When the time is right, I’d like to hear Doug Beattie communicate what he’s learned…

What a fortnight it’s been for men in the public eye. Everyone is apparently very sorry. The Prime Minister is sorry for the parties. Damon Albarn is sorry he dared to slight the Princess of Pop, Taylor Swift. And Doug Beattie is sorry for his Tweets. All of them. All the ones we’ve seen and probably a few we’ve not, judging by the sheer volume.

It has been painful to observe Doug’s catastrophic fall from grace as a woman from a Protestant background and as a feminist who had been relieved to see him championing issues like women’s political representation and reproductive rights from a Unionist standpoint. I’ve backed him in recent months, not as my leader, my party political home is in the Green Party, but as a leader that I was happy to see in the mix. Other women have put more on the line, crossing trickier party allegiances to promote his work or signing up to become UUP reps and candidates at a time when the party needed them more than they needed it. A sexist joke on a Saturday night had a lot riding on it. The subsequent deluge of unearthed bits of rotten fruit from down the back of his Twitter sofa would have hit many of those women very hard.

As I observed these misogynist, racist and ableist tidbits*, served up on Twitter primarily by other white men, I wasn’t offended. There is very little that offends me. I find the whole concept of offence absurd, living in a grotesquely unequal world where children’s bodies wash up on beaches in the name of borders and 25,000 people die of hunger every day. A few ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes don’t even register on my offence Richter scale.

So the feminist backlash to public displays of misogyny are rarely about offence, no matter how much the ‘some people just love being offended’ brigade consistently misunderstand it. The real issue is harm. Offence is subjective, harm is largely objective. It can be modeled, measured and evaluated and when it comes to misogyny the results have been in for some decades now: casual sexism and misogyny sustained through humour that relies on stereotypical ideas about women’s roles or that demeans women on the basis of our sexuality, harms women. You don’t have to be offended by the jokes for that to be objectively true. So those of us who’ve taken the time to read the studies and go to the conferences and listen to the stories and understand the root causes of our own oppression will continue to challenge this behaviour. Visual aids like the pyramid of sexual violence have helped communicate this system of harm to a wider audience and have gone some way to explaining it.

The men who would physically abuse a woman might be a minority but their attitude of entitlement, superiority or disrespect for our humanity is born of a culture that subtly communicates these values through wee jokes. Men who think they can distance themselves from the ones that burn us while they keep stoking the fire need to wise up.

When someone like Doug Beattie is exposed as having engaged in fire stoking what I need to hear from him is not that he’s sorry but that he understands the harm. I looked for it in his follow up tweets, listened for it in his radio interviews, and while he sailed close to such an acknowledgement a few times, it wasn’t quite hitting the mark. And then I wondered if I was waiting to hear him say something that no one had ever told him. Yes he’s a party leader and elected representative who has hitched his wagon to progressive movements and could rightly have been expected to do his research. But he hasn’t walked the same political path as most, neither groomed for public office since his school days like some who probably think much less of women but know better than to let it show, nor steeped in grassroots activism that opens your eyes to the structural and systemic nature of social issues and inequalities. It might be that he’d found himself in a situation that he just didn’t have the language for, peering over the edge of a gap in his knowledge.

And so I decided to ask him if he wanted to talk.

I’m pleased to say that he accepted and we had an open and direct conversation, the content of which isn’t for public consumption. It felt like I was engaging with someone who wanted to listen and learn and is ready to do the hard work of becoming a man that has relinquished his shares in the misogyny he used to trade in.

It might be a surprise to some that this is what feminists do. You might think we want heads on platters, punishment rather than learning and second chances. But social media skews what social justice movements are, just as Doug implored us that it skewed the man he really is.

You’ll see us putting out statements calling for accountability for misogynist behaviour from sporting role models. What you won’t see are the constructive meetings in board rooms of places like the Irish Football Association, or the anti-sexual harassment training we deliver in clubs like Cliftonville and Glentoran. Those activities are often quiet because the organisations involved want to be genuine in their engagement, not there for optics or photo ops. And rightly so. But maybe we should talk about it more so that other men who know they need to learn, to understand and do better would feel more confident to reach out and admit they could do with some help.

