Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Getting off the Sidelines and Into the Fight

During the 1970's the neighbourhood I grew up in was pretty rough, especially for small children.  Roving gangs of bullies, miscreant juvenile delinquents, and a serial killer were the realities of my childhood that I needed to deal with.  Wariness was a habit I cultivated at a young age; I was careful not to take the same route home every day and I always tried to spot the bullies before they spotted me.  Most of the time I was successful, but sometimes not and on those occasions I'd come home bloodied and beaten and angry with myself for getting caught.

On my seventh birthday my parents gave me a swim mask and snorkel as a birthday present.  Our family didn't have a lot of money and this was a big deal to me; it was what I wanted more than anything in the whole world.  That evening I went to the park to try out my gift at the paddling pool, and I was excited and happy and not paying attention to my surroundings like I should have been.  So I didn't notice the group of teenagers behind some bushes in the park until it was too late.  They took my mask and smashed it to bits.  They also held me down and burned me with cigarettes, but that didn't hurt nearly as much as losing my birthday present.  I didn't blame the teens who did this nearly as much as I blamed myself.  They were nothing more to me than environmental hazards to be aware of and avoided, and as far as I was concerned, at least at the time, it was my fault for running into them, just like running into a lamp post or falling into an open pit - a consequence of my inattention.

Another one of those environmental hazards was David Threinen, a pedophile who kidnapped and murdered four children in Saskatoon between 1974-1975, including my friend, Robert.  Around that time a man, whether Threinen or a different predator, tried unsuccessfully to lure me and a couple of my friends into his car.  Afterward, the three of us agreed that this guy was most certainly a kidnapper (we were about nine-years-old and I don't think we knew what a pedophile was) and that he would probably have killed us if we'd gotten into his car.  But I don't recall any of us being shaken up by the incident - it was just another threat dodged and quickly forgotten, drowned out by the background noise of ever-present dangers.

School was no picnic, either.  I was an introvert and more interested in books than in sports, which made me abnormal in the eyes of many of my teachers, and their disdain was taken by many of my classmates as tacit approval that it was okay to pick on me.  My naive trust in authority was shattered early on by a principal who took a particular dislike to me for reasons I never learned.  She would often pull me out of the hallway and into her office then threaten me with a big leather strap (corporal punishment was still practiced then) and accuse me of all sorts of absurd things.  I felt scared and confused and betrayed, and I didn't realize until much later that she was just another pathetic and cowardly bully who got off on terrorizing little boys.

Since my natural inclinations trended more towards the academic than the athletic, I was drawn toward activities like science fairs and Future Problem Solvers, which, at my school, only girls were allowed to participate in because, as I was repeatedly told by my teacher, 'girls are smarter than boys.'  Didn't I know that my proper place was on the hockey rink?  This prejudice may not have been the norm at most schools, but it certainly was at mine and it was infuriating to be denied the chance to pursue my interests and aptitudes simply because of my gender.

So my daily grind consisted of getting to school by way of back-alleys and side streets to avoid notice, suffer through seven hours of incarceration at the Sutherland Elementary School Correctional Facility, followed by another dash through no-man's land to arrive home, hopefully without being terrorized, beaten to a pulp, or killed.  Then I'd get to spend a few all-too-fleeting hours holed in the comfortable book-filled sanctuary of my bedroom before having to do it all again.  Wash, rinse, and repeat every day for eight years.  It was an almost unbearable existence that fortunately faded away as I got older, and by the time I grew up it was all just an unhappy memory.

If you have a Twitter account you have no doubt read at least some of the many, many posts made to #YesAllWomen, and even if you don't you've probably heard about it.  Many of the posts these women made struck a familiar chord: their experiences reminded me of my childhood.  Except that while I got to leave all that shit in the past once I grew up, many women have to keep dealing with it their whole lives.  I'd like to say that I can't imagine what that must be like, but I can.  Some of my past personal experiences that are similar enough that I can at least partially empathize and understand what life as a woman might be like.  I'll never truly understand what it's like to walk a mile in their heels, but I probably come just about as close as a heterosexual white Canadian male can.

My first inclination was not involve myself in this discussion and instead follow the old saying: 'better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.'  This is often good advice, especially when you don't know what you're talking about and in this case opening ears and shutting mouth (or, more accurately, given the nature of the medium, opening eyes and bestilling fingers) is preferable to a hasty knee-jerk response.  But after pondering for a while I realized that I can't sit this one out; I have to weigh in.

When I was a kid getting beaten on, I recall that most of the toadies that trailed along after the bullies weren't really bad guys.  Left to their own devices they probably wouldn't be inclined to pick fights or torment anyone, but they would gravitate around an alpha bully, follow his lead, and pile on to whatever target of opportunity he set his sights on.  They might hold your arms while he beat the crap out of you, and they might kick you a few times when you were down, but this was mostly for show.  Most of these guys were scared and joined in to avoid becoming targets themselves.  Then there were the spectators; they didn't join in but they also didn't speak up and they certainly didn't intervene.  They, too, didn't want to call attention to themselves.  One time on my way home from school, I came upon a couple of guys beating up my best friend.  I joined in the fight reckoning that if I evened the odds maybe we could fight them off, and if not at least my friend wouldn't have to stand alone and outnumbered.  Unfortunately, once his attackers focused their attention on me, he left me holding the bag and joined the bystanders to watch me get beaten bloody.  I didn't care.  I'd rather stand up to the bullies and get beaten than watch from the sidelines.

One of the common knee-jerk comments made by men responding to #YesAllWomen is that 'not all men are like that.'  Of course they aren't, not even close.  But statements like that are a defensive response made by guys who may not be abusing, harassing, or discriminating against women, but they sure as hell are standing on the sidelines watching.

We hear stories of violence and discrimination against women every day, but often it gets drowned out, like all those dangerous encounters in my youth, by the background noise of the perils of daily existence.  They get lost against a backdrop of shootings, stabbings, unrest, environmental disasters, dirty politics, and the distracting antics of Rob Ford.  But when you filter out the noise, which is what #YesAllWomen is doing, you can see just how pervasive misogyny is in our society.  Just this morning I was lying in bed listening to a report on the CBC news of a young woman in Saskatoon who was kidnapped and beaten by her fiance when she tried to return his ring and break off their engagement.  This sort of thing happens every single day.  And that is in a comparatively tolerant and egalitarian society like Canada.  It doesn't begin to compare with countries where women are stoned to death for having extra-marital affairs, threatened or killed for trying to get an education, or imprisoned for the crime of being raped.  When 50% of the world's population is being singled out for persecution (more if you consider other disenfranchised groups, like homosexuals, who are also denied the rights many of us take for granted) this not a women's issue, it's a human issue.

It isn't enough to just be the guy who isn't abusing women.  War is being waged on our friends, our wives, and our daughters, and it's one that they cannot win on their own.  This is a battle that must be fought by men.  I won't be a toady and I won't stand in the crowd watching from the sidelines.  It's time to wade in and start swinging because I'd still rather take a beating than let a friend stand alone and outnumbered.


Tim Shorts said...

Amazing post Sean. Well-written and thought out. Doing the line of work I do I seem to be in the middle of the battle, but like you said I'd rather go down swinging than stand on the sideline.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks, Tim.

Lisa Buckley said...

This is the kind of well-thought, carefully considered post we need more of! Being on the receiving end of both childhood bullying and the sexual harassment you describe here and have seen on #YesAlWomen, I had never thought to equate the two until your post. You are quite right: it's like bullying. Being on the receiving end feels like being bullied. I don't feel complimented when cat-called or groped/touched: I feel targeted and cornered. It's a hunted feeling, yet different than being stalked by a wild animal, because it is happening in the presence of a crowd.

Dave Rudkin said...

Many of us will wade in with you, Sean ... and we will do so with a much clearer purpose because of your powerful words. Thank you.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Count me in to stand shoulder to shoulder with you.