Compassion and Resentment in the Age of #MeToo
by Mikhail Valdman
The Walking Wounded
People’s physical wounds are sometimes visible. Their emotional wounds are hidden from view, sometimes buried so deep that not even their bearer can spot them. But imagine that it was all visible. Imagine that you had a pair of magic glasses with which you could see people’s physical and emotional wounds just as clearly as their faces. What would you see if you put them on and strolled around the city? Just another day, people moving to and fro? A civil war battlefield? A post-apocalyptic hellscape? Whatever you’d see, it wouldn’t be pretty. We’re mammals navigating a world of predation, raised by other mammals in an environment that’s radically different from the one in which our brains and bodies evolved. We’re all a mess. We’ve all been wounded. No one here gets out alive.
Consider the spectacle from the perspective of distributive justice. Through your glasses you gaze into the crowd and see a huge swath of humanity in all manner of pain. But whose pain is getting attention? Whose is a matter of public concern? Which distributive principle, if any, guides the allocation of assistance and care? Does it flow to those with the deepest wounds? To those whose wounds can be most effectively healed? Are some receiving the lion’s share of attention despite their wounds’ relative shallowness? Are some suffering in silence because they lack cultural clout or because their wounds, though deep, lack a political constituency to lobby for their amelioration? Have your magic glasses revealed a realm in which there is justice in the allocation of resources or have they exposed a heretofore undiscovered continent of distributive injustice?
I would bet on the latter. We are bad enough at correcting such injustice when people’s wounds are visible. Make their wounds invisible, and we hardly stand a chance. Indeed, under those conditions, our amelioration efforts could make things worse by widening the gap between the intended targets and those unwittingly left behind, hardening the latter’s resentments and grievances. For instance, suppose that a public health care system devoted the bulk of its resources to mending broken legs. That would be better than nothing. But if you had a broken wrist, cystic fibrosis, or cancer, you’d be hard-pressed to quell your ire. What makes broken legs so special, you might wonder, or the people who have them, that they should receive — and feel entitled to receive — the lion’s share of public assistance while other conditions and injuries, no less severe, go untreated? Taken to extremes that attitude could be irrational; it would suggest that you’d prefer that no one should receive care if the alternative is that only those with broken legs receive it. But you needn’t take it that far. You could prefer the converse but still resent the unfairness of a health care system that distributed its resources in such a way.
It’s useful to bear in mind the pervasiveness of injury and the attendant inequalities of attention and care when considering the travails of Christine Blasey Ford, and, indeed, of #MeToo, which is failing to gain traction beyond reliably liberal enclaves. Signs of resistance are everywhere. Donald Trump, self-proclaimed pussy-grabber, is the president. Caught on tape confessing to sexual assault (or at least bragging about it) a month before the election, he still received 53% of the white female vote. Ford’s testimony split the country in two. At first Democrats were ebullient, but after the final hearing Mitch McConnell was convinced that he’d been handed a gift. And that was despite the fact that her testimony could hardly have been more compelling while Kavanaugh’s was an unhinged duplicitous rant. If sexual assault victims aren’t taken seriously under those conditions, one might ask, what hope is there? Could it really be that half the country either refuses to believe them or just doesn’t care?
It could, but the truth is more complicated. Some, it seems, really don’t care. Some care but in the opposite direction, reveling in Ford’s crushed feelings. Others care, but not enough to overcome their partisanship, as it might have been had the shoe been on the other foot. Some claim that it’s unfair to judge a middle-aged man by his teenage indiscretions, though it’s rare to see that view consistently applied. Others claim that human memory is unreliable and susceptible to all manner of distortion, though Kavanaugh’s misleading and evasive testimony, along with Republicans’ unwillingness to investigate the matter properly, should have pushed against that worry.
