A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
October, that long-gone month, saw the #metoo campaign sweep across screens in the Netherlands and beyond. After Weinstein, and the following Hollywood purge, women began using social media to publicise how terribly unexceptional sexual harassment and assault is. Being online, there is a lot of talk about the movement’s effectiveness. There are also, unfortunately, debates about its legitimacy. I don’t want to delve into either. Instead, I want to quickly describe some of its effects at Leiden University College in The Hague, some marvelous reactions from students and some things we might be able to learn.
One of the startling things about the #metoo campaign was the radical difference between online discussions and discussions in real life. Thankfully the comments I saw on personal posts about sexual abuse experiences were kind and compassionate. But on anonymous platforms, less personalised places, discussions were far from kind or compassionate. LUC students have an anonymous platform where they can voice grievances, and the conversations here were impatient, accusatory and divisive.
There’s a clear structural reason for why people become more hostile and less patient online. As Paul Lewis points out for The Guardian, social media sites, and the content on them, compete to grab our attention. They expose us more than ever to the emotive and sensational. And it is too easy for us to succumb to this competition in the content we produce and share. It’s worth thinking over the words of an ex-Google strategist who says, “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium.”
If we agree with this then Facebook is either pitting us against one another or, at the very least, discouraging thoughtful, compassionate and reflective responses; attitudes that this issue especially demands.
During the virtual bickering and slandering, however, a group of people decided that sexual abuse and harassment needs to be brought out in an open face-to-face space. Organising through Facebook, they made an open call for volunteers, held a brainstorming session about how to create said space, and then booked the college’s auditorium to make it happen.
(disclaimer: I couldn’t attend so the rest is based on hearsay)
The contrast between the real-life discussion and the online discussion was incredible. Around 100 students on a Wednesday afternoon listened attentively to a panel discuss #metoo and sexual abuse generally from many different angles. The moderators began by showing some anonymous online comments, ranging from, “The embarrassment and fear that stops even very open-minded people speaking out about what happened to them needs to be discussed”, to “I am not against #metoo and I obviously think sexism is a bad thing. However, this to me feels more like a public witch hunt for the male species. It is incredibly annoying to be part of the group that is labeled “guilty” while you didn’t do anything wrong yourself.”
The floor was then opened up to anyone with an opinion of how LUC as a community can come together to ‘solve’ these issues. Participants thought carefully and compassionately about what they were saying. Many left the panel feeling far closer to victims of sexual abuse as well as more understanding of those who feel uncomfortable about the campaign.
There is this fear, very much shared by the organisers beforehand, that the panel discussion would create a tense atmosphere where those who don’t entirely agree with the campaign felt intimidated to speak. The irony of this fear is sadly not that novel. Although traditionally, and still most dominantly, the range of silenced voices weighs mostly on women, to be uncritical of the reverse happening is foolish.
Social media, for all its downsides, can perhaps be helpful bringing unorthodox opinions to the surface. It also allowed the movement to reach further than it may have otherwise. But this will always only be a starting point, it cannot and should not replace face-to-face discussion.
LUCs #metoo panel proved, if nothing else, that these topics become real once they are aired publicly. Digital technology can make us feel like we are playing a game, where our discussion partners online are enemies to beat. If you care about making these problems visible don’t silence the vitriolic voices online, pay attention to social media pitting us against one another, but mostly, create real spaces for conversations and invite as many people as you can.