This is one man’s brain on offensive stereotypes, patriarchal entitlement, and reflexive ignorance. Time to make amends, and a pledge. Any questions?
By Fred Mills
Ed. note: The graphic I selected, above, is not intended to be humorous or ironic, so please don’t regard it that way. It was a bit difficult to arrive at an illustration that I felt was appropriate to the dialogue that follows, so I hope it will at least be viewed as relevant. If you agree, pass it along.
No excuses: I fucked up supremely a week and a half ago, and I deeply regret it. I made an off-hand “joke” on Twitter that relied on a misogynist trope. The comment I made – since deleted; I announced I had done so in the interest of transparency – equated women with prizes to be won by men instead of full human beings in their own right. I know better. At least I thought I did. What I said was deeply offensive in any context, and for that I want to apologize to every woman, not simply to those I know (who rightfully asked WTF I was I thinking). I also want to apologize to men for perpetrating this stereotype amongst ourselves, because we have clearly reached a point where trying to pass off comments like that as “just” guy talk or locker room talk is not only ignorant, it is offensive in and of itself. And I want to apologize to LGBTQ and non-binary people because I see you and you matter; my joke erased your humanity too.
There’s no way to rationalize it or excuse my way out of it. I can see now, as some have pointed out, that my initial apologies were made from a place of defensiveness and woefully inadequate. (There’s an earlier post of mine, from the other weekend on the BLURT Facebook page, where you can read those comments and the subsequent responses.) I’m going to own my mistake.
This lengthy post is my attempt at a proper, more complete apology and my promise to be (and to do) better moving forward. I’m not here to make the conversation about me. But since women don’t have the option of avoiding misogyny, I can’t either. Especially when I’m guilty of perpetrating it.
That’s the truly frightening thing: how blithely I made the original Twitter post and in the process invoked a sexist idea and used misogynist term — in short: I didn’t even think about it. It was so reflexive, such a common shorthand, the fact that it is offensive didn’t even occur to me. And in that moment I confirmed my membership in this giant sprawling frathouse. Guys, think about how often you “don’t even think about it.” It might prove scary to you as well.
With that single, decidedly unfunny joke, I placed myself in league with a pervasive mindset I have previously claimed to hate, and I did so at a moment in time (post-November 8th) when sexists have been given a renewed license to roam and offend, and when women are marginalized and rightly enraged at this inequity of power. I didn’t think before I tweeted. But since then, I’ve discussed this with a lot of people, and it’s given me an opportunity to think and to get some genuine insight into how others – on both sides of the equation – think, and what goes into that thinking.
There have been some tough realizations, not the least of which involves confronting the fact that I didn’t know better. It never occurred to me that I might be part of this systemic patriarchy problem. I’ve always considered myself an egalitarian, one of the good guys who could be depended upon to know and to do the right thing – “doing the right thing,” even if swims against the tide I’m in, is how I was raised and how I’m trying to raise my own son. But in this instance I instead became “one of the good ol’ boys”.
I realize that talk is cheap, and apologies are just words, meaningless unless backed up by action. My challenge is not just to pledge to never let something like this happen again and to set a good example — for my son, my male peers, the readers, and more. It’s also to teach myself to recognize this toxic patriarchal mindset when I see it; to actively challenge it and call folks out on it rather than just coast along and accept it as “the way things are”; and to provide my unconditional support for everyone who find themselves being… I’m not quite sure what word I’m reaching for here… hurt, offended, repressed, patronized, abused, maybe? Those all work, somewhat, but I need to find a term more holistic and all-encompassing. My inability to express it properly here tells me that there’s a lot of growing up that’s gotta happen first. It’s the duty of those of us who are privileged to remove our own blinders.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week listening to the criticism I received for my poorly chosen words, and as I said, talking to friends about what lessons I can learn, and contemplating how to do better, and I want to share two observations in particular that struck a nerve.
The other day, after a lengthy exchange with a friend about all this, I was in my car while listening to a weekend repeat of “Fresh Air” on NPR. Terry Gross’ guest this episode was female lexicographer Kory Stamper and she was talking about the immense power of words, both positive and negative. What timing. This hit home, and hard. I’m a writer, I’m supposed to know that. I thought I did know that. But my actions had just proven otherwise. That’s a personal standard that I let fall by the wayside. In the future I will keep reminding myself of the importance of choosing my words carefully, and appropriately for the context — not to mention knowing when not to say anything in the first place.
Secondly, this past week I have also reflected a great deal on the recent Women’s March and the feelings of pride and inspiration the resistance it launched has evoked in me. The Women’s March stirred up the same passions that I felt decades ago as a young man attending Vietnam War protests. I was empowered and righteous fighting for change, fighting to make my voice heard, fighting to stand up for what’s right. I’m still committed to standing up for what’s right and I want to be the change, as they say.
There is a new intersectional resistance movement taking place in our culture right now, led by women, POC, and those less privileged than me. They insist on being heard and they are righteous. Once again, I’m reminded of what it felt like, during the Vietnam era, to be part of a resistance movement. Moving forward, I want to do my part amplify their voices rather than echo the sexist tropes of times past. I’m going to think before I speak. Sometimes I’m just going to listen instead of speaking.
I am on the side of equality and progress, but the devil is in the details. It’s one thing to believe these things; it’s altogether another thing to execute them in my daily interactions, to monitor what I say and do and not perpetuate or feed the mindset discussed above.
I might not always get it right, but systemic change starts with individual change – that’s a notion that my parents also instilled in me that I intend to pass on to the next generation. I intend to pull my weight, do my part to make things improve, and not just sit on the sidelines silently cheering the resistance on (another trap that, having blinders on, is very easy to fall into). To any of the men who read this, I’m sharing all the foregoing not simply to apologize, but to encourage you to do the same – I invite them to join me.
Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com.