Friday, October 20, 2017

I Believe You

Last weekend the hashtag #metoo was shared by millions of people on social media.  This hashtag was mostly – but not exclusively – posted by women, often accompanied by stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  You can read more about the origin of the idea here

I have yet to comment on #metoo.  I don’t think at the speed of the internet, and besides, the last thing I want to do is make this about me.

I do want to say this: to everyone who posted #metoo and to those who could not, I believe you. Of course, there’s a hashtag for that, too - #ibelieveyou.  But I want to dig a bit beneath the hashtag, something that can be helped by a stubborn tendency to think more slowly than the internet.  

I should also say that of course this phenomenon is not exclusively perpetrated by men toward women.  There are sadly harassers and assaulters of all types, and I in no way mean to deny this reality, although my focus here is on men.

Just two of many obstacles on this issue are these.  First, men in many cultures (including that of the United States) are systematically discouraged from cultivating basic human empathy, especially toward people who are not straight cis men.  Second, men and boys are taught from a young age that our experiences are the standard by which all other experiences should be judged, that we have a direct route to the truth about all matters, even others' experiences (exhibit A: mansplaining).

The combination of these obstacles makes it extremely difficult for many men to empathize with or believe people who tell stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault (not to mention the fact that many men directly benefit from this ignorance).  Reports are typically met with a deeply ingrained (and rarely explicitly acknowledged) attitude that the reporter is less deserving of empathy as well as the feeling that “these experiences are inherently doubtful simply because they don’t happen to me – after all, I go about my life at school, at work, using public transit, visiting the library, reading quietly at a bar or coffee shop, attending a convention, going to parties, walking down the street, etc. without harassment.”

I can attest that as a man I have felt and continue to feel the pull of these obstacles, both selective empathy and discounting of experience.  It’s only by deliberate effort that I attempt to work against them.  I have tried (and no doubt often failed) over the years to cultivate empathy and curiosity about other people’s experiences as well as skepticism about whether my own experience is the whole truth.  Skepticism, in both its mainstream and philosophical senses, tends to be directed outward, but it's perhaps far more important for those of us with the mantle of unearned cognitive authority to direct it inward.

Working against these obstacles is a messy, imperfect process.  Neither I nor anyone else deserves praise for doing so.  It’s probably not even a minimum of basic human decency.  We have a long way to go.  “I believe you” is not nearly enough.  But maybe it’s a start.

(For some ideas about what to do more in the business of action rather than belief, see here.)


  1. Something that is overlooked is that men are significantly more likely to have suffered from violence overall, and much less likely to either seek or receive help. In the UK men are twice as likely to have suffered from violence as women.

    So in that sense, yeah, me too. I have PTSD as a result of persistent violence as a child (from males and females). But I don't have a hash tag. I'm not a successful actor, I'm a nobody with no prospects. No one is campaigning for me. I struggle to access services and help is not available. Indeed I'm looked down on because of my situation. A woman will always be ahead of me in the queue for social housing.

    Kudos to the women who finally used their highly advantageous positions as mega-wealthy public figures to speak out in the media (though maybe going to the police would have been better). And good job to Weinstein and people like him. Let us hope he is arrested and charged sometime soon.

    For those of us who are nobodies and were violently abused by nobodies, the day to day struggle to live goes on. We'll never have the advantage of wealth or a public platform to speak out. As men we'll be looked down on as weak for having been victims in the first place and will never have the sympathy that women seem to get.

    In reality there are more people like me, than there are like those fortunate actresses who had an awful experience, but went on to become famous and wealthy anyway. Remember, *they* knew what was going on the whole time too!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jayarava.

      I don't want to get into statistics (which can be a tricky game in any case), but I wonder how "violence" is being defined in that statistic. At least here in the US, women are far more likely to be murdered or injured by romantic partners than men, although perhaps men are more likely to be victims of violence outside their homes. And I believe men are far more likely to commit suicide in most countries.

