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David Remnick: I come at this with not one identity, but multiple identities. I'm an American, I'm a Jew, I'm a reporter.
Brooke Gladstone: As the war grinds on in Israel and Gaza, reporters struggle to find clarity in the murk. From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. Also on the show, a Netflix series has sparked a long-awaited MeToo movement in Taiwan. Don't even think of asking what took them so long.
Vickie Wang: Not everything has to happen on an American timeline. If the reverse were true, you guys would have national health care like we do.
Brooke Gladstone: Plus, a new novel re-examined the role of the internet in the MeToo movement, like the deployment of anonymous online accusations.
Yomi Adegoke: We weren't given enough time to unpack the ways in which the internet intersected with that movement and could be taken advantage of because it felt like a criticism of the movement.
Brooke Gladstone: It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's been nearly a month since the surprise attack by Hamas into Southern Israel, killing 1,400 Israelis, and prompting a response. 9,000 Gazans dead and counting, that Hamas, given past experience, surely would have foreseen.
Speaker 1: Planes streaming overhead, streaking overhead, dropping bombs, and now the Gaza Strip is cut off from the world. Now they can't call ambulances, they can't communicate among themselves, and they can't communicate with the world.
Speaker 2: My family lives not far from here. I don't know what's going on with them. I don't know if they're still alive or dead.
Speaker 3: The Israeli military saying the number of hostages held in Gaza has risen to 240.
Speaker 4: An explosion at a refugee camp in Gaza, the images are pretty difficult to watch.
Speaker 5: They're showing the entire neighborhood flattened, completely reduced to rubble.
Speaker 6: Despite more than two-thirds of the UN General Assembly voting in favor of a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says he will not agree to one.
Brooke Gladstone: Meanwhile, the battle of irreconcilable worldviews continues apace in world capitals, small outposts, and everywhere else, the news, or some stunted variant of it, can reach. Recently, New Yorker editor David Remnick went to Israel. He couldn't get into Gaza and returned with a 10,000-word piece called In the Cities of Killing, a reference to a famous poem.
The piece is part reporting, part history, and a range of conversations that strives to balance perceptions and passions, and the challenges posed to a reporter by both proximity to and distance from what truly may be the hardest story to report. Remnick found it useful to use the word and when one might be tempted to use the word but, because one thought or fact does not cancel out the other. The first paragraph reads, "The only way to tell this story is to try to tell it truthfully and to know that you will fail."
David Remnick: I come at this if we're speaking personally, with not one identity but multiple identities. I'm an American, I'm a Jew, I'm a reporter, and I try to call on those identities, recognize whatever powers I have but also weaknesses, to tell the story as best I can. As I say in the beginning of the piece, and it wasn't just rhetoric, it was confessional almost, knowing that I would, at least for many readers, fail.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote that the task of holding in one's head multiple thoughts, multiple facts, was nearly impossible, particularly in the face of the sloganeering and the allure of the militancy. There are a number of multiple facts you have to hold in your head. The fact that Israeli settlers, a lot of them armed, have stepped up their daily violence against Palestinian villagers, egged on by the Netanyahu government. The thought that Israel is well-armed and has powerful allies but is still the size of New Jersey and faces a whole region where many speak of its elimination. The situation in Gaza is seen by many as nothing more or less than colonialism.
David Remnick: The terminology is settler colonialism.
Brooke Gladstone: Or else you think that the Jewish people finally found a home and people want to kill them.
David Remnick: There are elements of both that are true. If your habit of mind is to say that the Israel-Palestine situation in history is precisely the same as France and Algeria, you're going to have one approach to how you think about it. If your view of the situation is entirely shaped by the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and only that, then it's very hard to accommodate other facts like the way settlers and the Israeli government harass, and worse, people in occupied West Bank, just the use of the word occupy. Certain narratives, certain fixed ways of seeing things do not permit complexity.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about the propaganda war. When you got there, you were shown a lot of gut-wrenching images on a big screen.
David Remnick: Yes, I accepted an invitation to come see this film that had been assembled. I wasn't born last week. I'm fully aware that there's a history of governments and militaries lying all over the world. At the same time, if information is offered to me, I'm going to examine it. This film was, and maybe history will overturn this assessment, it was genuine. It was a compilation, a lot of it from cell phones and GoPros by both Hamas and the victims. It was a methodical pogrom.
