Friday, May 30, 2014
The horrific events at Isla Vista hit me particularly hard, albeit probably not for the reasons they should have. My brief visits to that college community left me with an idyllic sense of peacefulness and joy. The time, on my first visit, spent with my best, lifelong friend and his lady. The relaxed pace of the town (at least in the early ‘70s). The sense of freedom on another visit as I scrambled down the paths to the water, pulling my clothes off as I ran, only to be joined by joyously friendly college students, who were thankfully unaware that I was a member of the reviled military. These were sweet memories, a detailed picture in my mind. But now, the images are bloodied. Isla Vista has, in my mind, become part of a brutal world, tainted by something that my nostalgic memories cannot abide.
Looking at my initial reaction, I have to recognize and admit how profoundly shallow it is, particularly in the face of the lives ended. But what of the collateral damage, the lives permanently scarred, in Isla Vista and beyond? Sadly, the scars aren’t merely the result of one brutal attack, an attack that is but a footnote on a tome beyond measure. The greater story is one that is lived out by every woman, yet denied, dismissed, or distracted by most males. It is the legacy of misogyny that pervades every culture, and that has done so for time beyond measure or memory.
Looking just a bit below the surface, I observe my own lifelong behavior and attitudes, and have to be honest with myself and admit that I have been and to an extent continue to be part of the problem. Through the course of my life, when I looked at a female, my immediate internal reaction has been to view her according to her value in my own life, not as an equal, but as an accessory, a possession. My initial evaluation had little to do with whether she might provide intellectual stimulation or challenge my emotional limitations. I’d look at her and immediately size her up as a potential sexual partner, as something to elevate my esteem in others’ eyes, or even as a vehicle to assist me in reaching some goal I had set for myself.
There have been women in my life who have transcended that evaluation, but even they had to pass a certain set of criteria in order to be considered worthy of the time it would take to discover their more esoteric qualities. And I am ashamed to say that there have been any number of remarkable women whom I’ve encountered and walked away from, simply because they weren’t pretty enough, were too fat, didn’t find me charming, or in some other way, didn’t “fit the part.”
Does that make me a misogynist? An abuser of women? I think it goes deeper than that. It makes me an abuser of not only women, but of my own humanity. In the course of my “disqualification process,” I have hurt some women, and left them feeling less interesting, less intelligent, less attractive, and ultimately, less worthy. That I felt – in varying degrees – a sense of guilt, of shame, and of unworthiness myself as a result of my behavior is ultimately my one saving grace. Had I not felt that guilt and shame, I would have been a sociopath, rather than just an asshole. Asshole, I can live with (under the right circumstances, anyway). Sociopath, I cannot. I have to believe that there is kindness in me, beyond any selfish motive. Missing that kindness, I would be less than human, the very thing I so despise.
Sure, I became incensed when I worked on a book that described firsthand the horrors that women in Muslim countries routinely experience – having acid thrown in their face by their own fathers for merely looking at a man, being set afire simply for speaking their mind, being killed for the crime of not accepting a marriage proposal. But these were a world away, and nothing like we have here in our “civilized” country. At least, not until we look at attractive women being shot because a man – to stretch the term – hadn’t been able to convince any other women to have sex with him. Or at the many comments posted in sympathy for his pain. It is here. Everywhere. And it always has been.
The dialog that has arisen from this latest tragedy has forced me to look honestly – perhaps for the first time – at how insidious the objectification of women really is. Perhaps the most powerful information I’ve gotten was from a blog post that told us men to just shut up and listen, something I’ve rarely been known to do. But when I did finally listen, I was literally pummeled by a truth that I had never heard, much less, considered. It was both the truth of what women – all women – experience, and the illusion with which we men respond to that truth.
#YesAllWomen versus #NotAllMen
Every woman, no matter where she lives, has felt objectified by men. And while I had known this intellectually for a long time, it never really sunk in until recently. Women, because of their own personal experiences, have to view men in the same way most people view snakes. Until they’ve seen enough to identify a specific one, they have to assume it is venomous. Why? Because they or someone they know has had an encounter with a guy who seems nice, interesting, and normal, but ultimately ends up being abusive, controlling, condescending, and possibly even violent. Statistics say that one in four women will be the victim of a sexual assault in their lives. One in four. How many men would rush to pick up a snake they didn’t recognize if they knew that one in four of them would get bitten?
Another analogy that’s been going around the last couple of days (probably much longer, but I’m new at looking at this, remember?) describes a bowl of M&Ms™, where ten percent of the candies are poisonous. How eager would you be, knowing this, to grab a handful and partake? The most frequent male response to the analogy has been to deny that the percentage of abusive men is much lower than ten percent, and that they (the responders) aren’t abusive in any way. Okay, let’s drop the percentage of poisoned M&Ms / abusive males to .1 percent – one in a thousand. Only one candy contains deadly poison, and one guy in a very crowded club is potentially abusive (and that is giving us guys a bigger benefit of the doubt than our behavior would warrant). Would it make sense to go ahead and grab a handful of M&Ms and chow down, or for a woman to take the guy who approaches her at face value? Think about it.
