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#MeToo and the Theory of Moral Relativity

At what point do we stop sacrificing survivors at the altar of the greater good? Is the silence of a few a worthy price to pay for the rousing cheers of the many?

In a recent New York Times piece, op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg talks about sexual  harassment allegations against New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, as a litmus test of  whether the #MeToo movement still has power. According to Goldberg, many Democrats do  not want to force Cuomo to resign and are inveighing that they are “sick of holding  themselves to a set of standards that Republicans feel no need to try to meet.” Goldberg’s assessment is that since the Republican Party has no compunctions in fraternising with  and even venerating known sexual harassers, the Democratic Party should follow suit and not  turn against their own, even if the allegations are credible and plentiful. This is a motte and  bailey fallacy—by not asking Cuomo to resign, Democrats aren’t defending sexual  harassment, they are merely pointing out Republican hypocrisy.

The Wrong Victims and the Right Perpetrators

This kind of hand-wringing and hesitation in supporting survivors and standing against  powerful abusers is a tale as old as misogyny. Among the many issues that people had to  grapple with when #MeToo first exploded was holding men who are considered as the “good  guys” accountable for their actions.

Now, in the post #MeToo reckoning phase, Goldberg’s rationale (it’s not made clear in her  article if she agrees with it) seems curious. Why should a party that is ostensibly pro #MeToo  dither in abjuring a known corrupt bully? Along with being accused of sexual harassment by three of his subordinates and unwanted physical touching by another woman, Cuomo was  embroiled in the case of thousands of underreported deaths in care home facilities. Her  argument essentially makes the application of core principles contingent upon the  opposition’s actions. So, if the Republicans choose to ignore Trump’s many acts of moral  turpitude, there’s no reason why Democrats should expect Cuomo to resign. This kind of  moral outsourcing is interesting because it allows morality itself to be determined by the  depravity of your worst enemies- a theory of moral relativity.

Ethical behavior is often afflicted with hypocrisies and double standards. One example is the  “wrong” kind of victim- should feminists refuse to give careful consideration when  allegations are levelled by those whose politics we find vile and reprehensible? In India, that  would be people like Payal Ghosh or Kangana Ranaut who have shared their stories of being  abused in the past. In that case, who is the arbiter of what constitutes the “right” kind of  politics?

Another example is the Republican Party’s cynical response towards Christine Blasey Ford’s  testimony against their Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The Democrats used the  same rhetoric when their own presidential nominee, Joe Biden, was accused of sexual assault  by Tara Reade. Both testimonies were tarred as having “inconsistencies” and nefarious  motivations by the other party. To anyone not immured within groupthink, the reception  accorded to both cases should have been, at a minimum, similar. In this game of hyper  partisanship, believing women becomes a political point to be scored to hurt the opposing  team, not because it is the right thing to do.

Women from marginalised groups have battled with such complexities for years- how do we  deal with a perpetrator from our communities in a way that ensures their gender doesn’t give  them a free pass and yet where their social location doesn’t affect a fair and unbiased  outcome? There are no easy answers, as many of us have realised—each case will need to be weighed and assessed according to its own merits. However, privileged men with the  perquisites of power are exempt from such nuanced considerations. Everyone deserves a fair  trial but does an ex-Vice President or a State Governor merit our fierce declamations and  furious defense?

Many are persuaded that in order to defeat someone as degenerate as Trump, it made sense to  ignore Biden’s “unproven” harassment. The justification would be that Biden’s conduct was supposedly not comparable to that of a known sexual predator like Bill Clinton and some comfort was drawn from the  notion that in today’s post #MeToo world,  Clinton would never pass muster and feminists wouldn't shield him as they did at the height of the Lewinsky affair. While this is highly debatable, the question  remains: at what point do we stop sacrificing survivors at the altar of the greater good? Is the silence of a few a worthy price to pay for the rousing cheers of the many?

Why our Principles Cannot Be Partisan

The question we need to ask ourselves: do our values hold internal consistency and external  predictability? Do we intend to apply them in a fair and equal manner irrespective of internal  conflicts and outside pressure? Or is it merely a cudgel, a weapon to be deployed against  those that are in opposition to the values that we claim to profess? Because if we are against  all forms of abuse, the political leanings of the victim and the perpetrator should be irrelevant  as should the reaction of our adversaries. Integrity, after all, should be a prerequisite for  claiming the moral high ground and values should not become a protean commodity,  customised to fit the person on whom you are applying it. Rather in its steadfastness and  reliability, our political response should be like a lifeguard whose job is to save the drowning  person, irrespective of ideologies and beliefs. Personal politics doesn’t preclude one from  being at the giving or receiving end of abuse.

Because what good are our principles if they are easily compromised by personal allegiances  and hermetic group loyalties? Can they even be called principles in that case? Not every  victim will always be in your team and the perpetrator will sometimes have more in common  with you than you would like them to. Often, it will be someone as odious as Trump but it could also be a woman who writes poetry and works for the rights of the LGBTQ community.

As for Goldberg’s assertion that the fallout from the Cuomo scandal will determine if  #MeToo still has power—movements emerge and evolve over time and cannot be reduced to  the outcome of one incident. The power of MeToo isn’t contingent upon one abuser being  held accountable. #MeToo’s impact was always measured in terms of the empowerment of survivors to finally speak up. Its staying power will be shaped by the many it continues to  inspire.