A self-reflection exercise

I’ve been thinking about the recent surge of awareness of harassment, and wondering if I’ve been as flawed as the people being accused. There’s been a bit of introspection going on here.

And my conclusion is no, I’ve not taken advantage of women…or anyone, for that matter. I’ve never casually fondled anyone, I’ve never tried to pressure anyone into sex, I’ve never threatened anyone into serving my whims, I’ve sure as hell never raped anyone. I’m not saying this to pretend to be some paragon — I think I’m pretty ordinary, and I suspect most guys consider respect for others’ autonomy to be the norm. But I also say this as someone who was born in the 1950s, so forget that bogus “oh, that’s just the way we were back then” excuse. I’ll also point out that, for example, when Roy Moore was haunting the Gadsden Mall, most people seemed to think that 30 year olds trying to pick up teenagers was awfully skeevy.

The common, petty failing was not participating in such behavior, but looking the other way. There was too much deference to male authority, which was given by default, and preserved an imbalance of power. We didn’t do the kinds of things these horrible people have done, but we were at worst made uncomfortable about them, and our only action was to avoid confronting those people. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t confront the harasser, and don’t meet the eyes of the woman who is being mistreated.

I remember my sins of omission. I was in the locker room when the high school jocks were bragging about the things they did to their girlfriends and casual hookups, and I just got dressed and left as quickly as I could. But I knew the people they were talking about, and I liked them as people, and I did not defend them. So that talk flourished.

I’ve been oblivious. There have been several occasions where I blithely suggest that my wife just do some particular thing, and she looks at me like I’m insane, and explains that I can’t possibly expect her to walk alone in that dark parking garage late at night. There are many behaviors I take for granted as normal and safe that are exercises in reasonable fear for women. That’s a lack of empathy, an ongoing insensitivity that hinders my ability to see how the world works for others.

I’ve been cavalier about some situations — I’ve been light-hearted and tried to be amusing about common sexual situations that, for men, are just opportunities for fun, but for women, are opportunities to be harmed. It’s taken too long for me to realize that that little chuckle wasn’t about my nice joke, but more an attempt to defuse a situation, or to conceal what they were really thinking, which was “what an ass.” I can at least say that I’ve been getting better — I’m sure 20 year old me was even worse — and that I’m aware that I can be better still.

I think, though, that the biggest sign of progress and the best hope we have is that increasingly we are acknowledging that it’s not enough to not do bad things, we also have to openly oppose others who do bad things. We also have to listen when we are criticized.


  1. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says

    I learned what I was capable of doing early on in life. Way too early. And I have not repeated it.

    At the same time, yeah. I was silent too many times. I was silent when boys made jokes about the girls. I was silent when men made jokes about women and girls. I was silent when boys joked about using veterinary tranquilizers on their dates. I envied the boys in high school who got lots of sex (they didn’t take no for an answer (they didn’t call it what it was — rape) and I thought that was normal).

    I’ve changed. I speak up when I can. Sometimes I’m too weak to speak up. So I still fail.

    From my perspective (cis hetero middle aged male) things have gotten better. Fewer (not zero) misogynist and sexist jokes in my office. Others, not just me, speaking up about inappropriate jokes and comments. It still ain’t enough, but it is changing.

    I wish I could do more. But, well . . .

  2. Steve Bruce says

    Nicely written, PZ.
    As I look around at the other “leaders” in the New Atheist and “skeptic” community, I’m ashamed to think how much they influenced me 10 years back but also a little relieved that I didn’t dive too deep into the community.
    Maybe I would have ended up just like them- sneering at “ SJWs” and refusing to apply my sceptical faculties for any social issues that make me uncomfortable.

  3. says

    In my opinion, mass culture offers us a lot of illustrations of decent behavior – there is also a lot of toxic filth mixed with it – but one would need to live under a rock (or a very strong bubble of privilege) not to be exposed to the dialectic of what is right and wrong. We may not have the answers but we are all exposed to the questions. I don’t believe for a second that most of these people don’t know what is expected of them in terms of behavior.