More interestingly, some opposition to Ford was probably a spillover from resentment of #MeToo, a movement that can seem immoderate, vindictive, and overly reliant on intimidation and kangaroo courts. I share its goals; I too would like to live in a world in which people didn’t feel entitled to abuse their power or take liberties with others’ bodies. But the goals don’t always justify the means. #MeToo has done itself no favors by being unwilling to draw distinctions, accept apologies, or countenance any attitude towards victims other than complete obeisance. Believing victims has come to mean not just granting them a presumption of sincerity, not just of accuracy, but also a blanket refusal to apply considerations of reasonableness to their perceptions of their ordeal’s effects. Indeed, for the movement’s champions, one wonders if an unreasonable response to an unwanted touch is even possible. Also troubling, and seldom discussed, is the movement’s refusal to consider its own role in shaping those perceptions. Social constructionists to the core, #MeToo’s champions seem to make a startling exception in the case of a victim’s attitudes toward his or her assault, as if social norms have played no role in shaping those attitudes and #MeToo has played no role in shaping those norms. Perhaps this is an oversight. Perhaps it isn’t. After all, such an investigation could potentially expose #MeToo’s supporters to the very accusation that they direct at their critics: they are harming victims.
But opposition to Ford could have also stemmed from a different resentment – one rooted not in displeasure at #MeToo’s tactics or intellectual underpinnings but in its tunnel vision – the kind that would be evident if the lion’s share of medical attention were reserved for broken legs. Call it the resentment of the left behind – of the millions of walking wounded whose wounds garner little public attention or support.
Let me explain by sharing a bit of my own history. When I was four, a day care worker threatened me with castration, going so far as to mock-attack me in my cot with a knife. I was wetting the bed, and she was tired of having to change the sheets. When I was ten, I was accosted by an older and much larger boy on my way home from school who threatened to break my legs. He was completely deranged, raving about how I had beaten up his brother (I hadn’t) and for a minute, I thought he might do it. When I was twelve, I attended a school at which I was bullied mercilessly for months. Every day was an ordeal, a cat and mouse game in which all I could think about was how to elude my tormentors. Since then, the threat of violence has subsided but has never vanished. I’ve since been threatened. I’ve been groped. I’ve had a gun to my head. I’ve feared for my life.
The bullying left the deepest scars. These days I rarely think about it, but every so often something triggers those memories and the feelings come flooding back. It’s a heady cocktail of hatred, anger, and self-loathing, wrapped in a powerful desire for redemption. It’s palpable, and after several seconds I’m consumed by two additional desires: one to lash out and another to withdraw.
I mention my history not to garner your sympathy. I’ve been victimized, but I don’t consider myself a victim, and I would resist being branded as such. My history doesn’t strike me as exceptional enough to warrant that label. Growing up, the threat of violence was an ordinary, unremarkable part of my reality, as it was for many. It was in my home, my school, and on the street. And yet, many had it worse. Some had it much worse. My father was a difficult man, but he wasn’t deranged or a violent alcoholic. I didn’t have to shield my mother or younger brother from his blows. I was never molested, kidnapped, or forced to kill enemy combatants in an unjust war. I never lost a loved one to suicide or mental illness. And my travails pale in comparison to those of my older relatives, such as my grandmother, who fled Ukraine along with her mother and sister on the eve of the Nazi invasion and returned in 1945 to discover that her entire extended family had been slaughtered.
I mention my history for the sake of perspective. What happened to Ford was inexcusable: shoved into a bedroom, tackled, held down, groped, mouth covered when she tried to scream. It must have been terrifying. But terrifying compared to what? Her ordeal lasted but a minute, while mine lasted for months. Their laughter still haunts her; indelible in the hippocampus, as she indelibly put it. And yet such behavior is hardly uncommon. My tormentors basked in my anxiety, delighted in my fear. The thieves who put a gun to my head took my wallet to McDonalds, used my credit card to buy cheeseburgers, and sat around a table laughing with their friends. To be clear, none of this implies that Ford’s grievances are unjustified. Quite the contrary. She was wronged. She has every right to be upset and to demand apology and redress. But that is compatible with asking what is so special about the horrible way in which she was treated such that, in a world of limitless horror and limited empathy, her suffering, her wounds, should receive so much of the available attention and care.
