Making Smart Use of Our Microphone (aka, Don't Be Stupid)

>> Friday, November 17, 2017

For at least a few weeks now, women have had the microphone in a way they haven't had perhaps ever. They've been talking about a culture we've mentioned many times before, but not to much response. A world where women are  objects, where they are taught their value is in the eyes of men (often by both parents) or where, even if they don't see themselves that way, they have to put up with others who see them that way to survive. And that the pervasive culture that goes with it makes real predators among the men hard to bring to justice because, instead of being believed, we are dismissed, marginalized, blamed.

This is the world women live in. And one reason we're quiet is for survival. And one reason is because we get attacked for telling the truth. But, for a window, that's starting to change in part because we got angry and started talking. And part is because a few someones started listening, not only when we talked about predators but when we talked about good guys who were part of the dehumanizing that enables the predators.

And responded. The #MeToo campaign helped make it clear how pervasive it is. How ingrained it is. This is about that effort, but I'm going to take a side trip.

I grew up watching M*A*S*H. It was and remains one of my favorite shows, not because it encompasses the feminine ideal--oh, hell no, plenty of misogyny which I didn't notice at the time and still don't think eliminates the value of the show--but it does address many concerns about how people are and are treated, how a culture can make decent people do indecent things and still sleep at night, how some people are monsters hidden among them, and about how some people, despite the culture around them, strive to still hold on to decency.

Now real life (and even the show) wasn't that clear cut: [a] people who strived to live above the difficult culture they were stuck with (war), [b] decent people pushed/felt compelled to do things no decent person should have to do, and [c] monsters who let the war be a cover for greater monstrosities. In truth, there's plenty of folks between b and c--people who, when push came to shove, weren't nearly as decent as they thought they were, for instance.

But the tools for dealing with b and c were totally different for good reason. You don't destroy a [b], who is driven by some outside force (often patriotism and propaganda and the force of the culture around him); you do your best to educate them, teach them why it's wrong and you do so knowing many won't really get it. Not because they're evil but because the culture is too ingrained.

And the monsters, the [c] folks, you try to take out of the game as cleanly as possible because they are beyond saving.

Now I bring this up because I think this has a useful life lesson. When we did #MeToo, we included both sexual harassment as well as sexual assault. While I understand, I think that might have been a mistake, especially if we didn't clarify the kind of sexual harassment we're talking about.

There are two kinds of harassment (both illegal but how you prosecute them is different). One is making an uncomfortable work environment: touchy-feely (non groping), dirty jokes, sexist statements [culture] and one is using power to threaten a woman to comply or hamper/crucify her career [predatory]. Both aren't good and I'm not, in any way, trying to argue that former kind is good, shouldn't be talked about, shouldn't be brought up. We definitely need to so people understand that that kind of environment is painful, stifling, oppressive, and dangerous. It needs to change not just because it's all those things but because it also provides cover for the more predatory folks.

But the way you handle a "cultural" infraction isn't the same way you handle a predator and what I'm seeing right now is mixing those two up. If I'm a guy telling a dirty joke at work and someone hears me and reports it, I will not likely be fired for it. What I will be told is that it's not appropriate, I'll likely get training, I may have to apologize. I'd have to establish a pattern of continuing it despite many warnings before I'm likely to be fired and the reason is, usually the warning is enough. For decent folks.

Predators are different.

So, now, after being dismissed and marginalized, even blamed, for generations, we have the microphone and we're being heard. I'll say it again. We need to call out the cultural problems and call out the predators. Absolutely.

But we need to treat them differently. Someone (who isn't a teenager) who stalks shopping malls hoping to pick up teenagers  is not the same as someone teasing a coworker or making stupid jokes at her expense. Someone who grabs a woman's nether region because he can get away with it because of his personal power is not the same as a man who kisses you as part of a performance in a way you hadn't expected (and was in very poor taste). A scripted kiss you agreed to perform isn't assault, even if you didn't like how he kissed. Absolutely, you are within your rights to object to his method or change your mind afterwards. Tell him not to do it again and you do have a problem if he doesn't. But it's not the same thing as being groped or raped without recourse of choice and pretending it is the same diminishes real assault victims who weren't asked and had no chance to refuse.

