In the past few days, the most recent decision by five people, in the USA, to cancel the right to abortion of 40 million women has raised heated debates and criticism. As it often happens, cultured people, artists, have spontaneously gathered in pointing their fingers against this decision which puts – dangerously – women in danger. Danger not to be able to decide for themselves, danger to have to give up their health – in what is, sadly, the same old story. The discussion around women and their rights is something that never sleeps nor goes on holydays. It fills in the gaps, it fills in the blanks.
Some days ago, I have read in a newspaper a declaration by the art director Oliver Stone, whose basic idea was: after “me too”, when you go out with a woman it is better to go together with two other persons (to avoid any possible accusation of abuse by that woman, that was the sense of this speech). My first reaction was that of being irritated although, as a European woman, I am aware that I am probably overlooking the American proportions of the “me too” story and the interferences in men’s lives (I tend to think that in America everything is bigger than here, from food to streets and distances). Yet Stone’s words sound stupid, flatly stupid. They sound as if there was an ongoing war between, on the one hand, women willing to report every single abuse – verbal, physical – and to side amongst “the good ones”, and on the other, victim-men, falsely accused of every evil in the world and continuously, tenuously under attack. As if any kind of dialogue among two disagreeing parts was not even possible; as if expressing one’s own disagreement had become the equivalent of an accusation that cannot but be solved in a court. Since when has talking or expressing disagreement become something to condemn?
These are the questions I asked myself, for lately I have felt myself almost guilty for having expressed loud disagreement on words. I have told a colleague of mine that the words he has addressed me with when we were examining together were not funny and utterly inappropriate. He has told me, in front a student who had just done a poor performance, that it was my fault if she had failed, that my explanations in class had not been good enough. Sure, he was joking. The problem is … well no, plural, there are many problems. Here are a few: I work twice as much as him, who dislikes teaching and dislikes students. I prepare my courses thoroughly because I enjoy it, I prepare the students for the exams trying to do my best, because I think it is my job. Of course, none of us is infallible, but at least trying to do our best is something we can do. Oh, I was forgetting I also do his consultation hours, for he does not reply to the messages of his students. Since word has gotten around that I reply to emails and that I care for their preparation, students started asking me more and more for meeting and discussing. So, these were part of my reasons to be mad at my colleague. I literally saw red when he was joking. Oh, I was forgetting I hardly imagine him doing the same joke with another male colleague. I am younger than him, and a woman: as an ex of mine (wondering why it is an ex? Here is why) told me, once when I was complaining about this colleague to him, that “it is normal that he looks down on you, you are a female colleague, and younger, that can be irritating.” (Understood why?)
No, certain things are not normal. Not because we are part of the “cultured people”, and therefore good. Culture is neither synonymous nor exchangeable with moral, or ethical behavior. Not necessarily. De Sade wrote books that are hard to read, yet they are books. Certain philosophical doctrines – just think about Augustine, the scariest face of God and predestination – are more than controversial – almost built up against ethics.
But certain behaviors are not normal, because they come with the assumption that it is normal to look down on someone because of her or his belonging to a gender, an orientation, a group she or he just belongs to by nature. There is nothing to say, no doubt, about the fact that I am younger and a woman. But this does not make a target of me. I am not by nature irritating anyone. I have the same right as him to have students that fail (of course!). Nor would I ever make any such jokes about a colleague in front of a student. Does this mean I am good? Particularly good?
Not even for a second. When I am at work, I focus on what I am doing, and that’s it.
Well, what has happened next is that tired of years of similar (but never that irritating) verbal normal mistreatments by this senior male colleague, I have reported this story to head of my department. Because I think that such behavior and tone compromise the quality of our work and pollute the air we all breathe (including students). I found that joke unprofessional and misplaced and did want a more authoritative voice than mine to take a stand against it. I have found but support and sincere solidarity. Not because we are good; we are human beings who struggle each day to do our best – and we can fail. Yet I have felt guilty for this. So guilty to have talked. Am I exaggerating? Am I going to be perceived as a hysterical woman? These were my doubts. Eventually, I already had replied to him, loud and clear – that his joke was not funny and misplaced.
I have concluded that this sense of guilt is the “men’s look”, the so-called male gaze I was raised with – as a daughter, as a student, as a girlfriend, as a colleague. Education is a powerful tool, the most powerful of voices – just like it is hard to forget how to bike, it is equally hard to forget the voices of our childhood. I am not going to give examples, each of us has way too many, I am sure. The problem is to get rid of such voices and to become able to hear one’s own. The voice that tells you: I might be perceived as hysterical, and so what? Surely there is someone who also thinks I am no good, or stupid, or whatever. What is not normal, is to leave the ground to people who decide for us who we are, and how we should be treated. Even among us, the “cultured people”.