The when posted on Twitter by a celebrity


The Me Too
movement has taken both the social media and real world(s) by storm over the
last four months, not losing relevance, momentum, or attention, unlike other
social media or public discourse fads (e.g. #notallmen). In the past, these
kinds of movements or hashtag fads primarily acted as commentary rather than
confession or catharsis. The Me Too movement is thus unique in many ways: it
invites story-telling, sensitive disclosure, and feeling collectively. Through
it, people who have experienced gender-based violence, harassment, or sexual
assault have found a social media avenue to share their experiences, build
power together, and demand real-world change. These demands, associated with a
growing call-out culture, have been met favorably by some and less so by others
across the globe. Most importantly, though, these experiences and demands are
not being dismissed or glossed over – they are being listened to, validated,
and prioritized. As an example of how hashtags have done work in the legal
realm in France, when #metoo and its French equivalent, #balancetonporc
gathered enough attention, it brought attention back to the question of passing
a proposed law against sexual harassment (Fox, 2017).

American
community activist and mother Tarana Burke has explained her motives for
starting the “Me Too” catchphrase almost ten years ago as a way to change her
own community, before it was proliferated by the hashtag symbol that we now
know yields immense power (Garcia, 2017). The hashtag itself exploded when posted
on Twitter by a celebrity named Alyssa Milano, and “social media was soon flooded with stories of
harassment and assault, as #metoo became a way for users to tell their
experience with sexual violence and stand in solidarity with other survivors.

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The hashtag was widely used on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and other platforms;
on Facebook, it was shared in more than 12 million posts and reactions in the
first 24 hours” (Garcia, 2017).

The hashtag
has not only been used in the North American cybersphere, but spread to almost
every continent (see Figure 1). That being said, the use of the hashtag is
disproportionately high in North America where we might assume a correlation
between the hashtag’s proliferation and ‘call-out culture’. Asam Ahmad (2015) defines call-out culture, taking place both online and in daily
interactions, as “the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and
community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive
behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements
and actions that are sexist, racist, or ableist” (1). To expand this idea,
Ahmad notes that “calling out is seen as an end in itself” that can dictate
social norms in certain circles or cultures (2015, 1). A North American culture that values free speech
and individuality, then, might be predisposed to supporting the online call-out
culture of the Me Too movement.  Conversely, an arguably more conformist
and conservative nation like Russia comes with its own social norms and values,
where we have seen high-profile men and even women publicly supporting sexual
harassment rather than calling-out potential perpetrators (source).

Though not overwhelmingly, #metoo was widespread in India and considerable in
Pakistan, countries with an international reputation for its high instances of
rape and violence against women (see Solnit, 2014). The catchphrase poses no
language barrier in this case, as English is one of the official languages in
both countries, and mostly spoken in populous urban centers. Women from these
areas have been vocal about the frequency with which rape occurs over decades,
as well (see Solnit, 2014). Yet, even with a population pushing 1.5 billion,
the frequency of the use of this hashtag seems to be just over half of that in
Canada, the population of which does not even reach 40 million. Social media
outlets and use are ubiquitous today, but what we might infer from Figure 1 is
that cultural values motivate the content and frequency users’ of activity.

 

Figure 1. Tweets that used the #metoo hashtag by country. Circles
relate to outgoing numbers of tweets (CNN, 2018).

 

So, do North
Americans attribute more weight to the value of #metoo, the sharing of
instances of assault, misconduct, and survivor stories? In the United States
specifically, the hashtag became an entity in and of itself, spoken about and
cited across disciplines, industries, and generations. Both high- and low-profile
sexual assaults were made known, were brought into the penetrative light of
social media, and action was demanded. What can we learn from this
social-media-sphere-turned-real-world movement? How might social niche theory
and our knowledge of heuristics enrich our understanding of the hashtag as a
collective enterprise—one that is culturally contingent—and the ways it has
resonated with the human experiences of millions? It would furthermore be
worthwhile to explore this phenomenon as a potential benchmark of sorts for
emergence into a new era of being human (in the anthropocene, no less Harari
2016, 55).

 

Social Niche Theory

Following
Fuentes’ (2016) defense for studying niche theory and the intersection of
cognition and the social sciences, “we need to focus on the myriad processes
that constitute the moving target that is human existence rather than on the
state of being human or of having become human in any one isolated context or
manner. Doing this requires some way to, at least conceptually, integrate
neurological, behavioral, morphological, ecological, material, and ethnographic
elements at multiple levels” (S17). Accordingly, in this analysis I will
rely on the motives of social niche theory to explore how social media is
affecting our development as a species through the way we interact with and
mold our institutions, specifically focusing on the Me Too movement. This will
include linking Harari’s (2016) explanation of humanism to the western social
mind, and demonstrate how it is responsible for the explosion of the hashtag
into a full-fledged movement with its own power, and in some ways, agency.

