I don’t often scroll though my Facebook feed, but the last couple days I’ve found myself scanning through likely over 100 #MeToo posts from friends of mine. There was definitely a time in my life when I would have been surprised by this, and a time in my life I would have felt defensive or semiconsciously rationalized the fact that sexual assault and harassment is so prevalent in the world I’m a part of and that I’m not doing anything about it, that I’m passively complicit, and even that I might be an active part of that problem without having been consciously aware. But now, after the humanitarian work that I’ve done that often involves sexual and gender based violence programs, and after having learned so much from the incredible people I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by for the past decade or so, I am not remotely close to surprised, and I assume I’m only being shown a small portion of those posts and that only a small portion of women, and victims of all genders, feel comfortable speaking up. So for anyone surprised, which would probably the men listening, the crazy numbers of people we’re seeing speaking up is not the reality. It’s worse, its much worse, and this isn’t new, you know. Sexual and gender based violence and inequality is probably the oldest, longest standing, most persistent injustice in human history. I’m not sure how to substantiate that claim, but I don’t think anyone out there would doubt that.
So, first, I’m a little nervous this and have to keep reminding myself of how counterproductive that feeling is. I’m scared of being perceived as insincere, attention seeking, patronizing, or like I shouldn’t be speaking about what I can’t possibly understand as a man. I guess the options for moving forward is either to be silent and not attempt to add anything to the conversation, or to leave a quick caveat and just speak. So, I’m recording this only to be a part of a really important conversation, maybe the most important, that clearly needs to be openly had. And I hope it only elevates the conversation and doesn’t detract from it on account of any of the above perceptions. I have to believe so many people feel a similar fear when speaking about sensitive issues that they’re not victims to, especially when they are part of an ingroup responsible for perpetuating the issue. And I’ll elaborate on that in a minute.
Second, to anyone who wrote a #MeToo post, or didn’t make one, to all women everywhere, ever, and all victims of harassment and assault of all genders:
Let me quickly say what I think and I hope a lot of men are feeling right now but might be afraid to voice.
I hear you.
I see you.
I am listening.
I know for a fact that I can’t possibly understand or fully empathize, but I’m always going to try.
I promise to speak with you (never over you) into the future, even/especially when you’re not around.
I reaffirm my commitment to take action when and where I can, to not only call out ignorance and stupidity, but to try to have a compassionate conversation about it in a way that has potential to lead to behavioral change, and to encourage other men to do the same.
Third, I know that I can’t possibly come close to understanding what it is like to be exposed on a daily basis to the byproducts of ignorant and aggressive men. And beyond the more explicit misogyny, assault and harassment, I also understand that sexism is so layered and ingrained in this patriarchal model of how the world works that we’ve accepted as normal that it’s not only aggressive or excessively ignorant men who perpetuate it. Rather, every single man, including myself, has likely participated in some way or another, and each of us, of COURSE, benefit from the male privilege that comes along with this inequality and discrimination every single day in ways we’ll never fully understand. And I know that plenty of men will deny that until the day they die, much like Americans will deny their arbitrary privilege and the fact they are benefitting from global incongruity and injustice as a result of having been born into opportunity while others were not, and that failing to take action to correct injustice when aware and empowered to do so is being complicit. And men, like Americans, are far more likely to rationalize their privileged position, or ignore the misbalance all together, than they are to acknowledge it and to combat it. That’s just to say that when we’re handed privilege, we are really good at allowing it to maintain. And when we’re confronted by the privilege of another, we’re able to see it much more objectively.
A large amount of the joy I feel in my life comes from my ability to be open and inviting to new people, to see their beauty first and trust them until they prove me wrong, and to be vulnerable within that trust. And I’ve very long since been taught and reminded that if I did the same thing as a woman, if I lived with the same level of openness and vulnerability, I’d be perpetually sexualized, constantly misinterpreted, and, of course, regularly harassed by men who would see me as an object, or at least prioritize the remote potential of sex over the interest of building a nourishing friendship. And I’d be told this is all my fault because I was too open, inviting and vulnerable, and that I should know that this is just how men are. I’d be told to adjust my behavior, to not live in such a way that brings me such joy because men are they way they are and always have been, and I just need to accept that instead of fighting it. And if I refused to change, I’d be told I’m asking for it and there must be something wrong with me. I certainly do experience misinterpretations from women, but they are much less aggressive, threatening and persistent misinterpretations than I’d imagine experiencing with much higher regularity as a woman. This is not to say it doesn’t go both ways here, or rather all ways among all genders, but just to acknowledge the reality that in the large majority of situations, men are the problem.
