An Open Letter to Margaret Atwood
by Kristin King
Dear Margaret Atwood,
In a recent op-ed, you asked the question: “Am I a bad feminist?” My short answer, from one feminist to another, is no. My longer answer is that the question itself turns what ought to be a dialogue into a bitter argument. This is poor feminist practice. Your response to #metoo activists similarly polarizes debate surrounding sexual harassment and abuse, when the conversation could instead have turned elicited insights. And strangely, your response inadvertently pulls from talking points that have been circulating recently as a result of a deliberate and misogynist public relations campaign.
However, the best part of feminism is our ability to learn from our disagreements. In the interest of furthering feminist solidarity and dialogue, I have some comments to make.
The good/bad feminist divide
Framing the issue as a Good Feminist / Bad Feminist one draws battle lines and sets you up for further attack. It puts on blinders and prohibits dialogue.
Let me offer a glimpse of my own perspective on the feminist movement, from someone who found feminism in the early 1990s. The first professor who taught me feminist theory was Katherine Stockton. She grounded me in queer issues, disability in the feminist movement, and more. And the next was my creative writing professor Colleen McElroy, who helped me start learning about race with authors such as bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa. My continuing self-education has also included the Combahee River Statement, which considered issues of race, class, and gender both together and separately.
So I didn’t participate in second-wave feminism, even though I certainly reaped its benefits. But I did watch a rift widen between second-and third-wave feminists. I have seen some second-wave feminists who have succeeded in their goals, perhaps have become acting CEOs in their own companies as you have done, dismiss feminists working intersectionally, viewing that practice as a distraction from the primary issue of male and female equality.
Skipping ahead to the present, I see that many millennial feminists are broke, can’t afford college, which isn’t going to get them good jobs anyhow. It’s not just that they don’t expect to reach the glass ceiling--they’re not even inside the building. They’re living in sleeping bags out in the cold.
So there are real divisions between women, based on their lived experiences, and those divisions can be and are being exploited by, in your words, “those who do not wish women well.”
Into this mix comes your op-ed and the language it uses. I see it using talking points that are also being pushed by corporately funded propaganda outlets posing as media. I assume this is unintentional, so a close examination of what I see might provide a beneficial learning opportunity.
Using the language of the far-right corporate patriarchy
First let’s take a peek at some of the underlying power dynamics .-The wealthiest and most powerful, white men of course, the patriarchy, are using their wealth to pay PR firms to design and push their talking points, which then end up in popular culture, our everyday conversations. Some of it is misogynist, but the primary goal, I believe, is the aim of holding on to money and power. Noam Chomsky articulated the basic problem of news propaganda back in 1992, in his book Manufacturing Consent, and many people have also been watching the idea of manufactured backlash, as in a recent Huffington Post article, “The Fake Feminism Of The #MeToo Backlash.” Unfortunately, in our current age, all manner of billionaires and corporations are using social media to spread propaganda that benefits them. And none of us is immune.
Within that context, I’ll put on my hat of “literary critic” and compare three texts: an article published on a news media site of unknown ownership, an article published by a P.R. company, and finally your op-ed.
On December 13, 2017, the article “The #MeToo Movement Is Destroying Trust Between Men And Women” by D.C. McAllister appeared in The Federalist online journal. The Federalist isn’t a news journal but a series of opinion pieces that feature classic examples of propaganda, such as glittering generalities, straw men, name-calling, deliberate vagueness, and a false framing of the narrative. The journal has a readership in the millions--a guarantee that the ideas it spreads will propagate widely. Who is funding this journal? That’s not so transparent. Reader beware.
On December 18th, 2017, another article appeared on another propaganda outlet, this one specifically targeted at feminists. The outlet was the site Spiked! Online, which has a long history of manipulating public dialogue, especially in the field of agricultural science. This history is readily available through SourceWatch or through research explained by George Monbiot. Its intention is also clearly laid out in their own words upon launch in 2000, available on the Wayback Machine, “nothing less than the creation of a new language for political, social and cultural writing in the twenty-first century.”
The article itself, “Meet the Women Worried about #MeToo,” includes short pieces written by thirteen different women and selected by an editor for the benefit of those funding the magazine.
A close read of both articles reveals common messages, or talking points, that the outlets want to spread to the public for general use. Each of these messages stops or deflects dialogue in some way. And each message is reflected in your own op-ed. I’ll just take three to examine: the witch-hunt metaphor, framing as a legal issue, and “real feminists.”