Plenty of actresses have horror stories about kissing they did for roles, most of which they never talked about until much later. Shall we destroy the lives of every man who's ever given a screen kiss? I've been kissed by ten different men in my lifetime. I don't recall any of them asking before the first time and, while some I wanted, others not so much. Is it reasonable for me to track the men who gave me the ones I didn't want, get them fired from their jobs and make them pariahs?

Of course not. Because most of that is cultural. Stupid. Thoughtless. Selfish. Things that should change, but it was the culture they (and I) lived in at the time. I want the culture to change, absolutely, but I can't see the logic in trying to apply it retroactively. Ideally, what I can do is explain what was wrong with what they did, its affect on me, and hope they realize it was a mistake and strive to do better. Because if they work at it and I work at it, that's how cultures change.

If I get acknowledgement, if they listen to me without blame, if they appreciate my position, and agree they need to do better, that should be my goal.

Because I will totally kill my own credibility if I lump cultural transgressors with the predators. Because, if I'm out to destroy the same people who could help me change the culture, I'm not out to change it. I'm out for revenge.

It's the fear that women would do that, would use their newfound voice to destroy not just the ones who preyed on women but those who unwittingly covered for them, who made jokes or got pushy, who got angry or defensive when a guy was being accused. Men wanted to believe the predators were few and far between. If you tell them they're all monsters, why would they listen to you any more? Why admit you were right and make an effort to change if a dumb mistake (no I'm not talking rape or assault or having sex with a passed out drunk girl) can cost them their entire future? Potential allies in changing the world for the better will get lost. That's not just stupid. It's suicidal.

Because, if they don't help us change the culture, it won't change and the predators will still be hard to uncover because no one will be listening.

If your intent for #MeToo was to send the signal that every man is basically scum, and they should live the rest of their lives suffering as a result, well, you lost me.

Because I thought it was so we could change this toxic culture so our daughters--and our sons--could have a healthier environment, one where no one would be afraid to out a predator or be blamed for the predator's transgressions. One where men wouldn't be uncomfortable stopping ugly talk or women wouldn't be afraid to speak up sooner and perhaps avoid miscommunications that hurt everyone.

However you feel about Ms. Tweeden and Al Franken, we have a woman who brought forward what I consider to be cultural issues - her own story, I'm talking about. A kiss she consented to, teasing afterwards (whether pointed or mean-spirited, there's no way to know; I doubt they remember it the same), and a picture that does not prove any groping took place but was in definite poor taste. I agree with Al Franken. The behavior was not acceptable, but there is nothing there that proves malice on his part, or predation. She says she hated the kiss and told him never to kiss her like that again--and he didn't. Exactly the reaction one would want when someone makes an honest mistake. Everything else can be readily explained (not excused) by a culture that makes dehumanizing jokes and behavior mainstream. Wrong, absolutely. But not predatory.

And Al Franken's response is exactly what I look for in someone who has contributed to a toxic culture and has it brought to his attention. He has, in no way, attacked Ms. Tweeden. He has validated her feelings and apologized for his behavior with a vow to do more. He has asked for any and all investigation. And he has reminded all of us that he thinks the issues women are dealing with are bigger than just his own vindication:  "And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them."

That, boys and girls, is how you change culture, by making your case, getting heard, and those who made mistakes making an effort to correct them. What you don't do is treat them like a predator, or try to destroy them when they could be your ally.

If you want to keep that microphone, if you want to take out the most dangerous threats you have, you better use that power for good and not revenge.

Or you won't have it much longer. And you'll have no one to blame but yourself.

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