Shall we have womanly times, or shall we die? It’s almost 40 years since the novelist Ian McEwan asked the question, in the libretto for an early 1980s’ oratorio by Michael Berkeley; and frankly, it has always made me slightly uneasy; at the time when McEwan wrote those words, after all, Britain had a woman Prime Minister who was happy to outdo the men of her party when it came to aggression, and to disdain for the “wishy-washy” arts of compromise.
And yet, if ever we wanted proof that there is indeed something wrong with heavily patriarchal and male-dominated systems, then this week has provided some vivid examples of exactly what those problems might be. In New York, the former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of a criminal sex act, and of third degree rape, marking the legal conclusion – at least for now – of the case which triggered the global #metoo movement.
Here in Britain, meanwhile, we saw the continuing impact of the Cyril Smith sexual abuse scandal of the 1970s and 80s, which has now forced the former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel to resign from the party. Smith’s story – of systematic abuse of more than 140 alleged vulnerable victims in Rochdale – is a case study not only in how he used his status as mayor and then as MP to facilitate his abusive behaviour, but also in the degree to which the police, the government and his own party colluded in covering up for his behaviour, after he was first arrested and questioned in 1982.
Add this week’s shocking revelations about sexually abusive behaviour towards female volunteers and workers by Jean Vanier, the late revered founder of the charitable L’Arche organisation, and it’s difficult to avoid the sense of all-male or nearly-all-male cultures where abusive behaviour towards women, and sometimes even towards children, is encouraged or at least condoned. The Catholic Church is of course currently shaken to the core by allegations of abusive behaviour down the ages, and so are other religious institutions. The entertainment and media industry, from Hollywood and Fox News to subsidised theatre, is having to take a long, hard look at widespread attitudes and behaviour that it has tolerated for far too long. And in business and politics, accusation of bullying, some of it involving sexual abuse, have become rife, opening up the uncomfortable possibility that there’s hardly an achievement of our civilisation, from the most thrilling scientific discoveries to our most revered works of art, that may not have been tainted at some stage by the attitudes of those who assume that to “be a man” is to bully and dominate at all times, regardless of the damage done.
Nor, I think, can we ignore the subtle links between this culture and the other civilisational crises we now face. Essentially, this pattern of behaviour involves three dangerous features, which lead to bad governance and poor planning wherever they appear. The first is routine hypocrisy: the sense that it is normal to embrace one set of values – particularly “family values” – in public, while following quite different rules in private. Secondly, there is the assumption of impunity on which such behaviour proceeds. This was clearly the case for Cyril Smith, among legions of others; and it sets a standard of conduct that makes a mockery of the very idea of justice, and draws whole organisations into subtle complicity with practices which undermine it.
And then finally, there is the intrinsically destructive quality of such behaviour; its link to a juvenile idea of masculinity in which men are taught or encouraged to base their masculine identity on the humiliation of others, and on constant experiences of dominance, often involving destructive abuse of those being dominated. The short-termism of this kind of thinking, and its addiction to the cheap thrill of transient “victory”, has been blamed for everything from the financial crisis of 2008 to the rape of the Amazon rainforest; and not, as surveys of corporate behaviour have shown, without good reason.
For all the insights we have gained in recent years, the question of whether we shall have what Ian McEwan called more “womanly times” of course remains an open one. For every step forward in securing a greater role for women in public life and decision-making, there seems to be an equal and opposite backlash; just check out the language used by Donald Trump, both in his private “locker room” moments and in some of his public pronouncements, or consider the avalanches of vicious and often highly sexualised online abuse suffered by women everywhere in politics and public life.
And yet, there is a sense of real change in the wind, that may finally prove irreversible. This week, the media have been full of images of a historic meeting in Oxford between 17-year old climate-change champion Greta Thunberg, and youngest-ever Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai, now 22. Some of the captions suggested that these two young women somehow hold our future in their hands; surely too cruel a burden for anyone to bear, never mind anyone so young.
Yet in their steady indifference to the bluster and bullying of the wealthy and corrupt old men who surround macho leaders across the world, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai do perhaps signal a new and clear-eyed strand of global politics, which grasps that there is no more time for ego-driven lies and nonsense, evasion and delay. For the men who flatter themselves daily that they can get away with this or do that with impunity, so great is their influence on those around them, the business of power is essentially a game, which they play to win.
It is just possible, though, that we are beginning to see a new generation of leaders, many of them women, who fully realise that power for its own sake is meaningless; and that unless we learn once again to use it seriously, as an instrument to set our world on a more sustainable and ethical path, then our future will be both grim and brutal, and the best of our civilisation swept away, along with those who surely represent the worst.