When #MeToo Goes Too Far

Matt Damon on “Good Morning America” last week.

Matt Damon gave an interview to ABC News last week in which he offered the following observation: “There’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

Crazy, right?

Minnie Driver, Damon’s co-star in “Good Will Hunting,” thought so. “There is no hierarchy of abuse — that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if a woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for,” she told The Guardian. “You cannot tell those women that one is supposed to feel worse than the other.”

Kirsten Gillibrand agrees: “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation,” the Democratic senator from New York said at a news conference when asked about calling on Senator Al Franken to resign. “You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable.”

Of course none of it is O.K. The supposedly petty sexual harassment that so many women have to endure, from Hollywood studios to the factory floor at Ford, is a national outrage that needs to end. Period.

But what about the idea that we should not even discuss the difference between verbal harassment, physical groping and rape? Here’s a guess: A vast majority of Americans, men and women, would agree with Damon’s comment in its entirety.

Another guess: A majority of women would not accept Driver’s suggestion that the unwanted sight of a man’s genitals, as wrong as it is, is anywhere near as traumatic as the unspeakably violent experience of rape.

Think of it a moment more. If, as Driver put it, “there is no hierarchy of abuse,” then should Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken be punished in the same way? Should George H. W. Bush be subjected to the same obloquy as Louis C.K.?

All societies make necessary moral distinctions between high crimes and misdemeanors, mortal and lesser sins. A murderer is worse than a thief. A drug dealer is worse than a user. And so on. Gillibrand, Driver and others want to blur such distinctions, on the theory that we need a zero-tolerance approach. That may sound admirable, but it’s legally unworkable and, in many cases, simply unjust.

It’s also destructive, above all to the credibility of the #MeToo movement. Social movements rarely succeed if they violate our gut sense of decency and moral proportion. Insofar as #MeToo has made an example of a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer, most Americans — including, I’d bet, most men — have been on its side.

But what about a case such as Glenn Thrush, The Times’s reporter who was suspended after being accused of inappropriate sexual behavior and, The Times said Wednesday, will keep his job but not his White House beat? Or what about Stephen Henderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit Free Press columnist and editorial page editor (and an acquaintance of mine) who was recently sacked from his job?

Henderson is not accused of sexual assault. He is widely admired as a pillar and champion of his hometown. And Henderson has apologized for his behavior, which he said happened years ago and involved “sexually themed conversations” with a co-worker outside of work along with a couple of rejected passes at a woman working in another department.

Does this behavior really merit professional decapitation? Wouldn’t the apology, plus, say, a monthlong suspension, have sufficed? Don’t we have the moral capacity to distinguish between aggressive sexual predation and run-of-the-mill romantic bungling — between a pattern of abusive behavior and a good man’s uncharacteristic bad moments? And do companies really have the resources, or the right, to police and adjudicate the private behavior of their employees?

It will not serve the interests of women if #MeToo becomes a movement that does as much to wreck the careers of people like Henderson as it does to bring down the Weinsteins of the world. Nor will it do much to convince men that #MeToo is a movement that is ultimately for them if every sexual transgression, great or small, vile, crass or mostly clumsy, is judged according to the same Procrustean standard.

Now to the inevitable rejoinder: You’re a guy. What do you know? Or, as Minnie Driver told The Guardian: “The time right now is for men just to listen and not have an opinion about it for once.”

Listening is always essential. But one-way conversations go down about as well with most men as they do with most women, and #MeToo isn’t going to succeed in the long run if the underlying message is #STFU. Movements that hector and punish rather than educate and reform have a way of inviting derision and reaction.

Every woman, and every thoughtful man, is rooting for #MeToo to succeed, not just by exposing male misbehavior but also by transforming it for the better. It won’t get that far if people like Gillibrand and Driver drive its high ideals and current momentum into the ground.

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