Privileged Ignorance & Harrassment

I am a privileged white male. As such I haven’t ever really suffered from discrimination or harassment. I have never been racially abused or been sexually discriminated against. I have on occasion suffered a little homophobia from men who presumed I was gay.

Yet, in spite of this privilege, I have suffered from anxiety. I have been hyper-sensitive to discrimination that never really came my way, it was all in my own head. Having overcome this anxiety I ran into a new problem, that people were still behaving peculiarly around me, notably women and something seemed to be triggering it. This issue vexed me greatly and had me going around in circles trying to work it out for years, wondering if I had overcome anxiety after all.

I eventually worked out that the reason for the shift in the behaviour by these women, was that they had decided that I was seeking a relationship with them. The thing is, i wasn’t seeking a relationship, well no more than I do with everyone. I mean I wasn’t trying to force a closer or indeed a sexual relationship. Yet once they had ‘decided’ this, their behaviour towards me changed completely. In itself this isn’t a problem, the problem was that it bugged me for not knowing why the behaviour had changed and made me anxious again.

However, most of us are attracted to other people and it is a ego boost, a positive thing when we discover that other people are attracted to us. However the reaction to me seemed something much stronger, much darker and more sinister.

The answer dawned on me one evening in London. I was following a man and a woman down the street, they seemed to be having an argument. This seemed quite a normal occurrence until the man stopped and walked the other way, he seemed almost instantly calm as if he didn’t know the woman. It then dawned on me that perhaps he didn’t know this women, who was striding purposefully on, looking straight ahead, you would at least think about looking around to a friend or partner who had left an argument. I then realised that he may have been simply harassing her, or giving unwanted attention to this woman and quite possibly sexual harrassment.

This may well have been an everyday incident on a city street. However it was new to me and I began wondering how much abuse has been taking place in front of my eyes, yet somehow I had been blissfully ignorant of it.

If you are lucky never to have really been abused, you do not know what it is like, or what it looks like. If you live within a privileged bubble, such events are not on your radar. Being a reasonably educated person, I tend to socialise with other educated people, so this world of discrimination and abuse must happen elsewhere outside this bubble. So safely enconsed in this privileged bubble we don’t even notice such abuses when they may be right in front of us.

The thing is, I’ve been an anxious person and am highly sensitive, why hadn’t I noticed all this going on before. If I hadn’t noticed it, then surely it must be even harder to spot for more conventional white males whom are more central in the white male privilege bubble.

This revelation opened up this horrid tawdry world of abuse that exists everywhere. In particular, it made me realise the shit that women have to put up with, probably on an almost daily basis. If you are regularly harassed you are going to develop strategies to protect yourself.

Hence, I had stumbled upon the reason why these women were behaving strangely towards me. They were detecting cues and clues for potentially abusive behaviour from me and raised their guard. This was such an amazing relief for me to uncover, there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I really didn’t need to be anxious! There was no reason, or anything about me as a person that was being  guarded against, but simply a manifestation of how awfully too many of my ‘fellow’ white males behave.

The great thing about this, is I can now detect it. So, when I start seeing a lady being uncomfortable with me, I am able to recognise it and back off and fortunately this doesn’t mean  I end up in uncomfortable situations anymore or lose friendships because of it anymore. I am aware of my own privilege, though I view it as a curse, it has clouded from me truths about the world. I am always welcoming people who are not members of this odd group of people called ‘white males’ into my circles and am always amazed now by how happy  people are to accept white males into their circles despite the potential increased risk of abuse.

Curing Masculinism

You do occasional here about so called ‘masculinism’ these days as a ‘response’ to feminism, from people who don’t appear to understand feminism in the slightest. As a male myself, collectively men seem so far behind women in getting over trying to be something expected of us by our birth gender role. Both men and women are swamped by images of how what our gender should dress like, behave, enjoy etc. and if you don’t quite fit within this definition or at least play along with it, tough, you’re an outcast. Not only is this limiting and destructive, it is so boring and limiting. For example the idea that I grew up with that ‘Boys don’t cry’, beautifully parodied by my favourite band ‘The Cure’. It took me years before I regained the ability to cry when I was upset. How is it great and ‘manly’ to not feel sad about sad things because we are ‘tough’ that we are don’t want to be affected by anything or have to actually deal with it. So many men, never get over this restriction.

