Katie Roiphe has, once again, done the improbable. She’s united feminists in being grossed out by Katie Roiphe. And she didn’t even have to write a word.
On Tuesday, whispers on social media indicated that Harper’s Magazine was planning to publish an article by Roiphe that would “out” the original author of the Shitty Media Men list, an anonymously sourced web document that went hyper-viral last fall.
Feminists who rarely agree with each other were united in condemning the piece, which nobody has read. Nicole Cliffe offered to pay writers who had pieces lined up with Harper’s to pull their work (according to The New York Times, Cliffe has agreed to pay $19,000 so far). Then multiple women began taking credit for writing the list, an “I Am Spartacus” for the digital age, an attempt to sow confusion in the fact-checking process. (As of Thursday, Harper’s hasn’t indicated that it plans on spiking the article.)
Part of the pre-emptive backlash was certainly due to the nature of Roiphe’s previous work. Her 1994 book The Morning After criticized popular discussion around campus rape by writing that women who say they were raped after drinking or taking drugs were partially to blame, because they took alcohol or drugs. She also questioned the veracity of many women’s alleged rapes, implying that instead they’d had bad sex. A lot of women who engaged in discussion around the Shitty Media Men list, who shared it, who wrote about it, already were primed to not like Katie Roiphe.
Roiphe denied that she was planning on outing the list’s author to The New York Times. But last night, Moira Donegan outed herself as the list’s real author. In a piece for New York Magazine’s The Cut, Donegan said that she’d been contacted by a fact-checker from Harper’s who said she’d been identified in the article as the likely original author of the list, and did she have a comment?
Guess Katie Roiphe just proved that women do actually lie about serious stuff.
That’s not to say that the Shitty Media Men list was a great idea on its face. Many women, including this writer, were uncomfortable with the way that the serious, criminal accusations against men were vetted (they weren’t). The list’s detractors pointed out that because it was based entirely on anonymously sourced rumors, it was impossible to tell which of the listings were true and which were false. It was impossible for people included on the list to know where the accusation was coming from, since nobody who edited the list was identified.
The list’s defenders pointed out that “whisper networks” are necessary for women’s professional self-preservation. Besides, many were eager to point out, false accusations are rare. (The reason women don’t make false accusations is that there’s a high social cost for being identified as a person who makes false accusations. Remove the potential social cost of a lie by making it easy to tell one anonymously and you remove a barrier for would-be liars. But I digress.)
Donegan wrote that she never intended for it to hurt anybody, just help women. “[T]he value of the spreadsheet was that it had no enforcement mechanisms: Without legal authority or professional power, it offered an impartial, rather than adversarial, tool to those who used it. It was intended specifically not to inflict consequences, not to be a weapon—and yet, once it became public, many people immediately saw it as exactly that.”
Donegan wanted a place where women could accuse men of things like violent rape or gross misconduct in a way that also somehow did not hold men accountable for things like violent rape or gross misconduct. An impossible wish, especially because it was bound to go public, was bound to hurt people, was bound to ruin friendships and relationships. People want to know about this stuff, and coveted information has a way of getting around.
There are also plenty of reasons to question actions spawned by the #MeToo movement, and for men and women to honestly and critically engage in a good-faith debate around the issue. For example: Is it fair to assume that any man who is credibly accused of any sexual misconduct at any point in his career deserves to lose his livelihood? Why sexual misconduct and not, say, drunk driving? If not, how severe must the action be? How will workplaces fairly set forth guidelines around employee conduct? Do they apply retroactively? Is that fair? Does it matter if it’s fair?
But Roiphe’s denied-yet-apparently planned outing of the list’s original author’s identity was exactly the wrong way to go about criticizing #MeToo, or the Shitty Media Men list, or feminism in general. It’s such a bad move that it almost seems like it was engineered in a lab.
Donegan didn’t have malignant intentions when she composed the list. Whether or not that was an impossible dream is up for discussion. But Donegan didn’t seek to make a viral list. Once the list went viral, it caused real harm to the people on it, for better or for worse. Those people are almost certainly upset that they were accused publicly and anonymously of sexual misconduct. There are people who have nothing to do with the list who find its existence enraging, people who would harass, target, and intimidate Donegan in a sort of sick tit-for-tat. No good can come of her outing.
Roiphe’s role in pointing the ire of a digital justice mob at a woman who herself inadvertently exposed men to potential justice mobs feels less like journalism and more like irresponsible cruelty.
But this was always going to happen; online justice mobs rarely end well, and once something is online, it’s impossible to control who sees it, who uses it. Last fall, Mike Cernovich got his hands on a copy of the Shitty Media Men list and posted some of the names to his blog, which means that the list, intended to help women, ended up helping the author of The Gorilla Mindset profit.
Five years ago, similar accusations hurled and stoked on Reddit and other semi-anonymous forums snowballed into the Gamergate harassment campaign. That campaign targeted game developer Brianna Wu, who was among the supporters of Donegan’s anonymity. Ultimately, it too failed to achieve its intent. Its bones became the alt-right; its legacy has nothing to do with games journalism, and Brianna Wu is running for Congress.
The aim of Gamergate was to hurt and the aim of the Shitty Media Men list was to protect. But both prove, from opposite directions, how virality quashes intent. Anything that gets posted to the internet could one day end up on the front page of The Washington Post, or the front page of Breitbart. And even the best intentions could have consequences beyond the creator’s control.