And They Are Us

I wanted to talk to you about a play of mine that’s being staged tomorrow night. I really, really wanted to talk to you about how I’ve ended up acting in it. And actually I also wanted to gabble at you about a whole series of workshops I’m running with writer Alex Townley.

But that’ll keep.

And this won’t.

This is too important. I was going to say that it’s too important to me, which it is and always has been, but it’s also just generally too important. I need to talk about the ‘me too’ and the ‘I believe you’ discussions. The journalist in me hesitates because, talking to you now, I feel I’m late to the topic and it’s been covered a lot. But then that’s about the only good thing here, that this has been discussed so much – and I want it to be discussed more.

I thought I knew, that I grasped how women are treated and I thought I was already appalled to the point of shaking at the way I don’t have a clue how to stop it. But the utter, ceaseless, overwhelming tsunami of ‘me too’ posts on Twitter and Facebook has turned my shake into paralysis.

The ‘I believe you’ ones gave me pause in a different way. Where the volume of ‘me too’ posts was deeply shocking, I’m ashamed to say that they weren’t surprising. The call for ‘I believe you’ was more startling to me because I can’t grasp how anyone wouldn’t believe.

Yet then if everyone both knew and believed all this, surely it would stop. So I posted ‘I believe you’ even though I still feel it is the most obvious thing I’ve ever written. Actually, I posted it on Facebook where they have those buttons for making things big and red. I’ve never before bothered to see how you do that but it felt right for this. I don’t think I’ll do it again because I don’t think I’ll write anything that important.

But then listen to me: I’m a saint. Except I’m not. If ‘I believe you’ is the most important thing I’ve written, this is the hardest: I can instantly think of incidents where I’ve made women uncomfortable.

I can tell you that I’ve never set out to do it and if it’s happened recently then I am scarily unaware of it. And I can also most definitely tell you that I have never, not once, ignored it when I’ve seen other men do it.

Except I must be wrong there. Must be. The sheer number, the wave after wave of ‘me too’ posts from people I believe I’m close to, it has got to mean that I have been blind to things happening.

Now, being blind to something is not the same as condoning it – except that of course it is.

I’ve failed my friends here. And there must be women who are wary of me because of it. Therefore there must be women who put me on the same side as men who do press and harass and attack. God, that’s not a side I want to be on.

There’s an interesting point being raised about how the language being used is creating its own issues and silos. It’s true that one hears about “violence against women” and don’t hear the phrase “violence committed by men”. I think it’s peculiar but true then that this is seen as a problem for women rather than a problem caused by men.

The fact that this is being pointed out now might even be the one shining outcome of the whole discussion if it makes men aware of it. But for God’s sake, it’s not like there’s been some secrecy about it: men can’t pretend that this is news to us.

I don’t know what to do and that makes me shake again. But I do know that thinking and talking about it is essential, even or especially when it’s difficult. And I also know that this is something men need to fix.

It’s men’s problem and it’s men’s fault and I am a man and I need to fix it.

When I think about us men ignoring the situation or particularly about somehow thinking it’s something women need to fix, I keep coming back to an ancient military phrase.

We have met the enemy and they are us.

Bossy

You can put too much weight on a single word, you can read too much into it, you can over-stress the poor bugger. And I know you can do this because I’ve spent a week doing exactly that with the word ‘bossy’.

The reason that I’ve been thinking about it for a week because it’s seven days since it came up in a conversation. Now, I am going to go surgical on this word, I am going to kill it solely to then do a post-mortem but I want you to know that I’m thinking of the word rather than the people in the conversation. I especially want you to know that if you were one of the three of us nattering.

It was just a chat but it got me pondering.

This was after last week’s Self Distract about Kindles which included a clip from BBC Newsnight where author Lee Child talked with interviewer Kirsty Wark. I mentioned in the chat that I rather rate Wark. I didn’t exactly say that I had a crush on her, but I might as well have done as it was bleedin’ obviously implied. And that was on a friend’s mind as she told me that therefore I’d have enjoyed a conference Wark did recently where she was apparently all bossy getting people back to their seats after a break.

There’s just so much in that word bossy.

What I consciously thought at the time was that I wasn’t at this conference so I cannot know for sure, but I can bet that she needed to get these people back. I can bet that if it had been a man doing the same thing, it probably wouldn’t have been given any word. Might have been labelled organised, maybe tense, I don’t know. But probably not bossy.

That thought didn’t take me a week.

Instead, what I’ve chewed and chewed over is the implicit presumption that I would’ve liked her specifically for being bossy. I mean, liked her as in, you know, liked her. Tugs at collar. Is it hot in here? I know this bothered me immediately because I did stress and state and underline that I admire Kirsty Wark for having had this great BBC News career yet simultaneously form and grow a rather impressive production company. I overcompensated.

But not because I was, shall we say, responding to the notion of this woman being bossy.

Men do. I know. And it’s so embarrassing. It’s the – look, my hands are wringing as I describe this, it is agony – it’s the way that certain men are attracted to being bossed about. Attracted to schoolteacher figures. Attracted to women who order them around. I feel like they are schoolboys and while equally there are women who are drawn to father figures and authority figures in men, that’s their problem. I’m a man, I’m busy being mortified for my half of the species.

Yet I do think that we are all at our very most attractive when we are working. You perform at work, you stand tall, you dress properly and you just spark. Someone doing interesting work and being good at it, being clever, being in full flow, being at the top of their game and just simply being in action is very sexy.

Thank goodness I no longer work in an office. Can you imagine how I’d get ribbed for this today? “Oh, yes, very sexy, William, the way you made the tea, God, I’m excited now. Any chance you could boss the teabag about a bit?”