#MeToo Needs to be about Principles, Not Celebrity Shaming

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the inherent difficulties the #MeToo movement faces is the strong incentives the media has to ruin the whole thing. The initial incidents–the abuses of power by people like Trump, Weinstein, and C.K.–are useful insofar as they start a conversation about policy and principles. But the risk is that #MeToo will be reduced to the little more than the quest for more high-profile allegations, because nothing sells ads like celebrity gossip. And in that quest for more exciting allegations principles are lost in a sea of particularities–we forget about the forest and gaze longingly into the trees. And so we’ve come to the Aziz Ansari moment, a moment which was inevitable–some media outlet publishes some allegations which seem to some people to be much less serious than the allegations that have gone before, and yet seem to another group of people to warrant the same response those previously accused received. We’re reduced to a debate over whether our response to the specific Ansari allegation is reasonable, and then that debate is projected onto everything else. If Ansari is the victim of a witch hunt, is the whole thing a witch hunt? The appropriate response is to refuse to play this game in the first place–#MeToo isn’t really about exposing guilty people and publicly shaming them. It has, to this point, often been conducted in that way. But it’s really about getting people to treat each other better. To do that, we have to know what “better” involves. We have to talk about principles, not people.

One of the great wrongs in modern life is exploitation–relationships in which one person routinely and repeatedly takes from another without giving back equal value. In exploitative relationships there is no reciprocity, or at least not enough for the relationship to be fair. Exploitation is often talked about in the labour relations settings. When we hire employees and then pay them less than the full value of their labor, we exploit them in an economic sense. This kind of exploitation is inherent to capitalism–without it, businesses can’t generate profit. Capitalists believe this exploitation is a necessary evil and socialists want to find a way to eliminate it, but nobody thinks economic exploitation is great. For exploitation to justify itself, it has to produce some overriding good that we cannot otherwise obtain.

Whatever you think of economic exploitation, interpersonal exploitation almost never produces overriding goods. There are exceptions–we don’t expect, for instance, that children will reciprocate in full the benefits they receive from their parents. But in romantic relationships and sexual encounters? If they’re not meant to be reciprocal, what is?

There are a couple big ways people behave exploitatively in these contexts:

  1. Explicit Interpersonal Exploitation, in which a person receives genuine benefits from another person and doesn’t return them in full.
  2. Implicit Interpersonal Exploitation, in which a person attempts to use apparent benefits to indebt or guilt another person into returning genuine benefits or benefits which are larger than those originally given, or attempts to use benefits in one relational context to extract benefits in another.

Explicit exploitation is fairly straightforwardly abusive verbally, physically, or emotionally. Most of the #MeToo cases involve an implicit element which enables the abusers to conceal their abusiveness from themselves. When Harvey Weinstein offers professional benefits to female actresses in exchange for sexual benefits, he is attempting to leverage one kind of relationship into another. The same goes for “Nice Guys” who attempt to use friendly benefits to extract the sexual, or hook up partners who attempt to use sexual benefits to extract romantic relationships which contain friendship components. But this is not a morally permissible move–a professional, friendly, or sexual relationship does not entitle a person to a relationship of one of the other two varieties. While it’s true that a professional relationship can lead to a Platonic friendship or romantic/sexual relationship and vice versa, this is only justifiable when the parties choose to enter into the new kind of relationship freely.

That’s the big mistake these powerful men keep making. They recognize that their power allows them to bestow professional benefits on people and imagine that it’s only fair that these people pay for these professional benefits with the sexual. They’ve embraced a universal currency of benefit when really there are at least three currencies for non-family members, each particular to a different form of relationship. To buy something in America you need dollars–you can’t pay in Euros. If someone doesn’t find you an appealing sexual partner, you can’t pressure them into sex by being nice to them or giving them a job. Indeed, even creating the appearance that you may have tied these things together is wrong. Louis C.K. never told the women that he wouldn’t give them professional benefits if they didn’t comply with his requests, but they had no way of knowing that the professional benefits they received weren’t tied to compliance.

We can only combine professional, friendly, and sexual benefits together if it’s clear to both parties going in that benefits in one area are not connected with benefits in another, or if both parties explicitly accept the blurring of the lines and the use of a single currency. In the cases we’ve been talking about, this doesn’t happen–the men aren’t having these kinds of conversations with those they’re pursuing, and insofar as they do have them the conversations aren’t feeling genuine to the victims–they aren’t feeling that they really can choose to say no to the sexual relationship without consequences in other areas.

This is the thing that so many of us need to learn–the wrongness of using or appearing to use friendly deeds and professional power to extract or demand sexual favours. It doesn’t mean we can’t date co-workers, but it does mean we have to be cognizant of the risk of exploiting or of appearing to exploit, particularly when we’re emotionally invested in the person we’re pursuing and our brains are foggy.

The stories we’re hearing in the press are exciting in the way that celebrity gossip often is, and perhaps they help us empathize with the victims in these cases, but they don’t accomplish their purpose unless they cause us to go have a think about what moral principles are at stake and come to a firm position of our own. When we’re not thinking straight because we’re around someone we fancy, we need premeditated moral principles to fall back on so we don’t hurt people or make them deeply uncomfortable. That’s true regardless of which particular celebrities are or are not guilty of this behavior. The principles don’t become more or less important because of whatever it was Aziz Ansari did or didn’t do.