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.


A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.