A provocation for SAMAG's 'Disarming sexism in the arts, and #MeToo' Panel, 26th February, 2018

Liz Duck-Chong

This provocation was presented at Sydney Opera House alongside three others, by Amrita Hepi, Lindy Hume and Michael Brealey, in a panel chaired by Amy Maiden. After these talks, the room split into smaller groups to discuss the positions made, and to offer solutions and support for finding answers. This talk is provided in full online, but with the context that it was made as part of a conversational event, and not simply stated into the ether.

This event was recorded, and the recording of this and the other talks are due to be available online.

A few years ago, a friend of a friend of mine down in Melbourne was asked by an ex-girlfriend to catch up over coffee. The meeting started tersely, and she seemed to struggle to find words. "Hey" she said "I've been thinking back on our relationship, and I've realised that some stuff happened, you did some stuff, that was really not okay. Some stuff that was abusive."

They talked a little more, and she left shortly afterwards, leaving in her wake a list of requests. That he start seeing a therapist, that he avoid the local arts scene they were both members of for a while, and that he not talk to her again. He did so, starting therapy and stepping back from his community for several years.

Yet, it is at this point that he started to face stronger and stronger call outs from this ex and her peers. I come into this story here, hearing about it through a phone tree of friends, and upon realising his current partner and I have met a number of times and are on good terms, I enquire about the situation.

A clear set of parameters were asked of him by this ex as a result of the harm he committed, a set of parameters he worked to meet. An escalated state of calling out was entered into, and the ongoing conflict saw no immediate end. This woman's unresolved tension and her need to find control and peace through continuing to engage with her experience are still a cause of pain, and they are both clearly at a loss as to what to do next.

The right of victims to choose the ways in which they heal is imperative, and something I believe in, along with the power in dictating those ways to those around them, but I also struggle to see how we can heal – as individuals and as community – when there is a vacuum of resolution. I see people trying to engage the state – through policing and sentencing – to find answers and solutions to trauma that is highly personal, and often exacerbated by those very means. It is in this spa ce, void of answers, that I have spent the past year or more, stuck and searching for solutions, for options, for resolutions. I guess it is this search, and the many people engaging with it, that has lead us all here tonight.

Hashtag Me Too, or the me too movement, has swept through the arts industry around the world, the internet as a conduit for pointing out and naming our pain – inarguably powerful. In light of this event however, and the questions we are posing, I want to take a moment to ask what the movement has and has not achieved.

It is my belief that the Me Too movement has achieved two distinct outcomes - the first is that in the loudness, many have been able to find communities of support and belief, and find belief in our own experiences. The second is unequivocally demonstrating that there are abusers in our midst. The range and superabundance of stories confirms what many of us have known for years, whether through whisper networks or first hand trauma, that no industry or space is inherently safer – not for being more educated, higher or lower earning, more or less casual, or having a certain political leaning.

Unfortunately, there is far more that the Me Too movement has failed to do. Despite the deafening online outpouring of our darkest moments, there remained many unasked and unanswered questions: a disengagement of our responsibility to each other as more than just passive listeners or active agents of anger; an absence of community accountability; and a concerning focus on punishment and retribution. For what became an ever increasing number of variations on the theme, there remained an overwhelming sense of core issues that not only enacted the harm in the first place, but continued it in perpetuity – patriarchy, entitlement, and power to name a few – little was as clear as so many of us having baggage for which we've not yet found the right terminal to check it. At the time, and looking back, I am also struck that in this brand new world of chronicled hurt, there seemed to be so little room to talk about healing, and who enables and enacts it.

Another friend of mine, a woman who was abused by a man some years ago and, going through every channel a 'good victim' is supposed to, had him expelled from her university, spoke to me recently of her regret. Her immediate impulse was to use the institutional power available to her to shun him entirely, but in hindsight has realised that a man who violently believed the system was against him was simply uprooted into a different city, a different university, and a different pool of women. Instead of feeling healed, she instead compulsively checks what he is up to, frets over his potential new victims, and relives her own trauma.

