A #MeTooSociology Reckoning

The case of Michael Kimmel, argue Kris Macomber and Matt Ezzell, raises two crucial questions: What makes holding powerful men accountable so difficult, and where do we go from here?

September 6, 2018
Michael Kimmel

As the Me Too movement continues onward into its second chapter, a disappointing and harmful pattern has emerged: the mere lip service paid to “men’s accountability.”

Holding men accountable for their behavior has become central to the politics of men's ally activism as more men get involved in feminist activism, some taking on visible leadership roles. There are entire conferences, sessions within conferences, webinars, panels and workshops devoted to discussing the importance of men’s accountability -- not just accountability for perpetrators but also for the so-called good guys, too, the activists and allies. And yet, what we see with the recent allegations (see here and here) of sexual harassment against renowned male (pro)feminist and sociologist Michael Kimmel is that accountability rarely exists outside of movement rhetoric -- especially in the case of powerful men in academe.

This situation brings up two crucial questions:

  • What makes holding powerful men accountable so difficult? (Why did it take a prestigious award for Kimmel to be held accountable?)
  • Where do we go from here?

In our capitalist, patriarchal and white-dominated society, we learn to perceive hierarchy and exploitation as normal (“that’s just the way it is”) and often respond with silence when confronted with it. Holding people in powerful positions accountable is difficult, in part, because their abuse of power relies on our participation in the form of our enculturation and complicity with it. Abuse is unremarkable because it is normative. Patriarchal systems are structured in dominance; therefore, we reward privileged people for their complicity in it, and we punish marginalized and exploited people for speaking out and resisting.

Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior was a “known secret” for decades, yet his power in the entertainment industry continued to grow and solidify. To tweak an overused expression, you don’t need many “bad apples” when the barrel (a culture rooted in power, greed and dominance over others) is rotten.

The former students and junior faculty members who have recently come forward to tell about their experiences with Kimmel felt unsafe to do so precisely because they were/are operating within an exploitative system marked by egregious power differentials. Coming forward could have put their burgeoning careers in jeopardy, at the same time that staying silent didn’t spare them from emotional and material harm. It is telling that the initial public allegations, which came to light in the wake of the revelation of Kimmel’s selection for a prestigious award designed to “recognize scholarly work that expands the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society,” came from an anonymous Twitter account.

But what about Kimmel’s colleagues who knew about his behavior, particularly senior faculty and male colleagues -- people with arguably less to fear and more professional security?

Did they give Kimmel a pass because his scholarship on feminism made them assume he was one of the “good guys”? Did they cave under pressure from him to remain silent, as some of the allegations suggest that Kimmel took criticism personally and sought redress? Or was it that his behavior was somehow seen as acceptable because it was mostly women and genderqueer students who have reported these experiences -- students who should perhaps consider themselves lucky to work with someone of such high regard? Would he have gotten away with this behavior if he wasn’t a cisgender white man?

The culture of accountability, or lack thereof, in our academic departments and institutions needs major rewiring. As the late sociologist Allan Johnson pointed out, as we respond to individual instances of exploitation and abuses of power, we must pay attention to the larger “rules of the game” that enable this kind of behavior. In other words, we must go beyond expressing outrage at the exploitative and harmful behaviors revealed in the allegations against Kimmel to also ask: How might the broader environment of academe, which values prestige, competition, popularity and success, make otherwise well-meaning people complicit when popular and prestigious men like Kimmel behave in sexist and unethical ways?

As Johnson noted, “Since the thing we’re participating in is patriarchal, we tend to behave in ways that create a patriarchal world from one moment to the next.” Thus, Kimmel, too, is a product of a culture that has rewarded him as a man for behaving in ways that give him status and power, even as the focus of his work has been a critical, sociological examination of those very things.

So, where do we go from here? It is certainly worthwhile to continue holding -- and trying to hold -- individuals accountable and working to find better and more effective ways of doing it. We need better structural mechanisms in place to foster reporting, investigation and adjudication that puts more power and control into the hands of victims and others who are traditionally marginalized, disempowered and oppressed within academe. We must also guard against retaliation that targets victims, allies and whistle-blowers.

But accountability of that kind will always be a reactive strategy and, ultimately, not enough. It doesn’t dig at the root of the problem. Perhaps most important, we sociologists are well-known for our fervent critique of social responses that are solely punitive (zero-tolerance policies, mass incarceration, criminalizing prostitution and the like) because they ignore the broader systems of power that influence people’s behaviors. Therefore, we mustn’t be satisfied with focusing only on accountability, which is also punitive -- taking awards away, placing people on leave and so on. While such actions of accountability are meaningful and serve a purpose, a more effective solution is to figure out how to build equity into the very structure of our institutions and daily practices. After all, the goal isn’t just to hold individual perpetrators to account but also to dismantle the rape culture and the other systems of oppression with which it interlocks. Let us not emphasize the punitive at the expense of the transformative.

We should be moving toward breaking down the values and systems that inculcate these behaviors. If we reorganized our departments and reconceptualized academe to be -- or, at least, to move toward being -- antipatriarchal, antiheteronormative, antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist and antiexploitative, what might they look like? How might we allocate resources and rewards more fairly? How might we distribute and share power differently, with an eye not just toward diversity and inclusion but also toward equity and justice? Perhaps these are the kind of questions that can nudge such a vital conversation forward.


Kris Macomber is assistant professor of sociology at Meredith College and has conducted research on the role of male allies in gender justice work. Matt Ezzell is associate professor of sociology at James Madison University and a scholar and activist in the field of gender justice. They have also worked as staff members in the domestic violence and rape crisis movements.

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