When Jews speak of pogroms, they very often refer to the pogrom in Kishinev in 1903. This was in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. There was a conspiracy theory that was put in a local anti-Semitic newspaper that a young Christian boy had been killed by Jews in order to have the blood used for Passover Monza. This set off, it could have been predicted a pogrom against Jews, which became the source of one of the great poems ever written in modern Hebrew and a further inspiration for the desire for a Jewish state. That's the poem called In the City of Killing.
How many people died at the Kishinev massacre, Brooke? 49. 49. On the October 7th massacre, it was 1,400, plus hostages, plus thousands injured. Now, the difference is that, unlike the Jews of Kishinev, Israel has a state, Israel has an army. That is absolutely true. At the same time, the sense of insecurity, the sense of vulnerability, it's very hard for me to describe how intense it is now in Israel.
Now, again, this is an and, not a but, across the wall, across the fence, the sense of vulnerability of Gazans. I'm not talking about Hamas. Gazans. Having airplanes flying over this very small area, like the size of Detroit. I don't know how many thousands have been killed on the day we're speaking. 7,000, 8,000, something like that, is horrific. At the same time, there's this threat of a wider war. The sense of peril, the sense of grief and rage, it just couldn't be-- Yet another thing I'm sure I failed in doing is conveying that intensity.
Brooke Gladstone: You were on an Israeli press junket, right? You weren't able to get into Gaza. That must have posed a challenge to the reporting.
David Remnick: It wasn't a junket. It wasn't like one reporter after another interviewing a movie star. I went into a military zone, and the only way you could do that was with the IDF. Getting into Gaza was, at that point, impossible.
Brooke Gladstone: You did go to East Jerusalem, and you met with a scholar of early Islamic philosophy named Sari Nusseibeh, who was an informal advisor to Yasser Arafat.
David Remnick: Sari Nusseibeh is a scholar of international reputation, not only of Palestinian affairs but also of early Islamic philosophy. When Arafat was alive and in power, he was an informal advisor to him. I would say this about Sari Nusseibeh, he was certainly one of the more moderate advisors that Arafat had to such a degree that eventually Sari Nusseibeh was on the outside of that circle. We met a short walk from his home in East Jerusalem and he looked a lot older than when I had seen him last, which wasn't so long ago. I think everybody did.
The way he explained the reaction in the West Bank to October 7th in East Jerusalem and his many, many friendships and acquaintances in the community. Nothing is unanimous, but the initial reaction was enormous euphoria. The euphoria being we broke out, like a prison break. When the news started coming in about how extensive the killings were, how brutal they were, how ecstatic they were, when videos started circulating, not just in the channels of foreign countries or in Israel, but throughout the Palestinian community, there was a very different reaction of wariness, of reluctance, of sadness, in some quarters, regret.
Sari Nusseibeh like anyone, when he saw those videos, when he heard the news of what had happened, when the details reached him, he was appalled, and he's hardly alone. This is not just the violence of military conflict in the conventional sense, it's something else. However, when the bombing of Gaza began to happen and quite frankly, when violence against Palestinians in the West Bank began to pick up pace, which has already been going for quite a while, then the narrative for many people turned again.
Brooke Gladstone: He said it was a mistake to think that Hamas is an alien being. It's part of a national tapestry. It grows bigger or stronger depending on other factors.
David Remnick: He's just analyzing the situation. He's also reacting to the rhetoric that you were hearing in Israel that Hamas must be eradicated. I think his view, which is not an uncommon one, is that Hamas is an idea and an impulse more than it is any individual. You may, and this is him talking, you may kill a lot of soldiers of Hamas and even many of their leaders, but new ones will appear. Radicalism will persist so long as the problem persists.
The general condition here is that you have in both societies. Again, I'm not trying to on the one hand or the other hand, it's just the fact of the matter, is that in Israeli politics you have voices of really dark reactionary textures. The guy that was just appointed the head of the committee to run West Bank Affairs in Israel is a radical settler that wasn't permitted to be in the army because he was deemed unfit to serve because of his activities and his harassment of Palestinians.
That's who's the head of the subcommittee in Knesset. Zvi Sukkot is his name. He's not an aberration. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, I don't see how that can be considered anything other than, in some ways, the mirror image of such ministers. Those strains in Israeli politics and in Palestinian politics will remain relatively popular until this conflict finds some resolution or at least progress. That's going to be very, very difficult.
Brooke Gladstone: Nusseibeh did seem to offer maybe a sliver of possibility of resolution.
