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Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies
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Me too, #MeToo: countering cruelty with empathy
Michelle Rodino-Colocino
To cite this article: Michelle Rodino-Colocino (2018) Me too, #MeToo: countering
cruelty with empathy, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 15:1, 96-100, DOI:
10.1080/14791420.2018.1435083
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2018.1435083
Published online: 29 Mar 2018.
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Me too, #MeToo: countering cruelty with empathy
Michelle Rodino-Colocino
Department of Film, Video and Media Studies and Womens, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Penn State
University, University Park, PA, USA
Critical and cultural studies scholars have long debated the promise and perils of pressing
empathy, the sensation of shared feelings and experiences, into toppling systems of
oppression and its attendant cruelty.
1
The aim of this essay is not to discuss the contours
of these debates in the abstract. Instead, I consider how Tarana BurkesMe Toomove-
ment, which seeks empowerment through empathy,counters the cruelty of sexual har-
assment and assault, both of which Donald Trump has been accused of committing. The
cruelty with which Trump forges policy and references women constitutes public cruelty
that Judith Shklar theorizes as the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily
emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve
some end, tangible or intangible.
2
Public cruelty, furthermore, is made possible by differ-
ences in public power, and it is almost always built into the system of coercion upon which
all governments have to rely to fulfill their essential functions.
3
The following essay con-
siders how Burkes Me Too and its contributions to liberation via #MeToo and Times Up
challenge the very systems of power that underlie harassment, discrimination, and assault
by promoting empathy from the ground up (among individuals and in our political-econ-
omic system).
Organizing movements on the basis of empathy are both promising and risky endea-
vors. It is risky because activists may mobilize what Megan Boler calls passive
empathy.
4
Passive empathy is predicated on an irreducible differencea recognition
that I am not you,Boler argues, and empathy is possible only by virtue of this distinc-
tion.
5
Such empathy is passivein that it enables oppressors, and even oppressed people,
to project feelings of commonality, understanding, as well as fear and guilt rather than do
the work of being self-reflexive. Passive empathy is the feeling of being in anothers shoes
without the risk of actually doing so. Thus, as Sarah Ahmed argues, empathy sustains the
very difference that it may seek to overcome.
6
Furthermore, passive empathy, especially
that which develops in the Twittersphere, may enable a consumption of the other,
7
similar to the process of eating the otherthat bell hooks has theorized whereby margin-
alized people are viewed as exotic others to be consumed by gazing oppressors.
8
Or as
Clare Hemmings puts it, Empathy may lead to sentimental attachment to the other,
rather than a genuine engagement with her concerns, then; or worse, it may signal a can-
nibalization of the other masquerading as care.
9
Consequently, passive empathy frus-
trates social justice movement building because [p]assive empathy produces no action
towards justice but situates the powerful Westerneye/I as the judging subject, never
called upon to cast her gaze at her own reflection.
10
© 2018 National Communication Association
CONTACT Michelle Rodino-Colocino michelle@psu.edu; rocofem@gmail.com
COMMUNICATION AND CRITICAL/CULTURAL STUDIES, 2018
VOL. 15, NO. 1, 96100
https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2018.1435083
The empathy that Me Too advances, however, is transformativerather than
passive.
11
Transformative empathypromotes listening rather than distancing or
looking at speakers as others.It requires self-reflexivity and potential transformation
of ones own assumptions. The empathy for which Tarana Burke calls makes space for
anger and rage that victim-survivors feel. Burke launched the Me Too campaign in
2006 to achieve empowerment through empathyfor sexual assault survivors. Burke
had been inspired to develop programing and raise awareness and connection between
survivors via Me Too after coming to terms with her own sexual assault and in regretting
a decision to cut off a conversation initiated by a 13-year-old girl who shared her story of
being molested. The girls revelation happened at a JustBe youth camp, a program that
Burke founded and where she also worked as a counselor.
12
Burkes desire to communi-
cate such empathy prompted her to found Me Too:
I will never forget the look [on the girls face] because I think about her all of the time. The
shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed
againit was all on her face. And as much as I love children, as much as I cared about that
child, I could not find the courage that she had found. I could not muster the energy to tell
her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain I watched her put her
mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldnt even bring
myself to whisper me too.
