#YesAllWomenwasn’t an attack; it was an almost unprecedented invitation to listen. Devin McCutchen shares what we can learn from these six words.
This is a message by men, for men. This is for every man who was confused about #YesAllWomen. This is for every man who has thought, “Wait, #NotAllMen do these things.” This is for every man who was dumbfounded by the past months’ worth of college rape accusations. This is for every man who read the violent, frustrated ravings of the Isla Vista killer and thought, “I mean, I kinda get it.” This is for every man who has felt helpless to respond.
This past week many of us men have seen our interactions with women crackle and explode with tension, both in person and in social media. At best we felt shaken by the grim stories we heard. At worst we felt under attack simply for being men. Often we simply felt blindsided. What follows is an invitation for us to start coming to terms with how those conversations unfolded and to begin discussing what role that we, as men, have to play in addressing what so many women have been telling us. This is about getting to the point where we can ask each other, #WhatsNextMen?
The biggest hot-button word for so many of us men this past week has been “privilege,” so let’s get that one out of the way. Privilege is the power or ability to be heard or to do something that one group of people has and another lacks. Every single person on this planet has some mixture of privileges and disadvantages. None of us earned our privileges; they were created by society and the dumb luck of birth, life, and chance. Because we had no hand in choosing them, we deserve neither the right to feel proud of them, nor the burden of feeling ashamed of them. On the same token, we cannot will them away.
Our privileges are usually invisible to us because they are such fundamental parts of how we experience reality; however, they are extremely visible to those who lack them. Someone with fine eyesight may rarely think about the importance of vision, but someone born blind will be reminded every day that they live in a world designed for the sighted. There are things we can do, though, to become aware of our privilege.
Once we’re aware of our privilege we have the choice of what we do with it. We can choose to use it to reap the bounty of our unearned advantages and get a leg-up over the less-fortunate. We can choose to never examine it because we get along just fine without dwelling on it. We can choose to use it to harm others and to keep them disadvantaged. Though they may not all look that way at first, these are all violent uses of privilege.
In discussions of privilege, the word violence doesn’t only refer to physical harm, it can also mean structural violence. This is when society is organized in a way that consistently impairs someone’s physical or psychological needs. For example, being born into a poor family may mean having to enter a violent system of indebtedness where half of every dollar you earn belongs to someone else from the moment you earn it.
Though there are many violent uses for our privilege, we always have the choice of using our privilege’s power to counter and dismantle these sorts of violences. First, though we have to become aware of our privilege through listening to others. This past week, thousands upon thousands of women turned to social media to share their lifetimes’ worth of day-to-day experiences of fielding active and passive aggression from men. Reacting to these stories, many of us men felt that we were under attack for simply being men. Because we begin unaware of our privilege, some of us responded by saying that none of it was true. Because we were sure we weren’t personally responsible for these things, some of us responded by repeatedly insisting that #NotAllMen were misogynists.
More often than not we missed the fact that #YesAllWomen wasn’t an attack; it was an almost unprecedented invitation to listen. It is very rare for people to speak openly and frankly about victimization. It’s even more rare for them to do it en masse. With so many women talking about their experiences of being on the losing end of privilege, our first job as men in this situation is to listen. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but we have to temporarily suspend our disbelief about what we’re hearing and listen without expectations. Remember in school when you had a really good point but someone else was still talking? You’d raise your hand and start to form your response without ever hearing what that person had to say. Our response can wait until the other person is done speaking, especially if it’s still merited once we’ve listened.
If we’ve really been listening to these women, then we should have a lot to think about. These aren’t the sorts of situations that we men tend to experience and they don’t tend to be the subjects of open discussion. What we heard may have been surprising. It is easy to call these experiences absurd, because it is far more difficult and upsetting to accept them as true. Unless we can be so egotistical as to think that women composed over 1.5 million #YesAllWomen tweets in only 4 days just to make us men personally feel bad, then we have to accept their words as true to their lived experiences, even if we don’t believe we’ve ever seen it first hand.
