The Tyranny of Male Silence
We’re all brave in our heads. When we think about confrontations after the fact, it’s easy to conjure up the perfect one-liner or withering put down.
The problem is, it’s too late.
(Unless you’re one of those people who takes to Twitter to pretend your in-your-head zingers really happened.)
There are plenty of examples of people speaking out when it’s too late. Take Harvey Weinstein, for example — after the avalanche of allegations, plenty of face-saving colleagues and collaborators of the disgraced mogul came out to say they had heard allegations, or knew something was wrong, but stayed silent. The same thing happened in the UK with serial sex offender Jimmy Savile. After his death, suddenly everyone had always had suspicions — but no one said a thing.
Self-preservation is behind all this. Why speak out against the man funding your films, or a national treasure (as Saville was pre-scandal) and risk your livelihood and reputation?
I criticised those people. How could you not? Either they knew what was happening and did nothing — making them complicit — or missed the obvious signs, making them stupid.
But I’ve been there — although on a lesser scale.
I don’t write full time. My main gigs have always been standard 9–5 office jobs. Nothing special. No hilarious sitcom-esque situations, no soap-worthy drama.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, on the day I heard a group of then-co-workers discussing the attractiveness of female colleagues — giving marks out of ten.
I know what you’re thinking — that should not have been a surprise. Sure, it was probably happening all around me every day but I just didn’t notice. Colleagues probably had to put up with hearing that all the time. Not as the overall narrative of a day but as background noise, just another thing women have to shrug off or pretend not to notice or, worse, accept as just part of daring to take up space in a workplace.
Would any of them have said anything had they heard it? I have to believe so. Did I?
I was not part of the conversation. I can cling on to that, at least. I didn’t join in. But I didn’t put a stop to it either. I silently fumed, but what good is that? Silence is complicity.
I didn’t join in to say: I endorse this.
But my silence said: I don’t object to this.
I wish I had said something. Said that it wasn’t acceptable, that there are people who won’t stand for it. But I didn’t.
Would I have annoyed them? Absolutely. Would I have lost my job? Probably not.
So why was I silent, with hardly anything to lose? Why are so many men silent when we can speak up? Afraid of being mocked? Ostracised? Why, when we don’t even like those who would ostracise us?
I wish I had the answer. I still run it through in my head and can’t say exactly why I was so afraid to do anything. A bit of awkwardness at work should be a small price to pay. All I can say is: next time I’ll do something.
I hope that’s true.
Male silence is a tyranny that keeps everyone else down. Some of us can pretend we’re different, but if we don’t speak up, then we’re no different to the worst of us.