For #MeToo to Work, We Must Draw the Line Between Sexual Assault and Being a Jerk
Accusations against author Junot Diaz are pouring in, but not all allegations are equal.
At its best, the #MeToo movement has smashed open what had been a closed, whispered conversation, mostly occurring between women, about the prevalence of male sexual harassment and assault. It has exposed serial violent predators like Harvey Weinstein and serial abusive creeps like Louis C.K., and it has apparently led at least some men to rethink their own actions and the boundaries of acceptable behavior. "The #MeToo era has changed my work," the psychotherapist Avi Klein wrote in a New York Times column. "If therapy has a reputation for navel gazing, this powerful moment has joined men in the room, forcing them to engage with topics that they would have earlier avoided."
But with any movement, there's a point where the initial excitement and sense of shared purpose fades a bit. It's time to discuss exactly what the movement is for—what it's trying to accomplish and which goals it should seek. No set of #MeToo allegations better highlights the importance of answering these questions clearly than the story of Junot Díaz.
An article by Mark Shanahan and Stephanie Ebbert, published last week in The Boston Globe, offers a useful summary of the Díaz case. For those unfamiliar with the saga, here's where we are: Since May, the Dominican-born, mostly-American-raised Díaz, author of This Is How You Lose Her, the Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and a host of other celebrated novels and short stories and essays, has been accused by four women, all fellow writers or former writers, of several misdeeds. The problem is that these alleged misdeeds run such a wide gamut, from genuinely abusive behavior to what is little more than alleged being-a-jerk, that it should worry us that they are all being lumped under the #MeToo rubric.
Two allegations involve acts that would certainly qualify as assaults. The novelist Zinzi Clemmons kicked off the allegations against Diaz when she confronted him at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival over a previous incident, but she didn't go into specifics. Later, she claimed on Twitter that six years earlier, when she was a graduate student, he had cornered her and "forcibly" kissed her, and that he had acted similarly toward other women. The other allegation comes from Alisa Rivera, described by the Globe as "a Los Angeles woman who wrote about an encounter with Díaz that left her in tears," who claimed that after an uncomfortable conversation in which he told her her skin was too white, Díaz "grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me onto his lap."
In the immediate wake of the Australia incident, Díaz issued a somewhat vague statement that some interpreted as a mea culpa. But in his Globe interview, flanked by an attorney, Díaz flatly denied Clemmons' and Rivera's accusations. "I did not kiss anyone. I did not forcibly kiss Zinzi Clemmons. I did not kiss Zinzi Clemmons," Díaz told the Globe. "It didn't happen." ("He also provided a cordial email he received from Clemmons the day after the workshop that made no mention of a kiss," notes the Globe. "A Columbia professor also recalled encountering Clemmons after Díaz left the event and described her as delighted, not shaken.") Díaz denied Rivera's account with a similar vehemence, saying it simply never happened; that leaves the incident as a he-said-she-said, since neither side has any corroborating evidence.
Whatever one thinks of the Rivera and Clemmons' accusations, they involve exactly the sort of behavior that #MeToo should be about. Just because the accusations in question don't center around penetrative rape or the years of horrific abuse of power described by, say, Weinstein's victims, doesn't mean they aren't serious and don't warrant investigation. (For what it's worth, the Globe notes that Díaz "is keeping his teaching job at MIT and his editing position at Boston Review after separate investigations found the accusations lacked 'the kind of severity that animated the #MeToo movement,' as Boston Review's top editors put it.")
It's the other two allegations against Díaz where things get extremely fuzzy, especially given the extent to which these charges have been embraced by so many journalists and onlookers as bona fide instances of #MeToo-relevant abuse. These allegations severely blur the line between actual assault or harassment and simple disagreement between adults taking part in consensual conversational exchanges. Blurring that line further would be deleterious to the #MeToo movement.
"During his tour for THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, Junot Díaz did a Q&A at the grad program I'd just graduated from," Carmen Maria Machado, an award-winning writer in her own right, tweeted in May, in a tweetstorm that began as a quote-retweet of Clemmons' allegation of a forcible kiss. "When I made the mistake of asking him a question about his protagonist's unhealthy, pathological relationship with women, he went off for me for twenty minutes." In her subsequent tweets, she described him as "enraged" during the exchange, and accused him of having engaged in "bullying and misogyny." The experience, she wrote, was "a blast of misogynist rage and public humiliation." Naturally, these accusations, coming as they were in the wake of Clemmons', garnered a great deal of attention and intensified the spotlight on Díaz.
But they're false. In June, someone posted a recording of the talk in question on SoundCloud. It reveals that at no point did Díaz become enraged or engage in anything that a fair observer would define as "bullying," misogynistic or otherwise. He responds to Machado's question with a lot of explaining about his writing, some of it, to be sure, a bit defensive-sounding, but none of it aggressive or abusive. Despite this audio, Machado subsequently stood by her accusations in a series of tweet, accusing doubters of "gaslighting": "You are entitled to quibble about tone," she tweeted. "But to say that what I said happened didn't happen is straight-up not true. If you think so, you probably aren't the best at reading subtext." So before the recording surfaced, Díaz's response was "a blast of misogynist rage and public humiliation"; after, it required "reading subtext" to understand why it was so bad it warranted a tweetstorm positioned as a followup to Clemmons' claims of a forced kiss.
