Saturday, June 9, 2018

What’s in a Hashtag?: Terms for Tweeting in Alliance

Alyson Cole is a professor of Political Science, Women’s & Gender Studies, and American Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of The Cult of True Victimhood, and most recently, “Precarious Politics: Anzaldúa's Reparative Reworking.” Alyson co-edits philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism.

Sumru Atuk is a completing her doctorate -- “The Politics of Femicide: ‘Woman’ Making and Women Killing in Turkey,” supported by grants from the Mellon Foundation and AAUW -- in Political Science and Women’s & Gender Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sumru and Alyson are collaborating on an article about the promise and limits of #MeToo politics.
For those who remember Clarence Thomas’s hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a televised drama that made “sexual harassment” a household word -- #MeToo felt, at first, like bad deja vu. Betty Friedan argued that women need to name sexism in order to overcome it, but the current digital protest publicizes a problem named long ago. Unlike those 1991 hearings, which focused in excruciating detail on two protagonists, Thomas and Anita Hill, #MeToo lays bare the appalling scale and frequency of women’s daily encounters with men who sexually harass and whose sexual harassment, in violation of the law, is often widely known and tolerated.

Is #MeToo the cresting of a new wave of feminism, a final reckoning with patriarchy? Or is it a perversion of the achievements of the women’s movement? Those who worry it is the latter see a McCarthyism in drag that demands the sacrifice of “good men” (Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers, for example), while reviving Victorian sensibilities about female fragility; a regression into the “victim feminism” of the past when women rebuffed the joys of sex, renegotiated the terms of consent, and incited a sex panic. Critics want to retain a line between a sociable pat on the back and a threat, a disappointing date and an assault; they seek a more nuanced understanding of romantic overtures and a less nuanced understanding of sexual violation. For them, #MeToo’s trial by Twitter enacts a double infraction: criminalizing “locker room talk,” while trivializing rape.

Amidst all the celebration and consternation over #MeToo, one aspect has been overlooked: the sign under which this activism (however it might be characterized or assessed) is taking place. There have been other digital campaigns, such as #WhatWereYouWearing, #SurvivorPrivilege, and #WhyWomenDontReport. But #MeToo is different. And this difference begins with the hashtag itself, rather than the celebrities who became its early public face. To truly appreciate the politics that #MeToo empowers, we need to understand the political grammar of the sign.
Naming the problem is only a first step, as the magnitude and tolerability of sexual violence demonstrate. Equally important is the language those challenging the problem employ to classify themselves. As Simone de Beauvoir instructed, women will remain the subjugated second sex until they learn to say “We” regarding their gender. Feminists have struggled to define what sort of social group “women” constitute, what feminist solidarity entails, and whether feminism can exist without presuming fundamental commonalities among individuals differently situated with respect to race, class, and nationality. #MeToo provides a generative alternative to articulate these collective claims without ignoring the disparate distribution of precarity and privilege among those assembled under the sign. It allows individuals to join together and recognize their “endless variety and monotonous similarity,” to borrow Gayle Rubin’s artful formulation of women’s manifold oppressions.

Hashtags are typically constructed by merging words, but conjoining ‘Me’ and ‘Too’ creates a potent new compound. ‘Me’ upholds individuality, while sidestepping the possessive ‘My,’ the reflexive ‘Myself,’ and the more frequent ‘I.’ In English, ‘Me’ rarely occurs alone in a sentence; it is more commonly used in conjunction with another subject pronoun, especially to establish a relationship. ‘Me’ thus anticipates others, a potential ‘Us.’ It issues an invitation that is not just solipsistic.
 The designation ‘Me’ certainly carries some cultural baggage, especially since Tom Wolfe’s scathing critique of the “Me Generation,” bemoaning a shift from the social activism that defined the 1960s to an atomized individualism, a problematic turning inward he observed in the 1970s. This is where the second term in the hashtag, ‘Too,’ becomes decisive by dislodging the ‘Me’ from Wolf’s tarring, and thereby helping to fulfill the promise already within the otherwise maligned ‘Me.’
‘Too’ signals more than one, a plurality prefigured by another (with whom the ‘Me’ expresses alliance) and invites more “Mes’ to join in. ‘Too’ also homophonically gestures to ‘Two’ and ‘To,’ a trebling of meaning that further destabilizes the singular personal pronoun and simultaneously evokes an imperative form -- the ‘To’ of whatever verb (still to be determined) might follow. Fused with ‘Me’, ‘Too’ creates a plural name that resonates with Luce Irigaray’s conception of a distinctly feminized “more than one.
Expressed through a digital medium, individuals need not detail personal incidents or even what motivates them to retweet. (#MeToo is not the virtual version of Take Back the Night.) The mutual designation is not presumed beforehand; it is achieved. The achievement is indirect; a building of collectivity based not on shared experiences, but on experiential similarity discovered by speaking up with others, what Mlambo-Ngouko terms “accumulated experiences.” ‘Too’ amplifies the plurality of the multiple ‘Mes’, shifting the personal pronoun from “this happened to me” to an assertion of “count me in.”
 Opponents and proponents (such as those who soon declared #TimesUp) are eager to see the digital activism either dissolve or evolve into more conventional forms of politics. In their impatient call for “real” action, they neglect the important political work #MeToo already performs. #MeToo not only raises feminist consciousness, it also raises the possibility of political solidarity among individuals who may never be in one another’s shoes. The workplace harassment a Latina domestic worker endures is not interchangeable with what a Wall Street trader may face. Yet #MeToo created the context for the Campesina women to support Hollywood actresses. The sign invites such solidarities. It summons individuals to say, “Yes, that happened to me too. Not in the exactly same way, but I understand and will stand with you.”
The malleable and horizontal solidarity #MeToo nurtures is similar to what Judith Butler terms “thinking in alliance.” What we might categorize as “tweeting in alliance” requires only a mutual cause, not a shared identity or a common experience. #MeToo thus circumvents the tensions that plagued previous feminist formulations and practices, when different perspectives were ignored or disregarded and voices silenced in the effort to construct a unified account of “women.” There is no universal and ahistorical patriarchy, only the extraordinary resonance of #MeToo.
 Since this digital campaign began, individuals from around the world joined in tweeting #MeToo in different languages, chipping away at long established hierarchical divides between the so-called liberated women of the “West” and the oppressed women of the “Rest,” without adhering to some homogenized account of sexual violence. In China, emojis were used (#RiceBunny) to retain the powerful compound of ‘Me’ and ‘Too’, while defying censorship. When said aloud the words for “rice bunny” are pronounced “mi tu,” a homophone that cleverly evades detection, and emphasizes the importance of #MeToo as a sign.
Many suggest that #MeToo is a flash in the pan, or more precisely in cyberspace, or that it will provoke a backlash. But even beyond measures specific to Twitter, #MeToo has already had a remarkable impact, catalyzing the passage of new legislation in several states (Illinois, California, Oregon, Rhode Island, New York), and propelling the resignation of some egregious offenders. Catherine MacKinnon, the architect of sexual harassment law in the United States, credits #MeToo with achieving more in a matter of months than decades of courtroom challenges. As importantly, and more enduringly, the hashtag offers new terms to join feminists together in their fight against gender discrimination in all its forms.



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