The Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process inflamed a fear that men should be afraid of the #MeToo movement.
This fear is powerful. It makes it difficult to assess the actual risk of being falsely accused of sexual assault or harassment. It makes it hard to empathize with actual victims of sexual assault or harassment. And it makes it hard to compare the rarity of false accusations against the harm and prevalence of sexual assault and violence.
It is hard to educate someone in the grip of fear.
Instead of taking on the fear of being falsely accused directly, I want to explore other ways of educating in response to #MeToo. We don’t have to take sides politically to appreciate that there are other emotions a young man can feel when he thinks about a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault that make the fear of being falsely accused the force it is.
There are other emotions a young man can feel when he thinks about a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Instead of teaching men to fear #MeToo, I hope that schools have the courage to carve out spaces for men to learn about other possible emotional responses to this movement. Here are some of the other emotions K-12 schools should make room for students to feel:
- Disgust: So-called locker-room talk is disgusting. Objectifying women is disgusting. Rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment should make us feel a deep sense of disgust. Spaces in school should exist where men especially are allowed to call these things disgusting without fear of a harmful label. Spaces in school should exist where men can explore difficult emotions without knowing where these emotions will lead. Turning one’s back on a locker-room culture is scary, because locker rooms are where men feel a sense of fellowship and belonging. Schools need to create spaces where young men might experience these feelings of acceptance and camaraderie without having to take part in conversations and activities that make them feel disgusting.
- Shame: In a culture where misogyny is normalized, a young man will often say and do things that are hurtful to women before he can appreciate the full harm and significance of what he is doing. A young man who becomes disgusted by a locker-room culture he participated in should be allowed to be ashamed of his complicity in that culture—without fear of excessive punishment. He should be able to admit he caused harm, because if a man is taught that it is not okay to make mistakes, he will spend a lifetime attempting to hide them. This often only compounds the harm he does to others and keeps him from taking responsibility for his own moral growth.
- Responsibility: A good punishment for a youthful mistake is freeing a student to commit to making things better. Schools can do a better job of teaching young men the good of committing to working against a culture of sexual violence and harassment while also teaching them that they shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for that commitment. Not objectifying or harassing women is a baseline of decent behavior, not something deserving a special award. It is important to acknowledge getting free from a culture of degrading women can be hard work with real consequences, but it is also important to give a young man perspective. This hard work helps you become a decent person, and that should give you a sense of worth that doesn’t require additional reward or recognition.
- Solidarity: Working against locker-room culture can feel tremendously lonely, but doing the hard work of becoming a decent man can also expand a young man’s understanding of who his friends are. It may sound silly, but it is important for men to realize that feminists are not the enemy, even though he receives this messaging from his culture. Feminists want to be free from a toxic culture exemplified by things like locker-room talk. A young man who similarly wants to be free from this culture may realize that he has no better companions on his journey to decency than feminists.
These are just a few of the emotions that we can make room for in schools. To be clear, the goal of this type of moral education is not to take anything away from men. Rather, the goal is freeing them from fear so that they can do the hard work of forming their sense of self in light of what they actually feel and believe, not what they are taught to fear. They are bombarded with the message that they should be afraid of the #MeToo movement. K-12 schools can provide spaces to explore other emotions.
This line of thinking will, no doubt, be too political for some readers. But, think of the young men you care about. Is it better that they live in fear, or that they are freed to take on a life’s work of moral education, becoming the man they want to be, not a man who is ashamed of his words and deeds but never given the chance to do something about it? Schools can help free young men for moral growth, and I hope we help them do it.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as We Shouldn’t Teach Young Men to Fear #MeToo