This is a topic I think about constantly, about how frustrating it would be, how SCARY it would be, how limiting it would be when it comes to living freely and openly and vulnerably and connecting with people in nourishing ways, and how hard it would be to remain optimistic in the goodness of people in general when constantly objectified, threatened (explicitly or otherwise) and just let down when finding out that a friendship wasn’t as authentic as I hoped.
But any time I feel inclined to bring this up, I hesitate and often stop because, again, I’m afraid of coming off as patronizing or insincere, or of claiming to know something I can’t possibly know anything about. And, of course, that may be a new thought to some men, but that’s certainly not a new thought to any woman listening to this, so where’s the value in saying it, and how easily would it come across as wanting to be patted on the back for understanding such a fucking obvious truth? SO that’s the big limitation, the obstacle to get past before speaking that sometimes feels big enough that it would just be best not to say anything at all, like it’s too risky or something, maybe because it’s probably the case that a large portion of these types of conversations that women here would likely be less than sincere, and lots of people are looking to be patted on the back. And those looking to be patted on the back are probably doing that out of some sense of insecurity about their historical treatment of women, and want someone to pad that insecurity by telling them they must be an ally to women if they’re thinking about such things, good job, and also thank you for stating the obvious.
So in the end, when I don’t end up speaking, it was likely just the result of a quick mental risk/reward analysis… so my objective in speaking about a burden that is disproportionately placed on women, the objective would be to try to do something to counter the fact that this shitty reality exists. But in simply speaking about it, that reality is not changed, so is there then a point?
So in that risk/reward analysis, the reward in the best case is a woman feeling maybe a little more heard and seen by a man when men clearly don’t seem to understand their privilege very often, a little more understood or validated in the fact that this arrangement we’ve created in the world simply isn’t just and fair and equitable, maybe a little safer, I guess? I don’t really know what the best case scenario is. So that’s the potential reward in the best case, MAYBE making someone feel slightly better in one way or another about an unfair reality while changing nothing about the reality of what’s not fair to begin with. And the risk, the risk would be potentially triggering any number of negative reactions that would hurt this person when I’d be trying to do the exact opposite but not knowing how to do that effectively. And that risk of hurting someone or making something bad even worse, that’s just too big of a risk to justify speaking, or trying to. Right?
But how many conversations are then not had, and how much ignorance could be offered new perspectives if we talked more openly, or, probably more importantly, if we were more open to listening and to hearing each other and creating a safe and nonjudgemental atmosphere that invites us to talk openly without fear. Because men don’t, again this is a big generalization, but on average, men seem to be a little less likely to be open to hearing these things, and this could be wrong. I know that so many women probably want to express their frustration about that reality of not being able to be so openly friendly and inviting to people without consequences in the way that I get to, and about other frustrations, but they’ve hesitated because men don’t want to hear such things, it’s burdens for them to hear truths that hint at the idea that some luxuries they enjoy in their life may simply have been arbitrarily assigned while others weren’t so lucky, because hearing that creates a cognitive dissonance to be reckoned with, and reckoning with this difference takes a lot of mental energy and our brains are really good at avoiding that use of energy… this is where heuristics come from and and cognitive biases, all our mental shortcuts that help us avoid questioning our own morality, among other things. Or maybe they don’t speak because because men will label or judge a woman who says such things, or because they’ll be told something like “focus on the positives” or don’t be so negative and smile more, or maybe because they know saying something about it won’t change anything, so speaking feels futile.
I think about this a lot, and have found myself writing about it a lot over the past couple years, about our hesitation to speak out on behalf of a group we’re not a part of, on behalf of an issue or injustice that we’re not a direct victim of as individuals, especially when our ingroup is part of the problem.
I want so badly to believe that so many people really do have feelings to share about issues not directly impacting them, but I’m trying to understand why we are less inclined to speak in this case. And we could go down that rabbit hole of our neurological make up, and how the incentive of speaking for another isn’t quite strong enough in our value system to accept all the brain energy necessitated in doing so, when that amount of psychological effort and burden would be worthwhile within our value system when fighting for ourselves and maybe even our ingroup, but that’s not what I think would be valuable to talk about today.
I know personally that I’m hugely affected by this tendency to hesitate speaking on certain topics, and I’ve been consciously working on getting over this fear for years without making that much progress. Because I aspire to be an advocate for improving upon all undesirable circumstance in the world. You know I’ll focus heavily on the ones I can specialize in, and where I can add the most value, where I can have the highest impact with my time and effort, but if I’m not in the center of any given movement towards progress, I still want to add value to it where I can, especially when there’s low hanging fruit to pick at… if that make sense. When there are small adjustments I can make in my life that go a long way without having to dedicate a large part of my life to the cause at the expense of spending time on another one I’m invested it.