13
Burke, then, denes empathy as that feeling of sharing an experience, of being in ones
same shoes. By rst connecting between counselors, girls, and young women of color,
Me Toos programing, counseling, and advocacy seek to equip girls with knowledge
and skills they need to thriveas sexual assault survivors. Victim-survivors, the
mission statement underscores, often feel alone, isolated, ashamed of, and blamed for
the assault. Thus, Me Toos aim of fostering empathy between survivors can empower
individuals to begin healing from sexual assault: One of the main goals of The me too
Movementis to give young women, particularly young women of color from low
wealth communities, a sense of empowerment from the understanding that they are not
alone in their circumstances.
14
Some communities encourage women of color to stay
silent, not seek counseling from rape crisis centers, and not report offenses to law enforce-
ment.
15
Crisis centersfailure to do outreach heightens these victimsisolation. Thus, for
low-income survivors of color, The power of empathy is sorely undervalued.
16
As the
movements mission explains,
[T]here is nothing as powerful as knowing that you are not alone. The sooner young women
understand that they are not an anomaly, the sooner they can begin their healing process.
This is at the heart of The me too Movement. Survivors reaching out to those who
dont understand they are survivorsand helping them to feel whole again.
17
Me Too as a movement based on empowerment through empathyseeks to help survi-
vors gain power as individuals, to feel whole.
The movement has a second mission: to become an agent for exposing systems of
oppression and privilege of which sexual harassment and assault are cause and effect.
Me Toos incarnation as a hashtag imperiled and reinforced Burkes commitment to focus-
ing the conversation on power and privilege.
18
Understanding the context of #MeToos
genesis is important to understanding how Burke re/mobilized this commitment as the
hashtag gained publicity. Approximately one year after the tape of Trumps claiming to
COMMUNICATION AND CRITICAL/CULTURAL STUDIES 97
grab [women] by the pussysurfaced, and in the midst of over 80 women coming forward
to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, and rape (in addition to similar
accusations made against powerful men in Hollywood and Washington), actress Alyssa
Milano tweeted that survivors of harassment and assault should tweet MeToo.”“If all
the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote Me tooas a status,
Milano tweeted, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Media following Milanos viral #MeTootweet credited the actress with launching
sexual assault into the Twittersphere, but early media did not credit Burke for Me
Toosconciseexpression of empathy between survivors.
19
On social media, Burke
immediately discussed her own work that Milano quickly credited.
As media coverage of the tweet escalated, Burke and other activists contextualized
#MeToo as part of a broader counter-white-supremacist-patriarchal movement with a
history that includes but long precedes Trumps presidency. This history, Burke told
The Nations Elizabeth Adetiba, demands centering marginalized communities in public
discourse to heal individuals and highlight systems of oppression that sexual violence
serves:
There are nuances in our community around sexual violence that are informed by centuries
of oppression and white supremacy, but we have to confront them. Across the board theres
shame, but in our community theres shame on top of fear on top of ostracizationthere are
layers of things we have to unpack.
20
This history also demands that Me Too heal individuals and make systemic interventions.
As Alicia Garza, one of the founding organizers of Black Lives Matter (also launched in
social media), told Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now!
This kind of patriarchal violence really functions off of shame and silence
[T]he power of this movement of Me Too,this power of empathy, this power of connec-
tion, is really about empowering people to be survivors, to be resilient, and also to make really
visible that sexual violence is not about peoples individual actions, that this is a systemic
problem that then requires different types of responses to deal with how systemic this
problem actually is.
21
Burke concurs, No matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they
[media in coverage of #MeToo] keep bringing it back to individuals It defeats the
purpose to not have those folks centeredIm talking black and brown girls, queer
folks.
22
Me Too advances empathy in ways that promise to be more transformative and expan-
sive then #MeToo. Burke argues for attending to perpetrators as one goal of the move-
mentsrestorativeand transformative justice.Many perpetrators are also survivors
of sexual abuse, Burke emphasizes, especially child sexual assault. Thus, empathy for
victim-survivors extends to perpetrators who may lack means of coping with the
trauma. If were ever going to heal in our community,Burke argues, we have to heal
the perpetrators and heal the survivors, or else its just a continuous cycle.
23
Such healing also has potential to upend the very systems of power that enable and operate
through sexual harassment and assault. Me Too, both the hashtag and wider movement that
it represents, promotes healing by creating affective solidarityamong victim-survivors that
may inspire action.