Veteran feminist and anti-racist campaigner, organiser and scholar Loretta Ross is a hero of mine. At the age of 68 she is still guiding younger activists with the wisdom she has accumulated over years of working for a better world based on the pursuit of human rights and dignity for all people. Her forthcoming book entitled ‘Calling in the Call Out Culture’ urges us to think differently about how we work together in social movements where nobody is perfect. She talks about how we should deal with ‘problematic allies’ if our primary concern is genuinely changing things for the better, not bolstering our own sense of rightness. In a recent interview, she discussed her work in the context of Desmond Tutu’s philosophy of ubuntu and its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all people in communities. She says,

‘…when a harm is done in a community-run by ubuntu principles you hold the harm-doer accountable by both appreciating what they did well and how they served the community and then addressing what they did that harmed the community. You don’t flatten the person down to the worst thing they’ve done and then dispose of them.’

Ross’s teaching on this comes from the context of her lived experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse, as well as her anti-racism education work with violent neo-nazis through the anti-hate group Center for Democratic Renewal. She is preaching what she has practiced. But her advice does not come without important caveats. This approach is not an excuse to allow abusers to operate in our communities with impunity. Nor is it the responsibility of everyone who has experienced harm to educate those who cause it; safety and healing must always take priority. And some people will still need called out, particularly those in positions of power who put that power at the service of oppressive systems.

Ross implores us to understand that it’s not rocket science; calling in is largely the same as calling out but done with love and respect for the harm-doer’s humanity. She believes that love is a more powerful catalyst for change than shame can ever be. Ross is a product of the Black feminist movement she has helped to shape and her work resonates with ideas of radical love espoused by bell hooks, another revolutionary Black feminist who said ‘For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrong-doing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?’

Underpinning this hope for the possibility of transformation is a belief that people are not simply good or bad. Rather, every good and bad choice we’ve ever made has been in the context of the social, political and cultural conditions within which we live. Everyone engages with those conditions differently of course, but to pretend they don’t exist and that each individual lives and dies by cold, detached personal responsibility alone is not an accurate reflection of the human experience. The more I immerse myself in this type of thinking, the more I see in the flailing desperation of sexist jokes or comments a jumble of insecurity, the need to belong, perhaps a little deflected self-loathing. The toxic masculinity we feminists talk about is primarily a threat to women’s equality and safety but it is suffocating men too.

When the time is right, I’d like to hear Doug Beattie communicate what he’s learned and as part of that I hope he can reflect on the context that made him think the way he did in the past, that he clearly has not yet fully engaged with. He has an opportunity here not just to rebuild trust with women, but to enable a healthy conversation among men about the reasons behind such reductive ways of talking about women. It would be even more powerful if he can reflect on the culture he was part of in the armed forces as an honest appraisal of the misogyny in such institutions is long overdue. Just as the love-motivated calling in requires effort and energy and genuine investment in the personal growth of another person, the learning requires effort and energy and above all a willingness to be humble and vulnerable, something I believe that Doug is embracing.

Incidentally, I had a similar conversation on the same day with my friend and party colleague Brian Smyth after a few of his own misadventures on Twitter was thrown into the mix by a particularly hardworking Nolan research team. Like Doug, he too has not come to politics oven-ready and for as long as I’ve known him has described his story as one of ongoing transformation. His tweet acknowledging his own past failings highlighted he understands the role of the patriarchal culture that has shaped him and demonstrated the humility and vulnerability necessary to be part of building something better. Maybe I’m biased, but of all the apologies in recent weeks, ‘sorry for being a dick’ is definitely my favourite.

*I am writing about my experience of the misogyny expressed in Doug Beattie’s tweets. I am in no position to make any comment on the impact of the racism and ableism as I’m not directly affected by these harmful remarks. It would be important to centre the voices of Travellers, Muslims and disabled folks in any discussion of those tweets.

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