What we’ve heard said about men may also strike us as immensely unfair, as though our entire gender was being tarred by a few jerks. It is unfair, but that’s not the conversation that women were having with #YesAllwomen. They were talking about how unfair it is that half of the world’s population has spent every day fearing for their safety on account of their gender. Yes, it is true that #NotAllMen hate women and that any one of us might be the nicest guy that anyone could ever meet, but that doesn’t make these women’s personal experiences untrue. Misogyny is unfair to all of us, albeit in very different ways depending on our privilege, as these stories have shown.
To be fair, many men stepped forward this week to counter #NotAllMen and to support #YesAllWomen. Many men listened, accepted the troubling stories they heard, and came to terms with their inability to ever fully understand women’s experiences. Unfortunately, that is where the story seems to have ended. Throwing your hands up in disgust at the violence women regularly endure is akin to calling this a women’s issue that we men are helpless to do anything about. If men hold privilege, and women are regularly suffering violence enacted by some who hold that privilege, then we men are the ones most well-suited to actually do something about it. Which is worse: perpetuating violence out of ignorance or recognizing it among our fellow men and deciding it’s not our job to do anything about it?
Because of our privilege, men’s voices tend to carry greater authority in the ears of other men than women’s do. We can start constructively using our privilege by repeatedly being the voice of resistance to all forms of misogyny among other men, from our friends and family to acquaintances and strangers. We may fear the awkwardness or the social risk of checking other men. Up to now, we may have been content to let women take on that risk whenever men’s actions made them uncomfortable. Just as we should not stop at simply listening to women’s concerns, we have to own our role in creating an environment free of harassment and degradation of women. Calling out other men is our job, too.
If we intend to call out other men for their actions, we need to take up the even more difficult task of holding ourselves accountable for our own. Let’s start with the obvious: The vast majority of us don’t want to be a creep, a harasser, or a rapist. We’re horrified of the idea. That’s why we had that #NotAllMen knee-jerk reaction in the first place. But violence is less obvious when it sneaks into our actions more quietly. It may be there in our expectations around appropriate boundaries between casual conversations and flirting. It may be there in our assumptions about others’ abilities in a task before we’ve ever examined their qualifications. It may be there in the way we unintentionally hold eye contact in public. These relatively tiny, every-day acts, called microaggressions, communicate great amounts of power even without our directly intending them to do so.
Any one of us could spend a lifetime trying to understand the power behind our each and every act and still not come to the bottom of it. On the one hand, we need to be mindful of not becoming paralyzed by minutely scrutinizing all of our past interactions with women. Instead we need to simply begin by making sure that we act responsibly in the future, beginning today. On the other hand, we need to be mindful of becoming so confident in our self-awareness that we claim more authority over women’s experiences than the women we’re talking with and begin to see ourselves as the fearless protector of women’s rights. Women need us as allies who work with other men, not as mansplaining slayers of misogyny.
We do with this newfound awareness, then? If we’re truly troubled by what women have reported to us, then more than anything we need to come together as men to challenge our collective actions. The best way for us to support women is by working on ourselves. We need to examine how we have been taught to be a man from every voice in the world we’ve grown up hearing. Where we find masculinity being defined through shame, violence, and misogyny, we need to take it on as our job to redefine it.
There is no permanent definition of what it means to be a man and every generation before us has altered that definition. That has never been an easy task. There have always been other men telling us that we’re doing it wrong, telling us that “only women wear long hair,” telling us that we weren’t man enough. Pushing the definition of masculinity has always required men to take up the task of hard work in large numbers.
We need to join with other men to push against those who would link masculinity with violence. We need to talk to other men about these issues, long past the time when the Isla Vista killer is out of the news. We need to do these things without expecting ourselves to follow a quick, clear, linear path out of the violence. We need to do these things without expecting to be rewarded by women for being a “nice guy.” We need to do these things because misogyny affects us all.
#YesAllWomen was our invitation to take up that task. There is nothing in these past paragraphs that women haven’t already said in the past week, often with far greater detail and nuance. If privilege means that a man’s voice tends to carry more authority among other men than a woman’s (or many women’s), then it’s time for these words to be spoken by men, to men. This isn’t where the conversation ends for us, it’s where it starts. So, #WhatsNextMen ?
Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Ross Howell, Claire Doran, and Michelle Rodriguez for their invaluable help to me in writing this.