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Feminism, we have a problem: Why it’s wrong to turn on Margaret Atwood

Kathy Sheridan: #MeToo is a revolution, and ‘guilty because accused’ has kicked in

If Margaret Atwood hasn’t earned the right to have her opinions treated with due care and respect, where are we?

Margaret Atwood has announced she is leaving Twitter, with biting sarcasm. “Taking a break from being Supreme Being Goddess, omniscient, omnipotent, and responsible for all ills. Sorry I have failed the world so far on gender equality. Maybe stop trying? Will be back later. (Next incarnation maybe.)”

That Margaret Atwood – author of The Handmaid's Tale, renowned feminist writer, voice of rational discourse, inspiration to millions? Yes, that one. She stands accused, as she puts it, "of conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am".

Feminism, we have a problem. If Margaret Atwood hasn’t earned the right to have her opinions treated with due care and respect, where are we?

It's complicated. Catherine Deneuve, one of 343 courageous women to sign a 1971 declaration admitting they had had an abortion when it was still illegal, found herself – with woeful predictability – in deeply undesirable company following her endorsement of an open letter in Le Monde, in which 100 Frenchwomen batted away a subway grope as a "non event" and defended the "freedom to importune". A world of condemnation has fallen on her, in effect confirming the letter's assertion that "what began as freeing women up to speak, has today turned into the opposite . . ."


In response, in an even more confusing turn, Deneuve has felt obliged to offer a mea culpa to “all women victims of odious acts who might have felt assaulted by the letter” but nonetheless stands by the original statement.

‘Insidious attempt’

Meanwhile, an online "exposé" of the US actor Aziz Ansari is described by a New York Times staff opinion editor as "arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October... The insidious attempt by some women to criminalise awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches". Rarely has a debate taken hold so intensely or anxiously in 20- and 30-something circles as the Ansari story, probably because it reflects a messy, repellent reality of modern sexual mores and the alarming ease by which someone's reputation and livelihood may be crushed in a headline.

This is what makes the evisceration of a clear-eyed feminist such as Atwood all the more untimely.

A fair-minded person would withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and evidence are available for us to see. We are grown-ups. We can make up our own minds

Her plunge to “Bad Feminist” began in 2016 when she signed an open letter calling the University of British Columbia (UBC) to account for its treatment of an accused academic, Steven Galloway. In short, the university had gone public with the accusations in national media before any inquiry, leaving the public – including Atwood – with the impression that he was a “violent, serial rapist”. The inquiry judge concluded there had been no sexual assault but Galloway was fired anyway. Still the attacks on him continued.

"A fair-minded person would now withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see," Atwood writes in the Globe and Mail. "We are grown-ups. We can make up our own minds, one way or the other." This is what has landed her in Bad Feminist country.

Salem witchcraft trials

She transgressed further with her “Good Feminist accusers” by comparing UBC’s proceedings to the Salem witchcraft trials, in which a person was guilty because accused, since the rules of evidence were such that you could not be found innocent. “Guilty because accused” tends to kick in during the “Terror and Virtue” phases of revolutions, she points out, but notes that such revolutions have begun as an understandable response to a lack of justice and “in such times the usual rules of evidence are bypassed”. Enter #MeToo.

On its origins, she is unequivocal. It is a symptom of a broken legal system. Failed by employers, women turned to the internet and “stars fell from the skies” in a massive wake-up call. But – what next?

If the legal system is not fixed, she warns, and if employers do not “houseclean”, “they can expect more stars to fall, and also a lot of asteroids”. But if the legal system is bypassed because it is deemed ineffectual, what happens then? Who will be the new power brokers?

‘Extremists win’

“It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion; anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated”.

It seems alarmist but this is Margaret Atwood. Where does that leave all other confused mortals ? Perhaps with one respondent posting her regret at Atwood’s Twitter stand-down with the following: “So it’s a revolution of sorts. And for a revolution you need extremists. Some of us who can see three steps ahead to the next reaction or counter response, or writers and scholars who want to take a more balanced perspective need to step aside (for a while). I’ll wait there with you.”