Margaret Atwood’s failure of imagination

OPINION: The author’s comments about 'good feminists' don’t make her a renegade — they put her squarely on the side of the status quo
By Chantal Braganza - Published on January 17, 2018
Canadian author Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is facing backlash for her recent article about feminism and free speech. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

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​In her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood describes a specific type of twisted justice. The main character attends a Particicution, a ritual in which Handmaids, reproductive property of a Christian fundamentalist state, maul a person to death for committing acts of violence and rape against one of their own. The punishment is designed to give the women a relief valve for pent-up anger over their subjugation. The reader later learns, though, that the practice is not justice in any sense, as many of those convicted have been falsely accused by the state. Mob violence that claims innocent people and reinforces the oppression of those who participate in it — a thoroughly frightening concept that makes the Particicution scene one of the most deeply affecting in the book.

Over the last few days, I’ve wondered if Atwood had some form of this justice in mind while writing her recent Globe and Mail column on contemporary feminism, the #MeToo movement, and her co-signing of an open letter written by a group that calls itself UBC Accountable. The letter, published in late 2016, called for transparency in the University of British Columbia’s handling of allegations made against the then-chair of the creative writing program, novelist Stephen Galloway. It has been criticized heavily online — accused of diminishing, even dismissing, the concerns of the student complainants. Did Atwood see Galloway as a kind of Particicution convict? Does she see herself as an innocent victim threatened by throngs of furious “Good Feminists,” as she calls them, while the real oppressors look on?

These suggestions may seem dramatic and extreme. But that’s the tone Atwood herself establishes in her column. She refers to the Great Purge of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and to Argentina’s military dictatorship of the 1970s — both of which resulted in tens of thousands of government-sanctioned deaths. She warns that the tendency of resorting to extra-legal measures in the face of systemic injustice, which has characterized the #MeToo movement, “can morph into a culturally solidified lynch-mob habit.”

While I deeply hope Atwood doesn’t mean to suggest any analogies between the UBC case or her own Twitter grillings and a history of anti-Black racist killings, clearly she thinks that something’s amiss here: That her support of UBC Accountable is being unfairly attacked, even censored. That something’s wrong with today’s feminist movement. That in-fighting about either is simply a political distraction that continues to keep women oppressed.

When it comes to those first two arguments, her reasoning simply doesn’t hold up — and responding to criticism by suggesting that today’s generation of feminists has forced the movement into a good/bad binary is participating in the very type of distraction and division she describes.

To start with, Atwood’s characterizations of the UBC process, however flawed it may have been, range from purely conjectural to simply untrue. Using terms such as “inquiry by a judge” and “not-guilty verdict” to describe retired BC Supreme Court Justice Mary Ellen Boyd’s involvement in the school’s investigation suggests that a legal procedure took place and that Galloway was somehow cleared by the courts. But as novelist and teacher Dorothy Ellen Palmer pointed out earlier this week, Boyd was not acting as a judge. And her report was, rightly or not, made available only to UBC and Galloway. It’s simply impossible for Atwood to know for sure that “the judge said there had been no sexual assault,” but “the employee [Galloway] got fired anyway.” The source she cites for this knowledge — “a statement released by Mr. Galloway through his lawyer” — is hardly impartial.

Re-telling the story in this way supports what many of UBC Accountable’s detractors have suggested all along: these calls for transparency are more about prioritizing the accused over the complainant than they are about due process. In an article Atwood wrote for The Walrus shortly after the open letter was published, she stated that “to take the position that the members of a group called ‘women’ are always right and never lie — demonstrably not true — and that members of a group called ‘accused men’ are always guilty — Steven Truscott, anyone? — would do a great disservice to accusing women and abuse survivors, since it discredits any accusations immediately.” If the original intent of the letter was to call for a public clarity that benefited both parties, what purpose did such a statement serve?

Rape culture, believe women, #MeToo. Regardless of how the idea is expressed, pointing out to a group of high-profile writers that their language is upholding a status quo that makes sexual harassment and violence endemic on university campuses isn’t suggesting that women never lie. It is possible to hold both ideas in the mind at the same time. To respond with bland truisms about human moral character, to suggest that such arguments “are giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision-making in the world,” isn’t just skirting the issue — it’s patronizing, and it sets up precisely the Good/Bad Feminist binary Atwood claims is the problem here. The fact that she compares the backlash she’s faced to historical atrocities with real body counts is absurd and only feeds into the very type of extremist thinking she’s warning us about.

Instead of describing calls for a little self-awareness as “unproductive squabbling,” Atwood could try doing something more productive herself. Like trying to understand why a discussion like the one around UBC Accountable might contribute to a student’s decision not to report a case of sexual violence. Or thinking about how it’s possible for women to speak up for years about harassment in university writing programs and find themselves ignored until a man all but confesses his own complicity in having kept such an environment alive.   

Willfully misunderstanding a single, valid criticism of your actions and calling it an extremist attack is willfully failing to imagine a set of circumstances outside your own. For someone so adept at imagining alternative futures, this shouldn’t be so difficult. 

Correction: This article originally stated that retired BC Supreme Court Justice Mary Ellen Boyd had acted as a mediator in this case. In fact, she led an investigation into the matter. TVO.org regrets the error.


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