Trudeau, #MeToo, and a poisoned discussion

For Maclean’s on July 23, 2018 

#MeToo, in most respects, has been an undeniable force for good. This movement of education and empowerment, of courage and justice, has shattered the silence around sexual misconduct across industries, exposed the pervasiveness and severity of predation at the hands of powerful, often respected men, and revealed the machinations that simultaneously enable and protect perpetrators while punishing victims.

There was, however, an unwise preoccupation with anger in the movement’s early days, where “female rage” was celebrated, stoked, and uncritically presented as virtue. Men who voiced sincere, if misguided, reservations about a retroactive application of norms—concerns that past, imperfect conduct would be stripped of context and human error, and reframed as criminal—were as aggressively ridiculed as those forewarning of absurd inevitabilities.

But those calling for nuance, who felt it crucial to meet honest apprehension with meaningful dialogue, were largely dismissed and told this was a time for anger, not discussion. All behaviour was to be viewed through a Manichean lens if women were to make progress. Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein were equally dangerous and irredeemable. That awkward night years ago wasn’t merely a regrettable consensual experience to be learned from, but an event to resurrect, deconstruct, and mine trauma from. Every woman became, to some degree, a “survivor,” and all men were to be viewed with suspicion because all transgressions, in the end, rendered one a monster.

If nothing else, the recent controversy surrounding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a decades-old account of a stray hand served to demonstrate how the resistance to nuance didn’t insulate this important movement from bad-faith actors—but rather, has directly enabled those fuelled by disdain for women and feminism, not to mention a visceral hatred of men who consider themselves allies, to co-opt and weaponize #MeToo’s intent for malicious gain.

In many ways, the question of exactly what happened at British Columbia’s Kokanee Summit festival 18 years ago between Trudeau, then a 28-year-old schoolteacher, and Rose Knight, a reporter for the Creston Valley Advance, matters as much as how each party chose to respond when allegations of his misconduct were thrust back into the spotlight—this time, notably, without the knowledge or consent of the woman involved.

The initial description of the incident, as per the resurfaced, unsigned “Open Eyes” editorial in the Advance, accused Trudeau of “groping” and “inappropriately handling” of the reporter on assignment. And while the publisher has since suggested it was “a very brief touch” on Knight’s backside, her then-supervisors—who both corroborated Knight’s account and vouched for her excellent reputation and solid character—failed to offer any explanation as to why they felt this was the appropriate avenue for handling the situation.

No matter the exact details of the interaction—neither Knight nor Trudeau are willing to clarify—she felt disrespected enough to seek an apology which, as her July 6 press release on the matter reiterates, she received the next day. “I did not pursue the incident at the time and I will not be pursuing the incident further,” she went on. “I will not be providing any further details or information. The debate, if it continues, will continue without my involvement.”

Knight seemed content with having left the matter back in August of 2000. She did not, however, demand all discussion cease, nor did she suggest that probing Trudeau on the details of the incident would violate her request for privacy. She simply and clearly stated she wants no part of what devolved into a partisan charade, one which Trudeau arguably stoked through his evasive, ambiguous, and dismissive lines of response.

It’s a cynical, calculated strategy that backfired—much to the delight of some longtime critics primed for a #MeToo “witch hunt.”

Whether fuelled by personal resentment or partisan vendetta, those eager to take this “feminist” Prime Minister down a notch forced a victim narrative on the woman who had already categorically rejected that frame. In reducing Knight to little more than a means to their own selfish ends, Trudeau’s foes entitled themselves to violate this woman in one way, so as to more effectively chastise him for having done so in another. What’s more, by inflating the severity of Trudeau’s transgression and classifying him a sexual predator, these disingenuous advocates of Knight—many whose histories reveal a pattern of situational belief and concern for survivors—only served to devalue the meaning of sexual predation and diminish the severity of sexual violence.

But it wasn’t just bad-faith partisan actors who poisoned the discourse here. Some feminists authorized themselves to speak for Knight, offering a different grievance narrative to satisfy their own ideological end, saying that reporters had “sent women back decades” and “enabled perpetrators” simply because they sought to confirm the details of alleged prior misconduct at the hands of a now-powerful man. In effect, these individuals chastised and shamed journalists for having dared to “believe women.” And far from doing harm, the press acted precisely how #MeToo demands: they took every allegation of sexual impropriety seriously, especially when it seems out of character for the perpetrator and the instinct is to disbelieve the complainant.

One positive—if belated—shift did occur within this group, however: a contingent of previously uncompromising actors were willing to acknowledge that transgressions indeed exist on a spectrum, and that pretending otherwise is both unreasonable and irresponsible. Without saying the words, they even embraced the notion of due process—another crucial, yet habitually mocked element in #MeToo conversations—warming to the idea that yes, men are redeemable, and that yes, minor transgressions are minor. Even forgivable.

This eminently practical mindset should have long been fundamental to the feminist’s cause. When men have to ask questions privately out of fear of public reprimand, it suggests there’s something wrong with what we’ve allowed to become the norm in these discussions. When women opt to endorse an (assumedly) unconventional view—that a prevailing narrative is infantilizing or that the favoured approach is counterproductive—rather than voice it over fears of the same, it confirms it. Education and awareness cannot lead to behavioural change without room for honest inquiry, reasonable debate, robust disagreement, and the right to safely be wrong.

On matters of feminism, sexuality, relationships, and misconduct, the loudest voices aren’t always the wisest, and keeping to one or two personalities to offer insight or expertise only serves to create a dangerous illusion of consensus—this false agreement even more troubling when fuelled by hyperbole and tribalism.

When the notion of belief demands a blind, uncritical application of it—be it toward the person alleging misconduct or the one who stands accused—the merits of the allegation cannot be fairly assessed. When the mere acknowledgment of facts in a complex situation is presumed to be harmful, and when hypotheticals are presented as certain consequence in an effort to gain control over discussion, activists threaten to create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of worst-case scenarios.

Reacting defensively on behalf of every woman to fit a tidy narrative only serves to infantilize all women. This habit will not create a safer future, nor persuade those who instinctively distrust the accuser when allegations are made, nor do much other than offer skeptics reason to wrongly think that women are unable to take fair measure of where responsibility lies. And when men are led to believe that women are so delicate that a perceived violation is, say, inevitable by way of interacting at all, it’s impossible to have any meaningful exchange regarding institutional failures, evolving boundaries, and the complicated conditions women are made to navigate daily.

The matter of Knight and Trudeau was the perfect opportunity to debate the boundaries of media, including when and why—or if—limits can be relaxed. It would have been worth exploring the arguably routine, if still wrong, nature of Trudeau’s conduct, too. And in demanding all discussion be shut down, those who often initiate these sort of conversations only robbed themselves of the chance; indeed, the limits imposed on exchanges thus far have only served to fuel the paranoias of bad-faith actors. That said, for all the sniping between the two opposing camps, a discussion about any sort of boundaries was the target of neither.

With no one willing to admit having mismanaged this debate, there’s reason to believe these mistakes will be repeated, too. This is to be expected, to a point—the movement continues to evolve—but both sides refusing to correct course doesn’t inspire confidence in the movement’s future.

If #MeToo hopes to escape the confines of a hashtag and mature into a stronger, lasting force, those who are strangling the discussion must be willing to release their unyielding grip.