David Remnick: I think Sari Nusseibeh's sensibility is such that pessimism, much less despair, is no position that we can afford as human beings. If you resign yourself to despair, the unforgivable sin in the Bible, then you're in a state of perdition and there's no way out of it. I think he is a realist in the sense that he knows this is going to take a long time. I think he's a realist, many Palestinians are when they're being open with you, often in private, that there were many missed chances in the past, not least when Ehud Barak and Arafat under the aegis of Bill Clinton seemed to come to a resolution in 2000 at Camp David and then Arafat walked away from it.
It's a complicated story. When Arafat told Clinton as Clinton was leaving office that you were a great man. Clinton said, "No, I'm a failure and you made me one."
Brooke Gladstone: Tony Klug, he's the vice chair of the Arab-Jewish Forum, he writes for Haaretz. He said that amidst all of this sense of hopelessness, that it was true that every peaceable advance in '67 was provoked by an unforeseen seismic event. The '67 war goaded Palestinians and at least accepting a state.
David Remnick: 100%.
Brooke Gladstone: The '73 war led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The Palestinian Intifada, the first one, prompted the Oslo Accord. The second Intifada prompted the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
David Remnick: Without question, that's true and it also led to other kinds of repercussions. Anwar Sadat made a separate peace between Egypt and Israel in 1977 and he was assassinated by his own military. Every Arab leader knows that that is a terrible risk including Yasser Arafat. This cycle which you cite, and it's absolutely true as a pattern, is another specter, another Damocles that hangs over these processes.
Brooke Gladstone: You spoke to Yair Golan, a retired army general who drew some links between some processes that preceded the Holocaust and some that popped up in Israel in 2016, specifically the othering of a race.
David Remnick: What's probably very surprising to Americans is that even in the national security apparatus in Israel, among people in the Mossad, people in the Shin Bet, which is like the FBI, and the army itself, some of the loudest, most convincing voices for the need for finding a resolution with the Palestinians comes from them, not just college professors in Tel Aviv. Yair Golan was a highly decorated general who, by the way, was also in command in the West Bank. He gave a speech in the wake of the killing of a Palestinian who had stabbed an Israeli. He was apprehended by Israeli soldiers and he was flat on the ground, fully subdued, but nevertheless, the Israeli soldiers shot him to death.
In the wake of that, Golan gave a speech, this is years ago now, warning against these tendencies. The violent overreach of soldiers, hideous rhetoric, harassment by settlers in the West Bank, which is something that's only gotten much worse in recent weeks. Again, this is not me mitigating or excusing or softening the horror of October 7th, which will live in the minds of Israelis and Jews and I hope in the world generally with extraordinary grief and bitterness. It's a historic event, but other things are true as well. It's not a matter of X but why it's a matter of X and Y, and that's what makes it so complex and that's what makes it so complex.
Brooke Gladstone: You sought out David Grossman, known in Israel for his great writing and his outspoken politics. Tell me why you wanted to talk to him.
David Remnick: David Grossman has been writing about the Palestinians since the '80s. He wrote a book called Yellow Wind, which was a collection of articles that depended not just on his imagination, but on real experience. He got around. He learned about Palestinians in the way most Israelis don't. David Grossman did something unusual for that time and remains what's called a liberal Zionist. He believed in the future of the state of Israel and at the same time recognized the absolute need for a fair resolution for Palestinians while maintaining security for Israelis. An increasingly unpopular stance.
By the way, his own son, two days after he and Amos Oz and Olivet Yeshua demanded a truce in the Second Lebanon War, two days after that gesture, his own son was killed in that very war. He's not some American who comes in on an El Al flight and does some reporting and leaves. That's me. He's living this. It just struck me as so meaningful to hear him talk about the likely effect in Israel in the months and years to come that Israel will have to be Sparta as well as Athens. In other words, the Athens Bar trying its best to be liberal, and have some decent sense of human rights, but Sparta as well. The walls go higher, the military atmosphere gets more intense. He was speaking in deeply tragic terms.
Brooke Gladstone: You quote a lieutenant colonel and a senior IDF spokesman who said that at a stint at the Kennedy School in Harvard, "He found his fellow students frozen when it came to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Scared to get into its history lest the discussion goes sideways." I think this goes back to your point about the emotional turmoil surrounding the story.
David Remnick: How we react to things politically and emotionally is shaped by what we're willing to admit into our minds. We live in a political culture of strident simplicity. It's exemplified by, made cartoonish by, and made infinitely worse by our previous President. He established a habit of mind so manipulative, stupid, cruel, and infinitely entertaining that it's had an influence. The world is now full of these people. I was just thinking about this, Brooke. You and I have a similar experience in life when we were young.
