Who’s afraid of women who speak their truth?

Last week, an articulate, passionate, intelligent Egyptian feminist with flaming red hair said the word “fuck” several times on the ABC’s Q&A episode. She said it as part of her own message – “Fuck the patriarchy” – and she said it when quoting another feminist. She also called Donald Trump a ‘fascist fuck’ and suggested our own PM is a mini version of Donald Trump. She discussed our parallel path with the American experience. People are rising up around the world, she pointed out, risking their lives to protest against corporate control and climate change, and the Australian PM wants to ban boycotts. 

An Aboriginal woman said the Australian police force was designed to perpetuate white, colonialist, patriarchal forms of violence, particularly against our Indigenous peoples, and that attempting to reform the police in Australia was a waste of time; that we need to find other ways to deal with the issues that our police are currently expected to resolve. 

An American older woman said that the attempt by our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to make it unlawful for consumers to agitate for change by boycotting or otherwise challenging corporations and institutions that harm the planet is “ridiculous”. This same panellist spoke of the endemic ageism against both young and old in our society and workplaces, and of the need to get past the – largely patriarchal – belief that a person’s value as a human being diminishes with age. 

An Australian feminist said the political system in Australia – as in many parts of the world – is steeped in colonialism, patriarchy and male violence and that our Prime Minister is part of the group that is most privileged by that system. 

All of the panellists spoke eloquently about the depth and embeddedness of discrimination against people who are not white males in this country.

None of this is new. And yet, by Friday, the ABC had announced it will conduct an investigation into this episode of Q&A because there had been complaints about the language used (presumably the fact an Egyptian feminist said “fuck” several times) and that the content was offensive to some. And – what a surprise – when I immediately went to watch the programme on ABC’s iView, this episode was not available and I was presented with a message saying I should check my internet connection. Other Q&A episodes on iView were working just fine, so it was definitely not my internet connection. I found the episode on the Q&A website, and was left wondering if this is a new form of censorship visited by our government on the national broadcaster – removing content that a few people find ‘offensive’.   

Which bit was offensive, I wonder, and to whom? Were our Indigenous people offended by an Indigenous woman telling the audience exactly what it’s like to deal with the police and the justice system in Australia when you are a member of our Indigenous communities? Were women who have suffered violence at the hands of men offended by the clear linkages drawn between the perpetrators of that violence and patriarchal systems of control, including colonialism and white supremacy? Were the 30% of Australians who were born overseas offended by a passionate defence of their rights to live here without discrimination and harm? Were our elders who rely on the aged care system offended by the disgust expressed by panellists in response to the findings of the Royal Commission into Aged Care? Were older women who have suffered humiliation and discrimination in the workplace offended by an older woman saying “this is what happens, and it is not good enough”? 

Or was it, again, the Egyptian feminist who was found to be offensive when she asked, “How long must we wait for men and boys to stop murdering us?” and suggested that a violent response to the ongoing rape and murder of women may be the only way to get men and the patriarchy to change. The ensuing panel discussion sent a clear message that violence is not the first, second, or even third option – it’s what happens when all other avenues have been tried and have failed; when the dominant rulers refuse to listen or take steps to create serious change. Yet this discussion has been described as inciting feminists to violence, fuelling the apparent need for censorship and an investigation. 

So who, exactly, was offended? Our Prime Minister for being called ‘ridiculous’, ‘fascist’, and identified as a member of the privileged elite? For having the influence of his evangelical christian ideology on his leadership scrutinised? Was it the white Australians who would prefer not to have to think about the consequences of 200 years of colonialism for our Indigenous peoples, or about the endemic racism that runs in a strong current just under the surface of our “she’ll be right” Australian way of life? Or people who just get offended by the word “fuck”, particularly when it is uttered by a woman?   

