This article, a man’s response to Aleanbh Ni Chearnaigh’s article called “Why Men Need to Wake Up,” is not what you think it is. It is not a defense of men written by a man. It is also not a plea for forgiveness or a knee-jerk anointing of myself, and others like me, as “the good ones” as the author calls them, diamonds in the rough that really do exist if you just keep looking. I want to do everything I can not to fall into the “blissful ignorance” that Chearnaigh attributes to “every man in the entire existing world,” and I don’t want to be yet another guy who thinks of himself as exempt from the misdeeds of other men just to avoid feeling guilty and having to change his own social behavior. By writing this I hope, very simply, to continue the discussion that Aleanbh started. Sure, from a man’s perspective, but that’s not the point, really. The point is, as Chearnaigh said so eloquently, because “silence is the insidious enemy on this issue.”
One of the things that moved me most about Chearnaigh’s article was its eye toward not the most obvious suppliers of sexist venom and violence, but rather the millions of bystanders, the ones who think of themselves as good yet stand by and laugh at the bad so as not to ruffle any feathers. In many ways, her piece seems to be written to the men who feel that sludgy uneasiness in their gut that they damn well should feel every time they hear a sexist joke or remark, but still too often do or say nothing about it. It’s sad but true, they, no, make that we, we too often stay silent. Not out of maliciousness but out of fear. The author accepts this, I think, but she still rightly makes the case that this does not make it okay.
So, what is it that us ‘good men’ have a fear of? Silly things, probably. The fear of not being liked, maybe, or the fear of being made fun of and derided. The fear of being excluded, the fear of being fired, or possibly even just the fear of speaking. And while these fears are real and not to be glossed over, they also exist in a completely different stratosphere from the fear women feel during moments like the one the author describes here: “When my ex-boyfriend pinned me down and told me he could do anything he wanted to me and there was nothing I could do about it as I struggled to break free from the force of his entire weight being used to physically show me my true helplessness, my true vulnerability—he was right, there was literally nothing I could do about it.”
This disgusts me and shocks me. But, in many ways, it probably shouldn’t. It shouldn’t because, while I know I could never be the horrible person who did this to her, I also know that, in many ways, I am no better than him. Not because I am capable of that behavior, not because I condone it, and not because I wouldn’t stop it on the off chance it happened in public and I was there to witness it. Something like that and I’d step in. Not as a big, strong, knight in shining armor, mind you, but as a shaking, scared, shivering human who knows it’s the right thing to do.
I say I’m no better than him because I claim I’d stop a big, bad thing like sexual assault and yet I too often don’t do the same for much littler bad things like sexist jokes and misogynistic language. And these little bad things, unlike the big bad things, are things that I see and hear everyday. And I know that these little bad things, when all pooled together, create a culture that makes big bad things more prevalent. It makes them easier to do for the assailants, it makes criminals feel less like they’re committing a crime and more like they’re acting on a right, an expectation even.
So, why is it that I so rarely step in to stop these little things even when I know that they’re part of the bigger problem? I already said that the answer is usually some mixture of fear and insecurity, but why does this fear exist in the small moments and yet not in the big ones? Why is it that when I hear sexist jokes at work or bigoted terms thrown around at a bar, I don’t step in as that same scared human doing the right thing as I say I’d be if I saw a big bad thing going on? Because Chearnaigh is right, I don’t do this enough, and this makes me, like it makes most men, culpable for keeping the lingering stench of sexism as potent as it still is. A stench that, despite all the progressive trends toward the societal acceptance of flexible gender identities and sexual orientations, still produces a very real power imbalance that is based on something so historically constructed as gender.
These are really big questions I’m asking. I can’t tell you how many sentences I’ve written and deleted since I started this, how many times I’ve given up on writing this entirely because it’s such a big topic and feels so out of my league. I’m scared I’m going to accidentally say something offensive. But, silence is definitely an enemy, I keep repeating that to myself, so I’m still writing. Not as someone who has answers but as someone who wants to do the next best thing, keep asking questions.
So, silence is an enemy, and all men who victimize and/or stand idly by are enemies too, but what are the other enemies at play here? I’ve talked about fear as a reason for many men keeping quiet. So that’s an enemy too. But what factors play into that fear? The truth is there are many and most of them probably feel very personal and situational to each individual (even if they are also very common). But some don’t. I’ll name one of those factors. What about the hundreds of articles and lists published every day, on sites just like this one, that tell you what men are like and what women are like? What about the lists that translate men’s behavior into what it should really mean to women and women’s behavior into what it should really mean to men? These, while absolutely fun to read, also perpetuate the idea of a futile disconnect between men and women that lead to accepting gendered differences and power imbalances instead of fighting against them. They’re not an excuse for the acts of silence that I’ve made as I listen to a sexist joke or remark, but they are, in a way, another voice, along with the many others, telling me to keep quiet.
Sure, I should be better than to let these voices direct my actions (or, more accurately, my inactions). I know this. I feel guilty about this. I should change this. If you’re a guy like me reading this, we should fucking do better. At the very least we owe it to our own images of ourselves as one of the good guys to be better. But, to assign responsibility for such a widespread issue on solely the level of the individual is not a complete recipe for change. Responsibility rests upon everyone to work toward equality and away from the dividing discourse that leads to gendered violence, but don’t ignore the cultural and institutional factors that make it so difficult for individuals to act on lessening these divides even when they want to. These, I feel, and I don’t pretend this is some new revelation, are enemies too.
This article, I realize as I’m writing it, often feels like no more than a person carefully maneuvering around abstract explosives, a person trying a little too hard not to get blown up in the comments section. Because a man talking about these issues is like someone walking on ground under which there are a thousand landmines. I’m scared of thinking what I think and feeling what I feel because I know, independent of my thoughts and feelings, I am thought of and seen as a man. And not a woman. I know that just because I feel genuine sympathy and empathy toward women who are abused and degraded by men and just because I feel genuine guilt about a gross and yet still prevalent male-privilege in society that too often leads to this abuse, it doesn’t mean I’m one with them, it doesn’t mean I’m one of them. And sometimes it’s really hard to be a spokesperson for a group when you’re not a member. This is not as much a byproduct of my male insecurities as it is a byproduct of my human insecurities. I know my silence is harmful, but I also fear that my words would be out of place, that they’d ring shallow and out of touch, that they’d be equally harmful.
Chearnaigh closes her article by saying, “Millions of women are suffering, right at this very moment. And millions more will suffer, until men start treating women not as ‘women’ first but as human beings.” I couldn’t agree more with this, with the notion that we should all treat each other not as walking, talking genders but as human beings: thinking, feeling human beings. There are so many different qualities packed into what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Each one making it more and more difficult to know what we should say when, how we should say it, and what consequences our words will have. So, too often, we don’t say or do anything at all. Or we say or do the wrong thing. When it comes to being human our reality is much simpler: we’re all in this together. And, if we let our words and actions be guided by that human mantra rather than the all too separate mantras dictated by our genders, then speaking out, stepping in, and waking up would feel a lot less scary.