‘Why do you call me good?’ On trying and (largely) failing to be a male feminist online

Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ (Mk 10:18)

Some weeks ago, I had the strangest experience I have yet had online. Someone I do not know called me ‘good’.

It stunned me. Horrified me. And flattered me, of course.

I have been trying to process this ever since. I have not yet succeeded. But I promised a friend that I would try to blog on the subject this week because it seems to matter.

And maybe my half-formed thoughts can be of some little use.

* * *

I was reading a blog; I vaguely knew of the author, but did not know her. She was writing about being a woman online, and about men online. She made many criticisms about how men online behave towards/around women online, qualified with ‘of course there are some good men, who get it’ – a phrase that was hyperlinked.

I clicked the link, hoping to learn a little better how to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

My browser opened a page right here, on my own blog.

I was, apparently, for a woman I have never met, had at that point never connected directly with online, the ‘good man,’ the one who ‘got it’.

I was stunned. Then I was horrified.

(And, yes, somewhere in the back of my head or the depths of my gut or both I was pleased and proud. Compliments are nice, even when you cannot believe rationally that you deserve them.)

Stunned because I clicked the link looking for something, anything, to help me to be even slightly better, and found myself constructed as ‘good’.

Horrified because if I my grasp of this issue is worthy of being held up as an example, we are so far behind where I thought we were that I despair. Horrified because I know I don’t ‘get it’.

* * *

And this question of ‘getting it’ surfaced again this week, in reflecting in conversation with Jody Stowell on the gendered reactions to the abuse women so regularly receive online. Jody asked, fairly, why all the (Christian) men were not leaping to the defence of women who were abused. We talked – you can see the interaction in the comment thread on Jody’s post. I suggested hesitantly that there was something about ‘getting it,’ about an experience common to women but generally opaque to men – including me – that made involvement in this issue feel at some visceral level more important for women than for men.

And then I immediately reflected – the ‘I don’t know what it feels like’ line is the classic refuge of the misogynist – and the racist, and the homophobe, and the rest of the grotesque menagerie of oppressors.

I don’t want to use that line.

I don’t want to justify that argument.

But…

But I don’t know what it feels like. I have never been threatened with rape, asked to get my tits out for the lads, told to get back in the kitchen, informed that ‘I love it anal,’ and so on, and so on.

I can check my privilege, but I can’t pretend to know what it would mean to live without my privilege. I know, deep down in my gut, that I don’t ‘get it’. And I worry profoundly when someone thinks I do.

* * *

But let me try some analysis – as I say, half-formed, at best. I get the fact of privilege, and the fact of oppression, and the fact of misogyny, and the fact of racism, and – well, you can do the list…

What I constantly realise I don’t get is the power of these prejudices, or the power of intervention in them. I have been told many, many times that I moved someone – and I am thinking of people I know, people who I know are much stronger and much more capable than I am – I moved someone to tears just by saying something simple about this or that issue of prejudice. This always – still – takes me by surprise; if I (sometimes) ‘get it’ where ‘it’ is the wrongness of prejudice, I have to admit that I really do not ‘get it’ where ‘it’ is the power of prejudice to disable, disempower, dehumanise a person. And so I do not ‘get it’ where ‘it’ is the power a very simple intervention can have.

And I wonder if that is the answer to Jody’s question, and the reason for my failures?

* * *

I don’t, particularly, need to understand what it feels like to be threatened with rape, or what it feels like to hear the words ‘Bongo Bongo Land’ on the lips of someone who, incredibly, has been granted some measure of political power. I need to understand what it feels like to have someone – particularly perhaps someone who stands in a position of privilege – intervene, stand up and say such threats are not OK.

Because I can do that.

As I say, I am constantly surprised by how powerful such simple interventions seem to be. I suspect I am not alone. Those of us with multiple privileges, never having been there, do not know what it means to find an ally in your corner, to have someone stand up with you and for you.

And maybe that is the point we need to work on.

If someone wants to say, ‘it should be obvious!’ Well, yes, so should many things. I am not proud of my blindness; I am trying to be as honest as I can about it in the hope that it might help. It is not obvious; not to me, and I suppose not to many others. The classical modern inability to believe that my voice might matter in this, or in anything, remains endemic. And the inability to understand the vulnerability of the situation and so the power of intervention is endemic too, for those of us who have the privilege to be born with privilege.

We need to work on this point.

To educate people – men – that they need to stand up and respond.

To get to the place where a Twitter troll knows that he will be met with a wall of implacable opposition that will clog his inbox for days and weeks.

* * *

It does not need to be more than this. There is a temptation to let the testosterone take over, to ‘out-troll’ the trolls. I know it (these people have attacked my friends!) – and, unlike most of those doing the trolling, I have some sort of a brain, and some knowledge and experience in using words; I am pretty sure that I could make a tweet sting like a bullwhip if I really tried. I think – and fear – that I could go some distance towards destroying someone with a well-constructed and well-targetted series of tweets. I know what words can do, and I know in some measure what I can do with words.

The temptation is there (these people have attacked my friends!). But retaliation, descending into what in the days of Usenet (anyone else old enough to remember Usenet?) we used to call a ‘flame war’, is not the right answer. We need to create Twitter, and social media more generally, as a place where abuse is unacceptable. Where the opposition to trolls is a blank wall, no encouragement, no modelling of offensive practices, but a polite, insistent, and repetitive demand that they cease.

* * *

I will try. And I will fail.

I promise here that I will do far more than I have done. And I know that I will not do nearly enough.

Please don’t call me ‘good’; please don’t say I ‘get it’.

Jesus’s words from Mk 10 are in my head: ‘why do you call me good?’ Of course, spoken by Jesus, this was a challenge: ‘You see that I am simply good – only God is simply good – what conclusion are you going to draw from that?’ For those of us who follow Jesus, though, trying to plant our footsteps in His, and so often falling flat on our face instead, the meaning is utterly different. Don’t make me your standard of goodness – it should be so much higher than that…

…when we learn to expect so much more, we might begin to civilise this frontier (‘O, my America, my Newfoundland!’) of social media.

* * *

(You need to read Vicky Beeching’s blog; David Bunce’s response, Caroline Criado-Perez’s diary piece in the New Statesman, Jody’s post linked above, and, well, loads of other stuff…)

 

4 Comments

  1. RuthG
    Aug 9, 2013

    See, I am one of the ones you make cry! And I can’t tell you how grateful I am, not least because at the moment, somebody whom I love very much just doesn’t “get it” – and that hurts more than all the trolling. Because he constructs me as “strong” we cannot even have the conversation.
    So I am grateful to you. Sniff :)

    • Mel GH
      Aug 9, 2013

      Thank you. The men seem to be very quiet on these issues, and I don’t ‘get’ why. So men, ‘man up’ , this is about prejudice and injustice. Good men, Christian men, husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, we want and need your vocal support. ( yes, I cried too)

  2. Chris E
    Aug 9, 2013

    “‘I don’t know what it feels like’”

    I’m not entirely sure that this is the classic refuge – I think what’s far more common is the feeling that the issue would be settled if only ‘they’ didn’t keep talking about it.

    For instance; a certain blog, this week, linked to by a large number of conservative evangelicals posted the classic picture of Dust Bowl america (Dorothea Lange’s Mother of Seven Children) with the tagline ‘White Privilege’ – that the debate can be reduced to something this jejune by Christians displays a tin ear.

  3. David Herbert
    Aug 11, 2013

    Thanks Steve for this. It is a great post which I hope will help to create a better and less violent Twittersphere and society.

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