Friday, October 20, 2017

Patriarchy, privilege and the #MeToo movement

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below.

Over the past few days, I have been seeing two very small words in my social media feed that carry tremendous weight: “Me too.”

The movement to post these words seems to have started Sunday, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” It began as a response to the news reports of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who lost his job, wife, and membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when a wave of allegations arose accusing him of sexual misconduct.

On Sunday, when I watched the status posts beginning to spread, I told my wife that I was unsure of how to respond. On one side, it seemed like a powerful way to raise awareness. On the other side, a part of me worried that the distinction between sexual assault and sexual harassment might be lost by this sort of activism, maybe even causing pain to victims of assault. I wondered if social media posts like this could make an impact on the myriad problems related to issues surrounding the way men treat women.

I then asked my wife if I she thought I was wondering these things because of the patriarchal position, the perspective in which I live, given my gender. She said that was a tough question.

Now, several days later, I think I know the answer.


Yes, any questions I have about this movement arise from my own patriarchal perspective. My very hesitancy at listening carefully to the voices of women from around my social network betrays the pervasive nature of patriarchy, how very hard it so often is for women to be truly heard by men when it comes to questions of sexual harassment and assault. I am complicit in that systemic reality and I have simply not done a good-enough job repenting of that complicity and seeking to be a better man.

So, the first thing I want to say is that I am so sorry.

I am sorry that a tidal wave of #MeToo posts has not provoked more shock and sadness, more contrition and desire for action in the men who have seen them. I’m sorry that men are often so unaware of what it is like to live like a woman in this society that we would be surprised that so many women have had this experience. I’m sorry that our first experience — my first experience — isn’t always to listen. I’m sorry that more of us don’t realize a culture that permits harassment is one in which assault also thrives.

Perhaps you’ve seen the image of a sailor passionately kissing a nurse during a parade celebrating the end of the Second World War. Perhaps you’ve thought how romantic it was.

It wasn’t. That is a photo of Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant who was grabbed that day by a sailor and kissed. As Friedman said in a 2005 interview with the Library of Congress, “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed! That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

That picture is an image of an unwanted physical assault upon a woman. But our culture is so blind that, to this day, many laud it as a playful example of American exuberance. It is actually a devastating example of culture’s treatment of women.

In “The Macho Paradox,” author Jackson Katz tells the story of drawing a line down a chalkboard, sketching a male symbol on one side and a female on the other, and then asking men, “What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted?” He says that the men sit there awkwardly, unsure of what to say except maybe to make a joke.

Then he asks women the same question. The answers immediately pour forth.

“Hold my keys as a potential weapon. Look in the back seat of the car before getting in. Carry a cellphone. Don't go jogging at night. Lock all the windows when I sleep, even on hot summer nights. Be careful not to drink too much. Don't put my drink down and come back to it; make sure I see it being poured. Own a big dog. Carry Mace or pepper spray. Have an unlisted phone number. Have a man's voice on my answering machine. Park in well-lit areas. Don't use parking garages. Don't get on elevators with only one man, or with a group of men. Vary my route home from work. Watch what I wear. Don't use highway rest areas. Use a home alarm system. Don't wear headphones when jogging. Avoid forests or wooded areas, even in the daytime. Don't take a first-floor apartment. Go out in groups. Own a firearm. Meet men on first dates in public places. Make sure to have a car or cab fare. Don't make eye contact with men on the street. Make assertive eye contact with men on the street.”

Every single day women have to make a myriad choices because our culture has conditioned men to treat them as objects, as things that can be coerced to serve the pleasure of men. Whether it is as seemingly innocent as complimenting a woman at work on how good she looks (instead of perhaps complimenting her on her excellent work and insight) or whether it is as pernicious as using your position, physical strength, or even just your demeanor to make unwanted advances with a woman — no matter what, it is wrong. It has created a world where strong, powerful, vibrant women live with a shame, sadness, anxiety or pain that should not be theirs to bear.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that every man is not only saying I’m sorry but is also working actively to monitor his own thoughts, behaviors and words, and asking how he may be complicit in this reality.