In the afterword of her 2016 book Conflict Is Not Abuse that deals with, among other topics, harm reduction through community, Sarah Schulmann recounts a question she was asked on a college stage, similar to the situation my friend found herself in, when a victim expressed anger that her rapist had not been expelled from the school. She says:

"I proposed that expelling a man who has committed a sexual assault from an elite private school simply unleashes him on the world of women who don't go to elite private schools. It may remove him from the class-based gated community, but it launches an angry, disenfranchised, and stigmatized perpetrator into the world of women who don't have deans and college councils to defend them."

While I think we can take something away from this tonight, when we loosely sub in words like 'CEOs', 'managers' and 'creative directors' with deans, and 'arts organisations' and 'funding bodies' with private schools, I consider the biggest takeaway from this is her belief (and indeed my belief) that not only is it the members of communities with institutional support and backing who are best equipped to initiate a process of healing, but that a process of healing is not only possible but essential. It begs the question: what does this look like?

'Restorative justice' is a term for a process of community accountability. Traditionally employed in activist and grassroots circles, it aims to repair the harm caused by crime by bringing together victims, community members and offenders to decide what harm repair looks like for them in that circumstance. What this structure looks like differs greatly depending on the type of organisation, the harm perpetrated, the community in question and the funds available.

There is a difficult balance here, too. When trying to create a system that does not allow abusers to slip through the cracks unseen, but simultaneously recognise that they are humans who must be seen as able to atone and become better people, we have to engage with a model of penance and penalty that doesn't simply write someone off, or demand they recuse themselves from engaging in the world forever.

We are not helped by complicating factors and realities we have to contend with in this work:

  • that some people report assault immediately, some take a short or a long while, and some never report it
  • that perpetrators of assault are, in the majority, men, but not all perpetrators are, and that men can also be victims of assault
  • that many people who report assault are doing so because they were assaulted, some do so because they assault someone and want to exist outside accountability, and some do so when no assault occurred but because they feel harmed in a way that they are otherwise unable to name or seek compassion for

The me too movement helped focus a lens on a specific - and rife - form of assault that occurs in industries all around us, but our solutions to that problem need also to function once we move out of situations of patriarchal and heterosexual power.

In the chapter 'Taking Risks: Implementing Grassroots Community Accountability Strategies' from the zine 'The Revolution Starts At Home', a framework is laid out for how to consider the harm that is done inside of communities, and how those communities can engage in accountability and healing. Among the ten guidelines they expand upon are, for example, to recognise everyone involved's humanity, and to prioritise the self-determination of the survivor, but also to be clear and specific about what kinds of accountability the group engaging in a resolution process want from the aggressor, and to communicate this clearly with the aggressor and those around them. It states:

"It’s important to make sure that “accountability” is not simply an elusive concept that folks in the group are ultimately unclear about. Does accountability mean counseling for the aggressor? An admission of guilt? A public or private apology? Or is it specific behavior changes?"

The chapter talks of a revolution through healing, but it points out that this is often work that involves the time and energy of both ourselves and our communities (and I'd recommend seeking out the whole zine later on). I also want to emphasise my belief that any resolution and actions we come to will be found through compassion first and foremost.

In tonight's setting, I believe we have slightly more ability, and additionally slightly more responsibility, seeing as many of these grassroots groups don't have management bodies and HR departments, but that doesn't undermine the amount of work that still needs to be done – as clearly evidenced by the me too movement and all its continuing offshoots. There is much yet to be done.

It is a difficult issue, and one that is intrinsically personal to so many of us. I myself have been on every side of a callout, and experienced a great deal of the emotions associated with those, and yet none of them have felt like closure, or like answers, and I do not believe the current paths these movements are treading have answers at their ends. In truth, I too do not yet have good answers to many of the questions that I have posed, but I am excited, to be a part of this ongoing conversation, for those of you that are here and watching at home, and for spaces like this. Thank you.

For more of Liz's writing on the subject, check out her piece at Overland.