#MeToo and the way of Reconciliation

The #MeToo movement is having an unsettling effect in Canada—we might even go so far as to say that it has been a source of some turmoil across the country.

To use the word “turmoil” is not to criticize the unfolding of this movement, or to undermine its importance. Very often, social disruption is necessary for cultural transformation; such disruption can sometimes get us moving in the direction of renewal in our lives and institutions. In this sense we can only be grateful to those women who have wrestled with the question whether to publicly disclose the sexual abuse or harassment they have experienced—and who have walked through the turmoil that may have resulted from their decision to do so. Their willingness to take this step has been in the service of cultural changes that we hope will make a difference in many lives.

The goal of the #MeToo movement is to overturn those features of western culture that have allowed men freely to objectify, sexually harass, and abuse women. Its purpose is to help us realize that abusive men have used their relative power to both exploit and silence women. The goal of the movement, further, is to establish levels of transparency, openness, and respect that will prevent further instances of sexual abuse, harassment, and pain.

In all of this, the #MeToo movement is an inherently public movement. The acts of disclosure, judgment, and punishment that constitute the movement take place before the public eye. On a nearly daily basis, from various media outlets, we read stories of inappropriate or abusive behavior, along with commentary on related institutions and issues. The movement is also public in the sense that our social media feeds overflow with comment and debate around each new revelation.Public Dimensions of #MeToo

Some part of the #MeToo turmoil also results from the fact that we don’t yet have fully defined processes for the public disclosure of abuse or for the conversations that these disclosures entail. It is often journalists and editorial departments (and their legal departments!) who are taking decisions about when abuse may be disclosed, when perpetrators can be named, and how such stories should be told. There are many other organizations also working to implement appropriate processes for handling reports of abuse or harassment. The complexity of various institutional contexts, and the personal/private nature of these disclosures, sometimes makes this public work challenging.

These complex conversations are only made more difficult by the voices of ideologues within the discussion—those who yell past each other in debating key questions. On the one extreme are those who insist that claims of sexual misconduct must be addressed within a legal framework or according to the rules of evidence that apply in a courtroom setting. (“How can any other process be fair!?”) On the other extreme are those who insist that every claim of abuse must be believed and accepted without question—and that asking any question about a claim of sexual abuse or harassment amounts to an apology for rape. (“You are just trying to silence women again!”) There are important concerns that animate those on each end of the spectrum, but the ideological yelling match often drowns out the majority in the “measured middle.”

This measured middle is, I think, made up of women and men who are grateful to see an end to attitudes and institutional frameworks that have created openings for the objectification, diminishment, and sexual abuse of women—they wish for a transformed culture of respect. This group is only too happy to see perpetrators held to account for their attitudes and behaviours. And while the measured middle is indeed open to hearing and believing the stories of harm done, this group is also aware of the ways that our listening and responding can at times fail either those who share their stories or those who are accused of abuse.

While we have made significant strides over the past few years, important questions remain to be explored and answered. Looking at the #MeToo movement from a specifically Christian point of view, we observe that an important variable is notably absent from the public discourse—specifically, that of reconciliation

To raise the question of reconciliation in the context of #MeToo will probably elicit one of two responses. Either confusion (“Huh?!”) or anger (“How dare you!?”). But from a specifically Christian point of view, the question of reconciliation is always appropriately asked. To belong to the community of God’s people is to be defined by the reconciliation realized through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Reconciliation is therefore at the core of our identity, and at the core of the church’s call to mission and service. The conversation about reconciliation and #MeToo will not be a straightforward one, but it is a conversation invited by Christian faith and identity.

Getting more specific

To give concreteness to this exploration, it is worth considering a recent #MeToo moment. In June 2018, The Globe and Mail published a report that disclosed sexual misconduct by Ontario winemaker Norman Hardie. Although Hardie is not well known nationally, he is a relatively well-known figure in the winemaking and food industries—for example, in 2018 he was named as Winemaker of the Year in Ontario. The Globe article shared the stories of three women who spoke of unwanted kissing and groping by Hardie. Eighteen others reported instances of behaviour that could be characterized as sexual harassment: including requests for sex, lewd comments about sex acts or bodies, and deliberate exposure to pornography. In most or all instances, these abusive actions took place in a circumstance where Hardie was in a position of privilege and power in relation to the women. His actions have caused pain, shame, and personal distress.

