About nine months after the #MeToo movement against sexual violence took America by storm and spread around the world, few would disagree that it has accomplished real gains — notably, shining the light of day on wrongdoing by powerful abusers who were once shielded by their status.
But from the start, #MeToo skeptics — myself included — have warned about the danger of equating accusation with guilt and blowing trivial misdeeds or misunderstandings out of proportion. Now, the voices of skepticism are growing louder, and some say that #MeToo may have reached a turning point in judging complaints more carefully. If so, it’s about time.
The latest #MeToo rethinking has been prompted by the accusations that nearly torpedoed the career of Junot Díaz, the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American novelist. In May, when Díaz spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia, writer Zinzi Clemmons confronted him about his alleged abusive sexual behavior toward her six years ago. A few hours later, Clemmons, who teaches writing at Occidental College in Los Angeles, amplified her allegations on Twitter, claiming that when she was a 26-year-old graduate student at Columbia University and invited Díaz to speak at a workshop, he “used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss” her. She also said Díaz had “exploited” other young women.
Writers Monica Byrne and Carmen Maria Machado spoke up on Twitter to support Clemmons with accounts of what they considered verbal abuse and misogynistic behavior by Díaz. Byrne said he yelled at her when they had an argument at a dinner. Machado claimed that when she questioned Díaz about his character’s treatment of women during a book-tour appearance, he responded with “a blast of misogynist rage and public humiliation.”
Díaz withdrew from the festival and issued a vaguely contrite statement taking “responsibility” for his past and affirming the importance of teaching men about “consent and boundaries.” Some stores dropped his books. The Boston Review, where he is an editor, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches, announced an investigation into the charges against him. It seemed that his downfall would soon be complete.
But events took a different turn, particularly after an audio recording of Díaz’s exchange with Machado was posted online and showed something different from her account. There was no rage or bullying; Díaz sounded a bit defensive but polite. Machado was reduced to arguing that the audio didn’t “reflect body language or atmosphere” and that those who thought it was benign were not good at “reading subtext.”
Meanwhile, many women who knew Díaz came to his defense. Clemmons’ accusation was contradicted by a friendly email she sent Díaz after the workshop, making no mention of a kiss. A Columbia professor recalled seeing her after the event and, according to a report in The Boston Globe, “described her as delighted, not shaken.” (In his interview with the Globe, Díaz was adamant that he never kissed Clemmons and more or less repudiated his semi-apology; while Clemmons reiterated her claim, she refused to clarify whether the alleged kiss was on the mouth.)
Last month, both MIT and the Boston Review announced that Díaz was keeping his posts and that the claims against him did not warrant dismissal. This is the first high-profile exoneration of a man facing #MeToo accusations — a development that, as The Boston Globe story notes, reverses the familiar script.
Many will continue to see Díaz as an abuser and misogynist who got away with it. Yet to others, the real lesson is that we should beware of the rush to judge.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.