Sitting around the kitchen table in my family home, my dad leaned forward in the way that usually suggests he’s about to dispense great wisdom, and said that he’d seen someone wearing a Black Lives Matter badge. “But don’t all lives matter?” he announced (it wasn’t a question).
I groaned inwardly, eyeing the door as my brain ran through every conceivable outcome of the conversation that could follow. Classic fight or flight.
But, then, I checked myself. That very morning, Timehop had reminded me that, five years previously, I’d written a lengthy Facebook rant about International Women’s Day. “What was the point of it?” I’d lamented. “Surely it only serves to highlight the differences between us and them?”
It stung, knowing that I’d written those words, knowing that I’d fully subscribed to that train of thought. But, at the time, I’d considered myself reasoned and informed – much like my father (an intelligent, articulate man) considers his stance on Black Lives Matter to be entirely logical.
It’s one thing admitting you were wrong about the answers to a pub quiz, or that shade of turquoise paint in the lounge (especially if you’d previously made a big self-righteous song and dance about it), but it’s another entirely to admit you were wrong about institutionalised oppression.
Last month – on the eve of the third anniversary of the first same-sex weddings in the UK – Sir John Randall made a statement apologising for voting against same-sex marriage. In it, he said: “Three years on I can honestly say, I was wrong and I am sorry not to have been able to see it at the time.” Online reaction to his apology was mixed and even those who have welcomed Randall’s newfound “enlightenment” ask the same question: “But how could you not see it at the time?”
Changing your views on something so socially pivotal opens you up to accusations of weakness or stupidity, and I second-guess a lot of my thinking now
And, once again, I empathise, because it wasn’t that long ago that I was banging the drum of the #coolgirl trope, waxing lyrical to all and sundry about how I got on better with men because “You just know where you are with them, y’know?”, and regarding other women with constant (and exhausting) suspicion in almost every aspect of my life.
All of which are symptoms of – and catalysts for – a social framework that means the gender pay gap still stands at 9.4 per cent, that one in five women have experienced sexual violence and that only one in four people on FTSE 100 boards are women.
In the face of facts like these, how couldn’t I see it at the time?
There’s an avalanche of social science that shows that facts – in the face of your own life circumstances – are essentially meaningless. It’s called the “affect heuristic”: information only takes on meaning once it’s been rinsed through your understanding of your personal experience.
And mine’s pretty textbook. I was brought up in a military environment where “men were men” and emotions were for sissies. I had a hard time at school and fell into alternative, baggy-clothed culture, where feminine girls were ridiculed for being “vain and vacuous”. I was a high-achiever academically, which led to a tremendous case of know-it-all-ism. In my late teens, my boyfriend and a good friend slept together and I blamed her, not him. The list goes on.
But, as Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Basically, it’s harder to maintain your world view when you’re immersed in another culture, another way of thinking, and that’s how my perceptions shifted, albeit gradually. There was no “aha” moment, just the arrival of amazing women (and men) in my life, a louder social narrative online and more time spent thinking meaningfully about what I really believed in, not what I thought I should, or what was simply familiar to me.
Now, my heart sinks when I see women using #IDontNeedFeminism on Twitter, or when an old friend on Facebook posts an “I’m not like other girls” meme. I understand where it comes from – we’re all products of our own affect heuristic, after all – but, still, it’s easy to judge them, especially in the face of all the statistics slapped across headlines and the fact that, well, they’re women, too. They should know better, right?
I should’ve known better and that’s made me uncomfortable. Changing your views on something so socially pivotal opens you up to accusations of weakness or stupidity, and I second-guess a lot of my thinking now, because in “the before” I was so certain of my beliefs. But making people feel uncomfortable about the way they think is exactly the point of tackling oppression in its many insidious forms. That’s how change happens.
Of course, making that change happen means that sometimes – frequently – it feels like feminism is banging its head against a wall.
I understand now that I was part of that wall and I was wrong. I’m sorry.