24
Empathy that incites one to action,according to Arundhati Roy, may
98 M. RODINO-COLOCINO
lead to the very passion,”“incandescent anger,and wild indignationthat fuels Me Too
past its hashtag moment to pierce Trumps cruelty and come out the other side ofand
indeed outlasthis presidency without losing momentum.
25
Whereas Trumps cruelty
seeks to legitimize and actualize white supremacist patriarchal power, Me Toosand
#MeToos mobilization of empathy counters the othering, distancing, and ultimately, the
unequal relations of power that sexual assault symptomatizes and reinforces.
Me Too and #Me Too have inspired activism aimed at systemic change in the Times
Upmovement (reinforced with a hashtag) that emerged in the first days of 2018. Building
on the voices that constitute Me Too, #Me Too, and taking inspiration from the 700,000
farmworker women who signed a statement of solidarity with Hollywood women who
shared their Me Too testimonials, Times Up seeks to fund legal action against perpetrators
of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault. Times Up aims to end the silence and
shame of victim-survivorship and promote equal pay across industries. Times Up is taking
such actions because it views sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault as means and
symptoms of systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace that have kept underre-
presented groups from reaching their full potential.
26
Thus, what began as a project
seeking empowerment through empathyhas very clearly become a movement to chal-
lenge structures of patriarchal oppression.
It is also worth considering that whereas empathy may be the starting point for struc-
tural change, structural change may also advance empathy for girls and women of color
who are victim-survivors. Jane Fondas piece on #MeToo in The Nation that envisions
the movement beyond Hollywoodcalls for structural change to end sexual harassment
and assault. Citing the case of food servers, Fonda discusses the impact of moving tip
workersthe majority of whom are womeninto minimum waged work. The seven
states in the United States that made this structural reform cut sexual abuse of female
food servers in half. The very structure of the tip makes women vulnerable to mens
sexual abuse and to womens silence. When power and salaries are equal,Fonda
argues, women are less vulnerable and men are forced to behave.
27
Perhaps making
additional economic reforms that will raise the political-economic power of women and
girls of color in particular can further reduce rates of sexual harassment and assault. As
Ibram X. Kendi argues in his forceful Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive
History of Racist Ideas in America, racist ideologies follow oppressive systems; they are
put in place to justify the cruelty of the oppressors.
28
Perhaps Me Toos and TimesUps capacity to generate empathy will bear even more
fruit with more and deeper structural changes to our political economic system. Achieving
these means creating a political economic system that does not extract from the bodies of
marginalized communities to enhance the power of elites. Perhaps we need to create an
economy that listens to the various needs of its participants. This would be an economy
predicated on the principles of transformative empathy. An empathetic political
economy can fully counter the cruelty of sexual harassment and assault, the cruelty of
Trumps political agenda, and the cruelty of silenced victims.
Notes
1. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2014);
M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mo hanty, ed., Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies,
COMMUNICATION AND CRITICAL/CULTURAL STUDIES 99
Democratic Futures (New York: Routledge, 2013); Megan Boler, The Risks of Empathy: Interro-
gating MulticulturalismsGaze,Cultural Studies 11 (1997): 25373; Maggie Caygill and Pavitra
Sundar, Empathy and Antiracist Feminist Coalitional Politics,Rain and Thunder: A Radical
Feminist Journal of Discussion & Activism 23 (2004), http://www.feminist-reprise.org/docs/
caygillsundar.htm (accessed December 27, 2017); Kimberly Chabot Davis, Oprahs Book Club
and the Politics of Cross-Racial Empathy,International Journal of Cultural Studies 7 (2004):
399419; Clare Hemmings, Affective Solidarity: Feminist Reflexivity and Political Transform-
ation,Feminist Theory 13 (2012): 14761; Rebeccah J. Nelems, What is This Thing Called
Empathy?At the Interface/Probing the Boundaries 92 (2017): 1738.
2. Judith Shklar, The Liberalism of Fear,in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy
L. Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 2138.
3. Ibid.
4. Boler, The Risks of Empathy,256.
5. Ibid.
6. Ahmed, Cultural Politics, 30.
7. Boler, The Risks of Empathy,258.
8. bell hooks, Eating the Other,in Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routlege,
1992), 2140.
