The Hist takes on #MeToo

The debate discussed and analysed its successes and failures

On Wednesday evening, the GMB witnessed a thoughtful and timely debate on the successes and failures of the #MeToo movement. Organised by the Hist and chaired by Joan Burton TD, the motion, that this house believes that the #MeToo movement is succeeding, sparked a constructive conversation involving contributions from both student speakers and an impressive guest line-up.

Opening the case for the proposition, Senator Ivana Bacik, argued that although ‘‘there’s still a huge amount left to do’’, #MeToo has effectively “highlighted the hugely pervasive nature of sexual harassment” and drawn attention to a “power imbalance in society”. She emphasised the insidious nature of sexual violence, something that ‘‘men don’t really understand’’ and commended the #MeToo movement for throwing a light on the stories of millions of victims: ‘‘We’re able to have that conversation with men now.’’ Bacik spoke at length of the ripple effect which the #MeToo movement has had in Irish society, saying it has become “a phenomenon” which has succeeded in drawing attention to “structural invisibility”. She concluded by reminding the audience that there has been “very visible change due to the #MeToo movement in Ireland”, affirming this with reference to a 10% rise in the reportage of sexual offence allegations to the Gardaí from 2017 to 2018.

Constance Quinlan countered for the opposition, arguing that #MeToo has both failed to challenge structural oppression against women and kickstart concrete changes around issues of sexual violence: “It felt revolutionary but what we are seeing now is not an overthrow of the patriarchy but a movement that fails to deal with economic issues and race.” Quinlan stressed that #MeToo places immense pressure on survivors, who “must not just describe their experiences but must justify them”. Additionally, Quinlan drew attention to the fact that victims receive attention and support only if their stories “fit a particular narrative”. Building on the same point, Quinlan maintained that minority communities remain unable to enter the #MeToo conversation and, although sexual exploitation is a fundamental part of the history of women within such communities, there is no room for minority victims “on a white woman’s feminist pedestal”. She concluded by contending that it is impossible to change the world with “a simple hashtag”.

Taryn de Vere, a journalist for and advocate for victims of sexual and domestic abuse, responded by arguing that “a movement can never be all things to all people”. She highlighted the power of #MeToo to unify the voices of millions of victims due to its accessibility for “anyone who has an internet connection”. De Vere’s argument centred on the manner in which the movement has created a space for common empathy and the collation of victims’ stories. In a patriarchal culture that is built upon “power and privilege”, she emphasised that #MeToo has “allowed people to sidestep the usual channels and share their stories”. Describing #MeToo as a “watershed moment”, De Vere stressed the sweeping influence of a movement which has “formed a picture of a world in which people are abusing their power”. She spoke candidly of her personal experience of rape, saying that her unwillingness to report such incidents had led to feeling “failed by the systems”. De Vere acknowledged that #MeToo allowed victims to reclaim their voices, to enter a space where their humanity could be seen and which allowed for the development of empathy. Concluding with the stark reality of sexual violence in the lives of women – ‘’I don’t have any female friends who have not been sexually assaulted’’ – De Vere drove home the message of hope and optimism carried by #MeToo for victims: “#MeToo makes me feel like another world is possible, a more powerful world.”

Tara Brady, an Irish Times film critic, president of the Dublin Film Critics Circle, and former head of jury at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, spoke next for the opposition. Brady labelled the #MeToo movement an “amazing” one, however, contended that “a hashtag isn’t really enough”. Drawing on her experiences within the film industry, Brady acknowledged the normality of stories such as those about Harvey Weinstein: “What was really surprising about the Harvey Weinstein story was how unsurprising it was.” She argued that #MeToo has failed to manifest into something larger and inclusive of all women, “for a moment early on, it looked like it was going to link into a larger thing…like it was going to be more than a hashtag”. Brady’s stance revolved around the systemic problems highlighted by #MeToo, issues that she felt could not be solved by an online movement but require action. Furthermore, she drew attention to the “primary beneficiaries of #MeToo” – women who are often white, economically privileged, and able-bodied. She contended that the #MeToo movement is not succeeding due to its “circling of the wagon, white people perpetuating white privilege”. Brady ended by stressing the complexity of the problems bubbling beneath the surface of #MeToo, emphasising the impossibility of catalysing a “holistic conversation” through a single hashtag.