Children very quickly pick up these gender stereotypes and very quickly conform to them. There is evidence to suggest that this conformity is the child demonstrating that they have understood. Society does indeed seem to encourage the development of ‘masculine’ traits for boys and ‘feminine’ ones for girls. However in Western culture particularly we have started to question these gender roles. Really, back in ‘cavemen’ times [or should it be cavepeople? oh wait they didn’t actually live in caves (sic)] it helped society together than the generally larger stronger sex went out hunting. However in an increasingly urban world, there is no need to encourage hunting skills, so why does society have this tendency to stick with these traditions?

Then there is a form of sexism that some men have of expecting women to behave in a ‘feminine’ way, which I don’t get at all. The logic seems to be well I have chosen to conform to a definition of masculinity, so I expect everyone else to conform this way too, even the other gender.Or is it more than this, there is this idea to teach people to conform as the idea as doing this will make your life easier, you will fit in and not stand out. However, it seems that these days success is achieved by the people who do stand out, who do take a different direction.

Often other men ask me “But don’t you like women wearing pretty dresses?” because what I find attractive in women, doesn’t fit the algorithm for how it seems most mean assess or a woman’s attractiveness.

Well I do like women wearing pretty dresses, wearing make up and having done something with their hair, but, only if I have seen them wearing normal clothes first. I like to see the change, the difference. Because most of the time the most attractive thing to me a lady can wear is jeans and a woolly jumper.

As a biologist I have spent some time working in jungles. Working in a jungle is hot and damp and in order to protect the ecosystem we don’t wash clothes in ‘modern’ detergents and th eonly way of gettign them dry is for them to get very smoky drying by a fire. So our clothes are always stained, and holey (from brushing past spiky plants regularly). This did not prevent me from finding some of my female companions attractive. When the project was over and everyone returns to a city, there is often a final social get together in a restaurant before everyone goes home. There is an opportunity to wash properly, wear clean clothes and often the women put on make-up. For me these are special times, to be able to see women I’ve been working for for several weeks in a completely new light. They are not more attractive than they were before, it’s just nice to see them having done something with their appearance. However I gather from other men that they suddenly notice how attractive these women are, I don’t get this at all.

I visited Germany last year. In a sense it was wonderful as the women in Germany dress normally (dress down?) most of the time and usually only have a few dresses for dressing up once in a while. I did indeed think that this was a place I would like to live, a society where my preferences were less different. Having said that a guy shoulder charged me for wearing a floral shirt, anyway German men dress appallingly, stripes everywhere) However some people complain that such Northern European women are somehow ‘less feminine’. They are just as feminine as women anywhere else, what perhaps they mean is that such women do not conform to some traditional view of femininity as in other places.

There are some obvious avenues to explore to explain this. Firstly Northern Europe is densely populated and industrialised a long time ago, so there is a bigger gap to a world where hunting was possible, the culture has had time to develop in new post-industrial ways. Secondly there is language. I’m been learning Welsh recently. Welsh like many other Indo-European languages assigns nouns a gender, masculine and feminine. So the language itself encourages speakers to view things in a gendered way. It is interesting that each language assigns these slightly differently, but there is a broadish conformity with traditional ideas of gender. However, in the Germanic languages of English and I believe the Scandinavian languages, this focus on gender has been lost or is rapidly disappearing. For example we now use ‘they’ for a person of unknown gender, or when the gender is not important (even in Welsh nowadays), whereas in Spanish, such a ‘they’ is masculine, unless the group only consists of females (‘ninos’ (male or mixed group of children) and ‘ninas’ (female only group of children).

How gender is dealt with is hugely complicated. We still live in a world where there are gender expectations. If for whatever reason you don’t fit the traditional roles, you have to find a way to deal with the stereotyping. Personally I have got myself into difficulties with women  who have misinterpreted my attention as seeking a relationship with them. I don’t know whether it is always a mistake to let women know that you find them attractive and then quickly ascertain that they are not interested in exploring a relationship with myself or not. However I often find that some women continue to believe I am seeking a relationship when continuing a non-sexual relationship. It is difficult, because I now see how much negative attention women get from men that is pursuing a relationship. It’s kind of like I had to come to terms with being different and to not be concerned that I was being treated in a seemingly strange way.