As men, we must do better. Every single #MeToo should make us sick to our stomach, should make us immediately reflect on our own lives, should make us the first to stand up when a woman has the courage to speak truthfully about her experience. Every single #MeToo should be met by a resolve not only to listen but actually to hear about these experiences — and to ask how we can dismantle this sin-soaked system.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Action is needed in the wake of what happened in Las Vegas

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below.

Like many of you, I awoke early Monday morning to the horrific news of the violence in Las Vegas. I tend to wake up a little before 6 a.m., just before my 14-month-old daughter likes to wake up. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I saw the notification on my phone’s screen, one of the news apps I follow reporting on the many dead and the many more injured.

Mass shootings, disasters inflicted by the hands of humans who have become broken through hate or mental illness — or who just, for some inexplicable reason, decide to kill — these are increasingly difficult to respond to with anything more than a hand over the mouth, shocked at the destruction we are all witnessing.

And yet, as the Episcopal Church’s “Bishops United Against Gun Violence” said in their own statement released late in the afternoon on Monday, who noted that after thoughts and prayers, “we must act.” They continued, “As Christians, we are called to engage in the debates that shape how Americans live and die, especially when they die due to violence or neglect.”

The pressing question is: What action can we take? We feel powerless in the face of such violence, powerless to protect ourselves and our loved ones when people can so quickly take so many lives.

But we are not powerless.

Rather, we must renew our calls for sensible gun reform. As our bishops also noted in their own statement, “It is entirely reasonable in the wake of mass killings perpetrated by murderers with assault weapons to ask lawmakers to remove such weapons from civilian hands. It is imperative to ask why, as early as this very week, Congress is likely to pass a bill making it easier to buy silencers, a piece of equipment that makes it more difficult for law enforcement officials to detect gunfire as shootings are unfolding.”

These questions must be asked. We must not settle for the same responses, the same claims that the Second Amendment somehow guarantees an unhindered and unencumbered right to possess any weapon, no matter the destructive capacity.

I want to be clear: I am a gun owner. I have three guns in a safe in my home, all used for either hunting or sport. I have enjoyed the challenge of shooting a handgun in a safe, controlled environment just as much as I have appreciated the challenge of harvesting my own meat in the wild instead of relying solely on factory-farmed animals. I grew up here in Grand Haven with a step-father who was a licensed gun dealer and, thus, had a significant amount of firearms in the locked gun room of our home.

This is not about abridging the Second Amendment rights of Americans. I fully support guns for hunting, competitive and other sporting purposes. I also support guns for self-defense — though I am clear that my own guns are not for that purpose. I’m too aware of the statistics that a homeowner is more likely to be shot by his or her own gun than successfully use it to defend against an intruder. I support that right, but most people lack the training, unfortunately, to do that effectively.

That said, there is no compelling sporting reason for the use of silencers — indeed, they increase the danger of firearm use in both urban and rural areas. There is no compelling sporting reason for civilian access to military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and armor-piercing ammunition. There is absolutely no compelling reason — in our time of easy internet access — to allow guns to be bought, purchased, or transferred without a background check and a registration of ownership. Whether selling a shotgun to a friend or purchasing a new rifle at a gun show, there must be a way to check the background of a prospective purchaser and ensure that no flags exist that should impede that sale.

Would all of this have stopped what happened in Las Vegas? I don’t know. We are all still learning the details of what led to this horrific act of violence. I hope that we continue to investigate what led to this shooting and engage in some societal self-examination about ways in which we may be complicit in any structures or norms which enable this kind of action.

But whether or not sensible gun reform would have stopped the shooter in Las Vegas, it would absolutely decrease the likelihood and the scale of future shootings. Rather than arguing about what would have stopped this horrific event, let’s look to the future. Look carefully in the eyes of our children and ask what sensible steps we can take in this society to make it safer for them.

We cannot make it perfectly safe. If people want to commit acts of violence and terror, they will always find a way.

But we must make it more difficult.

Inaction, at this moment, is unacceptable.