‘Silence Breakers’: ‘Time”s Person of the Year Proves Power in Unity
This morning, when I woke up, opened Twitter, and saw the #MeToo hashtag, my stomach didn’t sink. I didn’t immediately wonder which friend/relative/colleague had found the courage to add their name to the growing online list of people who have experienced sexual assault or harassment. Seeing the hashtag never feels good—being reminded of the prevalence of harassment and abuse will always be a sickening proposition—but this time it wasn’t attached to a survivor’s story. It was attached to all of them. And they’d just been named Time’s Person of the Year.
This isn’t the first time the magazine has named a movement the “Person” of the Year; protesters were given the honor in 2011. Folks who speak up (the Enron whistleblowers) and people of the internet have been named POTYs in years past, too. But when Time gave “you” the accolade in 2006 as a way to celebrate the web’s content creators and the collective power of the internet, it had no way of knowing the harassment, racist message-board threads, and other vile behaviors it was about to spawn. It didn’t know the then-nascent Twitter would help spread the word about Barack Obama’s campaign, didn’t know that same service would become the favorite mouthpiece of President Trump, the man named 2016’s Person of the Year. And no one could have known that the networked power of social media could allow thousands of women and men to share their stories of harassment and assault and be believed. That #MeToo, a term of solidarity launched nearly a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke, would actually turn the tide and lead to perpetrators being held accountable for their actions. That the “Silence Breakers,” as Time calls them, would be able to pump up the volume loud enough that everyone was getting heard.
So maybe, just maybe, this is how Person of the Year should be decided. In a (mostly) connected world, collective voices can have much more power than one, and solitary leaders are fewer and farther between. Even back in 2006, Lev Grossman, writing that “you” piece for Time, acknowledged that the Great Man theory “took a serious beating this year.” And this year, while the original accusers of men like Harvey Weinstein and director James Toback were women of some renown, it was the countless other #MeToos that were the wind at their back. It was those posts that kept the conversation going in workplaces and homes outside of Hollywood or Silicon Valley—no matter how painful they were.
As such, it was the voices of the many who responded to the Time announcement most emphatically. Just a few weeks ago, President Trump had hopped on Twitter to declare he’d taken “a pass” on the honor, an assertion Time said was incorrect, leading to a lot of nah-nah-boo-boo-ing on social media. Trump was ultimately revealed to be the magazine’s runner up, but it didn’t escape notice that Trump also made an appearance in the main story—as the man whose comments about women during the election, and whose subsequent presidency, galvanized many to speak out about sexual harassment.
The #MeToo movement hasn’t been perfect; nor was Time’s piece on the people who have come forward. As my colleague Jessi Hempel pointed out recently, the abundance of #MeToo stories can alter our ability to process how bad they are and turn newsfeeds into a triggerfest. Others have noted that celebrities like Taylor Swift were given outsized attention in the Time piece, compared to activists like Burke. But overall, what the hashtag has solidified is that on social media, a choir of voices can be louder than any one person. It can embolden someone like John Oliver to publicly confront Dustin Hoffman about his alleged treatment of women. It can compel the women of Saturday Night Live to point out that this isn’t a new world—it’s “been the damn world”. There isn’t just one person leading the conversation anymore, because the conversation is everywhere. Everyone is involved. No one has plausible deniability anymore. Not even you.