We lived in Moscow even overlapped a bit, and it was at a time from 1989 until 1995, in which the following things happened historically. The Berlin Wall came down, Eastern and Central Europe liberated, the Soviet Union turned into 15 independent states of highly varied textures, apartheid ended in South Africa and the Oslo Peace Accords were signed. This didn't end history. It didn't mean that heaven on earth had been established, but there was some sense of human and political possibility and progress that was inspiring.
Brooke Gladstone: There seemed to be a path forward.
David Remnick: Damn right. That's come crashing down for reasons that will be studied for centuries to come. To be in this place now, to see Russia invade Ukraine, an invasion by a gangster state.
Brooke Gladstone: You have a chilling line at the end that on both sides of the border in Israel and Gaza killing is the common condition. I think a lot of us watching this conflict from afar are searching for clarity. Did you get to any beyond the fact that killing is the common condition?
David Remnick: Well, there are some things that are clear. Antisemitism is hateful, Islamophobia is hateful. That at some point, Israelis and Palestinians have to not only recognize that they are in this very, very small landscape together, but that they have to reach a resolution together. That much is clear to me, but there are just such tremendous barriers to it. The wound to the Israeli psyche, the destruction of dozen lives and Gazan infrastructure-
Brooke Gladstone: And the brutalizing of a generation.
David Remnick: Yes, people are not born this way. [chuckles] People are not born this way. Cruelty hands down cruelty.
Brooke Gladstone: David, thank you very much.
David Remnick: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker.
Brooke Gladstone: Coming up a viral scene in a Taiwanese Netflix show lights the fuse for a MeToo reckoning. This is On The Media.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media on Brooke Gladstone. Now we move to another issue, another part of the world. Over the past few months in Taiwan, headlines have been filled with MeToo revelations.
Speaker 7: Taiwanese Entertainer Nono has been released on bail after being questioned over a series of accusations of sexual assault and harassment. Nono is accused of harassing or assaulting around 10 women.
Speaker 8: Taiwanese TV host Mickey Huang has beyond the latest celebrity caught in Taiwan's ongoing MeToo Movement. The 51-year-old Huang is accused of sexually harassing a female person who was 17 at the time.
Speaker 9: Unlike the US movement that began around the Harvey Weinstein revelations six years ago, Taiwan's MeToo Movement occurred earlier this year and was ignited by a TV show.
Speaker 10: Taiwan's recent MeToo Movements, sparked by a Netflix Show, has taken the island by storm after [crosstalk]
Speaker 11: One of the major plot threads of the TV show is the issue of entrenched sexual harassment in Taiwanese [crosstalk]
Speaker 12: The show has inspired more than 100 accusations in real life.
Brooke Gladstone: The show is called Wave Makers, and it follows a group of rowdy, ambitious campaign staffers during a fiery present-day presidential campaign in Taiwan. One storyline centers on something that happened to a young campaign staffer named Chang Ya Ching.
Vickie Wang: She was Just standing in the pantry trying to get a drink, and a male colleague came up to her.
Brooke Gladstone: Vickie Wang is an interpreter, writer, and standup comic based in New York and Taipei. She wrote a piece in the New York Times called Women in Taiwan are Tired of Being Nice.
Vickie Wang: He was touching her lower back while she was very politely trying to remove herself. He was also blocking her exit, even though she's made it politely clear that she has no interest in being touched.
Brooke Gladstone: When she told her superiors--
Vickie Wang: Very dismissive right off the bat. It's, "Oh, no, no, no. So-and-so is just very friendly. Maybe you misunderstood. Let's not make a big deal out of this. He's a very respected member of the party. We need him. He's very important to us," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Brooke Gladstone: Then a female coworker, a spokesperson of the party named Wang Wang Fang reaches out to her. Now, this is the scene that went viral. Wang is a little tipsy, perched outside a noisy karaoke bar. She calls up Chang, who's in a taxi and urges her not to let it go. Vicki will translate while we play the scene. Heads up, there's some discussion of sexual harassment in my conversation with Vickie, it might be hard for some people.
Vickie Wang: "Don't just let it go. I want to help you, so let's not just forget about this. Okay? Many things just can't be forgotten like this. If you keep letting things go, you'll die slowly. You'll just die. Okay, okay, let's not let it go. Let's not let it go. Let's not let it go.
Brooke Gladstone: What was it about this particular scene, this particular show that incited so many people ultimately to speak out?