I’ll speak up without a moment of pause about global health, animal welfare, human rights and humanitarian concerns that don’t affect me. I do this whole podcast on the topic of improving upon undesirable circumstances in the world that I’m not directly affected by. I’ll speak up about Trump’s bullshit that won’t affect me in America directly but will affect non-America. Yet, for whatever reason, I can’t count how many times I’ve reacted just as strongly to some form of sexual violence, racism or LGBT discrimination of some type, and started to craft a public voice on this, a facebook post or podcast or article or blog, but I pause. And I’ve reflected a lot on this over the past year trying to understand what’s behind all this, what combination of mental and social barriers are erecting themselves. And among MANY ways of making sense of this I think it comes down to these two dominant fears:
1) Like I’ve mentioned, this ingrained feeling that for some reason it is less my place to speak up, and thus a fear of being seen as insensitive, patronizing or somehow insincere, maybe wanting to be praised for caring or attention seeking to express concern when I couldn’t possibly know the reality of this issue enough to speak about it since I’m not a victim, and
2) a fear of using the wrong words that could trigger a negative reaction that would then be counterproductive all together, if the objective of speaking is to lead towards improvement.
And I think this second fear increases in proportion to the number of potential hot button or triggering words that could be taken negatively. And this is in no way to downplay WHY they’d be taken negatively, or why they’d be triggering. With this in mind, I’ve noticed over the last year or so how regularly our media coverage that calls out stupid people for saying stupid things focuses largely on those specific words they said wrong, and less so on the sentiment, though the sentiment is usually even more an indication of their stupidity or aggression. But particular words are easier to focus on and criticize than larger concepts and less tangible sentiments, easier to write headlines about and into joke punchlines. And this might further serve to scare well meaning people who are informed enough to really care but maybe not quite informed enough to speak the language fluently. So, I’m not entirely sure what to do to address that second fear in people other than to encourage more patience from the informed and committed activists with the words of less-informed people in order to create an encouraging public space for people to speak up without so much fear, in which the less informed, but well meaning people would benefit from saying something imperfectly when more informed people compassionately teach them where they’ve gone wrong and why, as opposed to responding to the triggered internal emotions that yell at us to yell at them in response.
But on the first fear, on the issue of feeling like this isn’t my place to speak, well everyone who posted a #MeToo comment in the past couple days, your words are exactly what we need! THIS is the initial conversation that needs to be had, that’s either a novel education to some people who are surprised by the quantity of women and people of all genders who have experienced assault and harassment, usually having experienced assault and harassment not just once but as a relatively regular part of life, or it’s the repeated reminders people need.
And I just have to quickly point out that this initial conversations has been going on forever as women wait for men to hear it, acknowledge it and to help carry it forward with them.
And in the end, how commonsense is this the next part of the conversation? When your ingroup is the issue, when you’re a man and talking about sexual harassment, when you’re a white person talking about racism, when you’re a straight gender binary person talking about LGBT phobia and discrimination of any type, it’s equally your place to speak up and to call out what we see to be wrong, especially when we see our ingroup in action doing ignorant and harmful things. And not to over simplify things or to sound cliche, but I really do think its incredibly simple that we as humans, when we notice an injustice caused by humans, should speak up as humans. But the distant remnant of our tribalism often gets in the way. And that’s another rabbit hole to go down another time.
We shouldn’t be afraid to be a part of the conversation when our ingroup is the issue, and it’s probably still remaining an issue precisely because men are not speaking about sexual assault enough, white people are not speaking about racism enough, straight gender binary people are not speaking enough about LGBT rights and equality. When we look at social changes that took place in the past, when did the big shifts happen, what was the catalyst? The big shift happened when it was no longer an issue brought forward by the victims and their ingroup, when it became a human issue, supported by all types of humans who’ve come together and said we know the victims have long since had enough of this shit, but we have to… all of us have had enough of this shit and its time we ALL change.
This is probably partially because of the reality that when ignorant people are doing ignorant things to victims of their aggression and ignorance, the perpetrators of this harm have at least semiconsciously concluded that their victims are of lesser value than they are, a man feels superior to a woman and thus feels justified in asserting himself in unwelcomed ways. So when the ignorant person hears only the voices of those he already believes to be a lesser brand of human, then he’s not going to hear those voices in a way that leads to the type of reflection that prefaces behavior changes. But if he hears his own ingroup speak the same words, if a misogynistic man hears another man say “what you did or are talking about doing is nonconsensual and thus harassment, assault or rape, and you need to understand. Do you understand that?” or simply that “what you’re doing is making someone else feel uncomfortable and you need to stop immediately. Do you understand why you were making that person uncomfortable? As she’s repeatedly said, this is why she feels uncomfortable. Now do you understand?” As sad as that is, maybe he’ll be inclined to start listening to both voices a little bit more.
