It has been a long, long couple of weeks. There’s been seemingly no end of revelations, discussions and open not-so-secrets about supposedly “good” men who’ve been turning out to be far less than they’ve claimed to be.
Each disclosure of bad behavior from people long thought to be allies seems to tip the next domino, leading to yet more revelations. In August, Joss Whedon’s ex-wife famously came forward to disclose that Whedon had been cheating on her and was, in her words, “a hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.” Not long after, it was discovered that Tim League had been quietly continuing to employ Devin Faraci after having fired him from Birth, Movies, Death. That discussion lead to the women coming forward about having been harassed or groped by Ain’t It Cool News‘ Harry Knowles.
Then, this week, Buzzfeed overturned the rocks hiding Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart News’ network… including several erstwhile feminist “allies” who communicated and collaborated with Yiannopoulos in secret. Meanwhile, the New York Times published it’s investigation into reports of sexual harassment and assault by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, while similar accusations were leveled against ScreenJunkies creator Andy Signore.
Meanwhile, Brie Larsen shared her story of inappropriate behavior directed towards her by men… which then turned into a thread of having to explain why that behavior was so inappropriate.
Nope. He’s working. He’s at his job. Think of me as a customer at his job. It’s inappropriate.
— Brie Larson (@brielarson) October 6, 2017
This confluence of events has lead a great deal of discussion on Twitter, on blogs and news organizations about just how much women could trust supposedly “good” men. And, for many men – men who want to be good – it’s a time that feels that their desire to learn and improve is hampered by the fear of doing wrong and getting attacked for it. Many, many men have written to me confused and worried about the new “rules” of being a good man or to complain about having been singled out for breaking them. They feel bewildered at having been punished for breaking a code of behavior they didn’t recognize existed. They’re hurt at the idea that they’re being tarred by the same brush as these seeming few bad actors.
These events – and the reactions that so many men are having – is why it’s important to do some introspection and contemplation. So let’s talk a little about what’s been going on, and how to be a better man.
I’m Shocked, Shocked To Find Gambling Here
The chorus of responses to these many, many revelations was almost universally the same: people were shocked and appalled to find out just how bad things were. Every. Single. Time. Yiannopoulos was coordinating with hate groups to attack GamerGate targets, outspoken feminists, women of color and random trans people? Shock. Horror. Nobody could possibly have known that things were really that bad. Harry Knowles was hitting on women who were trying to network? Shock. Horror. Why did nobody say anything? The editor at Broadly – Vice’s feminist vertical – was suggesting targets to Breitbart? Shock. Horror. How did nobody see this coming? Harvey Weinstein is a serial sexual harasser? Shock. Horror. Why did nobody say anything?
I’m honestly shocked how open a secret Weinstein’s behavior was. And nothing was done! No social shaming, no quiet censure from his board, nothing. https://t.co/7RY9Utc0TL
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) October 6, 2017
But here’s the thing. People were speaking up. People were speaking up all the damn time. In fact, in many cases, people were outright shouting about all of the abuses going on. They are currently leaping up and down on Twitter, pointing at the Buzzfeed piece screaming “WE FUCKING TOLD YOU!!!”
But the people who were making all of the noise and trying to make folks aware about the abuses, the harassment and the threats? Mostly women, especially women of color and trans women.
You had staff writers, several of whom are women of color, complain about that dude. You fired him because his terribleness is now public. https://t.co/XazC1ear2M
— Evette Dionne ???? (@freeblackgirl) October 7, 2017
And almost every time, those complaints were met with silence… if they were lucky. Virtually every time a marginalized voice spoke up, if they got a response at all, then it was frequently from the harassers, their friends or their allies. Drawing attention to the harassment was the signal to start the feeding frenzy, for the army of trolls to come out of the woodwork to make things worse. Whether it was the harassers’ defence force or simply opportunists looking for acceptable targets, the chorus was the same: you deserve this. You’re drawing attention to it and that makes us come get you. Just be quiet. Just go away. Take it like you deserve because anything you say can and will be fodder for more attacks.
However, as bad as the harassers could be, for the people speaking up, their male friends and allies could be almost as bad. There was a common refrain heard from so many men: Were they sure that it really was this bad? Were they absolutely positive they weren’t just overreacting? Over and over again, people that they trusted would demonstrate that they weren’t listening.
Often, they wouldn’t give things the level of seriousness it deserved until another man said the exact same thing.
