Twitter erupted because of celebrity leaked nude pictures again this week. This is just the latest in gender-related abuse and violence to flare up in my timeline. There are countless others. More come sadly every day.
Social media is very much the “Parliament of the Moment” as John Roderick described it in episode #122 of Roderick on the Line. Sometimes, you have to shield yourself from it. However, some feminist Twitter accounts have made me acutely aware of the depth and extent of sexism. If you still can’t believe how bad it is, follow @EverydaySexism for a week. It is positive to gain a little comprehension and exert your empathy muscles — even if the anger proves difficult to deal with.
Perhaps it is well to be angry. On the morning after somebody stole and released these photos, my Facebook feed was full of people taking the “tech angle”. One after another, they blamed victims for not using strong encryption. Not having data security experts in their entourage. (Oh. Hum. This is Bryan. He is my 256-bit encryption key bearer.) Or they recycled stale arguments against the “cloud”. Most of the aforementioned geeks get angry when the hue of gray changes on a button’s drop-shadows. And they are pissed — albeit not surprised — at the NSA’s mass surveillance. Yet, they seemed to leave the perpetrators of this abuse off the hook. My anger pump went to 11.
We’re talking about the violent grabbing of someone’s property and an unacceptable violation of their intimacy. This is a maddening issue of ethics. Many have written about it, some eloquently and some even with proper disdain for keyword density. The Verge has a great post about the reaction to this leak versus the NSA mass surveillance thing. Jessica Valenti wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian explaining why we shouldn’t seek out these leaked shots. Scott Mendelson on Forbes calls these events what they are: sex crimes. They’re all great pieces. I don’t have anything to add about these events.
Every time abuse and humiliation of women are discussed. I am lead to examine my own ethics and how I interact with women day to day. Including to woo them and seek their company. Not only because I am a self-centered person but also because my own behaviour is the only one that I have a little bit of power over. And, it’s something we shall all do if we’re to get better at living together. “How am I to conduct myself in this world?” is a question worth asking. It surfaces periodically. I had never felt articulate, pissed and courageous enough to post about it online until now.
One semester of gender studies is enough to give you a lot of guilt about privilege and defamiliarize you with a lot of thought-patterns and ubiquitous stereotypes. For one of my seminars, I picked apart Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” — one of my favourite books, and uncovered countless instances of prejudice and revolting one-dimensional female characters. Taking a book from your formative years and deconstructing it is a terrifying exercise because it shows how aesthetically pleasing stories and tropes make it right past our defences and lodge themselves firmly in our consciousness — and most probably our subconscious. One semester isn’t nearly enough to put a mind right, though. It has left me confused and afraid and without the vocabulary to even properly voice my concerns.
My mind rattled and chewed on personal history and literary influences obsessively for weeks after that. For example, the Romantics’ language that I was enamoured with when I was a teenager proves to be deeply problematic. It not only objectifies women. It is based on complimenting a woman on separate parts of her body in sequence. For example, poets state their appreciation of a neck and collar bones abstracted from the woman they belong to. Just a random example. It can be construed as symbolic slaughter, can’t it?
Then, there’s the blues I listen to. Blues songs are often sexist and sometimes outright misogynistic. But their form is often so cool that you want to overlook it. Not to mention self-pity is sometimes a comfy cushion. In her column about pop songs, Ann Friedman concludes that we can compartmentalize and appreciate music that may be sexist. I am still not sure it is OK, though.
When I am in full freak out mode, part of me (Let’s call him my inner Earl of Lemongrab) becomes convinced that everything I say contains, encoded within, sexist and/or misogynistic things. I imagine exchanges with women I admire. I won’t have finished my first sentence and a loud buzzer is going to s… See? I just metaphorically equated having a conversation with a woman to a game show. Objectification. (Hello!) Oh. What is coming out of my mouth?
Some (Most?) of that comes down to irrational insecurities. In the face of the ubiquitous abuse women face online, the endless street harassment, revenge porn and other rivers of shit we (Yes. I include everyone.) have to deal with all the time, these concerns can be dismissed as petty and laughable. But at the heart of it lie some big and important questions about the ethics of language use, sexism and how we sustain relationships.
It’s all part of the larger “how to be a man” line of inquiry. It is a valid one. That problem is long ways from being solved. Ann Friedman wrote “What Does Manhood Mean in 2013?” in her The Cut column and said:
“Patriarchy” doesn’t just mean concrete systems that ensure only men have access to the upper echelons of power; it also encompasses our ingrained cultural understanding of what men should be and how they show dominance.
She makes a good point that we have to address this question for the sake of all genders. However, we can’t get to it because we need to, with good reason, address endless streams of sexist attacks. In the meantime, it continues to be
“confusing out here”, as Ann Friedman wrote, and I sometimes feel baffled.