Friday, 27 October 2017

What #MeToo Should Mean to Quaker Communities

I am grateful for the feedback on an early draft of this post that I received from women friends.
Accusations of, to put it excessively mildly, inappropriate behaviour on the part of a Hollywood bigwig were made in public. People, quite rightly, rushed to support those making the accusations. Other people came forward with their own stories of attacks and harassment by the same man.
It's not the first time it's happened. It won't be the last. Similar things have happened and will continue to happen in many different contexts, especially where there are individuals seen as too talented, important or powerful to assail. This isn't just about films; it can happen in universities, in hospitals, in big business. In a sense, this time isn't particularly special, when considered with all of the others. However, this time there seems to have been a little more success in taking the opportunity to raise awareness of the ubiquitous nature of sexual harassment and assault in our culture. Women (and girls) everywhere are posting “Me Too” on social media. Statistics and psychology suggest that plenty of women who have had such experiences aren't sharing, on top of those who are. People are noticing – perhaps not as many as one might hope, but they are noticing. Social media posts and web pages are going viral with advice to men on how they can help deal with this endemic cultural problem; of course, they attract trolls to their comments, and perhaps some sincere but clueless guys as well. They respond to these suggestions of how men could help, and they seem to feel that we, men, are being victimised by such advice. That singling out men as needing to take certain steps is unfair, even discriminatory. I don't know how to make them learn. I'll admit that I was once a clueless guy, though maybe not that clueless, and I'm forever grateful to the women who persisted in helping me learn, perhaps sensing that there was a sincere desire to “get it”; I'm still working on getting there.
For the purposes of this post, in order to focus on the issue in question, the language used herein will assume an uncomplicated gender binary. This is obviously not an accurate picture, and issues of harassment and abuse are more complex for people whose gender does not match social assumptions, be they transgender, gender non-confirming, or non-binary. In trying to beware of misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of ignoring transmisogyny, nor can we assume that someone will be immune to harassment just because they do not fulfil the social or behavioural expectations of their gender.
I'm not writing this to talk about recent events or the social media phenomena that have flowed from them. This is a Quaker blog, and I'd like to think about what Quakers should be taking from all of this. It's a tough question to consider, because we have a tendency to think that we're fantastic at equality, but we're never as good as we think we are; indeed, that tendency to think of ourselves as great at these things tends to lead to us being blind to problems, or continuing in denial even when they become apparent. Quakers are no more immune to hubris than anyone else, and it is as potentially damaging as it is for everyone else.
Women have long had equal status in Quaker Meetings, and nowadays it's not uncommon for a given Meeting to be numerically dominated by women, or to have most or all of their clerking team or their elders be women. The power dynamic within a Meeting is not always male-dominated, and ideally isn't dominated by either gender. Yet our Religious Society is situated within wider society, and it interfaces with it frequently. Our Meetings for Worship are open to the public, which is actually important for our charitable status here in the UK. We hold community events and open days, we engage in social action, we work with other organisations. All these things, and more, bring “the World” into our Quaker space. Thus, even if we could honestly say that Quakers would never engage in harassment and assault – and that would be the height of hubris – we still have to consider our interactions with wider society. In addition, the power dynamics of wider society cannot help but penetrate into our space, and society as a whole has spent a long time telling men that they are entitled to behave in a certain way towards women – from the most obviously unpleasant things to which attention has recently been drawn, to simply taking up more space in discussions and being louder. No amount of re-socialisation among Friends, or anyone else, can remove the mark of that conditioning from men. Of course, there are likewise patterns of socialisation among women, but they tend to be bad for women, just as the socialisation of men is also bad for women. It's bad for men, too, but in a less immediately damaging way.
So we have a faith community that preaches equality and self-determination, personal agency and respect. We have a community of individuals who have also been preached to by wider society, over their life, telling them that men act one way, and women act another. That men should be forthright, put themselves forwards, speak their mind; while women should be passive, not make a fuss, defer to others. For women, overcoming that socialisation means strengthening themselves socially, asserting that they should be heard just as a man is – and yet society still tells women who do this that they are being too pushy, that they are bitchy. At the same time, men will dominate the speaking time in meetings without ever realising, will override women who are speaking more than they do men (though we override one another plenty as well). For all that a Meeting for Worship might be numerically dominated by women, it's far from unusual for a disproportionate number of those rising to minister to be men. I've not done any studies on this, but my experience suggests that men are more likely to be appointed to roles that deal with finance, or as trustees – though whether this is a result of something skewing the nominations discernment process or because men are more likely to accept the nomination, it is hard to know; certainly, society places greater expectation of caring responsibilities, whether for children or parents, on women, which can make it harder to take the opportunity of training at Woodbrooke, say. While we preach equality, equal status, no difference in roles, this is not always borne out in practice.