Vickie Wang: I think this is the first time we've seen our storyline represented. Years ago when the MeToo Movement first started in Hollywood, it was an exotic, foreign, glamorous group of people who have suffered. While maybe some of the stories are familiar, we didn't see ourselves in it.
Brooke Gladstone: This, as you mentioned, was a really authentic representation of workplace culture in Taiwan.
Vickie Wang: Right, this is how it happens. Gentle microaggressions, joking comments, comparing your appearance to another female colleague.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about the first woman to speak out after the show premiered. She spoke about a sexual assault that incidentally happened when she was working as a staffer at the Democratic Progressive Party. She posted on Facebook about a filmmaker touching her during a car ride, during a DPP video shoot. In her post, she referred to that scene from Wave Makers and included photos of the character holding tears back.
Vickie Wang: Chen Chien-Jou was the first whistleblower in this whole MeToo Movement. She kicked the door open for us. She was working on a film project for the Democratic Progressive Party, was in a late-night car ride with the filmmaker where he, I believe, touches her thigh and made sexual suggestions. She reported it to her supervisor. The supervisor was the head of women's issues in the party, and the supervisor actually said to her, "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" [chuckles]
Chen Chien-Jou and I met because she was speaking at this small gathering where a bunch of journalists are talking about the the MeToo Movement. Then the next day I got a text message in a group chat. Someone was looking for an interpreter to interpret an interview between her and an international media outlet. I jumped at the chance, ran across town, and interpreted an interview at a little café. The thing you have to know about her is that she did it because she wanted the party and wanted the country to be better. Afterwards, the party leaders came forward and apologized. The president came forward and apologized and acknowledged the problem. Many people resigned or were dismissed.
Brooke Gladstone: Hundreds of people came forward and there was real change since those initial allegations just months ago.
Vickie Wang: Taiwanese lawmakers have actually made quite a bit of changes to our three sexual harassment laws. We have one for the workplace, one for schools, and another one that covers anything that falls outside of those two areas. They've upped the fine for employers if they fail to address sexual harassment complaints. They're also required to report cases to the appropriate officials. In education, they made it explicitly illegal to have relations with students under 18, and they've upped the fine for those who are convicted of sexual harassment.
On the one hand, yes, it's absolutely extraordinary that so much has changed so quickly but I think the way Chen Chien-Jou story played out is a very good indicator that just because the law has changed doesn't mean people handle things differently. We had these laws in place already before our MeToo movement, but what's considered sensible for now is still to be polite and to let things go. That's the social and cultural change that needs to happen.
Brooke Gladstone: You said it was poetic that the first time you spoke out about MeToo was as a conduit for someone braver.
Vickie Wang: Yes. A conduit is something that I learned from my interpreting professors. As an interpreter, you're supposed to be a conduit, a channel. You're not supposed to add your own emotions or opinions to anything you interpret but I do think just channeling her words gave me so much courage.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me about your experience, Vickie, please.
Vickie Wang: I was at a networking event with a bunch of journalists and a man who was the invited speaker, he started off by telling me like, "Oh, you're so smart. I would love for you to work with me." As a younger woman who's just starting out in my career, that was very exciting for me. As the event went on, and he got more and more drunk, he started talking about how he was going to divorce his wife for me. To quote him directly, he said, "I have a tiny penis, but I am very rich." I try to minimize it. I try to be like, "He didn't touch me but the more I minimize it, the more I dragged on."
I felt really down on myself and about my career and that later on bled into so many professional interactions that I've had. Whenever I get into a situation where an older male person was complimenting me on my skills, I am automatically on defense.
Brooke Gladstone: You can't win, basically.
Vickie Wang: Yes. If he hadn't done that, I would have been able to do the work that I'm good at and that's the parts that die. Over time, you keep making yourself smaller and safer, and then 10 years later, you look back and you think, "Oh my goodness, I could have done more but I was so busy being afraid."
Brooke Gladstone: You said that in Taiwan, there's a limited number of roles for women in Taiwanese life. It reminds me of that line from First Wives Club.
Vickie Wang: Oh, I love that movie.
Brooke Gladstone: Goldie Hawn, the actress, says, "There are only three ages for women in Hollywood. Babe, district attorney, and driving Ms. Daisy."
Vickie Wang: Yes. The rest of the world looks at us and go, "Oh, you've legalized gay marriage. You have a female president who has no family. All of those things should suggest that you are a feminist paradise." I would compare it to people thinking electing Barack Obama solved racism. It is fantastic that we have a female president who is a cat lady, and I love her so much but that doesn't mean the issue completely dissolves. Women in Taiwan still have very limited roles that they're allowed to play. One thing we're famous for amongst Mandarin speakers, we're known to have a very cute feminine accent. We speak like we're cats. We meow instead of speak from our diaphragm.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you give me a sample of that?
