We are coming to understand the power of our words. After countless years (decades, centuries) of choking on the words that would convey our experiences and validate those of others — because we were not permitted to speak or were not listened to when we did — women are speaking up. This chorus of full-throated and tentative voices and stories of pain, betrayal, resilience, and solidarity, evoked with the succinct headline #MeToo, is shaking the foundations of institutions. It is remarkable, and it is about time.
And yet the pathways to and processes of change are not clear-cut or dependable. The legal system of justice is playing catch up, and too often it poorly serves those with the least amount of power. The leadership of our communities has proven again and again that it would rather sweep accusations under the rug than reckon with the ethics of power. For manypeople, hoarse from repeated and unheeded testimonies, it is difficult to celebrate or trust the slow, creaking awakening of communal attention to these issues.
And so, into the breach comes a flow of accusations — a “call out culture” emerging primarily in the democratic media of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, but beginning to shape traditional media reporting as well. It is born out of warring impulses of anger and fear, impatience and a commitment to justice, urgency, impotence, and a belief that accountability and judgment ultimately lie in our own hands. This “call-out movement” is a system of vigilante justice — a tactic of public denouncement and shaming to condemn an unacceptable behavior and communicate that it will no longer be condoned. Calling out is rooted in a murky blend of perfectionism and pragmatism, insisting on holding people to a high standard while conceding the failures of the system.
Like all methods of vigilante justice, calling out is not ideal; it emerges when belief in the ideal, or patience for its slow unfolding, has expired, and the only choice remaining is a precarious calculation that weighs one destruction against another. Calling out is a blunt instrument, and its dangers are real. It is the ultimate din : Judgment is rendered in the accusation itself, with no trial, no jury, no process for assessment of deserved punishment. In a context in which our justice system is broken, perhaps individuals have a responsibility to step up and render judgment. When do we wait for the system to right itself, and when do we refuse to stand by while violations continue? How do we navigate the rocky terrain between judgment and justice?
In Jewish tradition, din — judgment — is counterbalanced by rachamim — compassion. The root of rachamim is rechem — womb — a vessel of potential, nourishment, and creativity. Call-out culture makes no room for compassion or for the possibility of human change and growth. This is its ultimate weakness. Justice cannot flourish or reach its fulfillment if there is no opportunity for learning and growing.
But if judgment can short-circuit or curtail justice, so can refraining from judgment allow injustice to fester. In contending with call-out culture, we must stay alert to our deeply ingrained reflexes about whose fate matters, whose stories we heed. When we dismiss call-out culture as too dangerous, we must ask: dangerous to whom? Whom are we protecting, the alleged perpetrator or the alleged victim? Keeping quiet can also be destructive: How do we attend to and measure the price of silence? Who decides when speaking out is worthwhile, and what are the consequences if we don’t listen?
In an ideal world, judgment would be meted out with compassion, not fear, anger, or pain. There would be no place for shame or shaming in the pursuit of justice. But this is not the world in which we live. Given the limitations and imperfections of our circumstances, how do we measure judgment so that it does not replicate and reify destructive behaviors but rather moves us closer to justice?
“Mi-ma’amakim kiraticha” — “from the depths I called to you,”says Psalm 130. These words have echoed in my mind so often over recent months. Calling out is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem. We are in the depths, and we call from a place of desperation, from a deep need to be heard. In Psalm 130, however, the ultimate balm for this cry of despair is God’s attentiveness and care, not God’s judgment. Perhaps, then, the best way to meet the judgment of call-out culture and soften its destructive edge is to hear the painful call and invoke the godliness within us, asking how we can best deliver compassionate justice.
Judith Rosenbaum , PhD, is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive (https://jwa.org), which is creating an archival collection of Jewish #MeToo stories. Learn more and submit your story at jwa.org/metoo.