The Globe story also pointed out that 14 of the 50 people interviewed had only positive things to say about their time working at the winery and with Hardie. And, that “some of those who said they were subject to inappropriate behaviour by Mr. Hardie were hesitant to come forward, saying that they’d also experienced generosity from him.” It will perhaps come as no surprise to us that a person who acts inappropriately or abusively toward some will also be capable of kindness and generosity toward others. Such is the reality of the human.

In response to the Globe’s investigation and article, Norman Hardie responded by publishing an open letter. Among other things, he states that “some of the allegations made against me are not true, but many are.” And: “Behaviour and language I viewed at the time as harmless or good-natured was anything but. This was particularly true given the position of power I was in. That position of power almost certainly explains why it took several years for anyone to confront me over my behaviour.” Hardie also recounts steps that have apparently been taken to improve oversight and professionalism within his business. The letter seems to be a meaningful response to the accusations and to his own acknowledged failures, although we will come back to this question.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that while I have no relationship with Norman Hardie, and have never met him, I have had a loose connection to his parents through a mutual friend. I once had the opportunity to share a lovely lunch and conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Hardie (Mrs. Hardie passed away in 2017). In addition to this, I have visited the Hardie winery three times over the past number of years—largely because it is only 4 kilometers from a simple country home that my sister has owned in Hillier, Prince Edward County.

Some might suggest that even this limited connection to his family already excludes me from commenting objectively or appropriately on his circumstances, or related questions. But perhaps this kind of (limited) proximity to a situation can enable a faithful response, even if a different response than would be offered from a place of “total objectivity” (if such a place exists).

The way of Reconciliation

The way of reconciliation in Christ requires a series of responses. In the first instance, reconciliation requires truth-telling—there can be no way forward in reconciliation without a disclosure of harm done, marginalization inflicted, or pain caused. In the case of Norman Hardie, this truth-telling has happened (or begun to happen) through the stories of women published in The Globe and Mail. While reconciliation does not always require that truth-telling happen in this fully public way, such truth-telling is public by definition in the context of #MeToo. And, again, we can only be grateful for the courage and strength displayed by women who have come forward to share their stories, particularly in the face of a culture that has rarely responded openly or graciously to such disclosures.

The way of reconciliation in Christ also requires repentance, which involves regret over past behaviour, turning away from harmful attitudes and actions, and turning toward new and healthy ways of relating. It requires an acknowledgment of one’s power and a will to establish appropriate boundaries around the exercise of that power. In the case of the #MeToo movement, the requirement of repentance represents a challenge since it is difficult for us to judge, at a distance, whether repentance in any give situation is meaningful. In the case of Mr. Hardie, his open letter gives some impression he has understood his mistakes and misconduct, and that he is attempting to chart a new course, both personally and professionally.

There are those, however, who question a letter that was written “only after he got caught”—there is a suspicion that Hardie is only trying to protect himself now that his attitudes and actions have come to light. Thinking about our own lives, however, we will perhaps realize that we often only accept our failures—and see what we have become—following the disclosure of our harmful or inappropriate actions. Is it unreasonable to think it would be any different in the case of Mr. Hardie?

Others point out that the letter gives the impression of being written with legal or public relations assistance, which arouses suspicion that the letter is disingenuous—that its goal is to protect reputations and interests as much as to acknowledge harassment or harm done. But again, in this public context it is difficult to judge from a distance concerning a wrongdoer’s authenticity and transparency. We are perhaps not able to judge definitively one way or the other, and we should be cautious about doing so.

Perhaps we could clarify all of these challenges by asking this rhetorical question: Do media outlets have a responsibility to follow up on the possibility of changed lives and attitudes—or is it sufficient for them to report wrongdoing or abuse and move on? Or course it is unlikely that media organizations would or could commit to such follow-up—the 24-hour news cycle itself does not permit such sustained attention to any given story, nor do our attention spans. But to say this is to realize that the #MeToo movement has left us with little room to consider the possibilities of repentance, which are constitutive of the reconciliation to which we are called.

