New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would confirm the allegations himself. On Tuesday, following the release of the state attorney general’s report on his alleged sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment of numerous women, Cuomo appeared to lend his critics a helping hand as they called for his resignation. Rather than staunchly deny the accounts of his multiple accusers—which were bolstered by the report’s findings—Cuomo offered more examples of his own inappropriate behavior.
“I do it with everyone,” Cuomo said in a video statement that afternoon. “Black and white, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, powerful people, friends, strangers, people who I meet on the street.”
By “it,” Cuomo meant kiss people on the cheek, as he had done with Anna Ruch, a 33-year-old who met Cuomo at a wedding in 2019, or Ana Liss, a junior employee who worked with Cuomo in the executive chamber. “It” could also be grabbing someone’s face, touching someone’s back, or cupping someone’s chin, Cuomo suggested, playing a slideshow of other instances in which he engaged in this kind of touching, with men, women, and children alike. And “it” is all OK, according to Cuomo: It must be, because he’s done it to numerous people and he’s gotten away with it for this long.
Cuomo’s peculiar way of defending himself is in line with a larger post-MeToo strategy typically adopted by liberal men. Convinced of their own good intentions, they feel comfortable enough admitting that they committed the acts their accusers have described. In some cases, they do so because they feel certain that the consequences they’ll face will be mild or nonexistent—or that “coming clean” is a way to avoid consequences altogether. The penance, they might believe, is in the act of confessing itself. And that’s insidious enough. But much worse is that in conceding their bad behavior, men like Cuomo exercise the most powerful tool they have—the ability to control a narrative.
By embracing the most basic elements of the accounts his accusers put forth, Cuomo is able to rewrite their experiences more convincingly. He seems to recognize that simply calling women liars can be a losing strategy in Democratic circles, especially when one has already made so many political enemies. Agreeing with them is a way for Cuomo to reassert his authority to narrate the world (and, by proxy, men’s authority) and make women’s perceptions conform to his own. I did it, but not like they think I did it, Cuomo is saying, in so many words. I did it, but because I didn’t mean to harm them, everyone must have experienced my behavior as innocuous. Women, they suggest, might just be too emotional to understand what is really happening. While the rhetorical moves might be novel, the underlying principles of such arguments are as old as time.
MeToo focused on what women’s speech can do, but not as much on how men’s speech can still so easily overwrite it. MeToo carried over the longtime assumption that women “breaking their silence” is the key to bringing about feminist justice, as well as “telling women’s stories.” Though the feminist internet called for men to meet some kind of further punishment, the torrent of pain and suffering—the torrent of women’s speech—seemed to be an end unto itself. And, for the first time it seemed, so many of them were being believed.
But at many different points over the last few years, it’s been the case that men’s speech is simply more powerful. Their ability to put forth a single version of reality—their own—has allowed other people to both “hear” and “believe” their accusers, without having to do anything about it. Ahead of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, for example, Senators Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, and Joe Manchin stated that they “believed” Christine Blasey Ford before voting for her alleged assailant.
Undoubtedly these senators are disingenuous; but the nature of their mental gymnastics is instructive. It may be that all of the speaking and hearing and believing involved in calling out a powerful man doesn’t ultimately do much for survivors themselves, an unfortunate reality many realized anew when Bill Cosby was released from prison in June.
Cuomo may still face repercussions for his actions, but he’s unlikely to alter his conviction that other people’s existence in the world—their feelings and experiences—are secondary to his own. And he certainly won’t lose his power to convince people of the same.