Am I suggesting that no one’s wounds should be treated until we’re prepared to extend everyone the same courtesy? No. That would be absurd. Sexual assault is a serious matter. Victims should be helped, just as broken legs should be mended. But if you’re wondering why opposition to #MeToo is so intense, why even many women seem to resist it, and why, despite Ford’s credibility, many were put off by her public display of victimization and distress, consider the resentment of the left-behind. Perhaps Ford’s supporters, while pursuing justice on one front, exposed a much larger realm of distributive injustice on another. And perhaps that other realm is shaping attitudes and generating resentments in ways that we’ve barely begun to grasp.
The left resents the right for its obstinacy, insensitivity, and spite. The Right resents the Left for its mockery, self-righteousness, and scorn. In my lifetime, we’ve never been so divided. And yet we have so much in common. We’re all wounded. We’re all resentful. We’re all angry. Some of it is justified. Yet, none of it is healthy. Purges, trials, and beheadings, whether metaphorical or real, offer a brief respite but no lasting relief. Kavanaugh’s ascension didn’t assuage the Right; Ford’s triumph wouldn’t have assuaged the Left. The anger is toxic and mutually reinforcing. We need less of it and fast.
Perhaps philosophy can help. Just as Newton grasped that the force that pulls apples to the ground also holds the moon in its orbit, some philosophers have grasped that this force, along with others, holds us in our orbits as well, determining our thoughts and actions. They’ve grasped that free will is an illusion and that without it, our moral responsibility practices cannot reasonably be sustained. The implications are staggering. Those who love you and nurtured you do not deserve your praise. Those who loathe you or torment you do not deserve your blame. Indeed, resenting your tormentors would be on a par with resenting the sun for burning your skin or the rain for soaking your hair. And such moral responsibility skepticism is unsullied by the fact that, like their religious counterparts, so many philosophers refuse to accept it, holding out hope that some new insight into the meaning of control or freedom will permit them to continue to defend the faith.
When I remind myself that free will is an illusion – and you have to remind yourself, because it’s not your default setting – my anger melts. My resentment turns to curiosity and compassion. What trauma, I wonder, possessed that day care worker to threaten a four year old with castration; that older boy to want to break my legs; those bullies to torment me; those thieves to threaten my life? A blackout drunk by all accounts other than his own, from what was Kavanaugh escaping? What deep wounds, unattended to and unaddressed, possessed him to seek power or glory or status in another’s humiliation, if that is indeed what transpired?
You don’t have to be a moral responsibility skeptic to think this way. You could just note that bad behavior has hidden causes the awareness of which tends to make us less resentful and more compassionate. And yet such skepticism makes compassion practically inescapable because it reveals that, in the end, we’re not so different, assailant and victim, predator and prey. We are all products of our circumstances, and had we swapped circumstances, we might well have swapped roles. Reflect on that a moment. It’s a deeply unsettling thought. I want to believe that my not having been a bully is to my moral credit and not just a matter of luck; that, had I been in my tormentors’ shoes and they in mine, I would not have sought power or status or glory in their humiliation. But that is probably wishful thinking. Or at least it might be. And acknowledging that possibility is prelude to compassion, forgiveness, and, ultimately, peace, both inner and outer.
I don’t know if my suggestions are politically useful. I don’t know how to slot such compassion into our laws or how to square it with a legitimate desire for accountability and deterrence. By itself, compassion is clearly not enough. There have to be consequences for wrongful action. And yet we need compassion now more than ever, if not in our laws then at least in our attitudes toward each other. It’s noon at the O.K. Corral. The Left and Right have locked eyes, their twitchy hands sliding toward their holsters, ready to draw. Resentment has brought them there. Compassion could stay their hand. If they could see themselves in each other, recognize that they might be separated by nothing more than a simple twist of fate, perhaps a bloodbath could yet be averted.
Mikhail Valdman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializing in normative ethics. He has written on autonomy, exploitation, and political obligation, but mainly he is interested in work that challenges deeply ingrained human conceits.