Jerks and those who do not challenge them

Black font on white background - a ligature for the three letters W T FClueless quote of the day via Blaghag, blogging on why women don’t come to atheist meetings after a conversation that ended with this:

“What? It’s not harassment since we’re not in a workplace.”

But wait – there’s more! The same guy then stars in This is why women don’t come to atheist meetings pt. 2

Of course, such arseholeish behaviour is not just limited to atheist meetings, and I have absolutely no doubt that this jerk was not representative of the majority of attendees, a point Blaghag herself made strongly. However, it’s not just one jerk at a male-dominated space that makes women feel unwelcome no matter how nice the other men might be. What made Blaghag feel isolated and unwelcome was that the only person in that room who even raised a visible eyebrow at what the jerk did and said was Blaghag herself.

Let’s be clear here. She didn’t need any man to rescue her from the jerk. She was fully capable of dealing with him individually on that or indeed on future occasions simply by ignoring him amongst other options. Despite the responses from many on her own blog, there was absolutely no need for suggestions as to what Blaghag could have done here to ‘handle the situation.’ What we’re talking about is how the other (all-male) attendees at the meeting might have responded to the jerk’s inappropriate behaviour in a way that would have encouraged Blaghag to feel included and truly welcome in the group (and let’s just be clear on a second point – that this sort of group regularly muses publicly about why more women don’t come to their meetings) so that she would want to come to more of their meetings.

It’s really, really simple, as Kate Harding pointed out years ago now (read the second part of this post) – as long as other men don’t call them out for this shit, guys like this think that all the other guys are on their side. Women being harassed, or seeing other women being harassed while other men let it go unchallenged, have no evidence to the contrary either. If these jerks are not representative of the people they’re grouped with, how are other people supposed to know that if nobody else in the group challenges their jerkish behaviour?

Conclusion: Welcoming? Not.

Here beginneth the rant that is about so much more than just Blaghag’s post, and about so much more than just sexist harassment too. Everybody who writes about social justice online needs to remember this, including me, although for ease of reading I’ll stick to the sexist harasser situation as illustration.

Actions count more than words. If you really do disdain such behaviour as much as you tell us you do here on the Internet, then let the perpetrators know about your disdain right then and there. Otherwise, it’s difficult to conclude otherwise than that your own discomfort at confronting a jerk (in violation of the Dude Code) really does matter more to you than the discomfort of women being harassed by that jerk.

Because here’s what it comes down to when others stand silent while some jerk is a marginalising arsehole towards somebody else right there in front of them: either the silent bystanders really don’t care about others being marginalised, or they are too intimidated to speak out. I suspect that in many situations it’s more the latter than the former, even (especially?) in situations where the only obvious consequence would be social ostracism towards those who speak up; ostracism is a powerfully effective weapon in human group dynamics. Cowardice in the face of intimidation is a fact of life and I doubt there’s any honest person who can say that they’ve never displayed it, but if that’s what’s going on then don’t try and pretend that a space where challenges to inappropriate behaviour have been silenced through intimidation is a welcoming space for the already marginalised.

Women might well fully understand and even forgive this ethical failing in individuals who later apologise when the jerk isn’t listening (hey, everybody makes some ethical compromises to get by) but understanding and forgiveness from women towards vocally remorseful enablers still doesn’t make women feel included, accepted, supported or welcomed by the silent majority of oblivious enablers. It certainly doesn’t make women enthusiastic about spending time with groups full of oblivious enablers, because women are (astonishing!) capable of joining the dots here with respect to how much future harassment they are likely to be expected to ‘have a sense of humour’ about in order to avoid rocking any Dude Solidarity boats.

Which reminds me: it also doesn’t encourage confidence if you bang on about how you never intended to harm the person you left to the mercies of the jerk-wolves. “I didn’t mean to” does not remove the harm done, and it certainly doesn’t generate trust.

So, silent bystanders (and you/we all know who you/we are): commit to calling the arseholes out when they are being arseholes, or stop complaining about how terribly disappointed you are that people who arseholes treat badly don’t want to come to your/our meetings where arseholes never get challenged.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, relationships

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7 replies

  1. The only part of this I have any argument with is this bit:

    …or they are too intimidated to speak out. I suspect that in many situations it’s more the latter than the former…