I think my conclusion that a traditional model of what masculinity and femininity is not wrong, or something that needs to be cured or got over, however not thinking about it at all can have negative consequences. If you happen to fit in, that is a wonderful gift, yet it is still worth understanding how much of that is really you, how much you are happy to conform and find out where you are different. What I would suggest though is that we do all need to discover who we are for ourselves and not blindly adopt roles. Even if you are an outsider, to function socially you require an understanding of the way the majority behave; which is perhaps why children learn gender roles at a young age. Essentially what I am saying that understanding is good and that we need to understand ourselves better and also find what grounds us, what roots us to ourselves and our communities, to realise that everyone else may be on such a journey too.  We should not criticise others for their choices in how they ground themselves, but we should be wary when others try and pressure people to behave to conform.



Generally Separate

When people get into a fight, there is often a cry to separate, to step back, provide both parties to stop and reflect upon their actions. Many arguments and conflicts are caused by misunderstandings. Many misunderstandings arise from a tendency to generalise. People generalise to make help make sense of the world, to simplify.

In my recent conversations with people about the murder of journalists in Paris this week, I have often found myself as the standard barer of the idea of separating and not generalising. It is wrong to cast aspersions on an entire group of people, or people who identify with a particular belief. It is also wrong to suggest that all ‘members’ of a group are responsible for the actions of individuals with whom they share some label. For example if a murder occurs in Wales, as a Welshman I am not to blame for the murder, nor should I apologise to the world on behalf of Welsh people. Whilst all Welsh people are Welsh, as individuals we all define that sense of identity in a different way.

People often get upset or angry by events. When  we become upset, there is a tendency to blame others, there is often no immediately apparent cause of the problem so people look for generalisations, and the labels generated from generalisations come to the for. One might, for example blame all women for a relationship floundering. However, it is perhaps neglected that when there is a misunderstanding it is due to the failure of the generalisation, than some more rare personality trait is not understood.

There is a sense of the tyranny of the perceived majority, which is often heightened by the media. For example that men are only after sex and not committed relationships. Sometimes, people take comfort from the logic of using generalisations to form conclusions for a communication breakdown, it gives a sense of a matter being settled. i would argue that often misunderstandings arise from people making generalisations and a disregard for the separateness of individuals, for ‘exceptions to the rule’. Really because as humans we generalise, we often fail to be aware that we are dealing with an individual who is different and not all generalisations apply to any individual.As a society we are not less homogenised, we live in a multi-cultural society, yet still retain the trappings of class, the traditional form of difference in a society.

This loss of social rules and social conformity is a triumph. It has freed individuals from feeling that they should act or think in a particular way. It also places a burden on the individual to assess the morality of their thoughts and actions individually and often there isn’t the time and space to do this thoroughly. Often a solution is to adopt or buy into a particular philosophy as a general way to simply exist and get on with things, whilst recognising that every system has it’s flaws and weaknesses as well. However following the dictates of any particular creed or rule system, will inevitable cause the followers of another system harm, inadvertently at some point.

For example, wearing of the burka. To me, as a western feminist, women should be free to wear what they want and not have their choice of clothes  dictated by any particular greed or gender group. Men should respect women by not harassing them for any choice of clothing they may make. So, if I were to completely adopt this creed I would be disapproving of women wearing the burka, advocating that the burka has no place in society. This is wrong, as I would be applying my creed to someone else. Women have the right to wear the burka if they wish to. in any case, the feminist creed has not fully succeeded in removing the harassment of women in the street in society, no creed can claim any superiority over the other.

I was once involved in a rather farcical clash of cultures once on a London bus. I got onto the bus, there was only one spare seat, next to a woman, which I sat in. The woman got up from her seat, presumably as her creed was that she shouldn’t sit next to strange men. My creed dictated that I should give up my seat for a woman, so I got up and indicated that the lady should resume her seat, which she did. On my last visit to London, on the tube (underground railway), the lady opposite who was nursing a young child, gave up her seat to an elderly lady who had just got on the train. I then gave up my seat to the lady with the child!