I’m confused. No, just kidding. I have a fairly good idea of who was ‘offended’ by this episode of Q&A, and I can pretty much guarantee it wasn’t anyone who identifies as any of the following:

  1. Older or younger people who have suffered or are likely to suffer age discrimination
  2. Members of our Indigenous peoples
  3. Feminists
  4. Members of minority groups (note to Ashton Applewhite: women are not a minority group)
  5. Immigrants and refugees
  6. People living in aged care
  7. Women who have experienced or understand male violence
  8. Activists against governments who want to ignore climate change
  9. Activists against organisations who want to ignore the impacts of their actions on climate change
  10. Front line services who deal with the results of domestic abuse, discrimination and patriarchal violence

It seems that whoever was offended by this Q&A episode, and whatever it was that pressed their particular buttons, they couldn’t possibly have been representative of the majority of Australians. So why is the ABC treating this particular Q&A episode as if it is poisonous? (Psst…. I heard that 200 people complained. Seriously. 200. You see more than that on mildly confronting LinkedIn posts, and LinkedIn doesn’t go into meltdown over it even if sometimes they probably should). 

The conclusion I am left to draw is that what a small minority of people found offensive about this particular Q&A episode was that it contained women speaking their truth and criticising our political systems and some of those women were not white.  And the word fuck was used with great abandon. What does it say about Australia in 2019 that this is enough to prompt censorship, sabre rattling and doom-laden investigations? It says that what these women had to say was absolutely accurate. 

The problem of the “brilliant jerk” trope for diversity and inclusion

We hear it quite a lot these days – how companies are ceasing to be tolerant of the “brilliant jerk” – the human in a company who is too difficult to get along with.  They may be a bully, an harasser, a narcissist or suffer deeply from anxiety which they choose to express in unhelpful ways.  They often cause problems for their staff, colleagues, and higher ups.  Sometimes they cause problems for clients too.  Many do great work, are high revenue earners, highly creative or brilliant researchers.  Sometimes they don’t do much of note but are just considered unreasonable in the way they behave.

Their immediate manager doesn’t know how to deal with them, so they toss the ball to HR.  The HR partner tells them to behave better ‘or else’.  Maybe – depending on their perceived value to the organisation – they are sent on some training, are given some coaching or a mentor.  The company tries everything, but nothing works.  So eventually they performance manage the ‘brilliant jerk’ (BJ) out of the company.  And people make money writing books about how not to cope with the brilliant jerks.

There is no doubt that BJs can be found in most organisations, and there is also no doubt that they can make life very difficult indeed.   I’ve worked with my fair share of difficult people; at times I have been one.  Sometimes the only option available to an organisation is to terminate employment when the behaviour of an individual is repeatedly not consistent with the organisation’s values.  And sometimes they take that option because nobody is asking why or looking for a better solution, and everyone is worried about ending up in a court of law. 

The “brilliant jerk” trope poses a number of problems for the ethos and actuality of diversity and inclusion. 

First, labelling anybody as a “brilliant jerk” is instantly discriminatory.  It sets a person up to be perceived negatively and to be treated disrespectfully – it leaves no room for a different story to be heard.  It reminds me strongly of the “hysterical woman” label that was (and still is) given to any woman who, stifled and frustrated with society’s expectations of her, acted out and was labelled ‘crazy’ for her trouble.  Arwa Mahdawi put it succinctly: “The “crazy woman” has become a kneejerk way to put women in their place and remind them that, no matter what they achieve, they are inherently flawed.”  Labelling someone as a ‘brilliant jerk’ because they behave in challenging ways is no different – it also has become a kneejerk reaction to encountering someone who is difficult to deal with. 

Regardless of whether a person’s behaviour is really unacceptable, the “brilliant jerk” label is derogatory in tone and intent. 

This is not to say that consistently bad behaviour towards other people should be tolerated; it shouldn’t.  And I think there is a high likelihood that in some cases, a person may be labelled a BJ simply because they don’t fit.  Someone who has a different level of social skills or is trying really hard to cope with discriminatory practices or bad behaviour around them may be placed into the convenient bucket labelled “brilliant jerk”.  And that is problem number two for diversity and inclusion – if organisations are going to start enacting a zero tolerance policy for people they consider to be ‘brilliant jerks’, someone had better keep track of the demographic of the BJs. 

The third problem for diversity and inclusion in the BJ trope is that we are in danger of confusing ‘inclusion’ with ‘everybody must like and feel comfortable with everybody else’.  That social norm is how we got in this mess in the first place, because the people we like and feel most comfortable with are people just like us.  If we are going to do diversity and inclusion well, we need to get really comfortable with being around people who are not like us, who we may not actually like very much, and who we may never feel entirely comfortable with. 

