolerated, not defended, and not blamed on women.

Women fighting for respect, to be safe, and to be listened to want society to change for the better for everyone, not just women. It will be a better world when men can see their daughters off on a date knowing that they will be respected, that their wives and sisters will not be sexually harassed at work and can walk down the street without fear. Support women who are speaking out. Speak up when you see injustice. Whenever you hear, “She should have just …” stop the person and say, “Why don’t we focus on what the man did and on making this a society where that kind of behavior is not tolerated or excused?” It is the first necessary step to creating a better world for all of us.

—Jan Carpenter, Dammeron Valley

The viewpoints expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of The Independent.

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