      But the deeper point, I think, is that highlighting one form of violence is not to discount others. It's not a zero sum game. I certainly don't mean to downplay or ignore other forms of violence against you or anyone else. The "me, too" phenomenon was highlighting a form of violence that, for various reasons, has often been ignored. But we need not ignore others.

      Note that my post didn't mention any famous, wealthy actors or actresses. I saw the hashtag being shared by many of my friends on social media, none of whom are Hollywood celebrities. Sadly, our celebrity-obsessed culture often takes celebrities to get notoriety for a cause, but note that this movement was actually started by a non-celebrity long before Weinstein became a news story. (Side note: people who work in film and TV are beings worthy of compassion, and most of them aren't famous or extremely wealthy).

      I thank you for sharing your experiences. A lot of what you describe sounds to me like ways in which certain conceptions of masculinity are harmful to men, too, especially in the idea that it's "unmanly" to seek help. This is probably also part of why men's rates of suicide are higher: we're less likely to seek help with mental illness, too.

      It's also sad to me that men are discouraged from developing the kinds of compassion and empathy (both for ourselves and others) that makes a person fully human. That's a tragedy for everyone, but especially men ourselves.

      So I think the deeper problem is a harmful conception of masculinity, one that harms both women and men. I'm not sure exactly what to do about that, but maybe identifying a common problem could help everyone in the long run.

  2. I understand that it is not a zero sum game. And yes stats can be tricky especially if we burrow in. Women are more likely to be murdered by someone they know. But still *twice* as many men are murdered every year (In the UK). Twice as many.

    The point I was making is that I don't have a hash tag. I never have had one. I probably never will have one. I suspect that if I suggested one, I would be mocked. Men are not a sympathetic group.

    It is often implied that I have all the advantages in the world and nothing to complain about, simply because I'm a man of Anglo-Saxon descent (I abhor the term "white"). Society cares about women, but it doesn't really care about men. We are expendable. We repeat this myth about ourselves, that we are "not fully human" (your words!). Feminism has certainly turned the tables on our ancestors in that sense.

    Women in my real life experience can be just as brutal as men; girls as much as boys. I know several people who were tortured by their mothers throughout their childhood. I certainly suffered at the hands of mine.

    The deeper problems from my point of view are not psychological, but social. The after-affects of imperialism and colonialism (I grew up in a former colony); the insidious effects of free-market capitalism; the industrialisation of men's work and replacement of men by machines; crazy government policies towards substance abuse problems; the loss of religion as a unifying and regulating factor and the rise of moral relativism from the 19th Century onwards; the rise of the ideal woman as an ideal man; and so on.

    Have society tell any subgroup that they are worthless from an early age, *prove* it to them in many ways as they grow up, reduce the scope of their lives and work to drudgery, oppress them by removing hope of escaping from this life, and you will produce a load of them who are angry, feel entitled, and have no problem exploiting others, a load of them who are passive appeasers, and quite a few who really really want to be the "other". I imagine.

    A "harmful conception of masculinity" seems to understate the situation. It's not just a "conception", it's a set of social practises and institutions which perpetuate and deepen the crisis. The problem is not merely philosophical.

    What do we do? We have to *care*. We value men's lives, men's experiences, men's contributions. We celebrate masculinity not according to some feminist ideal, but according to how we feel about ourselves. And yet as I write it, I know that I'm just a dog barking at the moon.

    1. I think we may disagree less than it seems. For instance, in calling something a "conception" I don't mean that it's merely an idea, but it has real effects in how it's put into practice. To dismiss it as "merely philosophical" (assuming that means "has no real life effects") would be a mistake. Ideas and practices are intimately tied up. That's what makes it so harmful.

      What I don't understand is what I perceive to be your antipathy toward feminism. Perhaps this perception is wrong, in which case I apologize. I think feminism can help men a lot, even in figuring out how we feel about ourselves. By analogy, I've learned more about English grammar from learning other languages than I ever did in English classes.

      Getting back to the initial topic, listening to women's experiences of sexual harassment to a degree and frequency I will never experience has taught me a lot about who I am precisely because I DON'T deal with that particular form of violence, although of course men deal with other forms of violence.