9. Hemmings, Affective Solidarity,152.
10. Boler, The Risks of Empathy,259.
11. Ibid.
12. JustBes mission focuses on the health, well being and wholeness of young women of color.
JustBEInc, Purpose,http://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/purpose-mission-and-vision
(accessed December 27, 2017). Burkes Me Too movement follows the pioneering African
American women seeking legal remedy for sexual harassment in the 1970s and Anita
Hills 1991 public testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
13. JustBEInc, The Inception,http://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/the-me-too-movement-
cmml (accessed December 27, 2017).
14. JustBEInc, The Movement,http://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/the-me-too-movement-
c7cf (accessed January 12, 2018).
15. JustBe, The Inception; Elizabeth Adetiba, Tarana Burke Says #MeToo Should Center Mar-
ginalized Communities,The Nation, November 17, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/
article/tarana-burke-says-metoo-isnt-just-for-white-people/ (accessed December 27, 2017).
16. JustBEInc, The Movement.
17. Ibid. The trademark symbol emphasizes that JustBE pioneered the movement behind the
phrase me too.
18. Adetiba, Tarana Burke Says.
19. Meet Tarana Burke, Activist Who Started Me TooCampaign to Ignite Conversation About
Sexual Assault,Democracy Now! October 17, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/
10/17/meet_tarana_burke_the_activist_who (accessed December 27, 2017).
20. Adetiba, Tarana Burke Says.
21. Meet Tarana Burke,Democracy Now!
22. Adetiba, Tarana Burke Says.
23. Ibid.
24. Hemmings, Affective Solidarity; Boler, The Risks of Empathy.
25. Caygil and Sundar, Empathy and Antiracist,5. See also Arundhati Roy, Power Politics: The
Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin (Kottayam: DC Books, 2001).
26. Megan Garber, Is this the Next Step for the #MeToo Movement?The Atlantic, January 2,
2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/beyond-metoo-can-
times-up-effect-real-change/549482/ (accessed January 11, 2018); Times Up Now,
https://www.timesupnow.com/ (accessed January 11, 2018).
27. Jane Fonda, Beyond Hollywood,The Nation, January 1/8, 2018, 23.
28. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in
America (New York: Nation Books, 2016).
100 M. RODINO-COLOCINO
... Consent was in the news a lot when, in 2017, the MeToo movement achieved international prominence after having been in circulation since 2006 in the work of African American feminist Tarana Burke (see Mendes et al., 2018;Rodino-Colocino, 2018). The recent public discussions about sexual harassment in the workplace, and sexual assault more broadly, mark an important cultural moment-yes, it happens! ...
... The focus is on individual intention rather than the culture that authorizes the treatment of females as objects for heteronormative male gratification. This greatly reduces the change that can come out of a mainstream conversation in American society about what it is like to navigate the public realm in a female or feminized body (see Rodino-Colocino, 2018). But the workings of rape culture do not stay only in the public realm, and its consequences are not only patently, violently egregious. ...
... Others are concerned with algorithmic marketing in politics (Benkler et al., 2018;Jamieson, 2018). Some scholars have documented digital communication making connections across diverse registers (Boyle et al., 2018, p. 258) and others examine the new possibilities afforded social movements online (Ferrari, 2018;Packer & Reeves, 2013;Rodino-Colocino, 2018;Seiffert-Brockmann et al., 2018;Tolson, 2010). Many have documented new ways to express identity and find connections (Brock, 2012(Brock, , 2020Florini, 2019;Grabill & Pigg, 2012;Gray, 2009;Steele, 2018). ...
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The Liberalism of Fear
  • Judith Shklar
Judith Shklar, "The Liberalism of Fear," in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 21-38.
The Risks of Empathy
  • Boler
Boler, "The Risks of Empathy," 258.
Affective Solidarity
  • Hemmings
Hemmings, "Affective Solidarity," 152.
  • Justbeinc
JustBEInc, "The Movement," http://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/the-me-too-movementc7cf (accessed January 12, 2018).
The trademark symbol emphasizes that JustBE pioneered the movement behind the phrase "me too
  • Ibid
Ibid. The trademark symbol emphasizes that JustBE pioneered the movement behind the phrase "me too."
Meet Tarana Burke, Activist Who Started 'Me Too' Campaign to Ignite Conversation About Sexual Assault
  • Adetiba
Adetiba, "Tarana Burke Says." 19. "Meet Tarana Burke, Activist Who Started 'Me Too' Campaign to Ignite Conversation About Sexual Assault," Democracy Now! October 17, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/ 10/17/meet_tarana_burke_the_activist_who (accessed December 27, 2017).