#MeToo: On Backlash and Burnout

Natalee Caple

Backlash against the #MeToo movement had to come—it is part of a recognizable cycle in social change:

(1) A long period of people individually speaking out.

(2) Organization of groups of people who press for systemic overhaul without a pathway to change.

(3) A build-up of stress and of related events that don't yet register as part of a whole.

(4) A watershed moment where some undeniable large-scale event (Harvey Weinstein) links to the build-up of stress, and the general public begins to pay attention (note this particular watershed moment affected a very privileged class, thereby attracting major media coverage).

(5) Loud rallying for public understanding of the economic drivers for the way society has been operating.

(6) Clear and compelling descriptions of how the general public participates in and benefits from damaging systems that injure the already vulnerable.

(7) Backlash and pushback.

(8) Change.

So, the backlash was always coming. I believe that means that change is coming too. The question is: How successful will backlash be in breaking down the energy and resources of activists and individuals? A return to the norms of silence around violence, the erasure of victims' narratives, and the protection of people in power over the protection of the vulnerable is a devastating proposition. But those norms have had hundreds of years and billions of dollars invested in their structural integrity. By definition, change is in the future. It hasn't happened yet. The pathways to the world we want are still unformed. Sexual violence is also linked to so many deep structural inequities, supported by power imbalances we see everywhere. It is not going away quickly, and it cannot be lifted out of the racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and homophobia that make it possible for some bodies to be more protected than others.

#MeToo backlash is here, and it is exhausting. Backlash gets its energy from the ambitions of those who hope to benefit in the current economic system. They may want to see changes in the future, but the present is working for them. It's frightening if you have status, however precarious, to wonder what you might lose if change happened. Anxieties about abstract losses lead to elaborate nightmarish visions about change gone wrong. Inevitably, backlash articles co-opt historical narratives of violence perpetrated on the most vulnerable bodies. Instead of linking past violences to ongoing racism, sexism, and religious persecution, backlash amplifies the fears that the untargeted have of becoming the new targets. The authors of backlash are not the enemy. They are a part of the fabric of the present; they will be part of the fabric of the future. We are all interconnected.

Forgetting the future for the moment—right now survivors of sexual assault are suffering. They are reliving traumas, losing sleep, having nightmares. In the last week, I have heard confessions of hopelessness, depression, suicidality. Everywhere, the signs of burnout are emerging. Activists accuse each other of failing the movement with their different approaches. Solidarity built shows cracks. What do we do? How do we minimize the damage, right now and moving forward, to the people who are most vulnerable? Change will happen, but how much and when and for whom? These are real, open questions—I don't have the answers.  

This is what I want to tell you: Backlash isn't backslide. We are doing this. There are many of us, so many. And none of us is so important that we cannot take a break and self-care. We have all done important work and that work will not melt away while we sleep. Be generous in your read of each other. Be generous with yourself. You will make mistakes, say things you regret, miss your cue—don't let that discourage you. Be kind to yourself so that you have the energy to be kind to others. Share resources for counselling and good food and positive distractions. Write or make art—do the things you love. Take a look at the rest of your life and be there for a while. It takes all of us, but not all at once. Rest, know that you are remembered and valued for your contributions. We will take turns and hold space for each other. There is lots of love and respect to go around and we will make more. xo


Natalee Caple is the author of seven books of poetry and fiction. She teaches contemporary Canadian literature and creative writing at Brock university. She is an activist for sexual violence prevention.

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