Monday 23 May 2022

From gender to politics, we need to start searching for that common ground

This article first appeared in Malta Today

If you follow international news, discussion programmes or even comedy shows from other countries at all, you will get what I about to say immediately.

We are more alike than we are different, irrespective of race or ethnicity.  In many countries, the divisive chasm being caused by political and ideological differences as well as the inability to understand one another across the gender divide, is something which I feel is a common element in human nature.  It seems to be a running theme, no matter what I am watching. 

It was for this reason that I found myself nodding in agreement when watching comedian Sarah Silverman being interviewed about her new show I love you, America.  She fuses her inimitable blend of satire with silly comedy in order to convey some home truths about the country, now divided more than it has ever been, thanks to the Trump era.  It may sound very naive, but Sarah wants to bring the country together by drawing on what unites Americans and by urging for more compassion – although she does not hold back from her pointed barbs either. She says that she even tries to find something to love in Trump, but firmly believes that his behaviour is a result of something terrible which happened to him at the age of 8, which stunted his growth.  It’s funny and yet (scarily) very close to the probable truth. 

What immediately stood out for me in her interview, however was this quote:  “People’s minds aren’t changed by telling them, this fact, and this fact, and this fact (spoken in an aggressive, angry tone). That just makes your porcupine needles go up and people end up clinging to what they believe in, even more so. Facts, poll numbers, none of those things change our minds. What changes are minds are feelings…I would rather bond with someone over the fact that we both love The Walking Dead. We do have things in common, all of us, because as soon as we see people as not people, we can do terrible things to them. I see it happening a lot and we have to recognize it in ourselves too when we keep saying ‘they’, ‘they’, ‘they’.”

Now I know that comes across as the typical stereotype: the ‘gullible American’ way of looking at the world’s problems. And yet in its intrinsic simplicity, she has hit the nail on the head.  Rather than talking to like-minded people, she is making it a point to interact with ‘unlike-minded’ people instead. 

Think of all the issues we cannot agree on (pick a card, any card, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is plenty to choose from), and then listen to yourself speak to see how many times you use the word ‘they’.  There, you see, it happens quite a lot, huh?  It is this inability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to empathize even just a little bit which is just creating more aggro, more hatred, more spite.  And where has that got us, really? From where I’m standing it’s either taken us back to square one, or else so far removed from each other’s perspectives that it is like everyone is inhabiting their own tiny little castles, pulling up their moats, and ensuring the ‘enemy’ has no chance of getting in.  It’s the equivalent of a defiant child clamping her hands over her ears and shouting, “La, La, La, I can’t hear you” when her parents tell her to do something. 

The same thing happened (yet again) this week when news was published that catcalling someone in the streets is liable to a fine of up to 10k Euro and between a six month to a two year jail sentence. This is not a new law by the way, but merely a more rigid application of the current sexual harassment legislation under the Gender-Based Domestic Violence Act. It was one of those news stories which immediately divided the Internet, and in my view caused a great deal of harm to those advocating for justice in real sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and assault/rape cases, because the penalty is so out of proportion compared with the sentences which have been handed down in more grievous cases.  

Maybe it was because the news portal in question chose to single out a particularly innocuous phrase “hawn Lilly” (Hi Lilly) – a flirtatious salutation made popular by some comic or other, which is used by men when a woman passes by.   Or else, “hawn ġisem”, loosely translated as “what a body”. Women reading this will all know that being called Lilly is the least of our problems – we have been taunted by much, much worse phrases, including unsolicited descriptions of our anatomy and graphic sexual suggestions, while simply walking down the street and having the misfortune to pass by a construction site or any gaggle of men with nothing much to do. Or  sometimes it is just some lonely, creepy pervert who has crawled out of his hole.

But, inevitably, since the headline referred to “hawn, Lilly”, FB was replete with men laughing their heads off about the whole thing, ruefully wishing that women would call out “hawn ġisem” to them and further trivializing what is essentially a very important issue.  My own reaction was one of exasperated annoyance because equating something like catcalling with very real sexual harassment or worse, is simply missing the wood for the trees.

Verbal harassment with sexual overtones in the streets exists, of course it does. Some Maltese men still feel it is their ‘right’ to pass comments about women as they pass by – an outdated, macho habit which can also be found in other parts of the Mediterranean.  Even as young girls, growing up in this kind of culture, we learn to cross the road, avoid eye contact, and generally brace ourselves for the barrage of comments while mentally preparing to get into self-preservation mode to deflect this kind of unwelcome attention. But why should we have to do all this in the first place? Why can’t a girl or woman feel safe in the knowledge that she is not going to be verbally harassed? It can be demeaning, humiliating and highly embarrassing to be at the receiving end of such comments. As we get older, however, we learn to either take it in our stride and brush it off, or turn the tables and hit back with comments of our own – a tactic I have found to work very well because it is very often unexpected.   Men who verbally harass get some kind of kick at seeing you flush and squirm with embarrassment, so by saying something back, it defuses their power trip.  I find that reminding them that they have wives and daughters usually shuts them up.  This is much the same way that vulgar remarks and inappropriate ‘jokes’ at the workplace need to be nipped in the bud, by reminding the men that they have wives/girlfriends and daughters who work, and do they want some man talking like that to her? 

What really jarred with this catcalling story is that we have seen too many examples lately of violent assault, rape and even domestic violence which leads to murder, resulting in what is (in comparison) a mild slap on the wrist.  And while verbal harassment should be discouraged because let’s face it, we have evolved from being primitive cavemen and women who grunt their desires to one another, it really would be best to keep these gender issues in their proper perspective.  From the reaction to this story, it is clear that male/female relationships are not going to be improved, but we are simply digging ourselves deeper into our respective trenches.  

Men need to put themselves into the shoes of a woman, kind of like Dustin Hoffman did when he donned a skirt and wig for Tootsie, to comprehend just how off-putting it is when you cannot go about your business without men yelling their opinions of your body in public.   And women need to realise that an OTT reaction over anything gender-related is not going to get us anywhere unless we are willing to listen to men’s points of view as well. 

As Sarah Silverman suggested, let’s stop pointing our fingers and constantly saying ‘they, they, they’, but try and at least find some common ground. 


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