To make it as simple as possible, imagine as a man, walking alone at night, and seeing a group of women approaching. Our normal first response is to check the women out, see which of them we find most attractive, and perhaps consider what our chances are of having a relationship – even a brief sexual relationship – with the hottest one. Our very first reaction is to assess an opportunity. If it feels right, or if one of them acknowledges or smiles at us, we might make small talk – any overture to enhance that opportunity.
Now, imagine being a woman, also walking alone at night, and seeing a group of men approaching. The first response is to assess the group, but for a wholly different reason than opportunity. Do any of them look threatening, angry, or, for that matter, too interested? Will I be whistled and cat-called at? Will I be grabbed as I try to pass, raped and left for dead, or worse, murdered? Each reaction is very real, and each is justified by our own previous experience. There is very little chance that a group of women will attack – much less, rape and kill – a man, but in the women’s experience, there is a very real likelihood of her fears being realized. Women are aware of the reality, and we men need to be aware, as well.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard guys try to argue the statistics of misogynistic behavior, as if those statistics could somehow disprove what every woman on earth has experienced and continues to experience. They try to reassure women that they’re “different,” and that there is no reason to lump them in with “a few bad apples.” What they fail to realize is that by attempting to dismiss women’s experiences, they actually promote and protect those “bad apples,” and by extension, join forces with them. Perhaps the guys would do well to understand that a misogynist would not be likely to identify himself as one. He’d do his best to appear charming, endearing, and entertaining, at least until he had the woman in the position he desired, or realized she wasn’t going to go along with his idea of a “relationship.” And we saw, all to graphically, how the latter scenario can – and too often does – play out.
It’s not who we men are, it’s what we do.
The one, we can’t change. The other, we can and must.
And no excuses are acceptable.
I was raised primarily by my mother, who was by any measure a strong and independent woman. She demanded my respect, as well as that of everyone she encountered, and God help the person who failed to show her that respect. Looking back, however, I have to acknowledge that she was born into – and on some levels, accepted and unknowingly perpetuated – the age-old notion that a woman’s “place” was supposed to be subservient to a man’s, and I suspect that on some level, she resented the fact that she was required to be the dominant partner in her own marriage. Her (perhaps unconscious) acceptance of “a woman’s place” was manifest in many ways, some so subtle as to be easily overlooked, at least by myself, and I suspect by society at large.
For example, I lived under a very different set of rules than did my older sister. My mother accepted my smoking cigarettes for years before my sister was allowed to smoke. I cannot remember ever washing dishes after a meal, while my sister did so quite frequently. Neither can I remember my sister ever being expected to do yard work. It was a “man’s job.” Even in our schooling, my sister was pressured by expectations that I never really felt. As a result, she strove to do well, while I coasted all the way through high school, completely apathetic about my education.
I can remember going out to dinner with Mom, and her discretely passing money under the table, so I could be the one to pay. Her gesture meant a lot to me when I was young and poor, but I grew uncomfortable with it as I matured (if indeed I have ever done so). Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether the gesture was as important to her as she felt it was to me; that she would have preferred to be in a more traditional “woman’s” position.
Just to be clear, I in no way blame my mother or any other woman for the misogyny that is so pervasive in this and so many other cultures. Only to acknowledge how, even with the best of intentions, she may have perpetuated a mindset that was fertile ground, and in which insecure and frightened little boys learn to embrace and twist “traditional” roles into justification for dismissal, objectification, and abuse of women.
But in the final analysis, I don’t give a damn how we men got to where we are, because that is not the issue. The issue is not what we are, what kind of environment we lived in, or any other factor that we might cling to in our attempt to explain, justify, or defend what we do or explain how “we’re different.” All that matters is what we are doing now, and what we choose to do in the future. And the best – no, the only – way we can make a good choice is to begin by shutting up and listening. Really listening to what women have known for thousands of years, but have been too frightened to discuss. If we’re trying to explain or defend our own behavior, or to insist that we be judged by who we are, independent of and vastly different from “those other guys,” we are missing the point altogether. We are denying a pervasive reality, simply because we haven’t experienced it ourselves. By doing that, we allow that ugly reality a safe place to continue. We are the problem, until we make and follow through on the decision, not to make some grand gesture, but simply to change how we look at women and how we behave toward them. And just as importantly, to clearly express our disapproval when we see others behaving badly, because a person who is weak enough to need to dominate women will always look to other males for support. Only when that support is denied, and the behavior clearly rejected, will there be any possibility that the abuser will look at and possibly try to change his behavior.
We are the problem, and always have been. Not the only problem, and not every problem, but we are this problem. And now, we have two very clear choices: we can either choose to continue to be part of the problem, or choose to be part of the solution. To shut up and listen. To empathize without trying to defend. To recognize the women we encounter as humans every bit as intelligent, complex, and worthy as we would like to think we are ourselves. And to recognize and acknowledge that what they have experienced is every bit as real and valid as our own experiences. If we can manage to do these simple things, we will discover a richness in our relationships that soars beyond our wildest imaginings. If we don’t, “the bitches” will just keep on “playing with our heads” and rejecting us. We get to choose. And we will make that choice, every day, every hour, and every moment of our lives. We’ll choose badly at times, but we will have the opportunity to choose well the next time. We have to try, for the women’s sake and for our own.