When #MeToo goes too far
For the first time, the #MeToo movement has taken down a man who was accused not of sexual harassment or assault but of failing to respond to someone else's bad behavior with sufficient gravity and moral outrage.
I'm talking about Ian Buruma, who stepped down on Wednesday as editor of The New York Review of Books. Buruma acted foolishly. He showed poor editorial judgment. He acted insensitively. But he did not harass or abuse anyone.
His fall gives us a glimpse of where #MeToo may be going as the list of men accused of committing egregious acts of injustice against women grows ever longer, the justified indignation about those acts rises ever higher, and the hothouse of social media produces ever more frenzied Twitter mobs out to exact revenge for perceived transgressions.
Buruma became collateral damage in the quest for sexual justice because of the fallout from commissioning and publishing (as part of a package of three articles on the subject of "The Fall of Men") a lengthy essay by Canadian musician and media personality Jian Ghomeshi about his experience of being fired from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in October 2014 and enduring its aftermath.
As a lengthy correction now appended to the article explains, the CBC fired Ghomeshi after several harassment complaints had been filed against him, and "after executives saw evidence that he had caused physical harm to a woman." Before long "more than 20 women accused him of sexual abuse and harassment, which included hitting, biting, choking, and verbal abuse during sex." He was eventually charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and acquitted. One additional charge of sexual assault was settled out of court with a peace bond and a public apology.
Few of these details were recounted in Ghomeshi's essay for the NYRB. Instead, the piece contained numerous lies and half-truths that had the cumulative effect of significantly minimizing the seriousness of the charges made against him by a grand total of 24 women. Publishing the essay in that form was a serious editorial error on Buruma's part. But more than demonstrating his own ignorance of the facts of the case, it was displaying what sounded in places like outright indifference to them in an interview with Slate's Isaac Chotiner that did the most damage.
Still, the swiftness of Buruma's departure from the magazine is surprising. Editors make mistakes. Normally a slip — even a major screw-up — on a single article would not rise to the level of a fireable offense. But these are not normal times in our culture. On the contrary, these are times when certain errors matter far more than others. And showing inadequate levels of outrage about bad male behavior toward women — let alone reducing the severity of the reaction to a typically American penchant for "hysteria" going back to the Salem witch trials, as Buruma did in a December 2017 interview with Spanish-language newspaper El País — may be one of the very worst and least forgivable.
Now, Buruma's departure from the NYRB isn't an offense against free speech, as some have claimed. Buruma wasn't arrested or tried by the state for a "speech crime." He was let go for running afoul of the informal norms that always prevail in civil society, establishing what is and what is not acceptable to say in public and publish in the pages of a respected and influential magazine. These informal norms are not stable over time, and they are shifting dramatically at the present when it comes to expectations about how men treat women, in the workplace and elsewhere, and how society responds to this treatment. Judging from evidence of male behavior — up to and including the alleged actions of the man currently up for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the United States — many of these changes are fully justified and long overdue.
The question, though, is whether the new informal norms of punishment fit present and future transgressions — whether a man who harasses or abuses women but isn't criminally convicted for his alleged behavior should be permanently excommunicated and exiled from the culture, and more pertinently, whether someone who, like Buruma, transgresses against this expectation of exile and excommunication by publishing something by the alleged perpetrator should face his own informal retribution.
An added complication of the Buruma-Ghomeshi case is the sheer number of accusers, the violence they allege, the dishonesty of Ghomeshi's portrayal of the charges against him, and Buruma's seeming absence of concern (in the Slate interview) with that dishonesty. From his comments to Chotiner, it would appear that Buruma published the essay despite all of that — simply because he thought Ghomeshi's account of his own exile and excommunication (especially when published alongside two complimentary essays on related themes) had value and added to our understanding of this cultural and moral moment. As he put it in the interview,
I am not a judge of exactly what [Ghomeshi] did. All I know is that he was acquitted and he is now subject to public opprobrium and is a sort of persona non grata in consequence. The interest in the article for me is what it feels like in that position and what we should think about. [Slate]
And that appears to be the heart of the matter. Buruma made a serious editorial misjudgment. But he became the focus of intense fury on Twitter and was fired for something else — for displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi's actions, and for seeing value in using Ghomeshi's personal experience as an occasion for thinking about an aspect of the subject without first and foremost engaging in scorched-earth excoriation.
That is what is fast becoming unacceptable. And it is what is likely to take down quite a few more powerful men before this cultural moment comes to an end. Not for harassing or assaulting women. But for failing to respond with adequate severity to the men who do.