    It’s not much harder to do what’s right, it’s just maybe not as much fun. -Ray Wylie Hubbard

  4. atgc says

    Maybe rethink the phrase ‘random biological ejaculations’ in your banner?

    Yeah it’s a joke, and it’s also”cavalier .. light-hearted and [an attempt] to be amusing about common sexual situations,” and not good for your brand.

  5. davidnangle says

    I thought when you felt feelings of guilt over how you’ve unwittingly offended, you’re supposed to feel like you are actually being oppressed, and how things are not like the good old days. Because no real man would ever feel guilt. /s

  6. ajbjasus says

    #4 and #6

    Yup times have changed –

    “The British television series, ‘QI’, a zany quiz-type panel show hosted by Stephen Fry, found 23 ‘ejaculations’ in Sherlock Holmes, with Watson having almost twice as many as Holmes, possibly because he was married.”

    In terms of Holmes, on one occasion he refers to Watson’s ‘ejaculations of wonder’ being invaluable; on another, Watson ejaculates ‘from his very heart’ in the direction of his fiancée.

    and in Jane Eyre

    “The sleepers were all aroused: ejaculations, terrified murmurs sounded in every room; door after door unclosed; one looked out and another looked out; the gallery filled.”

  7. wcorvi says

    While I agree with PZ above, I suspect Weinstein and the rest probably think the same about themselves, too. At least that’s how they act in public – ‘why, I don’t even KNOW the girl.’ So, how do we KNOW we haven’t done similar things?

    There’s a clear difference between Weinstein and ilk, and the average male, but who are we fooling? I don’t know – I just suggest that it’s actually quite difficult to tell.

    I got lambasted a while back for saying something similar to this – most were attacks on my person. One made sense – it’s a matter of consent – but even that is ambiguous. I’m sure that many consented to Weinstein, for various reasons – afraid to resist, hoping to get ahead; surely the handful who have come forward weren’t the only ones, and some of the rest must have not objected.

    My point then, and is now, that while there are clear cases at both extremes, it’s difficult to draw the line in the middle, where most cases are. Is PZ across the line, because he didn’t speak up, or because he didn’t really understand how his actions would be taken? I don’t think so, but who am I to say?

  8. nathanieltagg says

    More importantly, is the little line about ‘ejaculations’, even taken sexually, really something that would make women feel uncomfortable? (Genuine question. My GUESS is that, because ejaculation is a guy thing, this has no particular emotional problem for most women. But, again, guessing.)

  9. nathanieltagg says

    A thought in wider context.
    We don’t really blame victimized women for not speaking out earlier. To do so, they have to overcome social stigma and repercussions that can hurt them. Only when many women come forward at once does it get easier, because they can’t be victimized individually.

    I think the same thing holds true of the locker rooms and whatnot: yes, I am also guilty of the same thing as PZ: not speaking up, letting dudebros get away with talking about women in a way I hate, not standing up. But again: standing up in those cases is hard if you’re alone. Hell, in the high school locker rooms, those assholes WANT you to stand up so they can knock you down. It only works if lots of people stand up at once.

    So, yes, we should all reflect and try to be braver. But also acknowledge that our own power was limited.

  10. says

    Remember, too, that perfection is not the standard of acceptable conduct. There’s some level of imperfection that is too much (I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it… and I really, really try to accept that some others’ visual acuity is different from mine); but rending one’s shirt three or four decades later for not vociferously objecting to locker-room talk in a locker room in which one was involuntarily confined (and was not adequately supervised) is a bit much.

    The whole point is to learn from experiences, whether or not they’re mistakes… which is not at all an excuse for deathbed conversions, either. (The creepers out there are learning, but obviously not the right things.) Life is a laboratory, guys, and the experimental design is somewhat wanting…

  11. Curious Digressions says

    I don’t believe for a second that most of these people don’t know what is expected of them in terms of behavior.
    A whole lot of people confuse *expected of them* with *allowed to get away with*. Couple that with self justification, and you get the whole “confusion” about the location of the line.

    PZ, if more people would take your example and do some introspection, we’d get somewhere good a lot sooner. Cheers to you!