Reconciliation and Judgment

Beyond truth-telling and repentance, Christ’s way of reconciliation always includes judgment. Sometimes this judgment takes place precisely through the truth-telling and repentance described above. That is, the one who has done harm will experience the disclosure of their wrongdoing and their turning toward a new way as a painful reckoning; as judgment.

Sometimes, judgment must also go a step further. There are times in our lives when we have caused sufficient pain and harm that a further reckoning is required—a reckoning that we can expect to correlate with the harm done. This judgment might entail the loss of a relationship, the loss of a position of trust and authority, or the loss of a job. In some instances, where our actions amount to criminal behaviour, judgment might mean a fine or imprisonment. The fine or imprisonment will be, in part, an expression of the community’s repudiation of the destructive or violent actions perpetrated.

In the context of Christian faith, however, that judgment is never for judgment’s sake. Rather, the judgement of God in Christ is always a judgment that aims toward our renewal. It is a judgment in service of God’s grace. Even imprisonment, if it comes to that, should be understood and implemented with a view to the reform and restoration of the person, where possible.

In the case of Norman Hardie we observe that the judgment against him has been multifaceted. It has included public disclosure of his sexual misconduct, public castigation by colleagues or acquaintances, the loss of friendships, a decision by numerous restaurants to remove his wine from their lists, a retraction of the Winemaker of the Year award, and the removal of his wine from LCBO and SAQ stores (public distributers in Ontario and Quebec). At some level these judgments may be appropriate, though reasonable people may disagree about what constitutes appropriate judgment in each case. But there are additional questions that need to be asked here.

The cumulative response to Norman Hardie’s sexual misconduct seems to reflect what we might call a zero-tolerance response—judgment has been swift, decisive, and thoroughgoing. Within the #MeToo movement this zero-tolerance response is for the sake of overturning destructive attitudes and behaviours that have persisted for too long within society. Anything less is interpreted as a lack of resolve and as a failure to take seriously the continuing harm our culture does to women. Hardie is in some sense bearing the weight of our historical moment, even as women have been forced to bear the marginalization and abuse of this and previous historical moments.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a problematic intention embedded within this zero-tolerance approach—namely, the intention to make the wrongdoer disappear; a will for his erasure. Comments on social media particularly, but also the combined actions of restaurants and liquor boards, imply that Hardie has lost the right to operate a winery and lost the right to a public presence. That is, some imply that no response on his part could be sufficient to permit anything other than his disappearance from the public sphere. Zero-tolerance means zero-tolerance, and entails Hardie’s removal from sight.

Of course, I appreciate that no one has a right to a successful business—and customers and suppliers are always free to boycott a specific company. Further, if the financial and business pressures that result from these judgments mean the end of Hardie’s winery, this does not mean the end of Norman Hardie himself. He will remain capable of work and of meaningful contributions to his community; of working to gain trust in this sector (or another) where he might contribute again. (I should also add that of course I do know that the loss of major customer’s, or the pressure of #MeToo, will be sufficient to bankrupt the Hardie winery, though this seems possible.)

The limits of zero-tolerance

It is important to point out, however, that those championing or implementing a zero-tolerance response to Norman Hardie have offered little or nothing in terms of what his repentance might mean for the judgment against him. Few have asked what a change in his person, behaviour, or business operations should mean for his role as a winemaker and for his public presence. If his open letter is genuine and if his commitment to change is real, what difference might this make? The failure to address this question, or to event countenance this possibility, represents a significant problem from the point of view of reconciliation, which orients us toward both judgment and of grace.

We might also ask: If zero tolerance doesn’t work as a response to bullying, and if zero tolerance hasn’t work in relation to marijuana or drug policy, then why do we think that a policy of zero tolerance (admittedly loosely defined, here) will work for those who have engaged in sexual misconduct or harassment? Why do we think that the disappearance of a winemaker and winery from public will finally make a difference for the renewal of a culture, and of sub-cultures, that have contributed to disempowerment and abuse of women? It seems unlikely that it will.

Further, when it comes to zero-tolerance, we often prefer this policy for others and not for those we know and love. A good example here is that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has adopted something akin to a zero-tolerance policy for members of his caucus and cabinet if any is accused of sexual abuse or harassment. Yet Trudeau himself has not responded meaningfully or adequately to reports that he touched a female reporter inappropriately in August 2000. At first he offered a carefully scripted and ambiguous response—“I don’t remember any negative interactions that day at all”—and then followed up by suggesting he and the woman simply had different experiences of that touching. This, of course, is the kind of response he has refused to accept from others.

Another example is that of David McMillan, owner of the famous Joe Beef restaurant in Montreal. McMillan has referred to Norman Hardie as a scumbag, has stopped serving his wines, and has advocated for a “zero-tolerance” response to him. Yet in the recent case of a chef at Joe Beef who was accused of groping a busser, McMillan refused to fire the chef and instead responded by saying that “the chef is extremely remorseful” and “[he] has proven by his actions he’s a good man, and if he wasn’t, I would have fired him.” But can we have it both ways? Openness and grace toward one’s own employees, but zero tolerance for others? A willingness to work with some in addressing their behaviours, but an unwillingness to work with others in relation to theirs?

We might get at these questions in a slightly different way. As indicated, the LCBO has decided not to stock Norman Hardie wines on its shelves, a decision apparently taken in response to the social pressure of the #MeToo movement. But the important question, from the point of view of reconciliation, is this: What would it take for the LCBO to return Norman Hardie’s wines to its shelves? If the LCBO is capable of rendering judgment against a winemaker, is it also capable of assessing their repentance and renewal in some meaningful way? If the LCBO can ask a winemaker to disappear, can it also create the terms for his return to visibility. The path of reconciliation requires judgment, yes, but always with a view to grace—even if not cheap grace.

Forgiveness?

This way of reconciliation also involves, finally, forgiveness. Yet here we must be careful since there are many understandings of forgiveness alive in our social context. And first among these is a personal and therapeutic view which sees forgiveness as a source of healing for the person who has been harmed. Forgiveness here is understood in terms of that person moving on with his or her own life. But this is not consistent with the vision of reconciliation given in the Christian tradition, even if that tradition appreciates the possibility of such personal healing. Rather, the way of reconciliation in Christ sees the act of forgiveness as an element within a process that aims at the restoration of broken relationships.

I must clarify, here, that I am not insisting that any woman forgive Norman Hardie’s sexual misconduct or harassment—I am not giving any timeline for this. The act of forgiveness is invariably one that takes time, and sometimes the capacity to forgive appears or arrives on its own terms and timing, as if from outside the self. We are therefore in no position to tell another that she must forgive. Rather, we may accompany and support those who have suffered abuse or harm as they work toward healing and restoration—remaining open to the possibility that they will arrive at a moment in which forgiveness of the other becomes possible.

Our wish for the women who have shared stories of abusive behaviour and harassment is that they will be surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues who support and encourage them—who affirm their courage, dignity, and strength. Our wish is that they would find themselves in personal, institutional, and professional contexts in which their voices, contributions, and competencies are fully respected. If they face personal struggles as a result of what they have experienced, our wish is that they would find the resources and support they need for healing.

If forgiveness of Mr. Hardie does become imaginable for one or another of these women, it will likely require a conviction on their part that his repentance and transformation are real. Such forgiveness, if it happens, will entail their wish for Hardie’s continued renewal and wellbeing. The act of forgiveness may or may not involve a restored relationship, since that is a step further—it requires a rebuilding of trust, which certainly takes time and work. This possibility and process of forgiveness, we might add, is a more private and personal experience, rather than a public dimension of the reconciliation that has been our preoccupation.

Returning finally to question of public reconciliation, our wish for Mr. Hardie today should be the same as the wish of one who reaches the point of forgiveness toward him. Namely, a wish for his renewal and wellbeing—for his flourishing we might even say. The #MeToo moment has contributed much to our culture and lives and institutions, but the question of reconciliation cannot be left aside if we wish to be faithful to the way revealed in Jesus.

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