How can we talk along friction lines? Feel out the clash without crashing… and burning? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. I keep on reading about feminism, about heteronormativity, the hierarchical gender binary, internalized sexism, daily microagressions. And then I have conversations about this, all gung-ho with my new knowledge, with guy friends. There are good guys: thoughtful, considerate, kind. We’ll be talking, though, and they’ll say something about how some gender role, that I consider to be extremely socially constructed, is actually a natural (biologically necessary? evolutionarily-based?) phenomena, and I’m like “Rewind. Let’s go back to that.” So we do, and I try to call them out on it, or at least call their attention to how maybe the world’s that way because society made it that way, and inevitably, it seems, whatever I say it does not hit the mark. Then I get frustrated, because I could not make them see. I couldn’t make them see that I was right! Ok, I know, stop me right there. That’s a super dysfunctional way to go about things. In so many ways.
First, right there I was seeking to change, not allowing for the possibility of being changed. Second, I am allowing my experience (as a female-bodied person) to take a more dominant place in my mind than what they express of their male-bodied experience.
I was talking to a friend this past weekend who triggered me in this very way. He, like any of my friends, believes strongly in gender equality, but I put him to task for having an internalized conception of gender roles that he feels are natural, and that I think ar almost completely socially constructed. He feels that men are born to protect women, is someone who has acted strongly on that very need within himself. I think that society is violent and dangerous for women because as long as women and men feel that women need to be protected by men, women can also be controlled by men.
I kept on pushing at him, trying to get him to see my viewpoint. I tried the “I statement” thing. I tried theory. But he just kept bringing the conversation back to how he’ll try to have conversations with feminists and they just shut him down, don’t allow for the possibility of dialogue, insist that, because they are women and he is a man, they are right and he is wrong. They get to talk, he has to listen. He doesn’t identify as a feminist, either, because he feels like the word is too charged, too sullied by those “rabid feminists” or whatever that use combative tactics to build a more just society. This conversation I was having with my friend was not very productive, but neither had any conversation he’d ever been a part of, either.
I’m not going to defend or condemn the tactics of feminist groups, as, while I don’t find all of them effective, I understand the importance of diversity within any movement. I think it’s important to note, though, that this friend kept bringing up how it’s hard for him as a guy, too. It sucks to have women cross the street to avoid him when he’s out walking at night, see a panic in their eyes as they pass him by. While his experiences should perhaps be analyzed differently because of societal dynamics of power and shit, no amount of analyzing can make his experience any less real. Any less sucky. Or any less needing to be heard.
Really, he needs feminism just as much as I do, because a society that allows men to act violently against women with impunity also forces women, in order to protect themselves, to not trust and avoid men, even the ones that are there for them, like my friend. I mean, from personal experience, I hate how all the street harassment here has made me avoid eye contact with strangers, of recognizing the human presence of the people passing by. It doesn’t seem to me like expecting men to be violators and women to be violated does much to motivate men to treat women with dignity and respect, or motivate women to treat men as capable of dialogue and progress, as anything other than sex-crazed and uncontrollably violent monsters. In some ways, us feminists have fallen into the same trap we hope to spring the machistas from: stereotypes and failing to see / treat the other as an honest-to-goodness human bean.
So basically, we all need feminism. But we’ve let ourselves, I’ve let myself, get stuck in dynamics of non-communication that get us nowhere.
Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much only know what doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when I go in with guns already blazing, the guns of you’re wrong/I’m right. When I am thinking of my comeback while the other person is still talking, I have already failed. When I try to force the conversation in the absence of a curiosity on the other side opening them to hear me, I will surely get nowhere. When I allow myself to get triggered by something and butt in with a “well, in my experience as a woman…”, I often go unheard.
So what can I do? I want to listen, I truly do, to what men think about these things. I believe that conversation, especially telling stories, is the only real way to break down barriers and learn to see people for who they wholly are. It’s just that I really feel the need to tell my story, too. I need other people, men especially, to understand what intentional and also unwitting sexism feels like on the other side. I want them to know what it feels like to be asked for sex over and over and over by men who don’t know consent, and if they did, would probably slap it on the ass, wink and buy it a drink. I want them to know what it’s like to feel mentally undressed as I walk down the street. I want them to know what it feels like to have a friend tell me that I actually like street harassment for the attention, for someone to tell me I’m attractive, but that I just won’t admit it.
I want to tell them these things without blaming them, without shutting them down, without denying the validity of their own experience. I want to talk to them when they are open to hearing what I have to say. But I just really don’t know how. Or when.
I get the sense though, you wonderful people you, that you may have some insights. May be able to help.
Are you a man who’s talked about feminism? The patriarchy? A straight person who’s talked about heteronormativity? A white person who’s talked about white privilege? An able-bodied person who’s talked about ableism? If so, when were you most open to dialogue? What made you defensive? What stories from the other side stuck with you?
And on the flip side, if you’re part of a minority or oppressed group (and everyone is in some way), what has been your experience dialoging with people whose thoughts conflicted with yours? What worked? How did you take care of yourself during the process?
I invite your comments. It’s especially great if you put them here, too, instead of commenting on Facebook or emailing me, because then everyone has the chance to see what you shared.