    I don’t really dispute this, except to say that I think it’s a little more complicated than that. But it’s taken me until a few days ago to realise why.
    A while ago I read the post Intersectionality and Privilege: Addressing the Squishy Bits. This was largely about ableism and derogatory terms based on disability, but after reading it I had a bit of an epiphany. This, I thought, THIS is that feeling I get when a couple of people in a room start making racist or sexist remarks, and I’m not sure what to say.
    It’s not simply because I fear reprisal, or ridicule, or ostracisation, but it’s because I’m thinking, “How do I voice my objection? Can I just say WTF? I don’t really own this issue, though, do I? Am I going to come off as some guy with a white knight complex, wanting to save the damsel in distress? Won’t that also appear quite sexist? And embarrassing for the woman at the centre of this? But wait, I am actually offended by this, and he’s kinda making me complicit. And what if I DO make him stop and think… what will it actually achieve for feminism if the only time some chauvinist pays attention is when a MAN says something? Oh, it’s over.”
    Part of this might be the Dunning-Kruger effect — the more aware you are of an intricate social issue that most people think is just normal, acceptable behaviour, the more likely you are to “overthink” it at the time and be unsure of whether you should speak out or not (or, in fact, how).
    But the other part is being uncomfortable about what I think of as “playing the man card.” A few weeks ago when I complained about that stupid sexting video, I explicitly mentioned that I was male — but why? When I wrote it I thought that I just wanted to point out that sexual harassment is offensive to men too. But in retrospect… doesn’t it look like I’m playing on the sexism I assume they adopt and any notions they might have of feminism as just overly sensitive women? (“Well, you might think that those womens libbers will write in about any old thing, but you know it’s actually offensive when a MAN LIKE ME writes in to complain…”) So speaking out about sexism when it actually happens right in front of you, well, you can’t help but feel like you’re playing the man card.
    If someone is offended by sexism, they should express it, absolutely. It’s about the only realistic way I know of to counter such an ingrained culture — millions of microscopic moments where someone challenges it. I’m not claiming this is an excuse for not calling someone out on being a sexist jerk, but it’s a reason why someone might not open their mouth straight away.
    (I feel like I’m struggling to articulate this. It makes me think of one of the more subtle, insidious kinds of discrimination in technical professions. It’s the situation where a bunch of men and one woman will be standing around talking about some technical issue. The woman mentions something and little attention is paid, but then five minutes later a man raises the exact same point and suddenly it’s relevant and interesting. The truly frustrating thing is, nobody but the feminists in the room ever bloody notice when it happens! If you call people on it, they say “oh, I don’t remember that,” or “but she didn’t put it like he did, did she?”)

  2. The complications raised by the Dunning-Kruger effect were a definite omission on my part, and thank you for raising it, but I think a lot of that kind of concern can be allayed by the words chosen to make the challenge. The words don’t have to be some big analytical challenge, they don’t have to make direct reference to the person being marginalised/harassed. They just have to express clear disapprobation.
    One of the best suggestions I’ve come across for a man challenging another man on sexist statements was “Dude – Not Cool” (although obviously appropriate vocabularies will vary depending on the group). Short, to the point, and not a White Knight in sight. “Mate, can you hear yourself?” was another one. I’ve had success myself with someone in a work situation with “I can’t believe you just said that” and walking away.

  3. as long as other men don’t call them out for this shit, guys like this think that all the other guys are on their side

    Absolutely true. Mr S is amazed at how many of his workmates let things pass “unnoticed”. Do they think they’d lose credibility if they stood up for the right? Sad that they don’t realise they’d be bigger men if they did.

  4. …but I think a lot of that kind of concern can be allayed by the words chosen to make the challenge

    Absolutely, and I like the examples. My personal preference is an incredulous “speak for yourself!” — especially when someone makes their gender into an excuse for being a jerk.

  5. …or they are too intimidated to speak out. I suspect that in many situations it’s more the latter than the former…

    Whichever it is, they’re both systematic problems of the kyriarchy.

  6. This is a really important posting.
    It does start with teaching boys that when another says something offensive and he only gets laughter, the message is that all others agree with him and it would be almost the same as if you had said it yourself.
    Tigtog’s suggestions work well. My boys find that by using humour helps send the message: not done/pathetic, but it also diffuses any possible agro and the possibility of painting somebody into a particular corner, even if he probably belongs there. The sooner the message what is not tolerated is sent across in a social situation, the better. Less chance of things becoming really ugly.
    Jason, Tigtog’s suggestion of ‘not cool dude’ works well and a woman wouldn’t feel you were coming to her rescue, but were speaking for yourself, your sense of discomfort.

  7. Knowing HOW to speak up is definitely an issue — and of course, the issue can be doubly complicated for people who already have trouble reading social cues. I know that the Ally Network at my uni is looking at running some training sessions about how to speak out against homophobic language, and I imagine that the techniques they’ll look at there would also be more broadly applicable to calling out other types of language. One really powerful thing that has been suggested at Ally Network meetings is simply using your face, rather than saying anything — if someone receives a disgusted look when they use “gay” as an insult, or if they make a rape joke, that can be a pretty powerful thing.

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