The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Those uncomfortable with #MeToo are going low. Women, please go high.

Protesters gather outside Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s office in New York on Sept. 27.
Protesters gather outside Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s office in New York on Sept. 27. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Patti Davis is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Earth Breaks in Colors” and the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

President Trump wasted no time last week insulting Stormy Daniels, calling her “Horseface” after a judge threw out her defamation lawsuit against him. His Twitter attack landed shortly after he mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally and told Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” that humiliating Ford didn’t matter because “we won.”

Meanwhile, several conservatives have referred to the hundreds of women, many of them survivors of sexual assault, who demonstrated against Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination as a “mob.” After my essay in The Post about a sexual assault I experienced decades ago, I got a couple of noteworthy messages on social media. One read: “Someone would have to be dead drunk to assault a dog like you.” And another: “You’re too heinous for someone to rape you.”

After a cathartic year of painful revelations, opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg says, the movement must tackle questions about what's next. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

This is just a small sampling of what women are getting now in response to the cultural sea change known as the #MeToo movement. It is an irrefutable fact that every movement sparks a backlash. It’s just a law of nature. But how things proceed from that point on depends on the reaction to the backlash.

I laughed at Daniels’s Twitter response to Trump, especially her last line — “Game on, Tiny.” But then I took a step back and thought, I wish she hadn’t done that. I felt the same when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took a DNA test after Trump taunted her about her claim to Native American ancestry . I think I said aloud, “Oh, no, why did you do that?”

Baiting people is what bullies do; they practice it until they turn it into an art form. Taking the bait, however, is a choice, and it’s never a good one. It communicates only one thing: that they got to you. It pulls you down to the level of the bully — that mud-soaked swampland of nastiness and vitriolic name-calling — presuming that this is the only level that makes sense and that no higher ground exists.

When I was a child, I was bullied a lot — on the school bus, in class, at lunchtime. It came mostly from one boy who got others to laugh along with him as he found creative ways to humiliate me. I didn’t know how to speak up. I was an insecure, nearsighted kid who didn’t have many friends and preferred living inside books.

So I pretended to be sick to get out of going to school. I was convincing enough that my mother kept me home for a couple of days, and then my father somehow figured out that I was faking. He came into my room, sat down beside me and asked what was going on. I remember crying and telling him about my nemesis and the relentless bullying. He said: “I’m going to give you a way to make him stop. You’re going to ignore him. I’ll show you.” He turned away from me, told me to try to talk to him, and when I did, he acted as if I were invisible. I became more and more upset that he was acting as if I wasn’t even there. The next day I got on the school bus and followed that exact script. It worked. The boy finally left me alone.

Women in America today are living on shifting ground. We have demanded that the old paradigms change. We have announced that we expect to be treated with respect, that our voices will not be silenced and that our bodies will not be grabbed, pawed or assaulted. We have upset decades of presumptions about male behavior.

Some men, however, don’t like that. Can we please leave them there in their swampy field and ignore them when they try to pull us down with their insults?

Michelle Obama’s message — “When they go low, we go high” — works on many levels. This is one of them. We are strong enough as women to stay on a higher level. And if you don’t think you are strong enough, call a girlfriend, or a co-worker, or your mother or sister. Someone will raise you back up. And if you need proof that this approach works, consider this: As president, Trump has not said a word against Michelle Obama.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: The left and the right cry out for civility, but maybe that’s asking for too much

Richard Cohen: ‘Going low’ only validates Trump and debases America

Greg Sargent: Why is the mob angry? Because Trump is ripping us apart with bigotry and hatred.

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