I am British, the British are often criticised for apologising whenever things go awry. Actually this is healthy thing to do, it is a correct admission that no-one is perfect, that this lack of perfection has caused some trouble to someone else. That the reasons or a difficulty is that we are all different and working out the exact thing we are apologising for is most of the time not worth trying to work out, or at least should be remembered for when the person has to time to stop and reflect.

My own problem was that I would overly worry and assess my own failings, rather than admit to never being perfect and get on with living, to accept that people are always going to misunderstand me and I others, with no intended malice. I didn’t do this partly as I allowed the differences and misunderstanding to effect me, when it is something that just happens. Learning to tolerate the differences in others is something i could always do, what i lacked was freeing myself of the fear of my own status as someone separate of inadvertently offending others.

People should be less hasty to judge both other individuals and labelable groups, not try and dictate how others from different backgrounds should behave (all our backgrounds are different), but rather accept the separateness of us all as individuals and do our best to get along with one another.

Beyond Feminism

I’ve discussed Feminism briefly as a movement promoting equality and working towards the prevention of males dictating how women should behave, a movement against oppression. We live in a multi-cultural world where cultural traditions, historically patriarchal, continue to dictate and enforce conformity to convention. These pressures are beyond simply telling women how to behave, they dictate how men should behave as well and they dictate what our sexuality should be amongst other things. The further you are from the conforming archetype the tougher life can be. For example, pity the poor, mixed race, disabled, lesbian with a mental illness, however this person is so out there that perhaps they understand that trying to conform will get them nowhere and at least may find it easier to be themselves!

Often parents strive to help their children conform to society. The motivation for this is to educate children in how the world is and by implication conforming will yield social benefits. For example the message: Don’t be gay if you can help it, as your life will be harder. I discussed bullying earlier, or how conformity is enforced. However what these strategies often lack essentially is advice on how to deal with not conforming. As someone who isn’t quite the conventional male archetype, I know that it is important to acknowledge difference and being an outsider, to be comfortable and confident in who you are, as it is this confidence, this connection with oneself that provides the social benefits, rather than conformity itself. I don’t understand why my own parents, to some degree, made me feel that certain activities I liked were wrong, because it meant i spent my teenage years and much of my twenties dealing with unpicking these imposed restraint on finding out who i really was. I gather most of my contempories underwent similar processes.

If individuals really were free to choose there who they are, people would choose to be the dominant archetype, as life is easier. Being conventional relieves you from discrimination and the world its around you like a glove. for example you pick up a magazine and it is full of articles about things you are interested in, the people around you are sufficiently versed in these topics that social discourse is straightforward. However if that isn’t you and for the majority it isn’t it is better to accept the difference.

Why does society inflict this conformity? Economically, perhaps it is more efficient if everyone wants the same things, rather than a variety of options to cater for? I don’t think anyone really would want such an Orwellian dystopia. Historically, there was the landed gentry, and there still is,a ruling class, who obtain great wealth and wish to keep it that way as it affords them a life of luxury with built in maintenance of the system. This minority can then inflict the conformity they wish in the rest of the population, as those that conform receive preferential treatment. I am against such a system and in western society, generally there is an objection to such a system, but often we lack collective awareness of it and the ruling class control the media, a divide and rule system.

Culturally, diversity is now cherished. For example Christianity in Britain, once a bastion of dictating the rules of society, no longer does this. The church is now a minority group, instead the principles of the faith and spirituality are preached,  people are expected to form their own conclusions to moral questions with reference to interpretations of biblical teachings.

Music, as many art forms, has never been about conformity. Interest is maintained by constantly looking for new ideas and different ways of expressing ideas. With the rise of recorded media and the birth of pop music an even greater diversity of musical styles flourished, often despite the attempts of the record industry (the ruling class) to dictate popular tastes. But then music has always been about rebellion and exploration. and it still discouraged by the powers that be: Restricted performance licensing, poor sound insulation in new build housing etc. Nonetheless generally Britain is a society that actively promotes unconformity in comparison with other countries, yet there remain forces against this openness. Are these forces simply grumpy older people who wish they had the choice to be themselves instead of conforming?