Duck, lest ye run afoul of the steam shooting out of my ears.

Sometimes, even well intentioned people can be very, very insenstive.  It usually comes when someone questions or challenges their priviledge in a situation where they don't perceive that they have it.  I've been guilty of this in the past myself.  Today, though, I'm going to ran about somone else.  Someone who's very near and dear to me, but who can still be a complete jerk at times.

Exactly one month ago today, Melissa McEwan over at Shakesville wrote this post, about how we, as women, often have to make the decision between protesting when someone makes a sexist (or downright misogynistic) statement and potentially ruining the evening for that person, or "swallowing shit" and only ruining it for ourselves.  I had an evening like that not long ago, where I decided to just swallow the shit and deal with it.

My mate and I were at a party with some friends of his.  One of his friends, James, likes to bring up obscure hypotheticals to prove his point--often without thinking about the implications of those hyptheticals on others.  This particular evening, the argument was about the universality or certain moral codes.  His argument was that some points of morality are universal and immutable, remaining intact regardless of the culture they operate within.  My mate chimed in with the opposition that most moral values are dependant on the situation.  James responded with a hypoothetical:

"Well how about killing your wife?  You agree that doing that would be wrong."

I am sitting right there.  Way to make me feel non-existent

Evan: "No."

James: "You think it would be acceptable to murder your wife?"

James gestures at me without making eye contact.  Neither of them are looking at me, though t be fair I'm not trying to make eye contact with them either.  I am feeling put on the spot without even being expected to contribute.  This is a ridiculously uncomfortable situation for me, and all I can think of is how many women are murdered each year by their domestic partners, and how asinine it is that they're using this as a hypothetical.  And how betrayed I feel by the fact that Evan has not defended me, that he has not told James that this is an inappropriate topic.  Instead, he's also treating me like I'm not sitting right next to him--and he's just stated that he doesn't see killing one's wife as an absolute taboo.  This is the spot where the rest of my evening gets ruined.

Evan:  "There are definitely situations.  I mean, if she tried to kill me fiirst..."

James: "Ah, self-defense.  Right, right."

Does not make me feel better, even slightly.  No apology or acknowledgement is forthcoming.

There are a  number of reasons I did not bring up the fact that this was making me feel uncomfortable and marginalized.  The main one being, however, that Evan still suffers from the patriarchy as much as most people in this society.  I'd chastised him once in front of a friend for calling Hilary Duff (who I hate) a whore, and he'd gotten extremely defensive about it and yelled at me later.  He's absolutely supportive of my right to bodily autonomy, to equal pay, and to social equality.  But he's also told me I'm "overreacting" in situations where I've pointed out sexism to him, either on his part or that of something  he enjoys (re: our conversation after watching the movie "Repo-man", which I enjoyed but also found highly problematic).

The worst, as is to be expected, is when I directly challenge him for something he has said or done.  Case in point: the reason I felt inspired to write this post right now.  I was just looking over his shoulder at some work he was doing for the company he contracts for.  The work includes lots of tiny images of people,  performing tasks that range from writing at desks or conducting scientific experiments, to testing high-tech weaponry, welding,  and building bridges.  I'd noticed in his previous work for them that the more feminine-looking figures tended to get jobs that sat them at desks in his illustrations, and the welders and weaponry-testers tended to be pretty noticeably male.  I hadn't mentioned it to him before, not wanting to start an argument, but today I guess I was feeling perky.  He was working on an illustration of three navy personnel, viewed from the back but very obviously male nonetheless.

He began by telling me that they were supposed to be genderless characters.  I told him they looked pretty obviously male (wide shoulders, small hips, short/no hair, etc.).  He told me that there had been female characters in the past ones he did, and there just weren't enough figures in this one.  I mentioned the disparity in occupation I had noticed in the previous ones, and also pointed out that three whole figures gives you plenty of space to make one female.  I told him I was only mentioning it because he might not have beeen thinking about it when he drew the figures.

At this point, he got pretty angry with me, and told me that I was making assumptions about what he was and wasn't thinking about.  That he did consider it.  I really do not know what I'm supposed to take away from that, or how it helped his argument.

The point of this post, really, is to just bring up the fact that no matter how progressive you consider yourself, you're still going to act on your privilege if you don't take the time to examine it.  Evan is a wonderful person, a smart man who definitely has the best interests of myself and all other women at heart.  But the our culture makes it so damn easy for him to not examine himself when I bring up a point like this, and just get angry instead.

We're told from infancy that everyone is created  equal.  That something as arbitrary as our gender or  the colour of our skins is not the determining factor for how we should be treated by others.  I think it's really easy, given that we're not generally taught about all the inequalities that others frequently endure, to take it for granted that we're really at that stage.  That equality has already been achieved before our own actions could become a factor, and therefore feel disbelief and discomfort when the opposite is pointed out to us.  Nobody wants to be part of the problem, but the effort to change is taxing.  To admit you've been wrong: that's taxing too. 
It's easier to ignore the impact on those who have been hurt, and just get angry and tell them they're overreacting. 

In group situations, I'm usually way outnumbered by the people who feel differently than I do, or who just don't see the problem.  So that when I bring it up, I end up fighting against the multitudes and just getting angrier.  "...intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—{who} insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate..." to quote Melissa, make up a lot of the men I know. 

In one-on-one situations, I often find it too painful to continue supporting my argument (again and again and again), and back down, storm off, or stop bringing it up.  Yeah, I have this person whom I love desperately, whom I have sworn to spend my entire life with, but with whome I am afraid to bring up certain topics for fear of him turning against me in his defensiveness. 

Even situations like today, where I was simply trying to point out something I assumed to be entirely unconscious on his part.  Which I was in no way blaming him for.  Which should have ended with "Oh, I didn't notice that.  It's too late to change now, though." or "I guess I didn't feel it was important in this situation.  I'll keep it in mind next time." or some other variation on that theme.  Because I was not attacking him, I was only pointing something out.
Something I felt was important enough to spend time and breath on, but which he didn't.  Something which correlates directly with the inequalities I percieve and have endured in the world outside his drawing, but which he has no direct experience with--and so has the  privilege to brush off, because they do not directly effect his rights or opportunities. 

I know it makes it easier for him, but gods...does it hurt me.  I hope I can convince him to think of that sometimes.

1 comment:

mand said...

Hi Lisa, i've ended up here cos @kaolinfire retweeted this post.

This resonated with me: 'I was not attacking him, I was only pointing something out.' It's that 'I was not attacking him.' How to convince someone of that when they have already begun to perceive the opposite?

And: 'Something I felt was important enough to spend time and breath on, but which he didn't.' Aagh. It is such a barrier to break through, the dismissal of things before they have been considered, and the (at least verbally) violent reaction when forced to consider them.

No suggestions for solving this one but some fellow feeling coming your way!

(Btw, weird, Blogger's accepting my html for bold but not for italic or underline.)