Thursday, June 05, 2014

"Not all men" and #YesAllWomen

(I'm probably going to regret writing this, but because I still think it's a discussion worth having, here goes.)

Just recently I've had a few closely related conversations with several people about how civilization -- a society's notions of fitting and proper human thought, action and behavior -- doesn't get picked up by osmosis. Civilized behavior has to be taught, especially to children and teenagers. I've been thinking about this idea in the wake of the recent horrific killing rampage at UC Santa Barbara. The sprawling manifesto of the young man who committed these atrocities states, in part, that he considered himself to be fully justified in his "Day of Retribution" killings because he was still a virgin at age 22, and the young women he desired had spurned him and refused to give him the sexual experiences he knew he deserved.

There has been a lot of talk related to gun control and mental illness and so forth, but perhaps the most interesting discussion began on Twitter, where many women pointed out how much of what this young man did was fueled by raging misogyny and a blatant entitlement mentality -- and how his attitudes were far from isolated in our society. Under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, thousands of women (myself included) shared everyday experiences of what it's like to be harassed, abused, shamed, assaulted, silenced and blamed for the "crime" of being female.

It didn't take long for the #NotAllMen hashtag to appear in defense of men, and most of the statements made were accurate enough, as they went: Not all men are cruel to women. Not all men believe they have a right to women's bodies. Not all men are so disrespectful. Not all men treat women like objects instead of people. Not all men do the things you say they do.

The problem with the comments in #NotAllMen wasn't that they were inaccurate. It was that they missed the point. Women already realize that not all men do these things. A relatively small but dangerous faction of misogynistic men hurt, harass and debase women, and their behavior largely goes unchallenged as a societal norm.

Let's try an analogy and see if it makes any more sense. Imagine a country in which tiny people called "smalls" live side by side with gigantic people about twelve times their size, called "bigs." (For now, just ignore the square cube law and biomechanics studies and so forth, and roll with it.) Both the smalls and the bigs possess similar intelligence, have the same thoughts and feelings, the same basic needs; they just inhabit very different-sized bodies. In this society, smalls and bigs enjoy nominally equal legal protections, but it wasn't always this way. In the past, smalls were considered naturally inferior to bigs -- they had few rights, limited access to education and other opportunities, and were usually thought of as property. In some places, bigs could even kill smalls without any long-term consequences. And although the vast majority (no pun intended) of the bigs now realize there's very little difference between them and the smalls, about ten percent of the bigs behave as though their greater physical might gives them the right to mistreat smalls, frightening them, harassing them, treating them like toys or pets. And lingering artifacts from past societal norms tend to place the onus for mistreatment on the smalls, in ways both subtle and blatant -- smalls who get attacked by bigs are asked what they did to provoke the attacks, smalls who get unwanted attention from bigs are told to take it as a compliment, or not to get so uppity. Songs and jokes about the stupidity and neediness of smalls are an accepted part of the culture.

Finally the smalls, fed up with near-constant mistreatment, start airing their grievances against the bigs who have hurt them. And the immediate response from the bigs is a hurt, "Hey, that's not fair. Not all bigs are like that." Well, of course not. But enough bigs present a threat to smalls as to cause them daily fear. Worst of all, you can't tell just by looking at the bigs which ones are gentle and kind, and which are cruel and sadistic.

Now, you might reasonably ask: if some bigs are so terrible to smalls, why don't the smalls just withdraw completely and start their own society? Why do they even bother associating with bigs in the first place? Because despite the dangers, despite the fears, despite all the undeniable problems in this society, when a big and a small come together as mental equals who show mutual appreciation for each other, it's the tenderest, most wonderful, sweetly magical relationship you could ever hope to experience. And most smalls have courageously chosen to brave the potential dangers, just to get the chance to have such a relationship with a kind and gentle big.

It may be a simplistic analogy, but drastically inflating the physical size and strength of one group merely serves to point up the similarities between men and women in our society (roughly equal intelligence, thoughts, feelings, basic needs, etc.) as well as the differences (men are statistically physically larger and stronger than women, old social norms encourage people to assume women are to blame for mistreatment by men, media representation of the sexes is oddly skewed, etc.). And yes, friendly and romantic relationships between men and women can be truly magical. But such relationships are always based in mutual respect for each other -- in appreciation for the differences, not exploitation of them.

Teaching civilization to a new generation is a complex act, and sometimes we drop the ball. For years we've taught women and girls to negotiate daily life as though they were walking through a minefield. We've taught them basic self-defense strategies, varying restrictions on how to walk and dress and act in public, all the myriad things they should avoid doing if they don't want to be assaulted. But we've only been doing half the job. As we teach women and girls to be ladies, we simultaneously need to teach men and boys to be gentlemen -- that is, gentle men. We have to teach them not to use their statistically greater strength to harm and force and coerce other human beings. We have to teach them how to treat all people with respect and kindness. We must teach them that women ARE people, not property, nor sexual objects who exist solely to fulfill their desires. (And until such time as the media comes around, this should include teaching them that most depictions of women in the media are seriously screwed up.)

A final word or two to the not-all-men who felt they were being attacked by #YesAllWomen: If you aren't part of the problem, I hope you already know it. Thank you for being gentlemen, for bearing the standards of civilized behavior. You don't need to be on the defensive. But you also don't need to defend those individuals whose actions are indefensible. If you see another man mistreating a woman, physically or emotionally abusing her, or making misogynistic comments, do what a real man would do. Call him out on it. Don't let such behavior go unchallenged as normal -- stand up for civilization.

The smalls thank you.

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