Now, I do not say this to castigate. I do feel that we do better than wider society, and we should be glad of that, maybe even a little proud. However, we cannot let our moderate success blind us to the work still to be done, nor to the fact that this disparity is a symptom of the same underlying social phenomena that lead to scandals like the harassment and abuse of women in certain industries. Nor can we assume that the fact we are better means that these things do not happen among Quakers. Better does not mean perfect, and nor does it mean good enough.
It is also often said that Quakers today are shy of confrontation, preferring to resolve things as far as possible without cross words or even verbal force. Yet when someone behaves unacceptably, even if there is some mitigating circumstance such as a mental health or cognitive impairment influencing their behaviour, if we do not meet that behaviour with a clear attempt to remedy the problem, we are tacitly approving of it. That attempt may be confrontational – telling the person causing offence that their behaviour is unacceptable is inherently confrontational, but sometimes necessary – or it may not; in some cases simply telling someone that their behaviour is beyond the pale, telling them to stop, will do not good, not because they are unwilling to learn and adjust, but because they are unable. There are other things to be done in that case, and tenderly helping someone through such difficulties does not exclude also protecting others from their actions, however much they cannot be held truly responsible for those actions. Those who know me will know that I am passionate about the inclusion of disabled people in Quaker activity, but that inclusion cannot be at the cost of the safety of other Friends. Sometimes inclusion requires considerable work to protect others, and sometimes it is not possible to include everyone in every activity.
We also cannot assume that such circumstances will apply in all cases where someone behaves inappropriately. Indeed, some men have become so aware of the value of such arguments that they are ready to use them when called out on their behaviour. Sometimes they don't have to – people will often just say “he's probably a bit autistic”, yes, almost always about men (there's a whole other set of things that can be said about gender and perception/expectation of autism-spectrum stuff). Indeed, the people with issues influencing their behaviour are the ones most likely to be noticed and caught; they are also those most likely to be unhappy that they have upset people and wanting to learn from it, difficult as they might find it to do so.
On the other hand, people like these powerful Hollywood executives, sports coaches and politicians do what they do not because they have behavioural compulsions, not because they do not know right from wrong, but because they do not care about right and wrong in such cases – and they are sure they can get away with it. This is where a culture where we are sure that such things can't happen is particularly dangerous. If everyone “knows” that these things can't happen among Quakers, that can only feed the sense of immunity that they might feel. Indeed, we were once very trusting of our volunteers in finance and stewardship – until there was, here in Britain Yearly Meeting, a significant scandal regarding the actions of a Monthly Meeting treasurer. Now the report on this is required reading for trustees, and greater cautions are in place. Let us hope that it will not take a similar scandal to wake up to the risks of sexual malfeasance.
By wishing to be tender in all circumstances, by avoiding confrontation, and by being so assured of our own superiority over wider society in these matters, we fail to properly confront and prevent behaviours that we cannot accept. By being too “understanding” we fail to understand the situation and the problems.
So what do we do about it? Well, I can't offer you a recipe. For sure I'm no expert in this, and I would be dubious about the authority of any man claiming to be. Women will have more of value to contribute in terms of lessons, but any given woman won't have perfect understanding of every dimension and complication of these issues. The internet, especially social media, are full of women, and a few men, offering advice to individuals on how better to support women and push back against problematic attitudes and even low-grade harassment and abuse, and it would serve little purpose for me to repeat those here. Not only are they easy to find, they are aimed at individuals, and I'm talking about what we do as Quaker Meetings. While that is made up of individual actions, we also need to have coherent corporate and organisational actions. We need to talk to one another and learn from one another, and we need to bring these issues to air in the clear light of day.
What I can say is this. Don't feel secure that you are enlightened and wouldn't tolerate such behaviour, much less perpetrate it; you can't be secure in that without understanding the issues and constantly challenging yourself. Don't feel secure that the Spirit will guide us on paths that prevent such problems, or that it will show us how to deal with them when they arise; you would not trust the Spirit to show you how to comply with charity regulations, or to perform surgery, and this is at that level of complexity and need for understanding. Do come together to talk about this, to think about it, to work on it as a community. Do take advantage of those who have expertise, knowledge and experience to offer. Do learn from those who have suffered from harassment and abuse if they are willing to share their experience. Do believe women. Don't be scared to try and deal with these problems – it will be hard, but not as hard as where we will end up if we do not deal with them. Don't think it could never happen here, that Quakers are immune from such behaviour, that we are somehow so much better that such unpleasantness is unthinkable.
Be faithful. Be Friends. And always remember that we are all still human.
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