The metaphor of a witch-hunt and similar terms is a key weapon used against #metoo. Combing through through the two propaganda articles, it’s easy to find phrases like, “the sexual harassment witch-hunt,” “mob behavior,” “mass hysteria,” and “orgy of female victimhood,” as well as references to the beheadings that took place in the French Revolution.
This metaphor has an invisible payload of meaning, which is quite intentional on the part of propagandists. Witches don’t exist, and this implies by analogy sexual predators don’t either. Then there is the gendered component, which is perhaps the reason “witch hunt” is used rather than McCarthyism.
In your op ed, when you note that your accusers mistakenly “think I was comparing them to the teenaged Salem witchfinders and calling them hysterical little girls,” it’s worth going deeper and asking “Why do they think that?” I suggest it’s because somebody with money is pushing the witch-hunt metaphor in order to deliver that exact message.
Explaining what you did and did not mean by “witch hunt” doesn’t solve that problem, because the implication remains. A stronger move might involve hunting for a new metaphor, or simply diving into the specifics of the core issue with more concrete language.
Framing as a legal issue
Another propaganda talking point is framing an assault complaint as a legal issue and invoking the principles of “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty.” There’s a core of truth here: an accusation of anything requires fair consideration. But there’s also a big manipulation of language.
Going back to the propaganda articles, the Federalist article complains, “When anything from a naive touch during a photo shoot to an innocent attempt at a kiss is compared to rape” and “men never know when they will be presented at the court of injustice as a ‘sexual abuser’,” it is arguing by implication that an innocent kiss can get a man taken to court. The Spiked article makes similar connections, right down to requiring an act to be illegal before it’s called assault.
A legal framing puts blinders on us and asks us to ignore obvious facts. First, making a public complaint or talking to Human Resources is entirely different from filing criminal charges. Second, social media is not a court. Third, “innocent until proven guilty” is a high standard that our criminal justice system should, but does not often, provide. Fourth, although the government owes us “due process” in criminal cases, most people don’t actually expect it in the workplace. (Though we should.)
It’s worth taking a moment to explore due process in the workplace. All workers deserve a fair process before disciplinary action is taken, but most don’t get it. Most people have “at-will” employment, and they get fired all the time for getting sick, failing to smile . . . and for reporting sexual harassment and assault to HR. The remedy here is a grievance process that requires employers to establish “just cause” and for workers to have access to a grievance process.
Your op ed unfortunately fell into the trap of using a legal framing, and the focus on “due process” paved the road for an incomplete analysis of the situation. Your note that “[h]is faculty association launched a grievance that is continuing,” actually refers to a union grievance, which will indeed be heard and settled by a higher authority than the university. Because of his union membership, the professor has more due process than most people get. Further, although the workings of the university process are not publicly available, that does not automatically mean they were incorrect. The university is likely legally compelled to remain silent, and also, confidentiality protects both accused and accuser.
Is it possible to say what we mean without using legal metaphors? Definitely. For instance, perhaps “due process” is best when a case of assault is going to court, but “a grievance process” more accurately conveys what we need from other institutions and the community at large.
Another talking point, which is revealed in the Spiked article, pits “real” feminists against the rest. “Real” feminism is defined as fighting to be treated as equals in the workplace, empowering women as opposed to infantilizing them, and working together as “women and men of good will” to “fashion more equitable workplaces.” The past history of women dealing with harassment gets a new, macho spin, for “those of us who have spent years metaphorically kicking sex pests in the balls.” And the worry expressed is that all this fuss over harassment risks “turning the clock back on hard-won sexual equality.”
These statements divide women into two groups: the over-40 crowd who fought for and won equality and the strange younger demographic who thinks winking constitutes harassment, who are “fragile” and lack “robust common sense.”
This division helps nobody, and so it’s disturbing to see it reflected in your op ed, which ironically divides women into “Bad Feminists” (who are right) and “Good Feminists” (who are wrong). The wrong feminists “believe that women are children,” align politically with misogynists, want to take away fundamental justice from men, are “feeding into the very old narrative that holds women to be incapable of fairness,” are “giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision-making,” have an ideology, expect everyone to “puppet their views,” and are now participating in unproductive squabbling.
It might be more useful to think about good and bad feminist practice. Instead of calling names, a focus on practice opens a dialogue about what we are doing and why we are doing it. What constitutes good feminist practice to me? To you? Where are we similar and different?
