Feminism? Why me?

Feminism is a recurring topic for me. This is largely because I am a firm subscriber to the joint theories that the empowerment of women is the single most powerful thing that can be done to lift the world out of poverty and also that lifting women up to equality with men will, in no way, diminish men.

I feel embarrassed for having to include the second of my points, there, and I think that I should be. The one thing that causes men to keep women down is the fear that men (generalising across the entire gender) will lose out and become lesser beings, less manly.

The entire concept of manliness is ridiculous, particularly as portrayed in the media and fed to us, in Western cultures, as basic staple of our cultural diet. We are supposed to be John Wayne, rugged and ruthless; we are supposed to be George Clooney, sculpted and gorgeous; we are supposed to collect women as trophies, be emotionally distant and see winning the daily bread as our only responsibility (and a responsibility solely ours).

All of the above are tired old arguments, of course, which have been expressed widely across media both social and antisocial for decades.

But there’s more. I chose this topic today because I ran into this TEDx talk on Upworthy. I’ve seen it before, but its message deserves to be repeated and repeated until men begin to listen.

He talks about language. When we say “gender”, men assume we’re talking about women. When we talk about race, we assume we’re talking about people of colour. When we talk about sexual orientation, we assume we’re talking about gay people. This is quite ridiculous, but is is a powerful indication of how Western societies (I’m sure it true of other societies too, but I have very little experience of them) view themselves. It says that the default person we talk about is a straight, white man. It is only when the conversation is covering something other than the default that we need to even use the terms gender, race and sexual orientation. The amount of power that straight white men need to have in order for this to be the default is staggering, but that is what we can see.

When we speak of gender, there is a whole range of gender beyond women that is under discussion, and men need to listen and join the conversation – not least because the conversation is about them too.

When we speak of race, there is a whole range of race beyond black (“African American” for my US-ian friends), and white people need to listen and join the discussion too.  Again, not least because the conversation is about them.

When we speak of sexuality/sexual orientation, straight people need to join the conversation.

And when I say “join the conversation,” I do not mean what usually happens, ie. turn the conversation over to “me, me, me, me… and, did I mention? Me.  And me.  Me me me. Me.” with a side-order of storming off in a huff when other voices get floor-time. “I have a gender too, this needs to be about ME! And if it’s not about me, I’m not listening.”

Sorry, straight, white man, but this isn’t actually about you or any individual. This is about all of us and it’s time you shut up and listened for a bit before you share you opinion. Sure, you have valuable things to say, but so do all these other people. Giving them the space to speak does not take away your value, it simply recognises theirs.

In talking about language, Jackson Katz also talks about how the language we use can disempower the already vulnerable and allow the violent to escape justice. In his example, he starts with

John battered Mary

From this sentence, it is quite clear what John is doing, and that what he is doing is wrong. He is doing violence to Mary. The way we describe Mary can be telling, however. In a few short steps, we get to

Mary is a battered woman

which takes John completely off the scene. He can get on with his life, while all the attention is on Mary and how she passively allowed an unnamed other to do violence to her. Katz argues that, if we change the language we use to keep John in the sentence, we are much more able to see the relationship at play and the abuse that John is inflicting on Mary. We are more likely to see that it is John who is in the wrong here: it is John’s behaviour that we should be addressing.

And we address it through leadership. Historically, it is men who have held the stage, it is men whose voices have been heard, it is men who set the agenda. Women have been doing most of the hard work to achieve equality for all people regardless of gender. Us men need to acknowledge this, but we need to do more. There are some in society who simply do not listen to the voices of anyone who is not a man, and it is not possible for women to reach these ears. It is the responsibility of men to raise our voices and to say the same things that women feminists have been saying for years such that everyone may hear the message.

It is the responsibility of men in leadership positions to show those who look up to them how it is done. If a football coach hears one of his team use racist, homophobic, sexist (and so on) language in the locker room, it is his job to address it, and not to let it go with a “boys will be boys.” In the boardroom, if a board member uses similar language, it is up to the chairman to let that person know that such language is not OK. If a man is intimidating someone on public transport, it is up to the other men to let him know that it is not OK to do that. If a soldier is bragging about what he’s going to do to the local girls when he and his mates go off base for a night off, it is up to his fellows and his senior officer to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that women are people and are to be respected.

It is only when men begin to tread in the path of the many great women who have blazed the trail before us, that society will truly shift. It is only when equality and respect are seen as manly that everyone will be a person. And it’s only when we let people into spaces traditionally dominated by others that true magic happens.

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