Friends, there are few things as irritating as a cis man rolling on into the joint to express shock and surprise about something everyone else already knew about, much like a dog bolting into the living room ten minutes after the mail carrier has already come and gone to start barking incessantly. Unfortunately, it happens constantly, as part of a systemic social pattern that’s yet another reminder of gender inequality and the oblivious position occupied by cis men, who expect others to do the emotional labour and then cruise in to capitalise on it, expecting everyone to laud them for being brave and outspoken about issues that people have been discussing for years and sometimes even decades.
This pattern is so familiar that it can practically be written as a mad lib, with people first describing a social problem — ‘people are mean to women on the internet,’ say — and then discussing it at length. Women who experience abusive behaviours as well as those who observe it talk about the patterns they see and develop tools to support each other. In some cases, the issue becomes so pronounced that it even becomes the subject of academic study and discussion. It’s certainly widely known and acknowledged, with people in a given group being well aware that it’s so persistent, it might as well be almost inevitable. Disabled people know that they’re going to encounter disablist pushback when they ask for accommodations. Women know that their criticism of the arts won’t be taken seriously. People of colour know that they will be profiled as ‘angry’ for discussing social issues. Transgender people, particularly women, know that a trip to the bathroom can be taking their lives into their hands.
Then, lo, a cis man appears! He witnesses this for himself, and it happens to someone he actually knows, bringing about the ‘what if this was your wife, your daughter, your mother’ phenomenon, in which he can only grapple with something in terms of relationships to women he ‘owns,’ using ‘your’ as an indicator of property rather than just an adjective. It’s offensive that these things happen not because they’re terrible and not okay, but because they involve people you know who are personally affected by them. Quelle horreur.
So and thus, driven by a zealous desire to right the wrongs of the world, he bravely charges into the open to announce: ‘Hello, everyone! Did you know that this is a thing that happens!’
And some of the world says ‘er, yes, we’ve been talking about it for years, but thank you for the important breaking news.’ And his fellow men go ‘aha, really? This is astounding news that I have never heard before!’ It is these men who are covered by the media when it suddenly cottons on to the fact that something must be important — because, you see, men are talking about it now, so it matters. It is these men who write thinkpieces that are widely circulated even though marginalised people have written extensively and at length, including in thoughtful investigative features, about the exact same issue. I have seen men basically lift entire columns from women who wrote them the week before and get millions of hits, while the women they stole from get a few thousand at best. Thus these men who are so shocked by these things aren’t just cluelessly blundering into a conversation that’s been going on for years, but they’re actively seizing control of it and taking credit and power away from the people who had previously been leading it.
So here’s the thing. People discover things that are new to them all the time, whether it’s because they stumble across something discussing an issue they didn’t know about, or something is suddenly thrust into their faces, or they finally start paying attention to people who are talking. Whatever the means, we learn about things we weren’t aware of, and those experiences expand our understanding of the world. We aren’t all born knowing everything magically, and anyone who claims to be on top of every single social issue is full of it. I’m always learning new things. I’m always teaching new things.
How we react to those things matters, though. The instinct is often to start making pronouncements about them ourselves, to alert the world to the fact that we have discovered this thing, and it is shocking, and we must tell them all about it! And also to position ourselves as socially progressive, as ‘allies,’ as people who care. These reactions are not necessarily the right ones, though, because often, they end up overriding and eliding the experiences of the people who have actually been doing the work for months, years, decades. Instead of just assuming that it’s appropriate to charge in and take control of the conversation by talking, cis men would do well to back off, sit down, and pay attention — and thence to learn about what they can do.
Because cis malehood is a tremendous platform, and with that platform comes tremendous responsibility. The words of a cis man are always going to matter more than those of others, particularly when combined with intersecting privileges: If he is middle class, if he is white, if he is nondisabled, if he is Christian. All of these privileges mean that people listen to him and he is viewed with greater authority — which on the surface sounds good, because people pay attention when he repeats information about things he witnesses and things he is learning about. But it is also makes it easy for him to effectively take from the very communities he claims to be advocating for.
So, cis men, I implore you: When you find out about a thing that’s terrible, try a little experiment. Poke around to see who has been doing work on it, because I guarantee that you will find people who have been discussing and exploring it. And then, present their work, instead of your own, empowering the voices of the people who have been screaming into the void. Because if you genuinely believe that an issue is a serious problem, you owe it to the people affected to let them tell their own stories.
Image: man said buy low sell high, Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr