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The Return to Archaic Forms of Power—An Interview with Marianne Stidsen

The #MeToo movement has had an exceptionally deep impact in the Scandinavian countries, says Marianne Stidsen, associate professor of literature at the University of Copenhagen and a member of the Danish Academy. Quillette’s Paulina Neuding spoke to her about her recent book The Nordic MeToo Revolution 2018 – And Its Negative Impact (U Press Denmark, 2019).

Paulina Neuding: The Nordics are often regarded as hallmarks of gender equality – known, historically at least, for low levels of violence, progressive views on sexuality, and generous welfare provisions. Do you think that the egalitarian Nordics might have provided particularly fertile ground for a movement like #MeToo?

Marianne Stidsen: The #MeToo movement has had an exceptionally deep impact in the Nordic countries – just think of the cancellation last year of the Nobel Prize in literature, one of Sweden’s most esteemed institutions. But I actually don’t think that the explanation lies simply in Scandinavian gender equality. It is like any other historic revolutionary movement – many factors have to coincide to cause this sudden social and political upheaval that no one really saw coming.

And when I call #MeToo a ”revolution,” I mean it in all seriousness. I explore three instances in my book, where men have been judged by the media before having their cases tried by the legal system. The burden of proof has been reversed. And a violation of civil rights – such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial – is an attack on democracy itself, and ultimately undermines the legacy of the Enlightenment. We’re throwing two hundred years of struggle for human rights overboard.

PN: One case you explore in your book concerns a professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Could you tell us about that?  

MS: Last year some fifty anonymous female students published an open letter to the country’s university rectors, claiming that sexual harassment and violence was ubiquitous at Danish campuses. Of course the letter didn’t mention any specific instances of such harassment or violence.

The principal of The University of Copenhagen responded by setting up a committee to devise new guidelines to address sexual misconduct. Based on these guidelines, a senior lecturer in the humanities was reprimanded and stripped of his responsibilities – even though he had been formally acquitted of all accusations directed against him.

This led to intense public debate in Danish media, prompting the University of Copenhagen to revise the rules just before the summer holidays. The new guidelines are not perfect either, but my impression is that the university has realized that freedom of expression and the right to a fair hearing must never be compromised.

PN: A writing school, where you were previously on the board, was targeted in another #MeToo scandal. What happened there?

MS: That case involved the principal of the Copenhagen Writers’ School – a cultural institution which I believe has had an immensely positive impact on Danish literary and cultural life since its founding in 1987. In the fall of 2018, the school board issued a press release stating that it had been informed of rumors of unacceptable behavior, and that it was asking victims and witnesses to come forth. The school principal was immediately fired. 

It turned out that this decision was in part prompted by an open letter, signed by 55 Danish authors, calling on the board to investigate rumors that had flourished about the school for several years. This might sound like a noble cause, but as I show in my book, some of the signatories had wanted to have the principal removed for years for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with misconduct: The same people had opposed his appointment three years earlier, based simply on his gender. This is something I knew because I was a member of the board that hired him, and therefore closely followed the reactions. Shortly after he was employed we were criticized by a number of women – some of whom had been candidates for the same job – who saw the appointment of a man as proof of patriarchal structures in the literary world. But it wasn’t until #MeToo swept through Denmark that these women were able to have him fired.

PN: In the case of the Writers’ School the accusations were eventually investigated by a law firm. What did it find?

MS: When the lawyers went through the case, it turned out that many of the claims of misconduct came from people who had not been victims themselves but who had heard about others who had been mistreated. Some accusations really concerned minor issues: For example, one employee at the school had supposedly called a female student ”an old hag” – 20 years ago. Another former student reported that he, also many years ago, had written a piece that was severely criticized – which is something that one should expect at a writers’ school.

In the end, not a single case led to a police report. But by the time the law firm filed its investigation it was too late. The principal had already been fired.

PN. How have the Scandinavian countries differed in their response to #MeToo?

MS: Sweden was the country where #MeToo broke through first and had the most dramatic effects. I’ve already mentioned the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Prize, which is not just any brand. It is one of the country’s most well-respected institutions, and it is also intimately linked to the Swedish monarchy. 

I think this has cultural and historic explanations, in part. Sweden’s version of the Scandinavian welfare society always leaned towards collectivism, at times at the expense of the individual. Sweden is known as the one Nordic country where consensus is the highest priority. Feminism has also become a kind of state ideology in Sweden. 

Norway is in many ways similar to Sweden, both in terms of its collectivist streak and in the way that it has been affected by #MeToo. The movement took somewhat longer to break through in Denmark, which is much more individualist and liberal. It has traditionally been the least collectivist society in Scandinavia. But this hasn’t stopped #MeToo from catching on in Denmark as well. And as someone who witnessed the last convulsions of the 1968 revolt in Denmark, and Marxism’s long march through the institutions in the 1970s, I have never experienced anything like the #MeToo craze. I have a sense that I’m living through something that you would usually only read about in history books.

When it comes to the intensity of the #MeToo debate, Scandinavia is no different from North America, which is the epicenter of the entire victimhood culture that #MeToo is a part of. But in the Scandinavian countries the balance really has shifted from basic, individual rights, to social justice – as in the case with the professor at the University of Copenhagen that I write about in my book.

PN: There have been various anecdotal reports of how #MeToo has made professional life more, rather than less, complicated for women – with professors now being reluctant to take on female PhD students, or men hesitating to act as mentors for junior female colleagues. Have you seen any such tendencies at the University of Copenhagen?

MS: We have seen such tendencies at the University of Copenhagen, but so far to a lesser extent. I don’t know of any instances where male professors would not take on female PhD candidates or mentor female colleagues, which does not necessarily mean that such cases do not exist. But I do have male colleagues who insist that the door to the hallway be left open when they are alone in the room with female students or co-workers. Which, as you can probably imagine, creates an atmosphere of mutual suspicion from the very beginning.

But, even as a woman, I can fully understand if anyone prefers not to work closely with women as long as this #MeToo madness is going on. If I risked being judged on the basis of loose rumors, I’d be equally cautious. It’s a return to archaic forms of power: moralistic, opaque, unpredictable. And incredibly easy to abuse.

PN: Sexual harassment and violence affect millions of women worldwide. What would be a better response to the problem?

MS: First of all, we must realize that Western countries have achieved an unparalleled level of gender equality, and that this is thanks to the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Nordics have been particularly successful in this respect, due to the Nordic welfare state model. There is much to be improved, to be sure, when it comes to women’s rights and relations between the sexes. But all experience shows that gradual improvement is better than any sudden upheaval or revolution, which aims to change the entire basic structure of a society in one blow.

A basic principle of Western societies – in addition to the fact that all people are born free and equal – is openness to criticism. The kind of openness which Karl Popper referred to as informed criticism. So there should not be any sacred cows here: In principle, everything can and should be discussed rationally – not with emotions and accusations that leave no room for reasoned argument. 

 

Marianne Stidsen is an associate professor of literature at the University of Copenhagen and a member of the Danish Academy. She is the author of The Nordic MeToo Revolution 2018 – And Its Negative Impact (Den nordiske MeToo-revolution 2018 – og dens omkostninger, U Press 2019). 

Paulina Neuding is Quillette’s European editor. 

Photo by Jacob Ehrbahn.

Comments

  1. Good interview

    False or dubious accusations are harmful to women who are actually harassed or assaulted. Failure to hold false accusers accountable is likewise harmful to women. In the U.S. Christine Blasey Ford is not a heroine or feminist but rather a disreputable character who taints all the embrace her. Using sexual harassment and assault to score political points, is as shameful as the harasser and abuser. If one wishes to protect women one would demand accountability for the false accusers. If false accusers are not exposed and expunged the #MeToo is in danger of becoming the mass hysteria similar to the Salem Witch trials or the McMartin preschool case.

  2. Stidsen is correct: #MeToo is all about power. It’s not about rape. Rape is an atrocity but under #MeToo touching a knee or standing to close to a woman in photo is rape. It’s disgusting because none of these things come at all close to the terror a woman experiences in an actual rape. Also, it’s about rich white women who couldn’t give a damn about the rest of society. It’s about Taylor Swift being “groped” not, for example, Vietnamese sex workers.

  3. Too bad. Any man who isn’t on guard at all times is a fool, these days.

  4. Obviously #MeToo has served a useful purpose, in exposing predatory male behaviour, particularly within the progressive bastions of media and movies, where it appears to be disproportionately endemic, but one has to wonder whether it hasn’t also unleashed some long forgotten monster from Pandora’s Box. Consider that we know that girls suffer most as a result of the introduction of social media to teens, with bullying and exclusion from social groups most prevalent amongst girls on social media, whilst boys are content to play video games. This is because psychologists have long known that the primary outlet for female aggression is reputation damage.

    Now add professional jealousies, resentment over a belief in some illusory and imaginary patriarchy, the frustrated ambitions that can only be made worse by the envy that is felt when someone is more talented than you, and there you have all the ingredients of a perfect storm. Because one thing we know about confirmation bias is that intelligence is no shield against it. Quite the contrary, in that the truly gifted have a special gift for self-delusion, because they are smarter at finding reasons why something must be true.

    Your novel sits unpublished, no-one reads your poetry- it couldn’t possibly be that your craft just isn’t there yet, that your thoughts haven’t yet achieved that zen-like undertone of deep spirituality that resonates with readers- it must be that the world you live in is socially constructed to not appreciate your genius, with the patriarchy to blame- and what better outlet to vent your fury on than an unsuspecting man, who happened to make some unfortunate comment, or some half-hearted attempt at flirtation, so easily misconstrued. Surely with all the attention and sympathy you will no doubt garner, someone will finally recognise your talent, when the real truth is that misery doesn’t sell and your prose is drenched with tears.

    I singled out the writing school in the article for obvious reasons. As an aspiring writer I can appreciate the desperate urge for recognition, but the need for attention could just as well be applied to any other field. And beyond the need for professional consideration there is the more emphatic urge for social attention and sympathy, when we spend our days with our faces buried in our phones, oblivious to the simple human connectivity of potentially smiling faces all around us. In this modern age, have you tried going out into the city without your mobile phone, and enjoyed the pleasure of eating a meal with friends without faces uplit by screens, or sat in a cafe sipping coffee, shaking your head at the madness of the world as you remember the half-forgotten amusement of people watching.

    There is a quality to all this that seems deranged. The idea that when a man compliments a woman’s legs, he is engaging in mini-rape. Or that the male physical need to sit with our legs open is manspreading, with special chairs required to make sitting painful, and cause us injury. A pathology the requires small boys to be suspended for biting pop tarts into the shape of guns. But above all, there is view that the male gaze itself is offensive, a form of visual assault, in and of itself- this modern plague of hypersensitive and swooning feminism, replacing something that was altogether more courageous, assertive and demanding of respect.

    So it doesn’t help that we’ve made a cult of Victimhood. That in this attention-starved world of self-imposed isolation sometimes you have to shout with your actions, to illicit sympathy. It is as though unwittingly #MeToo, has tapped into the motherlode of human wants and human needs, with all the incentives running the wrong way. Of course, there will still be a significant portion of #MeToo allegations that will still be fully warranted and justified, but we really have to start relying on our age old cultural values of innocent until proven guilty, in order to regain some sanity. And that monster that was released from Pandora’s Box? A strange new hybrid form of social Munchausen syndrome, where the sympathy, attention and reassurance solicited, requires an unwitting sacrifice.

  5. There is much to be improved, to be sure, when it comes to women’s rights…

    Really? I couldn’t disagree more.

  6. Anecdote: some 30 yrs ago, after returning from 10 yrs as an expat, in my home country, on an ice skating tour with friends, some lady made a bad fall, in front of us, and I wanted to go and help her up again, as had been my old fashioned upbringing, a man had to open doors, bring her coat etc etc and assist the " weak" sex in more such occasions. My friends protested, "take care…, be careful…, don’t interfere, if you do so, she will “bite off your balls”. Feminism had stricken in the meantime, without me having any ideas of it after so many yrs (because, feminism is purely a Western thing). I was stupefied, and, cowardly enough, halted my initial impuls to help. Still, I feel guilty to have reacted so by listening to my friends ,that knew so much better to behave. In the meantime, we have #meToo, which, I think, is just the logical evolution of what I experienced on the ice so long ago. We’ll see where it all ends.

  7. dirk, I don’t think it was cowardly at all. Your friends were exercising good judgment and by following their advice, so did you.

    I presume the lady got up by herself, or was assisted by a nearby woman, or an ambulance was called. In any case, you did the right thing and you need not have felt embarrassed, then or now.

  8. @Morgan: still, it remains one of the few occurrences in my life I really feel bad about (though, there were many more where I should have felt guilty about), and that I will never forget (still remember even the weather, the ice, the vegetation, the reeds). It was in a time that I still thought it was recommendable to listen to other people, the common opinion, not to go against the grain. Now that I am old, it’s quite different, I will never listen again to somebody else thinking to know better.

  9. Long ago women used to lament the mess men were making of the world and say if we were in charge it would all be different.

    Indeed.

  10. I find it surreal that people are still talking about women’s rights at a time when men are quite literally second class citizens in most (all?) Western countries. There’s no evidence whatsoever that women are being oppressed, while men are openly, legally, proudly discriminated against.

    Simply being male is seen by many groups as a reason not to hire someone for a certain job, and this is considered normal and perfectly acceptable; those groups are not condemned for ‘hate speech’ by mainstream politicians, and actually receive tax money to carry on their activities.

    I can scarcely comprehend the level of dishonesty and lack of empathy required to state that ‘Western countries have achieved an unparalleled level of gender equality’. What equality is being praised here? We have state-funded misandry which actively tries to make men’s lives worse instead of fixing their problems.

    We have a culture of normalized discrimination against men that makes many men afraid of even complaining about it, because they may very well suffer social and professional consequences (see what happened to Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia for example).

    I don’t care how many times you repeat a lie - it’s still a lie, and I’ll never get tired of exposing it.

  11. Generational lag. That signal won’t be apparent to the activists for another 30, 40 years. They’re holistic thinkers- if they understood data, they wouldn’t be convinced that police are on a murder spree against young African American men.

    In other words, the older generations that did have significant gender discrimination in the work place are still part of the sample set. They’re not allowing the system the relaxation time required to measure their results. The correct action of course is to focus on younger generations, but that doesn’t sell the message they have invested their identities in.

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