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MeToo: Something new to say, or a new way to say it

Sexual misconduct by men against women is a tale as old as time.

Silhouette of a hand

Sexual misconduct by men against women is a tale as old as time. What’s new is how two related movements—Me Too and Time’s Up—have quickly become cultural shorthand for telling this story, and proven to have real consequences for those who commit sexual misconduct. The labels Me Too, with its sense of solidarity, and Time’s Up, with its sense of urgency, offer a framework for talking about, and acting on, the complex and longstanding problems of workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gendered power imbalances.

It’s a moment of reckoning.

For lawyers especially, it means reckoning with uncomfortable issues. Like the fact that the justice system doesn’t always provide satisfactory consequences when sexual misconduct occurs. (Or offer much in the way of preventing sexual misconduct before it happens.)

The justice system as traditionally understood doesn’t always find the truth, either, which is one reason Me Too and Time’s Up have been driven by media reporting rather than court proceedings.

These movements prioritize truth. In the justice system, truth is often competing with other values.

There are, of course, ethical (and often constitutional) arguments for taking on and zealously representing a client who’s been accused of sexual misconduct. But beyond these individual cases, we also have to reckon with the fact that the culture of our own profession largely remains a patriarchal one, perpetuating the same power structures that have in some respects enabled sexual misconduct to flourish.

As Erin Wunker defines it:

“Patriarchal culture is by definition a culture in which masculinity—in people and in things—is privileged as inherently foundational to other state of being. In a patriarchal culture, systems, institutions, and social interactions reinforce this hierarchy. When you live in a patriarchal culture, as in any culture, you begin learning its rules and regulations, as well as the way you fit into them, almost immediately. It’s important to note that patriarchal culture is not an equitable culture. It’s unfair for women and women-identified people, and it’s also unfair for men, though these unfairnesses are not the same, nor do all people experience them the same way. Like any culture or way of being, patriarchal culture appears to be inscrutable. It is so entrenched in our psyches and our ways of moving through the world that it seems impossible to change.”

Lawyers have to do double duty in responding to Me Too and Time’s Up: we need to examine the inequities of our own professional culture while also using our legal training to effect change more broadly.

Rebecca Bromwich recently wrote:

“Law has cultural power. When we represent people in advocacy, we also create representations, or depictions, of persons. These representations take on a cultural reality. They can confirm or challenge stereotypes. They create worlds.”

Bromwich powerfully concluded:

“Those of us in the Canadian legal profession can make 2018 a year of taking action toward more just and emancipatory lawyering. We are all more powerful than we think.”

I’m in.

But I know that when a cultural movement becomes hard work, it’s easy to lose momentum. The backlash pieces are already piling up. I recently heard “hashtag me too!” as the punchline of a joke that one male lawyer was telling another. (I didn’t hear the beginning of the joke; this was probably for the best.) Lots of folks are bored of hearing these headlines and wish the conversation would move on.

When it came time to write this, I even worried that I didn’t have anything new to say about condemning sexual misconduct and holding perpetrators accountable. But a realization followed: even if we’re saying the same thing over and over again, let’s keep saying it. Me Too and Time’s Up have given us the tools to keep the conversation going, and to keep the consequences coming.

Repetition is radical.

Because you know what? It just might work. Eventually.