Saturday, November 11, 2017

Both sides now

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

A sure-fire way to get me riled up is to say, in relation to Israel and Palestine "well, both sides have behaved in pretty vile ways" or something to that effect. I'll almost certainly come back at you with information about the power gap between Israel and Palestine, the statistics on the disproportionate numbers of casualties on the Palestinian side, and how it couldn't be much further removed from a school-yard quarrel if it tried. Yet, this flawed assumption of two equal sides is prevalent in so many contexts where injustice exists.

The ABC's recent Q&A program that focussed on the marriage equality postal survey also upset me for the same reason. The program found equal numbers of yes and no proponents for the panel and gave equal voice time to all panelists. Yet, this is not a balanced debate. Those opposed to legislative change have benefited from a system that recognises their circumstances as valid and provides them with their rights to religious and secular union. Magda Zebanski, on the other hand, was the only actual representative of the LGBTIQ community on the panel. She alone represented a minority group of people who make up only 10% of the population, and who have been regularly harassed, abused, discriminated against and dehumanised for centuries, and who are now forced to beg and plead for equal rights. 

In the #metoo movement, where countless women have shared stories of sexual abuse and harassment in their lives, the power gap issue raises its ugly head yet again. Men who were high up in business, or politics, or in the entertainment industry knew that there were career incentives pushing young women to say yes despite misgivings and career consequences for those brave enough to say no. But the global movement of everyday women speaking up about sexual misconduct and abuse demonstrates that it's not just those men with obvious power and influence who are the culprits. It's also everyday men - our colleagues, our friends, and our family members.

While not all men act to abuse and denigrate women, all cis-gendered men hold the privileged position of living within a society that does not treat women and men as equals. Our society teaches men that they are entitled to speak on any topic and be listened to, that they can expect to progress easily in their chosen career and that they should go after anything in life that they want. Women, on the other hand, have been socialised to be grateful for the opportunity to speak on a subject we know a fair bit about, to work hard if we wish to succeed, and to believe that others' needs must be placed ahead of our own. Our patriarchal society is the perfect breeding ground for abuse in intimate relations.

Like just about every woman, I can think of a few situations of my own where a friend or colleague ignored the boundaries I had set and behaved inappropriately. In each case, it took me an incredibly long time to name and acknowledge and speak about what had happened, most likely because I'd been socialised to blame and doubt myself and to feel ashamed that I'd let it happen to me in the first place. I also spent a significant amount of time worrying about how he would feel if I stood up for myself and held him accountable for his behaviour. Eventually, in a recent case, I did speak up, and the man admitted his wrongdoing and apologised.

Yet, as was the experience for others publicly sharing their similar stories, those who offered me the most valuable support were other women. The responses I tended to receive from men involved a fair amount of discomfort, denial, and dismissal. I found I came away more doubtful and ashamed than before. When the perpetrator and I were described as both nice people who just needed to learn to get along better, I felt similarly to Desmond Tutu's proverbial mouse.

One of the down-sides to being raised a Quaker is always being encouraged to consider the other's point of view. Quakers have taken up the role of mediator in many international and interpersonal disputes, a role which inevitably involves seeing "both sides" of a conflict. But what does taking a neutral, peacemaking role in situations of injustice mean for those who are oppressed? A fellow Quaker recently posted on facebook her concern that we've misunderstood our commitment to see "that of God" in everyone. She believes that we are not being asked to overlook transgressions or only look for the good. Perhaps, she argues, we are called to view that of God within each person as their conscience, and seek to shine a light on that conscience when the other person has done wrong. We all have the capacity to recognise the harm we have caused others and set out to remedy it, but it's less likely to happen if that harmful behaviour is repeatedly condoned, minimised, excused or ignored. 

I think there's an important role for observers of injustice, whether in situations of sexual harassment and abuse, discrimination towards vulnerable people or military control exercised by powerful Governments. We all need to move past the discomfort of holding others to account. So, I will continue to model speaking out about injustice in all its forms.  I will also continue to set boundaries and more confidently challenge those who try to push past those boundaries. It's a journey, and I'm not always pleased with how I respond, but I do seem to get better with practise.

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