Then there's the accusation leveled by the writer Monica Byrne. In another tweetstorm that began as a quote-retweeted response to Clemmons' claims, she wrote that during a 2014 dinner party she and Díaz both attended, she had suffered a "verbal sexual assault." The Globe describes the exchange thusly:
In an interview, Byrne said the conversation concerned the statistical disparity between male and female authors who get published and reviewed. Byrne told Díaz that The New Yorker had rejected an excerpt of her novel and she questioned whether that was evidence of gender bias.
Díaz, who appears regularly in The New Yorker, responded by saying something like: "I don't know if you know how statistics work, but that's like saying if you haven't been raped then nobody's been raped," Byrne said.
Byrne considered the comment "completely bizarre, disproportionate, and violent."
Díaz recalled it merely as a "messy conversation."
Both parties appear to agree on this version of events, though Byrne claims Díaz screamed the term rape during the exchange. If this is what happened, then Díaz, during a conversation between adults at a dinner party, used a sharp but accurate example to explain why it didn't make sense for Byrne to suggest that her story's rejection was, on its own, evidence of gender bias at The New Yorker. There may well be gender bias there, of course, though if so the situation seems to be improving—as of 2010, only about a quarter of the bylines appearing in the magazine belonged to women, but that number approached 40 percent in 2017. But Díaz is correct that a single person saying that X didn't happen to them has little bearing on how often X happens.
There is what feels like a growing a tendency, in some lefty circles, to use language that has been traditionally been employed to describe actual violence to describe more quotidian forms of conflict or disagreement. Dip a toe in such communities and you will often find claims that a given perspective was "erased" because it wasn't represented on a panel or in a book, or that a scientific claim is "violent" because it could be used to justify the marginalization of certain groups. Sometimes, things that might otherwise be called annoying or unpleasant are instead laced with the language of trauma.
One recent example comes from the same festival where the accusations against Díaz first surfaced. In a Guardian column published in May, Ruby Hamad describes a panel in which an author of color made a statement about white people that a white audience member found offensive. The audience member subsequently asked what the point was of insulting white women who wanted to read the author's work. Being forced to respond to this heated question, argues Hamad, was a form of "trauma."
As part of the neverending bad-faith game that is the national political cacophony, conservatives often overstate the prevalence of this discourse, overhyping the prevalence of "trigger warnings" and making exaggerated and cherrypicked claims about "victimhood culture" among young people. But that doesn't mean this style of discourse isn't real or that it isn't a harmful blurring of what should be recognized as vital distinctions between disagreement and abuse. Plenty of people who live, work, or socialize in lefty circles have recognized this. In 2016, for example, the highly respected writer Sarah Schulman—a leftist with a long history of involvement in lesbian activism—published Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair, a book largely geared toward dissecting and critiquing these exaggerated claims of harm. The book appears to have had a major impact on these communities.
The origin of this discourse style is tricky to pin down precisely, and is a subject that probably warrants an article, if not a dissertation, of its own. In part, though, it likely stems from the adaptation—and sometimes misunderstanding—of academic terms like "discursive violence" in everyday, non-academic speech. There might be a strategic component to adapting this sort of language, too, especially given the (otherwise welcome) ratcheting-up of the national conversation about sexual harassment and abuse: Some people who want to be taken seriously or paid attention to may realize that the best way to maximize their odds of that happening is to rhetorically trump up their experience of conflict. "People think they won't be heard or given compassion unless they can label their experience 'abuse,' and they're not wrong," noted Riese Bernard in an illuminating interview with Schulman last year.
Both Machado and Byrne's accusations seem to fit this pattern: They were involved in disagreements with Díaz that felt heated to them, and they subsequently described those disagreements in terms normally associated with abuse or violence. Díaz calmly and pedantically defending his work against Machado's interpretation was a "blast of misogynist rage and public humiliation"; Díaz invoking rape in an analogy was "verbal sexual assault."
Whether or not Machado and Byrne intended for these allegations to be lumped in with the #MeToo campaign against Díaz—and it certainly appeared they did, given that they presented them as direct responses to Clemmons' claim of an actual physical assault—that's what happened. As a result, the entire picture blurred: Two women accused him of inappropriate physical acts, and two more accused him of…well, what, exactly?
Maybe the guy is a jerk. Maybe he reacted too aggressively to a woman claiming there's gender bias at a publication that does, in fact, publish significantly more men than women. But #MeToo can't be about men who are merely accused of acting like jerks. There is too much serious work to be done preventing harassment and assault. Think of all of the women—and men—who have been sexually assaulted and still haven't come forward out of a fear that they will be attacked or shamed for doing so; think of all the women who have literally had to change careers because of abusive male bosses or managers. #MeToo has enough on its plate without also adjudicating subjective personal disputes that don't come close to rising to the level of genuine abuse.
And yet Byrne, at least, seems to want #MeToo to take a sharp turn in that direction, if the Globe article is any indication:
Byrne—like other accusers—contends there are additional women who have not spoken out, but she will not disclose their names. She said she's compiling a list that includes secondhand stories and published accounts, like that of a man who tweeted about Díaz belittling his manuscript in a writing workshop.
Asked whether such an account from a writing workshop describes a sexual abuser or a jerk, Byrne responded: "What is the difference?"
"Me Too covers a huge spectrum of behaviors as problematic and as specifically misogynist," said Byrne.
Byrne is welcome to argue that #MeToo should encompass the cutting jibes of mean fiction-workshop instructors, in which case I might have a #MeToo story or two of my own from my regrettable college forays into overwrought short-story writing. But if her argument carries the day, that would be a disastrous turn of events. This sort of conflation dilutes the whole point of the movement; it introduces a loud, confusing buzzing into an urgent and mostly intelligible conversation.