Once upon a time, I had a father-in-law. He was an alright guy, mostly, when he was sober. When he was drunk, however, he had a need to lecture all bystanders on important and urgent subjects. Like “The problem with women these days”, or “Those f***ing immigrants”, or “Why homosexual/ disabled/ retarded people should be put down”, or “How mental illness is not real and the problem is parents can’t beat their children anymore”. The last time I went out with him, for a family function, halfway through the meal he decided to lecture the waiters on “How it would have been better if Hitler had won the war”; because, yannow, “people like them (i.e., non-white) wouldn’t have been able to take over our country.”
I didn’t eat dessert that night, because I’m trying to cut down on the spit I consume. I apologised to the serving staff. However, I didn’t stand up to him. None of us did. We did anything but. We pretended he hadn’t said anything outrageous; we tried to distract and derail him; we fluttered our hands in the air to wave his words away; we tipped more than usual in a pathetic attempt to make up for the offence. But not one of us stood up to him.
We had good reasons not to say anything – or, rather, we gave ourselves good excuses not to say anything. What is the point. He doesn’t really mean it. He’s just old-fashioned. Set in his ways. You’re not gonna change his mind. He’s a good guy, really, when he’s not, errr, verbally abusing people. And yes, if you’re talking about a sad, drunk, elderly man with no pulpit other than what alcohol and other people’s politeness afford him, maybe that’s OK-ish. Maybe it was OK to just let it slide, because his words had no real impact to affect the world around him. They could offend people, but they couldn’t affect reality.
What I realised last week is that I’ve been applying the same criteria in other settings. In particular, I’ve been operating in the same mode when listening to some self-defence instructors talk about women and women’s issues. I’ve been pretending I didn’t hear certain statements; actually avoided some forums so I couldn’t see how discussions degenerated; and generally excused this kind of behaviour as the old-fashioned, misguided but not malignant, empty talk of people whose opinions are too fixed to be worth addressing.
I’ve been treating established self-defence instructors as if they were harmless random people lecturing the only bartender who didn’t walk away quickly enough and a couple of empty chairs. The problem is that that’s just not the case. The words of self-defence instructors carry. They have a weight. Not only they affect the people who hear them directly, but they can shape the culture of our “tribe.” They can affect the world outside it, too.
There’s more to it than just the weight of authorities, although that’d be plenty. Self-defence audiences contain a disproportionate number of two types of people: young men looking for guidance on “how to be real men,” and women looking for the permission, as well as the ability, to self-defend. Certain words coming from the wrong mouths can make young men think that it’s acceptable, or even desirable, to treat women a certain way. The same words can make women think that, because it’s just the way of the world, it would be futile or even wrong to object to it.
It’s easy to give instructors a pass because “they don’t really mean it”. It’s easy to say that when someone starts riffing on stuff like “don’t stick your dick in crazy” and the discussion degenerates into “fucking crazy chicks is hot, just make sure they never know where you live, har har har” it’s all just banter, not intended to be taken seriously. They don’t really mean to teach young men that it’s OK to objectify and exploit vulnerable women. They don’t really mean to tell women recovering from exploitative relationships that what happened to them was OK. They don’t mean to; but they do.
When instructors compare chasing Pokemon to chasing pussy, they’re normalising the objectification of women. When they dismiss women’s accounts of their own experiences and lecture them on how their lives really have gone down, they’re reinforcing the belief that women’s opinions can be discounted. When they’re tolerating rape jokes… as the saying goes, “the problem with rape jokes is that the rapists don’t know that you’re joking.” That kind of comment may be amusing to some, but coming from the lips of those in authority it’s unhelpful and unwholesome; it’s also ubiquitous, and it’s been shoved in the faces of people who could be seriously influenced by it. And every time I’ve seen that kind of thing, instead of addressing it I’ve pretended I was too busy shampooing the cat to say anything. I’ve pretended that it didn’t really matter.
I’d forgotten what a fine line there is between wilfully ignoring something and condoning it; between condoning it and enabling it; and between enabling it and allowing innocent people to go through it, and perhaps be hurt by it. And, although I have no idea whatsoever how to begin to fix this, the thought of not trying, to continue my collusion-by-inaction with this type of behaviour, is utterly repulsive.