I want to tell a short anecdote that highlights some unintended consequences of #MeToo and how, more generally, men are often considered to be a predatory species. Note, this is not a critique of #MeToo, or an attempt in any form to question the truth of the statements made by countless women who have been horribly mistreated. It is about my emotional response in a specific situation, and from this situation I believe I take a reasonable liberty to extrapolate a broader point.
I was recently crossing City Road by Old Street tube station in London. A guy in a big silver Mercedes was attempting to do a three-point turn in the middle of the street, causing traffic to backup in both directions. He looked flustered. Straightening the vehicle, he put his foot down to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. At that same moment a young woman was crossing the street in a place where she should not cross and the Mercedes hit her, throwing her high into the air, making a horrible sight and sound.
I was the nearest person to the impact, maybe 10 feet away. I rushed over to the woman who was sat on the ground looking dazed and confused. My instinctual response was to put my arm around her shoulder and ask if she was ok. Within a second or two I was hit by a second response: I have my hands on this woman without any consent: she might feel in some way violated by this act, and all the people starting to congregate around the accident might be thinking the same thing. At that point I instinctually lurched away from the woman, putting some space between the two of us. Other women came forward and put their arms around her shoulders. The men on the scene kept their distance.
I was saddened by this situation, because clearly an unintended consequence of #MeToo—for me, at least, but I’m pretty sure also for many others—was a fear of appearing like an abuser in a situation that clearly required humanity. There are two primary critical responses from others I can think of regarding my instinctual reactions to this situation. First, indeed it was inappropriate to get in this woman’s space without consent. If you hold this position, I believe we’ve lost our way. Second, it wasn’t inappropriate, but my “confusion” about the issue demonstrates a problem that many men have with understanding what is appropriate. If you hold this position, I believe you underestimate the complexity of the current gender-political environment.
The net effect of this situation is that—rightly or wrongly—I put a distance between myself and doing the right thing. If we extrapolate that to countless situations around the world every day we’re looking at men removing themselves en masse from demonstrating empathy for others for fear of being judged as abusive. Paradoxically, that results in exactly the kind of empathy gap that men are typically charged with.
This is just the latest wave of anxiety I’ve experienced about being judged for my intervention in a situation as a man. Historically, this has largely been in the context of children lost in supermarkets, train stations and the like, where what I want to do is take them by the hand and go find their parents, but instead I swiftly take them to an official (or a woman) so I don’t get pegged as a predator.
If you are inclined to tell me that my instinctual and emotional responses to these situations are “wrong” or that I am focusing #MeToo on men’s concerns rather than women’s, we have another problem. Every time you tell a man that such responses are wrong, you basically deny his feelings, when it is exactly such feelings that men are continually told to demonstrate (or are you really only interested in men expressing their feelings if they happen to validate your feelings?).
If you do not agree with such emotional responses, much better to first understand why they are happening, because as long as men are spoken to rather than listened to in these difficult conversations, there will be little progress.
Do you want to be part of creating a kinder, more inclusive society?
Photo credit: Wil Stewart/Unsplash