This is the first article in what I think is going to be a two-part discussion on the recent discussions involving rape culture, catcalling, and general misogyny. I’m going to first talk about how to make this discussion productive, and then in the next article I’ll be directing a message at men everywhere to, hopefully, put what I’m saying in THIS article into practice.
Last week, I miraculously had a Facebook discussion on a very sensitive topic that didn’t degenerate into name calling and bumper-sticker arguments. It was about this article on a website I hadn’t heard of called RH Reality Check, and it was ostensibly a call to all men to encourage all of the men around them to behave in a more civilized manner – that is, stop sending death/rape threats to women who have opinions. On the surface, nobody can argue with that. Nobody should argue with that – that’s not at all going to be my aim here. But when I read the article, I couldn’t really do anything but shake my head. Go ahead and skim it, and you’ll quickly, I hope, see why.
Journalist prose like this is a perfect example of how to widen, not bridge, the communication gap that exists between women and men on these issues, mostly because it was filled to the brim with condescension and targeted strikes on the male ego from the first paragraph. Immediately, before I even get to the point of the article (which is a point worth spreading) I’m belittled for having a man cave, being white, being “non-cis,” and so forth. Right away I’m turned off to the message, even though it’s a valid one. The article is an utter failure at achieving its stated purpose – getting men to talk to other men about their behavior. Instead, it drives a wedge between the two camps (let’s use feminists and men, though it’s probably more complicated than that) and ensures that a significant population of men aren’t going to get that message because it’s not transmitted in a way that is going to make that happen.
If you’re already thinking that I’m defending rapists, doxxers, and the like, you’re already missing the point of what I’m saying. This is not an argument for why women should get over being catcalled. It’s an argument for how to help build the army that is going to fight against that behavior, and an argument that the way it’s being done right now is not helping. In fact, it’s hurting, and if you hope to make any progress
1. Stop using the word privilege. Oh, I know right away I’m about to raise some hackles, and that’s fine. I understand what the word means. I understand the connotations. But you will inevitably and immediately piss someone off if you imply that they are privileged. “But it’s not necessarily that person’s fault!” you may say. “I’m merely stating a societal supposition based on evidence!” Yeah, okay…but what connotations come along with that word? Personally I think of a feudal lord with servants who is really fat and is going to die in the last chapter of the book…but I write fantasy novels. I don’t want to be a fat feudal lord. If you begin the conversation by calling me a fat feudal lord, you’re not going to be winning me over.
The goal of using that word is to raise the awareness that a person’s point of view might be skewed one way or another because of societal norms that give them an advantage, right? Wow, that sounds a lot better than saying words like “silver spoon” and “white privilege” and all that. This WHOLE conversation is about trying to broaden the point of view of society. So why narrow it by using a term that, while perhaps accurate (I don’t really think it is), does nothing but create enmity? Can you think of other terminology in history that began as an accurate description of a situation but became offensive? If you’re looking to mobilize the fence-sitters (see #2), stop. Using. This. Word.
2. Know the target audience. Maybe I’m way off base here, but I don’t think these messages are targeted at the real, textbook misogynists. Those aren’t the people you’re trying to convince. Like the civil rights movement of the 1950s, you are not looking to convince a KKK member that racism is bad. You’re looking to talk to the moderate population that would otherwise remain inactive. Stop thinking of it as trying to stop rapists – start thinking of it as a mutual effort to create an environment in which rapists cannot thrive. You need to mobilize the fence-sitters, the would-be-bystanders. The folks that, had you not communicated a real concern to them and made them aware of the problem in a way that they can both understand and respect might not have taken an action at all. If you like talking at walls, fine – go yell at someone who really believes that women’s rights activists are ruining society and that rape/death is a suitable punishment. But I’m willing to bet that you’re going to inspire more change if you hit the middle group. And when you hit the middle group, you need to do so in a way that they can understand.
3. Understand the difference between persuasion and catharsis. Anger is not a bad thing. Outrage is not a bad thing. But they have their time and place. I’m furious that people would think that rape/death threats are valid solutions to problems. It’s disgusting, repulsive. I could write a blog entry saying how disgusted I am by all of this, but…does that help? Maybe a healthy amount of bombastic speech can be a good slap in the face now and then, yes, but there are other ways to wake people up than slapping them in the face. If you show them the light, instead, maybe they won’t be so goddamn grumpy when they wake up. The cited article was catharsis, not effective persuasive journalism. This is why when you want to vent you call your mom; not get on national television. The internet makes that hard, because everyone has a soapbox. An author I know, Mary Robinette Kowal, has a policy that she waits 24 hours before posting anything so as to avoid this problem. So far, even though Mary has posted on very sensitive issues, I haven’t seen anything that feeds the fire rather than tries to douse it.
4. Don’t lump people together. Treat them as individuals. This is the biggest mistake in any discussion, really. The whole #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen hashtag war was really, I think, unhealthy for this part of the discussion. Men are the perpetrators in the vast majority of these situations, yes. But if you treat every man as a rapist or supporter of rapists, you’re making a big mistake. Maybe I’m naive, but I’d like to think that most men don’t, in fact, think it’s cool to rape women. That article immediately made me feel like not only a bad guy, but an idiot. It didn’t prime me for the message. It primed me to reject it.
Remember what you’re trying to do with this communication – inspire those fence-sitters to take action. The “But not ALL men rape” argument is so often misconstrued as “therefore it’s okay to rape.” No! I sincerely hope that nobody is trying to say that. It should be construed as “Right now I am feeling isolated because of what you are saying. I’m one of the good guys, okay? Please stop treating me like one of the bad guys so that I can be on your team.” If you are a woman, of course you are angry at men for the gross stuff that’s been going on lately! You have every right to be angry. But please see #3, and remember that expressing it can, and will, have consequences.
So there you have it. Four ways to talk in a way that is going to help, not hurt, this and other discussions on issues that society desperately needs to deal with.
“But Joe,” I can hear people saying, “you’re just telling victimized individuals that you won’t change your behavior unless they’re nice to you. That’s messed up!” But that’s not what I’m saying. It’s also not what Martin Luther King said. It’s not what Ghandi said. It’s not what any civil rights activist in the history of the world who actually inspired real change said. For one, if you’re thinking that, you’re engaging in #5. I’m not a rapist, nor do I support people who rape other people. So, in a discussion with someone who you are pretty sure isn’t, in fact, a rapist, why wouldn’t you treat them with respect? Why don’t they deserve you being “nice” to them? Remember, if I’m a fence-sitter (which I’m not) you’re trying to get me to understand your point of view and then take action, not feel like I’ve raped somebody because I’m a man.
Now, don’t confuse this with compromising. That’s not the same. Nobody should compromise on their right to live without fear – we absolutely must root out the infectious disease that is rape culture and crush it, because it has no place in a modern society. But I think that the major key to doing so is to communicate, and if you can’t communicate because you’re too busy insulting each other, this problem is never going to get better. I’m not compromising when I alter my strategy to make it more effective – I’m being smart.
I’ll be writing another blog article in the near future about the specifics of how to combat misogyny as a man, because – even though I think the author of that article I linked at the beginning did real damage to her cause by writing about it like that – I agree with her that we, as men, have an obligation to stop it.
If you have comments, please, leave them. I’d love to engage.