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Real men might get made fun of

It isn't fun to be the one who speaks up, but the world needs men, not just women, to call out sexist behaviour

A few weeks back, some old friends invited me to appear on their podcast. They are two stand-up comedians in their mid-30s - I know, the podcast comes as a shock - and their show is a kind of micro focus group, investigating how to be better straight white dudes by picking the brains of guests who don't fit that description.

They want to know what people like me, for instance (fat, female, feminist) need from people like them (plausible extras in a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial). It's sweet and, I think, encouraging.

"How to build a better white guy" is a conversation that could turn academic fast, replete with all the jargon that the sneering class finds so tedious: intersectionality, emotional labour, systemic oppression, the dreaded "privilege". But when I sat down with my friends, only one question sprang to mind, and it was personal, not pedantic.

"Do you ever stick up for me?" That question has been quietly nagging at my friendships with men since last autumn when the Access Hollywood tape tore through the news cycle. The sound of Billy Bush snickering as President Donald Trump talked about women in the most dehumanising terms was devastating in its ease, and in how little it surprised me.

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I know that my male friends are privy to those kinds of conversations, even if they don't take part. I also know that some of them do take part. I know that they consider themselves to be good people who fundamentally care about women's safety and equality.

So, if you care, how often do you say something? Maybe you'll confront your close friends, but what about more powerful men, famous men, cool men, men who could further your career?


PHOTO: AFP

"Do you ever stick up for me?" sounds childish, but I don't know that gussying up the sentiment in more sophisticated language would enhance its meaning. It isn't fun to be the one who speaks up.

Our society has engineered robust consequences for squeaky wheels, a verdant pantheon from eye-rolls all the way up to physical violence. One of the subtlest and most pervasive is social ostracism - coding empathy as the fun killer, consideration for others as an embarrassing weakness and dissenting voices as out-of-touch, bleeding-heart dweebs (at best). Coolness is a fierce disciplinarian.

A result is that, for the most part, the only people weathering those consequences are the ones who don't have the luxury of staying quiet. Women, already impeded and imperilled by sexism, also have to carry the social stigma of being feminist buzzkills if they call attention to it. People of colour not only have to deal with racism; but they also have to deal with white people labelling them "angry" or "hostile" or "difficult" for objecting.

In most of America, including wide swathes of lefty progressivism, it is still not cool to be "woke". It is obnoxious. This is the allure of the "dirtbag left", breathlessly profiled last week in Macleans: "A reinvigorated wing that's simultaneously anti-alt-right, anti-PC and anti-SJW, anti-centrist and against liberal-democratic line-toeing."

"SJW" is an acronym for "social justice warrior", a sarcastic pejorative that purports to refer to online progressive zealots who cross the line from activist to moral scold. In practice, though, the term usually means "anyone asking me to adjust my behaviour for reasons I deem annoying or frivolous", a murky, subjective taxonomy that conveniently makes any man the arbiter of his own rightness. (SJWs, along with political correctness or PC, also happen to be unifying obsessions among Trump fanatics.)

The "dirtbag left", in contrast to these "warriors", promises a world in which you can have it both ways: You can be good without ever seeming uncool in front of your buddies, you can be an advocate for social justice without ever considering there might be social forces beyond your ken, you can be a crusader for positive change without ever killing anyone's buzz, you can be a progressive hero without ever taking identity politics seriously. It's an ambitious contortion, and one that affords straight white men a luxurious degree of stasis. I confess, that world doesn't track with mine.

I'm frequently contacted by young women weighing the (iffy) benefits and (massive) costs of calling out sexism in their male-dominated industries. I always think: Why is this even our responsibility to fix? Women didn't invent sexism. Men did.

In a memoir coming out this fall, Reset: My Fight For Inclusion And Lasting Change, Ms Ellen Pao details both the necessity and cost of speaking up. She has been open in discussing the challenges she faced as a woman of colour trying to foment change in Silicon Valley, first at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which she sued for gender discrimination, and later as the chief executive of Reddit, a position she resigned after what she called "one of the largest trolling attacks in history".

According to The Guardian's reporting on the Kleiner Perkins trial, Ms Pao "claimed she was passed over for promotion and excluded from important meetings because of her gender after she accused a senior Kleiner Perkins partner of sexual harassment".

She testified that she and female colleagues were not invited to a business dinner with former US vice-president Al Gore. "It was said that if there were women there, the conversation would be tempered," she said, "and it was because women kill the buzz."

After she took steps to crack down on revenge pornography and hate speech at Reddit, she told me in an interview that users disseminated her home address and deluged her with often racist rape and death threats. Ms Pao left the job and hired private security.

What if fixing Ms Pao's toxic workplaces hadn't fallen to her alone?

I'm frequently contacted by young women weighing the (iffy) benefits and (massive) costs of calling out sexism in their male-dominated industries. I always think: Why is this even our responsibility to fix? Women didn't invent sexism. Men did.

What we could really use, my guys, is some loud, unequivocal backup. And not just in public, when the tide of opinion has already turned and a little "woke"-ness might benefit you - but in private, when it can hurt.

One of my podcasting friends told me that he does stick up for women in challenging situations, like testosterone-soaked comedy green rooms, for instance, but complained, "I get mocked for it!"

Yes, I know you do. Welcome. Getting yelled at and made fun of is where many of us live all the time.

Speaking up costs us friends, jobs, credibility and invisible opportunities we'll never even know enough about to regret.

I know there's pressure not to be a dorky, try-hard male feminist stereotype; there's always a looming implication that you could lose your spot in the club; if you seem opportunistic or performative in your support, if you suck up too much oxygen and demand praise, women will yell at you for that too.

But I need you to absorb that risk. I need you to get yelled at and be made fun of, a lot, and if you get kicked out of the club, I need you to be relieved, and I need you to help build a new one.

NYTIMES


  • Lindy West is the author of Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2017, with the headline 'Real men might get made fun of'. Print Edition | Subscribe