And lastly, I know we as men can change if we keep speaking openly about this reality especially among each other, if we keep critically reflecting on our own behavior, and if we commit to taking action whenever we see or hear signs of ignorance or stupidity around us. The problem I foresee is that any man inclined to participate in this conversation is probably less likely to be the heart of the problem, though surely still a part of it. That’s not to say any man joining the conversation has immunity, never. But I think you get what I’m saying. So if a number of somewhat informed men grow a bit more informed but they don’t share this information with other men who didn’t participate in the conversation, then we’re stuck in one place. To me, that’s the answer here. Women have spoken up, like they have infinitely many times in the past, and made it VERY clear that an issue has long since existed and that we men are pretty central to that issue, again acknowledging that people of all genders are victims of assault and harassment and people of all genders are perpetrators of assault and harassment, though, on average, men are a LOT more likely to be responsible. The first step to solving a problem is understanding that it exists. Now it’s men’s turn to take the second step together and start to help each other problem solve.
So I want to end this with some sort of call to action, but I’m not positive of exactly what that action is just yet.
I think it starts first with a commitment from each of us men to reflect on ourselves – this is acknowledging where in our past we have been in the wrong.
Second, a commitment to never again being an active part of the problem – this is educating ourselves on nonviolent communication and consent, and being conscious and simply respectful in any future interactions with any humans at all of any gender really.
Third, a commitment to never again being a passive part of the problem by standing by without speaking up either when you see something happening or when you can anticipate something happening in the future, and to doing so compassionately with the objective of changing behavior not with counterproductive aggression that will be less helpful in the long run. You know, calling out an ass hole at the bar can probably be pretty effective if he’s embraced enough not to act this way again, but this doesn’t help him come to understand what he’s doing wrong and why, and it’s that type of learning that will bring change.
And fourth, a commitment to carrying on this conversation with other men, making it an important topic to discuss, a responsibility to discuss, not a burdensome topic to avoid.
And maybe fifth, a commitment to speaking with and never over women, and victims of all genders, in the future on this topic.
But again, those are only starting points. So if anyone has any further ideas of specific actions men can take and commitments men can make, we want to hear.
I’ve focused a lot on the potential impact of this movement coming from men speaking up and being a part of the conversation. But I also know that the silent ones, a lot of them have received the message, and even in their silence, they’re thinking to themselves holy shit, am I part of this, have I been part of this? And I do have confidence that everyone who was brave enough to share a me too post, an impact has been made, and the bullshit is not going to stop, but anybody with a social media account is a little bit more conscious and aware than they were last week and hopefully that memory sticks, and hopefully that translates into some amount of improvement, of course understanding that we’re climbing El Capitan one bolt at a time, or Everest one step at a time. But this is momentum, and I just hope people of all genders can keep this momentum going, keep climb, keep stepping forward.
So, as I said, I was hesitant to record this out of a fear of it being perceived negatively or counterproductively, or this coming off in an unconstructive way. And I just want to reiterate and elaborate on what I said at the beginning, that I want to get better at this, that I want to become more informed in ways that can help me become a better advocate for the end of sexual and gender based violence, and for gender equality in the broadest sense, to get better at being a feminist as a man who hopes to constructively contribute to the conversation and never detract from it. So if anybody has any advice for me on how I could have communicated more effectively, or if there was anything I said that did not come off right or could have been communicated better, or that just shouldn’t have been communicated at all, I’d love to hear. And that of course goes for any content in any episode. So feel free to reach out through the IMPACTivism Facebook page, or you can find me directly on Facebook by searching for @SeekerSullivan. I’m listening and I want to hear. And on that note, any advice to anybody else on what actions people can take, concrete things that we can do, I think there’s a big appetite right now for direction for men who might not know how to be a positive part of the conversation but want to be.
Ok, that’s all. I hope this episode served a purpose. I’ve known the outcome I was looking for, the call to action, very clearly for all episodes in the past. This one, I’m still not positive of the specific outcome I was aiming for other than the more broad outcome of trying to contribute to a conversation that results in taking steps away from sexual and gender based violence and inequality.
Next episode I’ll be talking about charity cannibalism and the overhead myth, and how central a simply misunderstanding on behalf of the general public is to the level of ineffectiveness we see on average in the nonprofit sector, and how we can change that. So, keep a look out for that and I’ll be back soon.