The #MeToo movement has dominated news cycle after news cycle since last October, as men, and some women, from all walks of life have been accused of sexual misconduct. This has most famously been through allegations against figures such as Harvey Weinstein, almost-Senator Judge Roy Moore, actual-Senator Al Franken, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and now, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. They are accused of a wide range of acts that have forced us to consider not just how we deal with the abuse of power dynamics with sex, but what that abuse should be constituted as. This more complicated, more nuanced question forces us to deal with a topic that is present not just in gender issues, but in all of society’s most contentious and most controversial topics: discomfort.
Discomfort is not as often in the headlines. Discomfort is #TimesUp to disgust’s #MeToo. It is far more pervasive, though, because it is what happens at the societal tipping point, when a practice has been challenged or proposed, and communities are then, as a whole, forced to make a judgement on it. Discomfort is when the introduction of a company policy against sexual harassment makes you wonder whether or not it is okay to make lewd jokes or statements about a female coworker. Discomfort is when a system-wide ban on manspreading makes you question if the way that you’ve been sitting on the train, bus or plane for your entire life is still acceptable. Discomfort is when an anchorman wears the same suit for a year to demonstrate the sexist way that we perceive women’s clothing choices, and you consider the fact that you’ve never had to give a second thought to what you wear. Discomfort is when studies reveal the effects of gender bias in hiring practices, and you’re forced to think about how the company you work for recruits far more men than women. Discomfort is when somebody shows you that these things were all in the headlines, but that you just didn’t notice them.
And discomfort isn’t just what men feel when women point out the structural inequalities perpetuated by gender norms. Discomfort is when a woman is decried as racist for calling the cops on black people holding a barbeque, when airport security as an entity is labeled racist for always stopping the Muslim family, when a presidential candidate is denounced as racist for saying that Mexicans are dangerous, and you realize that you are more nervous when you’re in neighborhoods with black people, that it makes you uneasy when somebody who fits your stereotypical image of Muslim gets on a plane or that hearing Spanish spoken nearby makes you uncomfortable. Discomfort is when requirements to receive welfare are portrayed as an unfair burden, and you reflect on how you just want to make sure that people aren’t abusing the system. Discomfort is when anybody who questions gay marriage is called homophobic, and you think about how just seeing a man kiss another man makes you uncomfortable. Discomfort is when somebody tells you that transgender issues are just gender issues, and you realize that you had always thought of it as its own separate issue because it’s just “different” for some reason.
It can be appealing to avoid discomfort, if for no other reason that there are justifications which offer not just a way to be inactive, but also a way to absolve oneself of responsibility for the disadvantages of others. And yet, in juxtaposition to these justifications are even more compelling reasons for why societal discomfort is not only worth it, but is something that should be sought after.
The more pragmatic of these is that this discomfort ends with more people being able to contribute to society. When society isn’t discriminating against you, this is easier for some reason, and it is impossible to know not only how much creation was lost, but also how much could be created if societal inequalities became societal equalities. And if discomfort is the price to pay, it is worth it.
More importantly, though, momentary marginalization is nothing compared to the historical kind. This is not to say that the discomfort from any marginalization is illegitimate. Instead it is to say that being told not to treat people as socially or morally deviant anymore is trivial compared to the psychological burden of having society cast you as morally or socially deviant simply for being who you are. It is saying that not expressing your fears of black people, Muslims or Latinos is trivial compared to actually having those fears be about you. It is saying that not questioning somebody’s right to love who they love is trivial compared to actually having your right to love someone be up for debate in the first place. It is saying that not voicing your concern about somebody using a certain restroom is trivial compared to having your bathroom usage be a concern at all. It is saying that being criticized for having certain viewpoints that you were raised to have is trivial compared to having had those viewpoints be about you. Furthermore, it is saying that although ignorance on these issues may be bliss, it is not absolution; whether or not you realize that a group is historically disenfranchised, whether or not you were raised to think that was okay, standing idly by keeps them disenfranchised.
Discomfort is not an easy feeling to deal with; it requires opening oneself up to criticism from groups of people who will be more than ready to criticize you for not being willing to be criticized sooner. And yet the point of discomfort is where we decide who we are as a society, and how we deal with our past digressions. For too long we have deferred on those decisions and demurred on corrections to those digressions. For our own sake, it’s time to act, because the discomfort has always been worth it.