Remember those PostSecret books? Each page was filled with confessions written on postcards by people around the world, and they were lurid, tragic, even hilarious. You never knew who wrote them—but somehow reading them made you feel intimate with and distanced from the storytellers. The writer Susan Sontag has similar reflections on the ways photographs bring distant worlds into our lives:
Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others.
That picture from a friend on a hammock in Hawaii? You feel like you’re there and know you’re not. That longing you feel when your spouse texts you when you’re away from home? The way Chris Pratt’s Instagram feels like an inside joke you share? They all have in common the gap between “participation and alienation” that Sontag noticed in photography—it’s intimacy at a distance.
So what does any of this have to do with the tragic stories of #MeToo?
Flipping through the confessions in PostSecret, I can close the book and walk out of the bookstore, and online spaces are no different: you can unfollow a neighbor, block a celebrity or just keep scrolling past whatever makes you uncomfortable.
This doesn’t matter when we’re trying to ignore a national debate on the color of a blue/gold dress, but it definitely matters when we’re scrolling past stories of sexual violence as if they’re any other social media moment—intimate, distant, easily discarded.
The voices of #MeToo say that these stories cannot be muted or blocked or unfollowed. They say that sexual predators are not just distant Hollywood producers or politicians but friends or coworkers, that their suffering started long before the hashtag and will continue long after. So how do we keep from scrolling on to the next scandal and allow these confessions to shape how we treat one another? How do we bridge that gap between “participation and alienation?”
Here are four ways:
1) Listen to and believe the victims.
T. S. Eliot said “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
This is active curiosity, an egoless and judgment-free open mind to the experience of others. Listening with humility, we center the voices of women and allow their experience to shift the way we see the world. If you want to listen like this but don’t know how to start, my friend Jonathan committed to listening with eloquent language you can use for yourself.
2) Do the work.
We don’t have to ask women to keep reliving sexual trauma in order to find out. A friend of mine asks the mind-expanding question, “what voices am I not listening to?” Our ignorance is not the responsibility of the ignored, and we can answer that question with our own self-motivated research.
3) Translate online space to local space.
It can be overwhelming to read about so much intimate violence far away from where we live. One way forward is to look for the dynamics that make this violence possible in our own contexts.
What happened there can happen here—whether “here” is your workspace, church, or coffee shop. Do women have space to speak in meetings? Does the pastor make inappropriate jokes with the female interns? We need to advocate for women by exposing dynamics that lead to harassment long before abuse occurs.
4) Commit to daily choices.
Addressing sexual violence and the toxic masculinity that makes it possible requires more time than a trending lifecycle. As Rebecca Solnit said, the only way forward is “small acts that accrete into a different world view and different value.”
That is how we honor the women who have shared their suffering and how we begin building a world where healthy relationships between men and women are possible.