Next up for the proposition was Conor Gallagher, a crime correspondent with the Irish Times and winner of ten Justice Media Awards. Gallagher spoke about the definite progress #MeToo has made in how victims of sexual violence are “treated by the justice system”. Having covered last year’s Belfast rape trial, he drew attention to the often disrespectful treatment of the woman at the centre of the case. Owing to the success of the #MeToo movement, Gallagher maintained that the calls of protestors in the aftermath of such an event received attention not only from the media but, more importantly, from the judicial system. He cited the subsequent commissioning of the Gillen Report in Northern Ireland, which recommends serious reform in the area of sexual violence, as stemming from the success of #MeToo: “This movement needed a name and a hashtag to get it across the line.” Gallagher concluded by noting that #MeToo has successfully laid the groundwork for all victims of sexual violence, both male and female to “have a slightly easier time going forward”.

Kate Maher next spoke for the opposition. Her argument centred around the lack of compensation provided to victims who come forward with their stories, “#MeToo has not created a culture that I can be compensated in any way. Telling my story actively puts me in danger.” Maher mentioned the impossibility of #MeToo catalysing effective change and denounced the establishment of “a market for distressing details”. Maintaining that “revolutions have been successful because they were started by those at the bottom, not the top”, she claimed that watching highly successful women, such as Christine Blasey Ford, fail to succeed as part of the #MeToo movement creates a deep sense of disillusion for those victims who may regard themselves as less privileged. “Watching perfect victims fail is terrible…if she can’t get anything then I don’t think I can either. Watching a formidable woman fail, to the point where her voice is cracking in the courtroom, at the point which she fail, there is no hope for someone like me.” Maher ended by asserting that despite its ambitions, #MeToo’s lack of success is due to the unacknowledged disparity between a culture of discussion and a culture of compensation alongside a simultaneous perpetuation of privilege within the movement.

Auditor Catherine Kelly closed the case for the proposition. She acknowledged that “rape culture is unfortunately not new” but argued that “the conversations that myself and my friends are having about it are”. Emphasising the importance of the #MeToo movement in creating space for empathetic dialogue around issues of sexual violence, Kelly said it has led to those around her knowing that “because of #MeToo, I will support them, I will listen to them”. Although careful to add that she did not think #MeToo could “fix everything”, she affirmed the significance of a movement ‘‘in which we can support women…in which my friends felt they could tell me of their experiences…in which they could talk to their male friends”. Ultimately, Kelly placed the #MeToo movement in a progressive context as something that is still evolving and which must be expanded.

Laura Crean was the evening’s final speaker. As stressed by other opposition speakers, she drew attention to the celebrity aspect of the #MeToo movement, arguing that it has not encouraged victims with “more normalised, everyday stories to come forward”. Crean contended that simply incentivising victims to share their stories does little to create long-lasting change, “online dialogue has not translated into action”. She particularly sought to highlight the experiences of those living in rural areas, unable to join the internet conversation around #MeToo, and again stressing the necessity of “actual physical support”. Crean derided the inaction involved in a mere discussion, maintaining that the constant use of a hashtag is a sore reminder of how great the problems of sexual violence are, yet provides no way of addressing such problems. In conclusion, she circled her argument back to #MeToo as a perpetuation of privilege, stating that the movement cannot be labelled a success as it is “not a success for the most vulnerable in society”.

The motion was passed with a strong majority in favour. Speaking afterwards, Joan Burton TD, thanked each speaker, affirming that “Ireland is a better place for debates like this tonight”. She stressed how “a social media conversation…should be a personal conversation” whilst simultaneously acknowledging the success of #MeToo in highlighting that “you can talk to people about something you may have previously not talked about”. Burton ended on an encouraging tenor, claiming that “#MeToo has had a reception in this country that is a reflection of change happening. This evening’s debate should empower you.”

In light of the motion discussed, a collection was held for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The Hist will also run a sexual consent workshop on February 21, in collaboration with the Student Counselling Service.