Margaret Atwood likes to stir the pot. Always has. You've got to like her for that. So when she wrote a piece in Saturday's Globe and Mail called "Am I a Bad Feminist?", she can't have been too surprised by the vitriol that ensued. What might surprise the rest of us is where it came from. These attackers were not the usual Atwood critics on the right. They are a generation of younger activists who think she has sold women, feminism – and especially victims of sexual assault – down the river.
"Just here to say I would rather eat my own computer and then my own face than read something by Margaret Atwood with the title 'Am I a Bad Feminist?' " tweeted one. "I cannot bring myself to read that Margaret Atwood shitpiece," went another. And those were the more polite ones. Several tweets accused her of being an old, cisgender white woman. In this intersectional age, that alone is proof of guilt.
Margaret Atwood as an enemy of feminism is a tough concept to get your head around. She is, after all, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, the universally acclaimed dystopian fantasy in which women are enslaved to men. Her impressive body of work – one that has profoundly informed the feminist zeitgeist – is a 50-year-long attack on misogyny and the patriarchal state. Ms. Atwood is probably the leading feminist author in the world. So what happened?
What happened is that the Revolution has entered a new phase. Having vanquished the reactionaries, the Jacobins are sending the moderates to the guillotine. The buildings must be razed so that society can begin anew. Everyone who isn't for them is against them. Moderates like Ms. Atwood, with their odious ideas about due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, are traitors to the Revolution.
As one letter to The Globe put it the other day: "Revolution isn't about justice. It's about change."
Ms. Atwood's Saturday essay was an effort to justify her role in an extremely murky case involving Steven Galloway, a former creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia who was dismissed after allegations of sexual assault. She and other writers have come under heavy fire for signing an open letter that's critical of the way the university handled (or, more accurately, bungled) the investigation of case. She has no opinion of his guilt or innocence, which, given the lack of public evidence, is impossible to judge.
In the hothouse world of CanLit, the case has been hugely divisive. Under immense pressure, several writers have unsigned the letter, and Ms. Atwood has been accused of using her privilege to silence younger female victims. On Saturday, she fanned the flames by cautioning that the #MeToo movement runs the risk of vigilante justice. "My fundamental position," she wrote, "is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing " She went on to warn: "In times of extremes, extremists win."
These days many younger feminists regard such sentiments as heretical. As one tweeter wrote: "If @MargaretAtwood would like to stop warring amongst women, she should stop declaring war against younger, less powerful women and start listening."
"I have been listening for approx 60 years," Ms. Atwood shot back on Twitter. "Endorsing basic human rights for everyone is not warring against women. In order to have rights for women you have to have rights period. Me being a blood-drinking monster does not make that untrue."
Ms. Atwood is scarcely alone in warning that the #MeToo movement has gone too far. Last week, Catherine Deneuve and 99 other French women signed an open letter saying the same thing. The essence of their argument was – well, French. It said that using social media for outing men accused of sexual misconduct is not a good idea. It said that clumsy flirting isn't rape. It pointed out the impossibility of policing sexual desire. But something got lost in translation. Critics immediately accused Ms. Deneuve of internalized misogyny, and argued that the signatories were condoning rape. Ms. Deneuve was forced to walk it back and issue a hasty apology to sexual assault victims.
Sadly, I am the very last ally Ms. Atwood needs. If anything, my opinion will only serve as more ammunition for people who are convinced she's joined the reactionaries. But I can't help it. I too believe that due process, as frustrating and imperfect as it is, is better than the alternative. I do not think that public lists of anonymous accusations against named media men, like the one currently doing the rounds in the U.S., should be allowed to destroy careers. (The accusations on the Shitty Media Men list include such crimes as "secretly removing condom during sex" and being "in general a huge disgusting sleaze ball.")
But of course I'd be on her side. I'm just another elderly cis white woman with too much privilege. Off with our heads.