Silent Witness: Between misogyny and moral outrage

Image: Keira McLean (GAG)

How do we challenge ourselves and other men in our lives when their words or behaviour are misogynistic?

Holding people to account can so easily become a witch hunt, and can prove costly on a personal and professional level. Just shutting down and accepting sexist chat, or watching sexist behaviour as it unfolds is a really hard habit to break for many men. The old phrase about good men doing nothing springs to mind, and I’m as guilty as the next guy.

I’ve listened to men (friends and strangers) say horrific things, and have said nothing, or faked it and laughed along — sometimes through fear, sometimes through practicality, sometimes so as not to break the mood of a conversation or an occasion.

I’ve also challenged behaviour in others and been ostracised for it. I’ve witnessed shitty behaviour and then overlooked it, because of my closeness to the person acting out, even though I swore I’d never do that — it’s just as hard to call out a friend’s words or behaviour as it is a stranger or an acquaintance, sometimes harder. We all have blind spots.

Although the media says attitudes are changing (albeit slowly), and although my little filter bubble has grown more insular, and conforms to certain politically correct norms which are fairly new-minted, the statistics in a report like this show how tiny and insignificant those changes are within society as a whole. In fact, as this Guardian article reports, some attitudes have even been backsliding.

Educators, journalists and politicians have consistently failed to address the actual IDEAS behind misogyny, even when campaigning against it. Or worse, they reinforce misogyny with their own cultivated biases, prejudices and ignorance of facts. And it is not like any of those people are in strong positions of trust right now, anyway. That’s not even taking into account those who abhor misogyny, but stay silent out of a pragmatic complicity.

How do you change someone’s mind, unless you raise them yourself, and raise them right? And if you do that, what guarantee do you have that they won’t just be out of step with everyone else, and have to remain silent in the face of witnessed misogyny, just like you perhaps chose to?

The new wave of activists and campaigners give me hope in some ways. Despite the authoritarian impulse behind policing speech and behaviour, at least they are unafraid of confrontation, and believe that one day, they will outnumber the bigots. But they are also often ignorant of history, full of self-satisfied pride and distasteful moral outrage.

They abhor moral relativists, or those unwilling-to commit to an ideology, to claim a label or pick a side — just as they abhor the atavistic values of racists, sexists and homophobes.

This kind of scorched-earth moral outrage can be easily manipulated by the other side — who, as Noam Chomsky proposed this week, are so depraved and corrupt that what they believe is not morality per se, but a kind of fundamental anti-morality, which thrives on being called immoral or ‘deplorable.’

This leaves many of us caught between an emergent anti-misogyny movement which is nonetheless not very inclusive or welcoming, and a combination of right-wing reactionary forces.

On the right, a defensive rear-guard who have completely normalised misogyny in their speech and thought, and newer converts who simply have contempt for morals — self-described trolls.

On the left, a movement that claims to want to build an inclusive humanity, but shares much of the right’s authoritarian and reactionary impulses.

These two poles leave us paralysed. Yet, as Patrick Stewart said in an interview this month, this is “a man’s problem.” We are beholden to lead on changing this culture of misogyny.

Yet lately, we feel as though can’t speak out without becoming emblems of the problems we wish to fight — feeling closer to left-liberal, millennial arguments, we are also most in danger of being targeted by them if we show anything less than unqualified allyship, simply because of our proximity. Mistakes like misgendering, using outdated terms, or libertarian tendencies or beliefs are treated as if they are equal to total state-run fascism. In some places, simply being white and male is enough to put you on the side of the enemy.

As to the social cost of being a ‘woke ally,’ well, often if we speak out against the misogynists we encounter, we risk alienating ourselves further from the hyper-masculine culture all men are, at some level, obliged to participate in, lest we be completely shunned by a patriarchal hierarchy of our peers who are raised to be sexist, closet-racist or at least unconsciously biased, and naturally inclined to homophobia.

I want to believe in a better world, and I want to be an ally, no matter what it costs. But it isn’t about me. Even if I could do better; even if I could risk more. It’s about changing the minds of others — most urgently, those who would never listen to us anyway.

Nobody seems to be equipped for that task, that vital engagement. We’re all just waiting for the axe to fall.

-Bram E. Gieben, Glasgow, 2018