Vickie Wang: [foreign language]
Brooke Gladstone: Yes, I hear it.
Vickie Wang: You hear it, right?
Brooke Gladstone: I thought it was really interesting how you relate this idea of niceness to Taiwan's position in the world.
Vickie Wang: Yes. When I was writing the article, trying to figure out how to conclude it, I kept thinking about bodily integrity in my head that naturally led to sovereignty. Taiwan has been under threat for longer than I've been alive. Technically, the civil war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party never ended. We never signed an amnesty. Ever since I was a little kid, air raids were a common part of my school life, so we would go, walk single file into the basement. We do this thing where we cover our ears and eyes with our thumb and four fingers and we would just wait while the sirens went off.
Brooke Gladstone: How does that relate to niceness?
Vickie Wang: Taiwan has been forced into a position where we do our best to maintain the status quo. Any little move on our part that suggests any sovereignty or independence, we are immediately terrorized for it. Somehow I feel like that relates to how I experienced sexual harassment and how it's affected me. This thing of keeping yourself small, acceptable, and compliant. I was born a year before martial law lifted in Taiwan. Martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987 and since then, we've had a very peaceful transition to a thriving democracy that I'm very, very proud of. In the midst of that, there isn't a nationwide movement to challenge who women can be in our country.
Brooke Gladstone: Now you're pretty optimistic that this movement isn't just a blip. Do you think those who say, "Ah, it's past, MeToo is over." Do you think that they're really not seeing the big picture.
Vickie Wang: They're missing the entire point. The fact that women now have the opportunity to tell their stories and be listened to, that was the extraordinary change. I think sometimes we forget that because before women didn't tell our stories because we knew it would go unheard. We knew we would be dismissed.
Brooke Gladstone: In terms of the headlines related to Taiwan, "Belated MeToo movement." In The Diplomat. "Years after MeToo first swept the world, Taiwan races to respond." That's Reuters. What do you say to those?
Vickie Wang: Not everything has to happen on an American timeline. If the reverse were true, you guys would have national health care like we do.
Every country has its own issues and we work on it in our own time. The MeToo movement in Taiwan, it's a demonstration of how powerful it is to have good, authentic, accurate media representation of human stories.
Brooke Gladstone: Vickie, thank you very much.
Vickie Wang: Thank you so much, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: Vickie Wong is a writer, interpreter, and stand-up comedian based in New York and Taipei. Coming up, the [beep sound] media man list is re-examined in a new book that challenges readers to consider who's punished by a MeToo accusation and why. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Back in the fall of 2017, the MeToo movement was shaking up the old order. Every day brought new names and new accusations of men who were revealed as abusers or bullies or worse and then there was the list.
Speaker 13: There's this online spreadsheet of men in media.
Speaker 14: What they're accused of doing, who they work for.
Speaker 15: It's unverified, anonymous.
Speaker 16: It does raise these questions.
Speaker 17: [unintelligible 00:38:05] started this open-source document where women could list men in media that everybody knew about, but nobody had ever done anything about.
Brooke Gladstone: Yomi Adegoke is a columnist for The Guardian and British Vogue. In 2018, she watched as similar lists proliferated in the UK, anonymous online posters naming actors, comedians, musicians. She started gathering research for a reported article, but it felt almost too soon for what she really wanted to write. This year, Adegoke published her debut novel, The List, exploring the journey of a young woman who finds out her fiancé's name is on such an online document. He says he's innocent.
Yomi Adegoke: I actually found out about the [beep sound] media men list, retrospectively.
Brooke Gladstone: That's amazing.
Yomi Adegoke: I know. I didn't realize that the lists that I'd seen in the UK had an inspiration that came from the United States, essentially. I just remember a spate of lists going out between 2017, 2018 in various different industries. There was no one big list in the UK as there was in the US.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's dive into your novel, which I couldn't put down. Your protagonist, Ola, is a journalist who's focused on gender and racial equality and whose fiancé, Michael, appears on an online list of media people accused of bad acts, ranging from sexual harassment to rape. You didn't center your story on an accuser, but on two people who were swept up in the blowback. Tell me why you made that choice. What were you exploring here?