Unless we start getting comfortable with our diversity discomfort, inclusion will remain out of reach.

The fourth problem of the BJ trope for diversity and inclusion is that it feeds the current trend of rewarding people for doing nothing more than being nice to other people.  I know this is an over-simplification, but I have a genuine concern that the people who now seem to get ahead most readily are those who just have really good interpersonal skills.  They make other people feel comfortable, and that makes them likeable, and that gets them rewarded.  Those who are not well-liked may not get rewarded for their otherwise excellent work. 

This is standard in-group/out-group stuff – people who do not fit the prevailing norm in a workplace or society are often disliked for their difference, and the narrative changes based on their likeability.  Their good interpersonal skills are reframed as creepy or self-interested.  A quiet demeanour is perceived as antisocial or arrogant, while a desire to do a good job is characterised as sucking up to the boss.  The same behaviours in a person who is part of the in-group, who is liked for their conformity to the norm, are given a positive spin – an excellent communicator, quiet and reflective, goes the extra mile to get the job done well.   

The thing is, there is a world of difference between someone who is not well liked and someone who is an active problem.  And in the diversity and inclusion space, not being well-liked is often synonymous with simply being different from the social norm.  If being liked and making other people feel comfortable is a key criterion for success in an organisation, anyone who is a bit different is going to face problems in that workplace. 

For diversity and inclusion to work well, we need to get past the need to like everyone we work with and we need to stop rewarding niceness as a particular asset in the workplace. 

By setting up a ‘brilliant jerk’ trope, and developing a mythology around it of the brilliant-but-unmanageable superhuman, we set up an environment where not being comfortable, likeable or nice is potentially a barrier to success. 

Perhaps a person who is very difficult at work is not suited to that workplace and should be moved on – people who behave unethically, immorally or illegally are clearly not the right fit for a workplace.  Aggression towards others, harassment and bullying are likewise not OK, and some of those behaviours can be managed and effectively negated.  But when deciding if someone is too difficult to manage effectively, we need to be sure that there is not another story going on behind someone’s apparently difficult behaviour before we label them as ‘the problem’.    

Why women compete on appearance

There was an article out yesterday (6 April 2019:  “Fat chicks shouldn’t wear Lycra”) about a woman who was trying to get fit by riding a bike and the street harassment she suffered because she was overweight. It’s just another example of the deeply embedded sexism in our society and the continuing lack of respect and value that many men give to women who fail to live up to their expectations of beauty and behaviour.
In a discussion about the article, a friend of mine commented that at her gym, women seem to be more concerned with how much weight they have lost and whether they look any better from the exercise they do, whereas the men seem to be there mainly to get healthy.  Women competing 3She went on to ask why women put themselves under so much pressure to look a certain way, and compete with each other on appearance – clothes, weight, makeup, meeting beauty standards.  She said she didn’t want to blame men for the problems women have with their appearance, which is what she thought I wanted to do, that it is a complex issue and she was concerned about the way this preoccupation with appearance affects children. So this is my response.
First, I don’t think blaming men is an answer to anything.  Holding men to account is a different issue altogether, and we should absolutely do that.  I don’t blame or hate men and I don’t want men to be damaged any more than I want women to be damaged. I do want men to step up and be accountable for changing the way they think about and behave towards women. 
Second, women’s preoccupation with appearance is definitely not a simple issue; it is a systemic problem that has become multifaceted over the centuries. If I blame anything, it’s the system that developed over those centuries which disadvantages both women and men in different ways, but primarily women. That system is changing, slowly, and it needs to keep changing.  That change needs to happen on a variety of levels, including the tendency for men to sexually objectify women (by, for example, assuming that the apparently unpleasing appearance of a fat woman wearing Lycra while riding a bicycle is a direct affront to their apparent entitlement to see only gorgeous women with tight bums riding bicycles, and to make their displeasure publically known).