How did this happen?
Your op-ed came at a key moment for the #metoo backlash and dovetailed with talking points that have been chosen by corporations whose business is public propaganda for the world’s most powerful men. Why? I speculate that somebody took advantage of the frustration you have been feeling over seeing a fellow novelist publicly attacked, and that after the talking points they were pushing had a time to saturate public dialogue, offered you the opportunity to put your words in print--but for their own cynical reasons.
That an author of highly revered feminist dystopia can be manipulated by patriarchy’s PR machine makes this a chilling moment for all of us. Time to step back and look at how social media is not only providing fake news but also twisting public dialogue as it comes out of our own mouths, turning thoughtful commentary into friendly fire.
The simplest solution to the problem of dialogue we don’t like is to ask everybody to “stop squabbling.” From your point of view, the angry #metoo activists should calm down and quit their witch-hunt. From my point of view, I’d prefer that you stop using the term witch-hunt. But both requests to silence speech are too easy, and they leave us open to yet more manipulation and pointless infighting.
A trickier but more powerful answer is for us to deepen the dialogue, to continue as feminists have always done and reach across divisions to find common ground. An example of such cross-generational discussion is “Feminists From Three Different Generations Talk Me Too,” which recently appeared on Vox.com. From a position of mutual solidarity, it is indeed possible for feminists to consider the issues on our own terms.
That brings me back to the issue at the heart of your op-ed--what #Metoo participants should and should not do.
How to stop sexual violence
The real question is not whether or not you are a good or bad feminist, or whether #Metoo posters represent a lynch mob, but what to do with the very real question of sexual violence in our communities.
One group that has been working on the problem for decades is women of color. In particular, a group called Incite! Women of Color Against Violence met in a founding conference in 2000 to discuss how to stop violence in their communities, and it branched off in many directions. A framework for community accountability emerged in 2003 with no clear answers but with groundbreaking ideas and questions. A lot of the strategies and terms that are now surprising many white people, such as “believe the survivor,” came out of that work. But it is a nuanced practice, including other concepts such as “impact versus intent” and sitting down with both parties. That’s very different from someone reflexively sending a “believe the survivor” tweet.
We have thorny problems to address, such as a conflict between transparency and confidentiality, and also between the need to believe the survivor and to follow a fair process. But I know from first-person experience that they are being addressed. I recently participated in a democratic discussion about how an organization might modify its complaints process to account for sexual harassment and abuse. Even though most of the people in the organization are men, the new survivor-focused process passed overwhelmingly. It looks like the world is ready for a change.
This is, as you say, an important moment in history.
Yours for the movement,
Works cited, and further reading
Atwood, Margaret. “Am I a Bad Feminist?” The Globe and Mail, 15 Jan. 2018, www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/am-i-a-bad-feminist/article37591823/.
Moraga Cherríe, and Anzaldúa Gloria. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. SUNY Press, 2015. Available at http://www.sunypress.edu/p-6102-this-bridge-called-my-back-four.aspx.
Anzaldúa Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Duke University Press, 2009. Available at https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-gloria-anzaldua-reader.
Combahee River Collective. “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” Released 1977, available on circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html.
“Manufacturing Consent.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_Consent.
Fallon, Claire. “The Fake Feminism Of The #MeToo Backlash.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Jan. 2018, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/metoo-backlash-feminism_us_5a621cf7e4b01d91b2552f26.
McAllister, D.C. “The #MeToo Movement Is Destroying Trust Between Men And Women.” The Federalist, FDRLST Media, 15 Dec. 2017, thefederalist.com/2017/12/13/metoo-movement-destroying-trust-men-women/.
“Meet the Women Worried about #MeToo.” Feminism | Spiked, Spiked Ltd, 18 Dec. 2018, www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/meet-the-women-worried-about-metoo/20639.
“Spiked Online.” SourceWatch, www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Spiked_Online.
Monbiot, George. “George Monbiot: Invasion of the Entryists.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Dec. 2003, www.theguardian.com/education/2003/dec/09/highereducation.uk2.
Elizabeth Velez, April Sizemore-Barber, and Hanna Chan. “Feminists from 3 Different Generations Talk #MeToo.” Vox, Vox, 31 Jan. 2018, www.vox.com/conversations/2018/1/31/16952380/me-too-second-third-wave-feminism-backlash.
“Community Accountability.” INCITE!, Incite National, incite-national.org/page/community-accountability.