Yomi Adegoke: Many women who are connected to men accused of abuse of any type, whether that's as a mother, whether that's as a partner, a friend, a sibling, they are either erased from the conversation or they are subject to a lot of projection. We either see them and think, "How did she not know? Why didn't she know? Why was she so naive?" We think maybe she knew about it and turned a blind eye. That's something that we saw a bit of during the height of the MeToo movement, certainly in terms of unfolding online. An example that really stuck out to me was when Scarlett Johansson was pictured wearing a dress designed by Harvey Weinstein's wife.
Lots of people saw her in that dress and said, "Oh, my goodness, why is she showing solidarity with Harvey Weinstein?" I thought it was quite a borderline biblical understanding of marriage in terms of literally one flesh like his crimes and now hers. I felt like I really wanted Ola's perspective and then, as I was writing it, it just honestly felt like something was missing. I think that's when I decided to pull Michael's perspective in.
Brooke Gladstone: We're privy to the thoughts of both Ola and her fiance. Could you turn to page 26? There's two graphs here.
Yomi Adegoke: You want me to read that out?
Brooke Gladstone: Yes.
Yomi Adegoke: "Ola felt embarrassed and after a while, she felt more embarrassed that our initial overriding reaction was one of embarrassment. It was such a self-centered response, but she couldn't help it. Her eyes filled with tears, and her ears flooded with the imagined snares taking place behind her back, the fervent Twitter DMs being exchanged at her expense."
Brooke Gladstone: Then follow some really nasty exchanges about her. Could you pick up with her reaction there?
Yomi Adegoke: Sure. "Could she really blame anyone for thinking like that? That's pretty much what she'd have been saying if this had happened to anyone else. She had dedicated the best part of a decade to rallying against patriarchy, rape culture, and toxic masculinity. Ola had attended more protests, panels, and demos for women's rights than she could count. She'd founded her university's Black feminist society when she was a fresher for goodness sake. Back when the conversation around feminism was unsexy and un-Instagrammable. She wasn't the type of person to miss the red flags and make the mistake of being with someone capable of that behavior."
Brooke Gladstone: Can I ask you to read something from Michael's perspective too?
Yomi Adegoke: Sure.
Brooke Gladstone: It's page 18. Michael has just seen The List and it begins the thumping in his chest.
Yomi Adegoke: "The thumping in his chest was beginning to affect his breathing. He and Ola were getting married in a month. At least they were supposed to be. He couldn't be sure what this meant for the wedding or for them full stop. This list of abusers would turn any woman's stomach, but Ola, this was the kind of thing she had spent her whole career documenting. The kind of thing that made her feel the world she was so desperately trying to change was simply beyond repair. Men like this. What did men like this mean? Now his name was involved. Now he was the type of man she wrote about.
He scoured The List again trying to make sense of his place on it in the context of the others mentioned. 'I can't believe this is happening to me,' Michael thought, but deep down, he had always wondered if something like this might one day come up perhaps. He held the power button on the side of his phone until the screen turned to black.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm wondering without giving anything away, why it was difficult deciding if Michael should be guilty of what he is accused of."
Yomi Adegoke: I was really keen on ensuring that regardless of whether Michael had done what he did or not, that the points I was still trying to make about anonymity and the ability to weaponize it about the importance of believing survivors and lifting the voices of survivors about the unchecked abuses and how they run rampant and why they run rampant in certain industries if not all industries, about our toxic culture of spreading misinformation and loving to tear individuals down. I needed all of that to still be true and resonant regardless of whether Michael was innocent or not.
Brooke Gladstone: You said you wanted to make readers do some work. Regardless of his innocence, you made Michael deeply flawed, even unlikable.
Yomi Adegoke: If you don't know whether, A, he is innocent, also, you don't even like the guy, I hoped that it would make people question if he then at the end of the book turns out to be innocent, are we allowed to feel sorry for him? Are we allowed to feel that what's happening to him is undeserved? I think a lot of online justice is given out based on likability. Yes, I wanted to make people work. Also when it came to Ola as well, she could have been this absolute virtuous, non-hypocritical character but she also was deeply flawed. It's interesting because I've had lots of people say to me, "I can't tell if they're supposed to be likeable or not."
It's up to you whether they're likeable or not. The point is, they're people and I don't think we go into life or exchanges with human beings weighing up what they deserve based on likability or not, or certainly we shouldn't do that.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote in your author's note that it would be straightforward to say that this book is about MeToo or "cancel culture". It's really about the internet, where MeToo was able to take off and so-called cancel culture is rooted. You wrote that, "it is about what humans are capable of when given the superpower of invisibility. It's about hypocrisy, appropriation, grey areas, and the double-edged sword of online life." Ola for instance, benefited greatly as did Michael from success online prior to this,.