Don’t get me wrong: they weren’t and aren’t bad men. When they finally listen, they almost always are legitimately shocked at just how bad it was and is. They feel honestly horrible that they didn’t know. Why didn’t they know?
They didn’t know because they weren’t listening. Not out of malice. Not out of cruelty. But because men, especially cis, straight, white men, are part of a system that protects us and itself at the expense of literally everyone else.
And women have been screaming trying to get us to take the red pill and see that we’re in the goddamn Matrix.
Wake Up To The System
As tricky as it can be for a dating advice blog to reference the red pill, the Wachowskis’ did, in fact, create the perfect metaphor for these circumstances.
We all live in a system of unequal privileges, protections and benefits – privileges that many of us have had for so long that we don’t realize they exist. It is simply the default of our existence and we only notice them when they’re gone. And while there are tiers of advantages and boons, there are few who have more than men – particularly straight white men. And while we may not intentionally invoke it or intend use our privileges to the detriment of others, we (again, straight cis men and straight cis white men in particular) benefit without realizing it.
When we talk about harassers and predators in various communities, whether it’s Hollywood, comics, gaming, film critic circles or politics, the common refrain is just how open it is. The fact that so-and-so is a known predator is an open secret. It’s just one that everyone, particularly the people in power, have chosen to ignore. Take, for example, Devin Faraci and Harry Knowles. In both cases, their behavior wasn’t precisely a secret; Faraci was infamous in circles for being a black-out drunk, while Knowles’ behavior was well known as well. In both cases, they were what writer Cliff Pervocracy called “the missing stair” – a structural fault that everyone “knows” about but nobody does anything about. The owners of the house just let everyone learn to leap over that missing stair and hope that nobody ends up getting seriously hurt.
This system is why people treat their relationship with the harasser as being more important than what the harasser has done.
To be clear: in their mind they don’t see it as protecting or enabling a predator. They see it as trying to help out a friend who fucked up and who deserves a second chance. Others see their behavior as wacky hijinx or puckish silliness – witness how many people who palled around with Yiannopoulos referred to him as “a silly clown“.
Again, while there were some who clearly relished the fire he could bring against anyone in his crosshairs, there were many who didn’t fully appreciate that superficial charm and a “this is all a big silly game” attitude doesn’t undo the harm inflicted his victims. Even among the most well-meaning of people, their treatment of Milo as a prankster troll ignored the very real, very deliberate damage he caused.
It’s frustrating that it took pro-pedophilia comments and Nazi collaboration to bring Milo Yiannopoulos down. His everyday agenda of “fat people are subhuman, trans people are delusional perverts, black lives don’t matter” wasn’t enough. The standard should be higher.
— Contra ???? (@ContraPoints) October 8, 2017
The other way that this system protects and privileges men against women and marginalized people is that it encourages others to simply… look the other way. To not want to get involved. It’s easy for those with those privileges to stay out of it all because it doesn’t touch them. Twitter and Facebook are notoriously poor in handling issues of abuse and harassment on their platforms because they wish to remain above it all in the name of “fairness”. Better to let cold, logical “algorithms” handle the issue rather than having to make a stand.
Other times, the system encourages prioritizing financial or social consequences to doing the right thing. Comics and games journalism, for example, is frequently dependent on remaining in publishers’ good graces in order to get access to news, previews and first looks. Rocking the boat by reporting on, say, the assaults perpetuated by their employees would risk that access and potentially damage the company financially.
Right now, if you want to break a story about comics that is about harassment, you have to go outside of comics websites. They’re all scared
— Janelle Asselin (@gimpnelly) September 8, 2015
But as insidious as this system can be among even the best-intentioned, it’s far worse when it’s deliberately invoked to protect the abusers. As director Lexi Alexander points out in a thread on Twitter:
The most disappointing thing about the Weinstein story is to find out how clueless even good men are about the dynamics of sexual harassment
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) October 8, 2017
And even those who receive their punishment are still rewarded by that same system. Predators and abusers get their redemption tours – often on the backs of their victims. Dan Lyons attempted to start his, claiming that he apologized to Zoe Quinn… before blocking her on Twitter when she pointed out that he hadn’t. Faraci got quietly shuffled to another job before word leaked. Chris Brown and R. Kelly both continue to have successful careers. Harvey Weinstein has only just been fired after decades of using the system to silence or buy off critics and victims. Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes both lost their jobs, yes… along with multi-million dollar payouts. Roman Polanski not only evades jail but continues to work within Hollywood while declaring “what I did [rape a drugged 13-year old]… that’s over.”
