#MeToo, Believing Survivors, and Cooperative Digital Communication

The #MeToo movement—as it emerges in social interaction and digital communication—is a discursive formation that suggests at least two frames of linguistic analysis. This column seeks to unpack the hashtag’s emergence in co-oxygenated social interaction, its transformation through digital communication, and closes with brief thoughts on its limitations for transformative social justice change.

“Me too” as the second part of an adjacency pair

In linguistics, we understand that adjacency pairs are one way to analyze conversational turn-taking—comprised of two utterances by two speakers where the second pair-part responds to the first pair-part, such as a call-and-response (“MOM!”; “Yes?”) or a greeting in response to another greeting. For an anthropological analysis, however, we must consider how effective communication is not only cooperatively enacted between interlocutors, as in Grice’s communicative principle, but also culturally situated in the historical silencing of sexual trauma.

When “me too” moves from co-oxygenated communication to digital communication, the hashtag draws on its power as the second pair-part of an atypical adjacency pair and transforms into a resource for thousands.
We have long been operating in a discursive field in which stories of sexual violence (as a first pair-part) are met by listeners who do not respond “cooperatively” and believe/accept/acknowledge the narrative of trauma. What is more, the stigma, disbelief, and social silence around sexual trauma have suppressed many women and some men from uttering first pair-parts. However, by the late 1990s, it seems that new social conditions emerged for the felicity and efficacy of political turn-taking around sexual violence in the United States, sparked in part by the high-profile harassment case brought by Anita Hill against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1997, Tarana Burke, the founder of the MeToo movement, found herself sitting across from a 13-year-old girl who was telling a traumatic story about her sexual abuse. As the young girl narrated her experience, Burke responded, “Me too,” as a way to cooperatively acknowledge empathy with this narrative without centering herself in the response, or second pair-part. For Burke, this was the moment where the Me Too campaign began, as a way for women and girls to share their trauma and for others to respond, “Me too.” In this face-to-face interactional frame, we see that “me too” is the second pair-part to a personal revelation of sexual trauma, and that it emerged during an affectively fraught communicative event. The power of Burke and others saying “me too” pushes against the normative expectation that narratives of sexual violence are met with disbelief, denial, or rejection. Instead, me too indexes believing the survivor, because the listener is also a survivor of sexual trauma.

#MeToo as a performative digital strategy on social media

Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa’s masterful concept of hashtag ethnography encourages the semiotic analysis of social media movements. As they point out, on Twitter, hashtags are an indexing protocol that allows for the ordering and quick retrieval of tweets around a particular topic. But as Bonilla and Rosa explain, hashtags also allow users to performatively frame what these comments are “really about.”

In this case, when the second pair-part “me too” moves from a one-on-one interactional frame to the digital frame of a tweet by Alyssa Milano shared with millions of Twitter users, the hashtag #MeToo provided users, specifically women whose sexual trauma and harassment are often not believed, the possibility to be validated and legitimized through a synchronized digital harmony of thousands of #MeToo responses. What is more, this allowed Twitter users to demonstrate digital solidarity as a group of survivors—to be connected and recognized as a social collective that extends the therapeutic project of individual recognition.

According to the Pew Research Center, #MeToo averages over 55,000 tweets a day, and there have been 19 million tweets since Milano’s initial tweet over a year ago. These numbers index how individual grief and sadness have transformed into righteous anger and solidarity: if we’re all going to feel this way, let’s feel it together. Because #MeToo originated in an in-person interactional response to a personal trauma narrative, its discursive formation has a deeply affective component. With these two words, I am insisting that I can relate, I can connect, I have this embodied knowledge inside, me too. As Milano tweeted, commemorating the anniversary of her initial tweet, “Our collective pain became our collective power.”

When “me too” moves from co-oxygenated communication to digital communication, the hashtag draws on its power as the second pair-part of an atypical adjacency pair and transforms into a resource for thousands, becoming a powerful online discursive formation to talk openly about sexual trauma and violence in the public sphere—a site where this kind of revelation and legitimization has not been acknowledged, much less encouraged or supported.

To close, I want to consider the paradox of MeToo. While #MeToo has been a rallying cry of solidarity, the question has increasingly come up, what difference is this movement making in changing systems of power? Although social media is a wildly popular and powerful platform to bring people together, that is arguably as far as its utility extends. Changing systems of power is not what hashtags are designed to do, although social actors might use hashtags to critique those systems, as stated above. As a technology company, Twitter is more concerned with broadening its user population to offer companies a larger databases than thinking about how its platform can support systemic social transformation.

Similarly, news media institutions with their dependency on ad-dollars and corporate influence perpetuate the patriarchal culture of social silences around issues of sexual harassment. The Women’s Media Center reports that media coverage of MeToo has overwhelmingly focused on the hashtag #MeToo and much less so on specific allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. In this regard, the current news media environment emphasizes newsworthiness and retweetability, rather than the actual crimes. Paradoxically, while the people who responded with “#MeToo” to the MeToo movement sought to bring attention to narratives of assault, media focus has been on the “movement” rather than the particular cases. For example, the Women’s Media Center found that “between 80 and 700 articles a month focused on the #MeToo movement itself, rather than mentioning it in the context of a story about a specific sexual assault case.” Put another way, the study found that in February 2018 more than 55 percent of stories about sexual assault mentioned the movement.

I am troubled by the question of whether the institutions we look to for justice are equipped to adequately respond to issues of sexual violence. Specifically as linguistic anthropologists, it is imperative that we draw on our methodological approach as one contribution to shaping and framing pressing questions of social justice in society. In this case, we see how an atypical adjacency pair has set off a movement by believing survivors, and that we must continue to analyze how the #MeToo movement can continue its important work.

Mariam Durrani is an assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College and serves as co-chair for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Committee on Language and Social Justice.

Cite as: Durrani, Mariam. 2018. “#MeToo, Believing Survivors, and Cooperative Digital Communication.” Anthropology News website, December 21, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1062

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