Last week, I took part in a radio phone-in about the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I felt confident in doing so because, prior to the live discussion, I had what felt like a very valuable conversation with a female producer in which I was asked to comment on Emma Thompson’s remarks that there was a “crisis in masculinity”.
I said that I agreed with Thompson and that her perspective was not an attack on all men or maleness, but simply an observation about a certain configuration of male behaviours which is often referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’.
The whole angle on the story that day seemed to miss the point. Rather than devote time to discussing abusive male behaviour, the cultural forces that permit or enable it and the sense of entitlement or impunity in which it is arguably rooted, the conversation was, seemingly, focused on testing the veracity of Emma Thompson’s comments.
In fact, at one point, I was abruptly cut off by the presenter while talking about Harvey Weinstein and directed back to discussing Thompson because he “didn’t want to give him any more airtime”. Within minutes, the discussion about an allegedly serially abusive man was inverted into a debate about whether one of the women who commented on the abuse was right or wrong.
Personally, when confronted by Thompson’s ‘crisis of masculinity’ comments my first instinct was not to ask, ‘Do I agree with her?’ but to immediately become willing to consider whatever she had to say – whether I agreed or not. She appears to be a person of great depth, wit and intelligence, not to mention considerably experienced as a woman working in Hollywood.
Considering this, what reason had I to doubt her?
Back on the phones, where I was one of three men discussing the issue of sexual violence against women, I began to feel overwhelmed with regret that I had agreed to take part at all. This feeling was reinforced by a text message, sent in by a male listener, claiming that unsolicited sexual advances were inevitable because “powerful men will always desire beautiful women”.
Within 15 minutes the phone-in had descended into a regaling of rose-tinted anecdotes that were worryingly detached from the question at hand: why do so many men rape so many women and think they can get away with it?
Then it occurred to me that part of my agitation and discomfort was not simply at the absurdity of this discussion in which I’d become entangled, but also the fact that my own past was littered with many embarrassing, cringeworthy examples of similarly obtuse moral confusion.
Just like the presenter, who truly believed he was doing women a good service by not giving Weinstein any airtime, I too, full of good intentions, have directed the flow of conversation on matters of gender in such a way as to undermine both their complexity and seriousness.
Then, when challenged, found myself doubling-down on my ignorance and seeking refuge in a circus-tent full of like-minded people who knew as little as I. Truth be told, we’ve all been there.
From time to time, we all speak with unjustified surety from blind spots that we loathe having pointed out. Worse still, we can find ourselves stubbornly retaining a view for reasons as trivial as feeling irritated by the people challenging us.
Rather than go the extra mile and look beyond our own immediate feelings of scepticism or frustration, to the moral interior of a contentious perspective or challenge, we can dismiss it off-hand; curating a comforting, agreeable reality on the walls of our shrinking algorithms, where reasoning is often motivated, not by a search for truth or understanding, but by a need to discredit an enemy.
Rather than become (at the very least) willing to understand the reasoning behind a contentious statement – which is what many seemed to think Thompson’s uncontroversial observation was – we often engage debate only for the chance to advance our own worldview – and rebuke someone else’s. In such conditions of escalating acrimony, events like the Weinstein scandal quickly become proxies to settle broader long-standing grievances, where the pain of other human beings is, to an extent, appropriated to advance a self-serving argument in which we’ve become personally invested.
I wonder how many people decided Emma Thompson was wrong, based on a vague moral intuition or prior resentment about something else, and not because they’d given sufficient time to her sensible position.
Back on the phone-in, a man proudly revealed he believed masculinity was about giving a woman a seat on a bus and that “feminists fall suspiciously silent when it comes to hardcore porn”. The implication being: men rape because of porn and porn exists because of feminism. I cringed at him – and my younger self.
Then, having hung up on a conversation dominated by a bunch of guys who didn’t know what they were talking about, the truth suddenly hit me: I was one of these men.
Or, at least, I had been in the past. In fact, I’d wager that I was contacted precisely because producers assumed I would be coming from a similarly ignorant place as the half-wits they pitted me against.
The fact I agreed with Emma Thompson was, in hindsight, a surprise to them. The fact I believed there was a crisis in masculinity and that we, as men, must be more robust in challenging ourselves and each other in how we think, speak and behave with respect to women, had taken them aback.
And in that rather nauseating moment of self-awareness I was forced to consider, as a man, what dim light I must have been emitting on these matters, to be approached for comment in the first place.