#MeToo: Men! Listen with humility

‘In this moment, many women are incandescent with anger at the injustice of it all, and are done with being patient. They want to breathe.‘
‘They‘ve decided to set fire to this toxic oxygen, and to make it as uncomfortable for men as it is for women,‘ says Mitali Saran.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

A striking feature of the last few weeks has been the number of well-meaning men who, before this current round of the #MeToo phenomenon, ‘had no idea‘ that sexual harassment, abuse, and assault is so rampant.

Their blissful ignorance is as enraging as the violations that women face all their lives, because it goes to the very heart of male privilege.

That privilege is that they never needed to know, because they are unaffected by it.

Those who know, severely underestimate its extent — most stories circulate among women because male privilege has fashioned a world in which being uninformed about these stories does cost a man nothing, and telling these stories publicly costs women enormously.

Men who know how widespread sexual harassment and abuse is and who do nothing differently, are complicit in maintaining that privilege.

Men who perpetrate violations upon women do so regardless of what they know because male privilege ensures that they will pay no price for doing so — it may even earn them some brownie points from the toxic masculinity department.

 

Well now you know, even from the tiny tip of the iceberg that is #MeToo.

But only a few of you fully understand it.

Here‘s what men do not understand, not by a long shot: They cannot, even the best of them, fully understand how deep and wide the horrors go because patriarchy and sexism are the unjust air that they breathe.

In this air, men can take breathing entirely for granted.

In this same air, every single woman has asthma.

Please go with this metaphor for a bit.

The best of men worry about women suffering, and some dying, of asthma.

They try to help women during an episode, try to help them fend it off, help fund their care, but they cannot fully empathise with chronic shortness of breath, the fear of another life-threatening attack, and the panic during that attack.

Men cannot completely understand that women have to gear their entire lives around something as fundamental as making sure they can breathe — not going out when the air is particularly bad, losing workdays on account of sickness, needing air purifiers, paying higher medical costs, making sure they never run out of medication, getting paid less for being seen as weaker and less reliable.

Men cannot understand how viscerally women demand to be free of this disease, and to live their lives fully.

Now imagine that men have so far controlled the quality of air we breathe, and that they choose this kind even though there is other air they could breathe just as easily, air that would free women of asthma.

Imagine that they‘ve simply refused to change the air for… well, forever, even though women have been asking them to do so for, well, forever, but that these requests are either seen as whiny, or weak, or too militant, or too trivial to pay attention to.

In this moment, many women are incandescent with anger at the injustice of it all, and are done with being patient. They want to breathe.

They‘ve decided to set fire to this toxic oxygen, and to make it as uncomfortable for men as it is for women.

Maybe that will recruit men into the effort to switch to air that is breathable for everyone.

In this firestorm some men will rightly burn, viz M J Akbar, who has already paid a price and whose legacy will be not his journalism, nor his political life, but the brazenness and arrogance with which he is facing a battalion of accusers.

(We have come far enough that he has paid a price. That‘s new, hurrah.)

Some men will burn, or at least be singed, whom we will not enjoy seeing burn — viz Vinod Dua who has squandered much goodwill by scoffing at the trivialness of #MeToo and calling it mudslinging.

And yes, it is possible that some men will wrongly burn.

It‘s not ideal, and nobody likes the possibility.

But it has taken this messy, surging fire to get men‘s attention.

Does that help understand #MeToo?

Nobody wants to spend their time setting the air on fire.

Women just want to get on with their lives without being hampered by male impunity and the cultural privileging of testosterone (even in language — ‘grow a pair‘, ‘man up‘, ‘ballsy‘, ‘don‘t be a pussy‘).

Bringing the odd predatory man to justice is only a tiny band-aid over women‘s wounds.

What we need is fundamental change — institutional, educational, social, and cultural.

Unless they enjoy being burned, men have to acknowledge their part in the problem, and proactively help to change it.

Understand consent.

Learn to read signals other than fire.

To do this, begin by listening with humility to the entire range of things that make women uncomfortable.

And to take it forward, stand up to the bro code, step up, and join your voice to women‘s.

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