This post originally appeared on Wicked Problems, Wicked Solutions
The #MeToo hashtag is everywhere. You are hard pressed to go on Facebook, Twitter, or virtually any news outlet without seeing or hearing a reference to this recent campaign.
Just in case you are unfamiliar with the backstory, the #MeToo hashtag actually started 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, who started the campaign as a way to link survivors of sexual assault. The campaign when viral, however, when actress Alyssa Milano posted the following:
The #MeToo hashtag spread like wildfire, jumping from Twitter to Facebook and Instagram. Hundreds of thousands of women (and men) have shared their stories over the last several days.
What does this have to do with public policy?
Changes in public policy, especially meaningful changes like those associated with civil rights, never happen in a vacuum. In fact, they largely reflect shifts in the culture. This is why elected officials (and court judges) watch reputable public opinion polls so carefully. Polls are, quite literally, a reflection of the citizenry’s collective mood on an issue. We’ve seen this most recently with same sex marriage. The Gallup Poll below shows the support for same sex marriage over time. Notice that public opinion shifts in support of same sex marriage in 2010. It is not a coincidence that between 2010 and 2015 (the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right of same sex couples to marry) 11 states passed same sex marriage laws (either via the state legislature or through a popular vote) and many more state courts had ruled in favor of same sex marriage. It also is not a coincidence that President Obama publicly stated that gay marriage should be legal in his 2012 reelection campaign.
This shift in public opinion did not happen overnight. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, and Queer (LGBTQ) citizen groups worked very hard to make their experiences – and institutional discrimination – visible to the broader public. Public campaigns such as the It Gets Better Project do not just provide support for LGBTQ individuals, but also share stories about the hardships LGBTQ citizens face.
Changing the hearts and minds of the citizenry require effective public awareness campaigns like the #MeToo campaign.
The #MeToo campaign effectively accomplishes two goals that could help pave the way for policy change over time. First, it puts a face – a face you might know – on the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Personalizing an issue is incredibly important. Rather than simply dismissing sexual harassment and assault as a “Hollywood problem,” we are far more likely to see it a societal problem, which is exactly what it is. Second, sharing stories creates a sense of solidarity among victims. Women, and men, see that they are not alone in their experience and can begin to move beyond the silence that is associated with sexual harassment and assault.
It is easy to forget that finding a voice is an important precursor to political change. The women’s rights movement in the 1960s was reignited, in part, because Betty Friedan sparked an (inter)national conversation about “the problem that has no name.” Women shared their personal stories and found collective strength in their shared discontent. This could easily happen again.