Lastly, addressing how the movement has made an impact on society, and using
the work of Kendal (2011) as a theoretical basis, I will draw parallels between
the movement and religious practice.

 

 

Institutions and meaning-making

In broaching
the topic of institutions and their various forms, anthropologists and other
social scientists frequently address the Foucaultian question of discourse in
the dominant cultural sphere. The intersections of discursive meaning should be
of particular interest in this scenario, as it is taking place a globalized
context, via the internet, relating to actions that have a similar effect
everywhere, and yet each has a particular cultural context upon which the
interpretation of the act is contingent (Foucault, 1972) In North America, the
discourse of sexual assault is embodied in a popular discourse involving
different types of feminisms (dominant versus mainstream, intersectional,
trans-inclusive, etc.) and a general push for women’s rights in public and
private spheres. It is important to consider historical struggles, patriarchal
legacies, and that rights in North America have much to do with the concept of
individual sovereignty rather than a focus on collective social responsibility.

In Homo
Deus (2016), Harari describes different kinds of humanisms and how
they reflect on the self and the collective. Liberal humanism, or liberalism,
according to Harari, emphasizes the worth of the individual, and the value of
personal experience and feelings, to which social and moral meaning is tied.

This, in turn, has socio-political implications (Harari 2016, 197). One can
imagine the liberal humanist as a North American Twitter user who posts about his
mundane decisions, his meals, his pay raise, his complaints about his city’s
transit system, all of which are glorified in the limelight of a maximum 280
characters. Based upon Harari’s explanations, we can imagine that the liberal
humanist’s political leaning would give everyone the right to do the same as he
does. By contrast, as per Harari’s comparison of the two humanisms, the
socialist humanist would rather measure herself by the standard experiences of
socialist state she lives in, and hence analyze politics according to group
statistics (2016, 199). These are very clearly part of a universal dichotomy
for even nascent human studies: balancing self with what lies outside the self,
or what is ‘other’.

And yet,
Harari introduces the potential for a new dominant religio-ideology: Dataism.

Put simply, Dataism is the modus operandi of using composite data to predict
human behavior and make decisions for the future (Harari 2016, 289-294). That data can predict our behavior absolutely flies in the face of the
liberal backbone of free will, Harari points out, and supports a more
socialized understanding of human behavior. The work of cognitive scientists
like Daniel Kahneman largely contributes to Harari’s analysis as well, as they
demonstrate how much processing actually occurs subconsciously, or rather,
unconsciously, while our sensory experiences inform us that we are the
masters of our own fate. Brooks (2011) points out a progression in society that
echoes Harari’s critique of the liberal humanist, who values “emotion over pure
reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over
abstract logic, and perceptiveness over I.Q. and biases, longings, and
predispositions … about which our culture has least to say” (26). Harari
posits that the “intersubjective reality” humans create is what
organizes society into a web of meaning and is the manifestation of a shared
understanding of reality (2016, 113-114).

Twitter is an important institution in our contemporary intersubjective web of
meaning, one that plays a massive role in how we perceive reality and that
carries great symbolic cultural currency.

In the age
of #metoo and social media, we might then ask what kind of human social media
is molding the liberal humanist into, if they ascribe so much meaning to the
content that is proliferated on it. Fuentes thinks a significant reason to
study niche theory is the fact that humans are master manipulators of their
environment, which in turn affects our evolutionary processes, and that the niche
is a function of biotic and abiotic factors (Fuentes 2016, S14). In the instance of #metoo, the central biotic factor would be
the bodies of survivors and assailants, and the central abiotic factor social
media and its contributions to a greater socio-political intersubjective
reality. Fuentes offers a basis in niche construction theory that helps to
explain how social media, fueled by the power of human force in numbers, is
becoming a way to restructure political thought, which carries implications
back to the aforementioned bodies in question:

Niche
construction is an organism(s)-environment relationship that is dynamic,
bidirectional, and mutually malleable. Organisms responding to the ecological
pressures on them can restructure the local ecology affecting the very patterns
of pressures on them, creating suites of dynamic feedback relationships in
evolutionary processes. (2016, S15)

With the Me Too movement, we see this happening
in a few ways: those feeling attached to the movement feeling compelled to post,
perhaps leading into becoming first-timer activists, and those on the sidelines
looking on as this occurs. Pairing well with Foucault’s discursive theory,
Sperber explains why the study of institutions is also a key aspect to the
social sciences:

 An institution is the distribution of a set of
representations which is governed by representations belonging to the set
itself. This is what makes institutions self-perpetuating. Hence to study
institutions is to study a particular type of distribution of representations.

This study falls squarely within the scope of an epidemiology of
representations. (Sperber 1984, 87)

Social media is accordingly an institution.

