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#MeToo: America's Fastest-Changing Conversation

Amitai Etzioni

Politics, Americas

U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) leaves after announcing his resignation over allegations of sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

America can't afford to ignore the speed and sweep and effect of recent moral dialogues on sexual harassment.

I started studying the American society sixty years ago, when I was appointed as an assistant professor at Columbia University. In all the years since, I have never seen anything like what I have been witnessing recently—and I am not referring to President Trump. I’m referring to the speed and sweep and effect of moral dialogues about sexual harassment. I studied such dialogues for decades; none of them moved nearly as fast, and none have been as effective as an agent of change in the short run—as the dialogue that was triggered on October 5, 2017, when the New York Times published a report about sexual abuses by Harvey Weinstein.

Moral dialogues are social processes through which people form new shared moral understandings. They take place not only in families and small communities, but also on a national (and sometimes international) level. A “moral brief” often serves as the starting point for a moral dialogue. The moral brief critiques the status quo moral culture and proposes a new shared understanding. For example, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring served as a moral brief for the environmental protection movement, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique for the women’s movement, and Martin Luther King’s speeches for the civil rights movement.

Once a moral dialogue takes off, it becomes the subject of extensive discussion in personal settings—over dinner, in bars, at places of worship. These discussions are then amplified by the national media, in call-in shows, panel discussions on TV, and on social media. When moral dialogues reach a successful conclusion, the result is a new shared understanding—one that involves changes in norms, values and attitudes.

Furthermore, new shared moral understandings lead to voluntary changes of behavior. People stop throwing trash out of their car windows and start recycling; they seek to increase women and minority representation in public meetings, elected posts and corporate offices; they stop smoking in public and pick up after their dogs.

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