Donald Trump was elected president.
The Past Isn’t Prologue. It Isn’t Even Past.
Caught in the system – a system many don’t realize exist – are good men. Well-meaning men. Men who want to be good progressive allies. But for many, trying to be good feels like being caught in a series of contradictions and double standards. For many men, it can feel as though women now have advantages that men don’t, or that women call all the shots. Why is it – as one letter writer asked me – that women can openly ogle men, but a man doing the same is going to likely get punished for doing so? Why is it bad for a guy to ask for a woman’s number, just because they’re at work? How can we say that rape culture exists when everyone agrees rape is bad? How come men have to be perfect to be “good” and then get shit on if they don’t do things precisely right?
The problem, more than anything else, is that like citizens caught in the Matrix, these are good, well-intentioned men who don’t quite get that the system still exists. In many ways, it’s an issue of history without context leading to mistaken ideas about just where we are now. Most of us were born into a time of greater social freedom and equality than the world has ever known… but greater doesn’t mean equitable. For many of us – Gen-Xers to Millenials, issues like Griswold V. Connecticut and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act are ancient history. It’s easy to forget that the time when women legally couldn’t have credit or bank accounts without their husband’s permission was only 50 years ago. It’s even easier to forget a time when women could be fired for being pregnant or when sexual harassment was just business as usual.
But because we’ve lived our entire lives in a world where these issues were already over and done with, we tend to assume that the issues are settled. Equality has been achieved and now emasculating feminists like the dreaded Andrea Dworkin1 are doing victory laps and leaving men terrified.
It’s that assumption of victory and equity, however, that’s the problem. We are so convinced that we’ve achieved gender parity that we tend to forget that the past isn’t prologue. It’s not even past, yet. As with issues of race, social and structural inequalities from decades past have generational issues. The decisions of previous centuries send shockwaves through history, creating cascading effects that still cause issues today. We may have laws that encourage equality, but we don’t have equity yet.
But we believe we do. And it’s the attempts to address the system that propagates that inequity that cause so much confusion and agita for men.
Guys who complain about not being “allowed” to enjoy impossibly voluptuous anime girls in video games for example, don’t mean that they can’t buy those games. Dead Or Alive Xtreme hasn’t been scoured from the planet. The Senran Kagura series continues to find new ways to make people uncomfortable.
It’s that people can’t play it without being criticized for it. So too is it with oogling women: it’s not that the police will haul you away, it’s that being a jerk comes with social consequences. Most of the time, anyway.
But that same system – the one that protects and rewards predators – has been what’s insulated so many men from the fallout of their actions. Actions that, in fairness, they didn’t realize were problematic, and a system they didn’t realize they were part of. But the fact that the system no longer completely protects us and enables us feels like we’re now getting punished for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
And that, perversely enough, is part of why well-intentioned men have such a hard time being good.
Why It’s So Hard to Believe
Remember when I said that those marginalized voices have been yelling all this time about noted harassers, about GamerGate, about Milo and the alt-right? Their biggest obstacle was getting their friends and allies to just listen and believe them.
There are a number of issues with this. The first is, paradoxically, that those good men don’t want to listen because they are good men.
One of the issues with being a “good” man is that it’s definitional. Because we see ourselves as good, we assume that, by default, what we do is good. One of the reasons why sexism and harassment goes unchecked in geek spaces is because geeks often define themselves in contrast to jocks and bullies. Jocks are rape-y, bullying assholes and the opposite of nerds, so clearly nerds can’t be bullying, rape-y assholes. Nice Guys are the opposite of those manipulative assholes so clearly they can’t possibly be manipulating women to get what they want.
Once you’ve defined yourself as being “one of the good ones”, it’s very hard to want to look around and admit that maybe you aren’t as good as you could be. Very, very few people like to believe that they might not be the good guy, and so they’re invested in not asking too many questions.
This is why so many men get their backs up when someone points out that they could be doing better. Criticism, even mild criticism, gets taken as a deeply personal attack because hey: you’re one of the good ones.
Men: I want to date women.
Women: Here are things men do that make us uncomfortable (i.e. make us not interested in you)
Men: HOW DARE YOU
— Tauriq Moosa (@tauriqmoosa) October 6, 2017
And that desire to believe in your goodness reflects not just on you but the people you associate with. After all, if you find out that someone in your social circle has been harassing women… well, what does that say about you? You’re a good man. You’d never put up with this. But you did. So what does that say about you?