Women competing 2Taking it as read that some men feel it is their right and duty to judge and comment on women’s appearance and rate them on physical characteristics to determine their sexual desirability, why is it that women compete with each other on appearance? Because for centuries, women had no recourse other than to find and catch men to marry them so they could be provided with the basics for survival and, if they were lucky, some luxuries as well. For a very large chunk of human history, women were perceived and treated as commodities – used to ensure inheritance passed down the family line by producing the required male heir; used to provide domestic labour, to produce the next generation and feed the menfolk. For a very long time, women (in most societies) could not own property, earn their own income, or even buy the necessities of life; they were almost totally reliant on men to provide the means for them to live.

Life tended to be difficult and short for women who remained unmarried, unless they were members of the upper classes for whom the rules were frequently bent. For other women, remaining unmarried usually meant aServitude 1 life of servitude – either as a servant, nanny, nurserymaid or governess to an upper class household, or to a relative’s family – caring for young children, frail elderly and invalids, and providing other domestic labour.  Despite all this free labour, women in these circumstances were generally considered to be burdens on their families and could be treated very badly.  If an unmarried woman was unfortunate enough to have no relatives to take her in, life was very bleak indeed. 

Unmarried women were also targets of suspicion as witches and the bringers of disaster – crop failings and livestock deaths were frequently blamed on the nearest unmarried woman who would often suffer awful consequences.  Single women were also not recognised in private law until well into the 20th Century as women’s legal rights were considered to be inextricably bound to their husbands’ (Dubler, A. 2003, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 4.2).

White wedding 4Marriage became essential to their survival, so women became adept at working the marriage market. And the primary attribute a woman needed to get the man she wanted was her appearance – big breasts, big hips, a nice face, good hair, good teeth…. much like a cattle market 🙂.  A father who could give the intended groom some money or possessions to make up for the fact he was getting this woman for life was an added advantage.  Then she needed some kind of ‘purity certificate’ – men were quite happy to badger unmarried women into having sex with them, but they only wanted to marry virgins. So women also became very adept at fending off men’s advances, and the poor unfortunates who were unsuccessful faced lives of penury and misery, being disowned by their families and relegated to the poor house or prostitution. 

Spinster 3Most women – understandably – wanted to get out of the circumstances they grew up in by finding and marrying men who could provide a nicer life. In order to do that, they needed to ramp up the competition with other women who were after the same thing. So women paid careful attention to their appearance, and learned to be pleasing to men so they could maximise their chances of getting married and avoiding the fate of the typical ‘spinster’ (a term coined to describe unmarried women who spun thread or wool for a living).
Physical fitness was less of an issue before the 20th century because people walked a lot more, did manual labour in the fields, rode horses and later bicycles and didn’t have domestic appliances, elevators or lifts. Food was also less accessible to many people who lived on the edge of hunger much of the time. While having an hourglass figure was considered ideal, thinness was not valued and being plump was seen as a sign of wealth and good health. That began to change in the Victorian era, when new fads around diet and exercise began to predominate, and these have morphed into today’s obsession with thinness.

Imposing beauty ideals on women to improve their chances of getting married while limiting their abilities to lead full, independent and respected lives without being married set the scene for women to compete with each other on appearance.  It made men’s approval the goal of so many women’s endeavours, and set men up to believe they had the right to be judge and jury on a woman’s appearance.  All of this led to the pervasive male sense of entitlement to women’s time, attention, and bodies which has become so embedded in our social fabric.  This relatively simple dynamic is a root cause of domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault in all its forms.

Women's emancipation 1If men over the centuries had been smart enough to realise what a great deal they were getting, instead of behaving as if being married to a woman was a terrible burden they had to bear; if they had placed greater value on the person and the partnership rather than on outward trappings of beauty; and if men en masse had respected, appreciated and valued the incredible contribution women made to their wellbeing, then we would probably never have needed suffragism or feminism.  We would have had a world in which women’s lives and work were equally valued alongside men’s. 

Instead, men were taught to treat women as property and not to value or respect us.  They were taught that women exist to please men and that there is no value in women who are not pleasing to men.  This gives rise to a lack of respect for women who are not pleasing to men and comments such as “Fat chicks shouldn’t wear Lycra!” are derivative of this lack of respect.  All of which led to the inevitable result that women finally said “Enough. We’re not doing this shit any more.  If we have to do what you men do in order to get out from under this tyranny, then that’s what we will do.” And the Women’s Emancipation Movement was born.  And so many men (and women) still don’t get it.