Every progressive impulse produces a reaction. The latest is projected in the wave of criticism leveled at actress Amber Heard in connection with the verdict ordering her to pay her ex-husband, actor Johnny Depp, $15 million in damages. The decision reached by the seven members of the jury, five men and two women, considers that three statements made by the actress and one made by the actor’s lawyer were defamatory. The decision additionally does not award credibility to Heard’s testimony about alleged abuse.
Although the court’s decision must be scrupulously respected, the revealing thing about the trial is the explosion of hatred against the actress, especially on social media. This has revealed another hidden trial whose scope extends beyond the lives of these two celebrities: there has been a furious attack against the #MeToo movement at a particularly regressive moment for the rights and freedoms of women. The social media-fueled harassment of female voices that reach the public spotlight is nothing new – the writer Mary Beard has linked it to the structural lack of power suffered by women – but the humiliation to which Amber Heard is being subjected can only be explained as a reaction against the entire #MeToo movement.
The adverse verdict against the actress is an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of respecting judicial decisions because they guarantee the defense of the presumption of innocence and a fair trial for individuals accused of sexual assault. At a time of democratic regression when basic tenets of the rule of law are being questioned, this is particularly relevant. But it is not incompatible with something that should also be remembered: that one of the fundamental flaws of the system that #MeToo underscored is the frequency with which women and others who reported sexual abuse failed to find an unbiased hearing through the institutions. This was well expressed by the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, who highlighted the way in which #MeToo managed to shed light on an omnipresent social injustice built on the silence of those who suffered from it. Only by breaking down this culture of concealment was it possible to become aware of the problem: in our liberal societies, one in four women will suffer a sexual attack that can end in rape throughout her life.
This reality is not science fiction. It is a factual truth as real as the sentence against Heard. In addition to the old digital antifeminism, the virulent reaction against Heard for a decision that nobody is questioning shows what is really at stake: the use of a sentence that could be used as leverage against everything that #MeToo represented – its fight against hate speech, misogyny and the decline in freedoms for women.