Liberal actors are claiming power in the form of an institution, which has
influence on other institutions that make up our intersubjective reality.

The power of
numbers of tweets and posts is substantial, as the movement leads to
publications revealing the voices of survivors who come forward about their
high-profile assailants and harassors. Whether or not Hollywood figures enter a
courtroom to be tried for their harassment or violence, the public now has a
platform to persecute. There is a new social order online and ‘everyone’
adheres to it, or pretends to. The movement at hand, and any actions that stem
from it, do not merely involve illuminating what is happening, but bringing
sexual predators to justice through a collective effort that works through, and
is reinforced by, call-out culture.

 

The Religious Social Brain:

Tying
Harari’s analysis of religion to an explanation of niche theory given by Kendal
(2011) can lend an outlook on how the cognition of morality is at play. Harari
defines religion as “any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman
legitimacy on human laws, norms and values” (2016, 182). This metamorphosis
from mundane to superhuman provides a profound lens through which
one can look at how this social media fad became a movement. The power in
social media lies in the fact that anyone who relates to it and has access to
social media can contribute to this body of text, composing intersubjective
reality—which as Harari might suggest, fills an ideological gap that scripture
once held—that gains more data-power every time someone posts. In the following
citation from Kendal linking religion to ‘distributed cognition’, a term which
can be applied to the overarching change in attitudes around sexual assault and
harassment via the Me Too movement, the ‘informatics resources’ can be linked
to social media:

The second
subsystem relating cognitive development to culture, the ‘material and
symbolic tools for satisfying cultural goals and values’ (Gauvain 1998, p. 84),
concerns the cultural niche construction and ecological inheritance of
informatic resources found in distributed cognition. (Kendal 2011, 247)

Not unlike Harari, Kendal is interested in the
ties between memetics and doctrinal belief. Citing Whitehouse, he next
distinguishes between imagistic and doctrinal modes of religiosity. Imagistic
religious practice is “characterized by low-frequency and highly emotive
ritual, and commonly results in ‘elaborate bodies of personal, exegetical
knowledge, based on deep and enduring conscious reflection.’ In contrast, the
latter, characterized by intensive, repetitive ritual, allows particularly
‘cognitively challenging ideas to be learned’ and for low variation of ideas
within a population (Whitehouse 2008, p. 26)” (Kendal 2011, 247). Does the frequency with which
those on social media are inundated by posts pertaining to the Me Too movement,
after which every rape case blurs into, sadly, the staggering statistics of
such occurrences, effectively create a lack of dialogue and opportunity for
diverse opinions among those who believe in the movement’s overall cause?

Applying a
Dataist approach to the Me Too movement presents some interesting
contradictions and raises questions about where the individual stands in this
“great data flow” (304). The idea that an individual
becomes a speck of data seemingly conflicts with the idea that Me Too is also
about those who do not share the hashtag, and more specifically, those who do
not take part in call-out culture. Is expressing your survivor status in what
will end up being the micro-era of Me Too a cultural currency in and of itself?
Do those who share the experience without sharing content online exist as
people, or merely as a body to project onto? Me Too is undoubtedly a humanitarian
movement, at its base confronting long standing issues of sexual violence. Yet
with the proliferation of text that is not scripture, per se (where experience
matters more than the status quo) but where numbers of experiences matter for a
small scope of outcomes, does the form of participation overshadow the content,
and does the potential for a greater diversity of approaches merely get lost in
the hype?

 

Conclusion

When Tarana
Burke was interviewed about Me Too picking up speed as a movement, she made a
nod toward the statement’s collective and expansive nature: “I think it is
selfish for me to try to frame Me Too as something that I own … It is bigger
than me and bigger than Alyssa Milano. Neither one of us should be centered in
this work. This is about survivors” (Garcia 2017). Herein lies the irony of
being humanists in an emerging Dataist era. Without hose advocating for victims
of sexual assault, whose work for those victims does not stop at hashtag
proliferation, there is a certain objectification in “buying into” the statistic
status, despite fighting to reverse social norms that allow for the ubiquitous
objectification of women. It is not entirely clear what Me Too is asking for on
a structural level. Has the movement generated fear or strength? We have seen
call-out culture both critiquing, and in some cases, changing the legal system
and bureaucratic proceedings of many institutions. The interpretation is not
intended to draw conclusions guiding the reader’s approval or disapproval of the
movement itself. This is intended, rather, to be an exercise in reflection,
critically analyzing a cultural phenomenon that has affected millions globally
in a matter of weeks, one that has been heralded for the intersection of this
very fact and the social poignancy of its effect. In this age, moments like
these occur more and more frequently, becoming a force that is, at first
glance, god-like when going unquestioned. It is as important to know why this
is so catchy, as it is important to just let it run its course and look at it
in the rearview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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