I feel like a lot of (cis-het-white-able) men in their twenties and thirties are being confronted with something in the social justice movement that’s, in some ways, very similar to what I was confronted with when coming to university. People are angrily telling them to STFU all the time and demanding that they lower their voices and to speak less aggressively, even though those same people seem to be shouting louder and more coarsely than they perceive themselves to be speaking.
This is like my situation on going to university in that, although my life had sucked royally in many ways, I was still a middle-class white girl who had been encouraged to speak her opinion at home (as a child, anyway, less as a teenager) and whose teachers had (mostly) tried to give her equal attention to the boys. Suddenly I found that if I spoke in any way that disagreed with my cis-white-male friends I was being told to calm down, to lower my (not shouting) voice, to use less coarse language, to let someone else (a man) speak instead. And yet the people I was talking to were talking louder than me, longer than me, far more agrressively than me.
It was bewildering and dispiriting and, because I had had numerous other blows to my confidence over the years, some of which I now recognise as being rooted in my failure to conform to gender-norms, eventually it wore me down. I did start to modulate my voice. And it was gutting, because it was unfair, and because I was not rewarded by any better treatment by those cis-white-men who were supposed to be my friends. The quieter and more meekly I spoke, the more they assumed that was correct and punished me for any deviance from that perception of what was appropriate for me.
I think a lot of guys are feeling that kind of bewildered anger right now, because they are looking around at communities that seem suddenly thrust upon them where people are talking loudly and aggressively and often coarsely, and when they try to join in those discussions and add their perspectives they are told their perspectives are not valid or welcome and they need to shut the fuck up. This makes these men FEEL like they are in a situation akin to my situation on coming to university. That they are being unjustly discriminated against - even punished for trying to help.
But it’s not that situation. And I think I have a metaphor that might help explain why.
If you come across an accident and you find an accident victim and that person is screaming at the top of their lungs and effing and blinding you don’t think that’s unreasonable, do you? The person is obviously in pain and the volume of their voice and the coarseness of their language is not only to be accepted, but is perfectly reasonable, given the situation. If you were to start shouting and swearing back at them simply because you don’t like being shouted at, everyone would be rightly shocked and appalled.
No, you didn’t do anything wrong, maybe you’re even trying to help, and that person to yelling at you and saying horrible things to you and you are expected to bear it quietly and listen to that person and, if you’re a decent sort, see what you can do to help.
That would be perfectly reasonable. Oppressed people who are shouting and swearing and being aggressive to cis-het-white-able men are like that. They have been hurt. BADLY hurt. And they are screaming and venting their pain and that is not only OK, it’s entirely to be expected. Moreover, if you keep listening to them you will find that in between the shouting and the swearing and the lashing out, they’re actually trying to tell you what’s wrong and what you can do to help make it better. If you just go in headlong over their protests and start pulling at the things that seem to be pinning them down, you could well make it worse.
Only, it’s not a simple accident, and you’re not an innocent bystander. It’s a massive pile-up that is clogging a major artertial motorway. There are people all around in pain who are screamign for help, and some of those people aren’t being very polite to the people who are trying to rescue them, but they’re in a LOT of pain.
And whilst you may not have been the direct cause of the crash, you did contribute to it in some ways. Maybe there were some other dudes who were more at fault. Maybe there were some envrinmental factors. Maybe it was really icy on that road and there should have been a team of gritters out salting it to help prevent precisely issues like this, but those guys didn’t want to get up early this morning, so they decided to skip today, and it’s really those arseholes who are the main cause of the pile-up. Nevertheless, you contributed. You weren’t obeying the speed limit, you weren’t being careful enough about the icy conditions. You thought it didn’t matter, because everyone goes a little over the speed limit, and you ahd somewhere you really needed to be, and you thought you could control your car well enough to manage the conditions without hurting anyone. But you were wrong.
Maybe there were some other shitbags who were speeding at, like, 100mph, and they were obviously way more at fault than you. Sure, we can blame those guys a bit more. Maybe you wouldn’t have rearended anyone if they hadn’t skidded across the lanes and caused the pile up. But it’s still true that if you had been going slower, if you’d been paying better attention to the conditions and to the other drivers around you, you could have avoided crashing and contibuting your bit to the pile up. And you can see those shitbags yelling at policemen about how they woudl have been fine if the gritters had done their job. And you think they’re shitbags for not accepting their portion of the blame, but the truth is that it’s not just the shitbags and it’s not just the gritters and it’s not just you, it’s all of you together. And it’s the people who didn’t properly manage and discipline the gritters, who didn’t train them properly and who maybe weren’t careful enough in their hiring. Those were good people who believed in the importance of gritting. None of those people were driving 100mph down the motorway. But it’s still true that if they’d done their job properly, with better foresight about the consequences, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
That’s why we talk about the systematic problems of sexism, and racism, and homophobia, and heterosexism, and ableism, and transmisogyny, and so on. And that’s the difference between the person with half a car lying on top of them, who’s bleeding out and screaming at you and swearing at you, and you. Because you may not have been directly responsible for them being in that position, but any decent person can see that if they’re screaming at you a lot of the reason they’re doing that is because they’re in pain and they need help and it would not be appropriate to scream back. And also, simply noting that it wasn’t your car that careened into theirs doesn’t excuse you from any role in the pile up.
Maybe you don’t deserve to be screamed at as much as the shitbags who were driving 100mph on an icy day, or the gritters who couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed and do their job, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to scream back at the people in pain and it doesn’t mean there’s nothing about your behaviour that shouldn’t be amended now that you’re aware that pile-ups like this can happen.