Yomi Adegoke: I like Ola and Michael would likely not be where I am right now in terms of my career had it not been for the internet, for platforms that are equally as toxic as they are brilliant, so many incredible and important movements. Everything from MeToo to the Black Lives Matter movement would not exist in the way that we know it but for the internet. Simultaneously, the internet as a double-edged sword is something I've definitely personally grappled with. It played such a big part in the MeToo movement, which in many ways has been so positive and important, but can also be used for a lot of bad.
I think because the ways in which the internet intersected with that movement and could be taken advantage of, we weren't given enough time to unpack that, because it felt like a criticism of the movement. Which is why I'm always quick to say, this could be about a false TripAdvisor review, this could be about a false Yelp review, could be about anything. Brooke Gladstone: Those stakes are a little low.
Yomi Adegoke: It would have made a really boring and short book.
Brooke Gladstone: That happens on the micro and macro scale.
Yomi Adegoke: Precisely. This is the most macro way it could unfold probably in the book.
Brooke Gladstone: It was about maybe page 32 when I knew that this book was going to be adapted for HBO, which you confirmed before we started the year with you. You told our producer that people can handle these kinds of characters whose innocence is up for debate better when they're on our screens. How come?
Yomi Adegoke: I think it might be because when you are reading, you're really in the characters' heads, which I think often leads to greater empathy, but then sometimes matters more if they're likeable. You spend so much time with a character when you're reading from their perspective as you are with Ola or Michael. Therefore, if they're really annoying and frustrating, I think people struggle with it more.
Brooke Gladstone: You're saying the screen depictions are shallower.
Yomi Adegoke: You know what, I'm not. People just engage with it very differently. As an example, if Succession was a book, everybody would hate Kendall Roy, and everyone would hate Shiv. Everyone would especially hate the racist and misogynist, that is, of course, that could be anyone in it, Logan and Roman. One of my favorite shows on the planet is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, very similar humor and divisive characters. There's another show I love called Peep Show, which is also by Jesse Armstrong who wrote Succession. All these characters are terrible in every single one of those shows.
I think it's interesting that when you look at really famous, brilliant shows, nobody thinks Tony Soprano is a good guy. Same with Breaking Bad. I think people really indulge in and like not only difficult characters on screen, and anti-heroes, but also really like difficult conversations. Another good example would be I May Destroy You, which gave me permission to in many ways write The List. First without it being a book, it would have been-- It was an absolute work of genius anyway, but I think it'd been a lot more divisive but also, it really showed that people were ready to have slightly different conversations in this space because it was certainly not an easy watch.
Arabella even the protagonist was not a likeable character. Lots of the situations were very murky. I've had people say, "Oh my gosh, I really liked your book, but the characters aren't likeable." I just wonder why you need to like characters. You're depicting life and you don't like everyone in life. I think people want to have work that tells them what the moral lesson is in books, but with TV, they're more open to working out what they think on their own.
Brooke Gladstone: What about MeToo? You are able to write this wonderful book because the movement has reached a moment when it can perhaps scrutinize itself?
Yomi Adegoke: I like to think so. I don't think we're all the way there yet. I remember seeing someone tag me in a review and been like I'm giving this five stars, it's amazing. Then they came back and said actually I'm going to knock off some stars because I went to a book club and they said it's problematic and now I agree. I think that's kind of where we're still at a bit. That being said, this physically could not have been published four years ago, there's no way. Let alone been adapted for TV by HBO, and A24, and BBC. That just wouldn't have happened.
On the flip side, when I spoke to my German publisher, they said well actually we had a big debate about whether we'd even publish this because people felt uncomfortable with some of the conversations it raised. I know we're not there yet, but I do like to think that a book like this having difficult conversations from a well-meaning thoughtful, I hope, place, I hope that a book like this will give people more space to just be more critical generally because I never think that's a bad thing.
It's important that people with good intentions are the ones that are being critical because if not we leave it to people who don't want women to have a voice to be making those critiques. It should be us that are looking inward and seeing what works best rather than allowing other people to wrestle that conversation from us and undermine our attempts at Progress.
Brooke Gladstone: Yomi, thank you so much.
Yomi Adegoke: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: Yomi Adegoke is a columnist for The Guardian and British Vogue whose latest book is The List. That's the show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang, with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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