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Constructing revolution from redemption: the #MeToo movement in retrospect

October 26, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Molly Kennedy

On October 10, New Yorker columnist Jia Tolentino extracted one of the #MeToo movement’s many tenuous threads in her piece, “One Year of #MeToo: What Women’s Speech Is Still Not Allowed to Do.” Tolentino reflects on the one-year anniversary of #MeToo, but with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh still raw and national discourse no less barbarous or reliant on an attack/defense binary (to reference a certain op-ed published in the Orient a few weeks ago) she is hesitant to rejoice, as are many of us.

Tolentino’s article dovetails with a debate that has been developing over the past few weeks in my class, “Theories About Religion.” While reading theorists like Victor Turner and Catherine Bell on the power and social function of ritual, we have been contending with what one of my classmates described as the “fetishization of the liminal.” ?That is, the romanticization of a marginalized social position as a sort of attractive alternative to real, societal power. Think: the romanticization of the nobility and spirituality First Nations peoples while they are afforded minimal representation in the U.S. government. The two forms of power, in short, are not legitimately parallel.

An examination of Turner further highlights both the disenfranchisement and demoralization many are feeling in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation and the hope and empowerment that #MeToo can offer in response. Moreover, an analysis of Turner sharpens Tolentino’s critique of the valorization of anti-structural empowerment as a viable alternative to institutional power for women.

This “fetishization of the liminal” has two major goals. First, it aims to placate those who truly occupy the margins of society with a concept of anti-structural power that carries no real social currency. Second, as Tolentino’s article illuminates, it aims to package the experience of the persecuted into a narrative through which those who truly possess power can escape the consequences of their actions. The sheep are skinned so that the wolf may present himself to them in their own clothing.

Tolentino uses the example of “men like Kavanaugh” who embrace the role of the persecuted outcast and, thus emboldened, use this position to further marginalize their accusers, who truly occupy these liminal spaces in society. While Dr. Ford was encouraged to be polite, restrained, deferential, Kavanaugh’s upsettingly erratic testimony uplifted “demoralized Republicans,” as New York Times contributors Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos write. The valorization of the “martyr,” Tolentino argues, has serious consequences—the rhetoric of victimhood is made available as a means of redemption for the very people who oppress marginalized groups.

Turner’s work on liminality and communitas gains valuable significance in light of Tolentino’s argument. In “The Ritual Process,” Turner outlines the dichotomy between “structure,” in this case the prevailing social order and hierarchical system, and “anti-structure,” where rituals of transition or social elevation occur in the carefully regulated “liminal.” Within the realm of the liminal, communitas, a kind of solidarity of marginalization, is cultivated. This solidarity then facilitates the transition back into structure, with the participants “revitalized by their experience of communitas.”

One of Turner’s conclusions, derived in part from this notion of communitas, is to equate “secular” or social “weakness” with a “sacred power” possessed in ritual practice. Herein lies the “fetishization of the liminal” that Tolentino’s article clearly identifies as a jeopardy to true social change—extra-societal, “sacred power” that cannot carry any real weight once participants “return to structure.” For Tolentino, the sacrality of female solidarity in the secular realm becomes a “poisonous high of feeling wrongfully endangered” that empowers women’s oppressors. Redemption for #MeToo seems to offer an out for those the movement is trying to hold accountable.

Catherine Bell, whose infamous “Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice” I’m told elicits a collective groan from most scholars of religion, advances a term that further contextualizes Turner’s framework and speaks to Tolentino’s frustration and cynicism: “redemptive hegemony.”

Bell’s term “redemptive hegemony” refers to the structures of power that fabricate reality and make this active construction into “the way things are.” The redemptive aspect comes into play when the “day-to-day” is naïvely seen instead “as a field for strategic action.” Bell suggests that many people misunderstand the degree of agency they have in their lives, that this “experience” of empowerment is in fact a fallacy. The term illuminates the conciliatory tone of assertions like Turner’s, that marginalization can become empowering.

The goal of this assertion, especially when weaponized by government officials, is to force those on the margins of society to fabricate power from thin air and to stay where they belong. If people feel as though they have a choice, the reality of their powerlessness can be obscured with a veil of optimism. This leads to the pacification of those content to remain in this “redemptive” realm and allows for those in positions of power to gain even more legitimacy in appropriating the narrative of the weak.

“By imagining that they are threatened,” Tolentino writes, “men like Kavanaugh have found the motivation to demonstrate, at great cost to the rest of us, that they are still the ones who have the ability to threaten others.”

I seem to have constructed a pretty cynical assessment of the limits of #MeToo. However, the exhaustion and pitfalls of cynicism that—especially now—are tempting to succumb to, are a reality of any movement towards liberation and empowerment and should be acknowledged. Talking openly about the difficulties of remaining positive and energized instead of spackling them over with hashtags and pithy sayings is what allows a movement to become genuine and cultivates a solidarity that can transform into radical action. For while this rather somber assessment points out the remnants of older power constructions that are still present in our society, I want to also argue that some elements retain their value and shouldn’t be underestimated. Turner’s idea of communitas can in today’s world be most succinctly summarized in two words: “me, too.” These words have deepened the bond between me and many women I love in ways none of us had anticipated over this past year—I am in no way arguing that the words themselves are powerless.

I am suggesting that if these words remain within a larger framework of “redemptive hegemony,” content to stop at solidarity within the liminal as their end goal, optimism will quickly fade to hollow hope. Exploring liminal spaces as forms of resistance does have potential, but as with other aspects of the #MeToo movement, illuminated in Tolentino’s article, it must be approached with a degree of caution and intention so that redemption may be transformed into revolution.

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