This doesn’t happen at the conscious level. Nobody thinks to themselves “I’d rather keep my friend who gets drunk and tries to corner women in the bathroom because admitting he’s rape-y reflects badly on my choices.” What they do think is that this is their friend. He’s shared their secrets. He’s invited them to his parties, made them laugh. They’ve broken bread together and drank beers together. Surely he can’t be that bad, right? There has to be a reason that this isn’t as bad as it seems.
And so the rationalization begins. Maybe she was mistaken. She must be exaggerating. He didn’t mean it. He’s not that bad. It’s not him, it’s the drinking. It’s the drugs. He’s going through a bad time.
It’s easier to explain why your problematic friend isn’t bad than it is to look around and realize that you need to improve.
The other, related reason however is that same system that empowers men. Men tend to believe other men above women. Many of these scandals only “broke” because a man reported on them – despite women shouting about it to the skies. The fact that Bill Cosby was drugging and raping women was an open secret in Hollywood. Multiple women came forward to accuse Cosby and nobody listened or cared. But once Hannibal Buress called him out publicly, the story began to get traction. Many, many women – especially trans women – were shouting about Milo, but again, it took a Buzzfeed article written by a man to finally make everyone sit up and listen.
This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t have spoken up. But it’s important to acknowledge system that privileges their voices above the voices (and lived experiences) of their victims.
Which brings us to the important question:
What Does It Take to Be A Better Man?
I don’t doubt for a minute that the people looking with horror at these reports and exposes are sincere in their desire to better. I fully believe that they want to do better, to help stop those predators and harassers. Even the people who feel hurt or confused by the criticism and seeming contradictions are being honest when they say they want to be a better man, they just aren’t sure how.
The good news is that it’s easy to start being a good man. The bad news… is that it can be hard to maintain.
The first step is simple: you need to listen to women. Not just hear them but pay attention and believe them. As news was breaking about Harry Knowles, many local men asked “why didn’t I know about this?” And the answer was… because women didn’t think that they’d listen. Or worse, that they would think that those women were lying or that they’d go tell Knowles. The information was out there, if people would have listened. Just as Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Leigh Alexander and Brianna Wu and @SecretGamerGrrl and others had been trying to get people to realize GamerGate was about more than just “ethics in gaming journalism”. Just as people of color had been trying to convince editors and magazines to not buy into Milo’s “internet gadfly” routine and see that he was deeply embedded in the white power movement.
Be the person that women can come to and be believed.
So… the best way for men to help is to use their privilege to support women. Believe women when they tell you this happened.
— Gennifer Hutchison (@GennHutchison) October 6, 2017
And the second step: recognize that the system gives you advantages that others have. Advantages you may not have asked for, but ones you have anyway. You don’t need to feel bad for having them but it’s important to acknowledge them. Hell, look at how I benefit from this system. I can write about very basic ideas around male privilege and have an article go stupid-viral, in no small part because I’m a “guy who gets it”. Women who are smarter than me, who are better writers than me and who are far more educated on the subject cover it far better than I ever could, but not get taken seriously because they’re women.
But here’s the thing: if you are going to benefit from the system – as men do to one degree or another – then use that system to benefit others. Be the person to spread the word so that others hear it. If other people will believe you by virtue of your gender, then use that power. This means that you need to be the ones to speak up – not just in public or at times when you can be the visible hero but in private. Be the person to speak up in all-male spaces and shut down the tacit approval and acceptance of predatory behavior. Be the person who shuts down that “locker room talk” with “we don’t do that here.”
Don’t just make it about you though. Amplify the voices of others who aren’t being heard. Signal boost women, signal boost people of color, queer people, people whose voices are getting drowned out or ignored. Use the fact that people will listen to you to make sure that they hear them.
Third: Recognize that you’re going to fuck up. You will say the wrong thing. You’ll hit on someone at the wrong time. You’re going to be creepy on occasion. Everybody fucks up at times. God knows I have before, God knows I will do so again. But here’s the thing: fuck ups aren’t fatal, nor is being called out2 for it. If you can take criticism without getting defensive, apologize for your mistakes and try to not make them again, then you’ll be fine.
The thing to remember is that women aren’t waiting for you to make a mistake to they can shred you. They want you to be a better man, to be a better friend and ally.
But it’s not on them to teach us or to mold us or fix us. That’s on us.
Men can be better.
It’s time to live up to that potential.