I once worked in a workplace where one of the managers was abusive, misogynistic, and unreasonably aggressive – but only when challenged. Everything was sunshine and light until he felt threatened, and then he went off like a firecracker. When I first felt the full force of his rage I took it to a range of senior people who all said “Oh, that’s just the way he is. He does this. Don’t take it personally.”
In a weird way I felt a little sorry for this man, because it was clear no-one had ever called him on his behaviour. He really didn’t seem to recognise that what he did to me – and apparently repeatedly did to others – was not ok.
But this, it seems to me, is how we get to where we are: women attacked, raped, murdered, and collectively told: be more careful. Don’t be alone. But also don’t be with the wrong people. Don’t date the wrong men. Don’t wear the wrong thing. Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because entitled, aggressive, arrogant behaviour does not get challenged, and so it escalates. Because no-one puts the brakes on. No-one says “hey, dude, that’s not ok.”
Anti-bullying programs in schools now increasingly focus on bystanders, encouraging them to speak up and step in. It’s time we implemented this across our society. Not just in schools, but in workplaces, in public places, and in the home.
People who bully, harass, or talk others down? Call them on it.
People who are needlessly aggressive? Call them on it.
People who make jokes about hurting others? Call them on it.
People who victim blame? Call them on it.
People who make homophobic jokes? Tell them it’s not funny, and not ok.
Same with racist jokes. Don’t let it go. Don’t turn away uncomfortably. Call them on it.
When people use their power to demean, silence, or repress others, call them on it.
It’s easier to walk away. To avoid people like that, or just to ignore their behaviour. But silence is consent. “No comment” might as well be a loud YES. We need to stand up and assert ourselves to make this stop.
I know so many kind, loving, thoroughly decent men and women. People who care about others, and who would never do anything like this. I have the most beautiful friends – older than me, younger than me, less than half my age – who look out for me. But they can’t be by my side 24/7. All of us take the easy path sometimes, and stay silent about behaviour that’s just plain wrong. We let it go. We don’t want to interfere. We say it was just a joke.
By letting that go we are putting everyone at risk. Every time we stand by while someone runs someone else down, we say it’s ok, and we make it worse. It’s time we stopped blaming women for being attacked. Time we stopped telling people not to take it personally. Time we started standing up for what’s right, and demanding that everyone, regardless of race, colour, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or indeed refugee status, gets treated decently. Always.