I’ve been thinking about icebergs again.
I was thinking about them earlier in the year. At the time, Richard Spencer and other white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville. Moderate white people were rushing to distance themselves from the Nazis with tiki torches defending statues of General Robert E. Lee.
The problem with that, as I wrote at the time, is that white privilege is a socially more palatable variation of white supremacy. It’s true that only a small portion of white Americans overtly identify with the notion that everyone who isn’t white should go find somewhere else to live, but so much of our culture is tied up in the notion that white people are more deserving than anyone else.
The aggressiveness of whiteness in this country is like an iceberg. When we see an iceberg floating in the ocean, we only see a small portion of it. Most of the mass is under the water, rarely visible.
The likes of Richard Spencer are the tip, but they’re not the real danger. The real danger is the vast momentum of implied supremacy that helped push Donald Trump into office last year: The casual racists who claim to want equality, but who aren’t willing to give anything up for it. The ones who start with “I’m not racist, but….” The ones who talk about “black-on-black” crime and write police brutality off as “if they’d only comply” even when white people are shot point-blank while complying.
This is the iceberg of white supremacy that pushes the tiki torch protesters to the surface: Daily micro-aggressions that we know are wrong but we just can’t be bothered to shake ourselves free from.
At the time, I set this metaphor aside, wrestling with it. Then the anti-Nazi fervor largely went away (even though the white nationalists haven’t). As icebergs do, it slipped back into my unconscious.
Then the scandals of Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken restarted another discussion: Rape Culture.
Mention “rape culture” in a lot of men’s discussion spaces, and there’s a collective groan. Rape is a terrible, heinous, awful crime. Most men have never raped a woman; for that matter, most women haven’t ever been violently raped (RAINN estimates that five in six women are never raped).
And so men often scramble to distance themselves from it. We don’t engage in rape, so why are we being held accountable for it? Because rape is only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s the iceberg as a whole that we’re talking about when we refer to rape culture.
11th Principle: Consent offers the Rape Culture Triangle, which describes the three levels of rape culture: Normalization, Degradation, and Assault. What qualifies as “degradation” and “assault” should be fairly obvious, but “normalization” is more nuanced and difficult.
Normalization is all the various daily ways in which we objectify women or devalue womanhood. I don’t think I know of a single man who has never engaged in at least one of these kinds of activities:
• Dismissing bad male behavior as “boys will be boys” or “you know how men are”
• “That’s what she said” or other sexual jokes
• Failing to step in when a woman is being harassed because we’re afraid of how we’ll look
• Surreptitiously ogling a woman, then giving a knowing look at a male friend
• Praising another man for his sexual conquests
Billy Bush, the one-time Access Hollywood reporter who chuckled along while Donald Trump bragged about adultery and sexually assaulting women, recently wrote an op-ed in which he takes some responsibility for his complicity: “Was I acting out of self-interest? You bet I was. … all of us were guilty of sacrificing a bit of ourselves in the name of success.”
At the same time, though, he claims he thought it was empty braggadocio: “He was performing. Surely, we thought, none of this was real.”
Trump degraded: Bush normalized. Whether Bush really did believe Trump was just a “bloviator,” he laughed along.
When we laugh along, we help create a culture in which sexually assaulting women is enabled. We communicate: This is funny. Rape is funny. Assault is funny.
When we laugh along with Bluto in Animal House as he peeks in the sorority’s window, we’re laughing at a sex crime. Are we committing assault? No, but we are telling the women around us that we think it’s a viable sense for humor. And we’re telling our sons the same thing. We’re telling other men that we’re part of the tribe.
In a pair of excellent videos, Pop Culture Detective Agency tears down “The Big Bang Theory,” a TV show that should by its premise be actively working to redefine the cultural view of masculinity. The videos show how much energy the show instead puts into maintaining toxic masculine attitudes, including the foundations of rape culture.
As much as Billy Bush appears to be acknowledging his own sins, he’s at the same time trying to blame the gang. He’s responsible, sure, but “all of us” are. I don’t know him personally, but in his words I hear some of my own voice: I too want to be part of a tribe of the guilty enablers.
It helps mitigate my own personal responsibility in being part of the great mass of ice that’s holding the rapists up. I have never forcibly had sex with anyone, but I have normalized it, and I have degraded women. I have degraded other men with insults about their gender and their sexual identity, as if it’s wrong to be feminine or gay.
Toxic masculinity is a self-feeding beast. It’s cold and hard to breathe underwater, so we compete to move up the iceberg.
Except, neither of these icebergs, the tip of white supremacy or the tip of rape culture, are lofty goals.
The thing about icebergs is, if they lose enough support, they collapse. If we’re all complicit, then we’re each responsible for moving ourselves away.
Stop all of it. When you’re tempted to defend some harmless microaggression against a woman or a person of color with, “Hey, I was just…”: Maybe you were doing something mild, but it’s part of the structure. The structure won’t collapse until we pull out the supports.
Help me pull out the supports. I see some that I put up there myself. Do you?
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