When predators borrow the language of the #MeToo movement
Recently, I got to assessing the range of responses to accusations of sexual misconduct. Many official statements issued by or on behalf of predatory men in the past few months have drawn further ire for being insufficiently apologetic — or just plain slapdash — and there are heated disagreements as to what makes for a thoughtful, constructive admission of guilt. It occurred to me that one of these men might stray into the language of the victims and those who stand in solidarity via the #MeToo movement.
The joke got a few dozen likes, and I promptly forgot it. But three days later, I woke to notifications from friends who were saying my prediction had come true. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, who in June resigned from the firm he co-founded after half a dozen women said he’d made inappropriate sexual advances, had tweeted (and deleted) a comment regarding Time magazine’s decision to name the #MeToo “Silence Breakers” as their “Person of the Year,” applauding his own accusers.
Perhaps because Caldbeck’s downfall came months before the Harvey Weinstein story consumed the news cycle (and led to widespread reporting on similar “open secrets”), he has lately seemed poised for a comeback despite continued criticism, speaking against “bro culture” at Duke University (his alma mater) and planning a website in the same vein. For his part, Caldbeck has said he resists any potential narrative of swift redemption, a point he reiterated when I spoke with him on the phone later in the day.
“I don’t care about getting my job back, or getting back in the industry,” Caldbeck told me. He explained that he’s focused on his family, “obviously,” and — in a phrase he repeated a lot — “creating positive change.” When he saw the Time cover, he said, “I did think about not saying anything.” It’s true that Caldbeck’s Twitter has been quiet for a while, save for a few retweets. But, because of his guilt in relation to the movement, he thought it would be right to speak up: “The last thing I wanted to do is be a distraction. I was trying to pay respect to the people who came forward. I wrote ‘including my accusers’ because I respect what they did, and I didn’t want to exclude them.”
This consideration is somewhat undercut by an article BuzzFeed ran in September that reported Caldbeck had threatened legal action against Niniane Wang, one of the women who had gone on the record regarding his harassing behavior and continued to repeat those allegations. Presumably, Wang was among those applauded in his #MeToo tweet. At one point in our conversation, lamenting the backlash to that comment and reversing the interview dynamic, Caldbeck asked me what he could have done differently. I granted that he was in uncharted territory and said that aside from the mistake of tweeting at all, calling his victims “accusers” was perhaps unwise.
“Maybe that was a poor choice of words,” he admitted. “They’re most commonly referred to as my ‘accusers.’ I wasn’t trying to undermine them and undermine their accounts.”
Traveling the road to redemption or not, there’s a razor-fine line for a guy like Caldbeck to walk in having a public presence at all, and though he was quick to remark that he’s “not the victim here,” he did address the strain of the past year.
“Honestly, it’s been horrible… There’s a lot of people that don’t know me, that have just read what they’ve read, and think I should just shoot myself and die, that I’m a waste of a human being,” he said, adding: “I get that viewpoint.”
He then sought to put some daylight between his style of harassment — which included groping and untoward text messages, per The New York Times — and a range of severe crimes exposed lately, “all the way up to rape, for certain people.” Implicit in this appeal to a spectrum is the fact that we as a culture are reckoning with different degrees of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which carries a second, unspoken assumption: Every bad man might have been worse.
Is Caldbeck on the right path? In some ways I worried he has already worked the vocabulary of assault to its grim extreme — and to his best advantage. That’s an opinion shared by recipients of “apology” emails he’s sent to his most vocal critics, who believe he’s now “exploiting the public discussion around sexual harassment to recast himself as an ally,” as Wired puts it.
“I think it’s easy to sit back and believe that every man that’s being accused is calculating in what they’re doing, trying to leverage for a position of authority,” Caldbeck said. In fact, it may be impossible to think otherwise, especially since he keeps falling back on ignorance as the reason for his misconduct and insists he has learned a lot since.
“I know in my heart — and people can believe me or not — that I don’t know I was making women uncomfortable,” he told me. “This was an issue which I, embarrassingly, didn’t really think about, and didn’t think I was contributing to.”
That Caldbeck wishes someone had helped him understand gender and power dynamics in his youth, as he said on our call, is not in itself objectionable. Nor is his desire to become that voice for a new generation of young men. I see how he and others looking to reform could add a valuable perspective to the dialogue. Yet I’d like to believe in the existence of a moral self-awareness apart from education, a sense of responsibility beyond what a guest speaker or syllabus can impart to, say, the students at Duke.
When I asked Caldbeck how he framed his speech there, he mentioned how “certain behaviors” common in college, “wrong” but often “explained away” at that stage of life, in adulthood can “cost you your career and your reputation and cause a lot of damage to women.” I worry there is a problematic reinforcement of priorities in the way he listed those consequences, even if it was a slip — the same way his #MeToo tweet was a slip. Half of progress lies in knowing the problems we mean to leave behind.