Violence Culture

In 1997, I took a Philosophical Issues in Feminism paper as part of my BA in Philosophy, on the grounds that “issues in feminism” was something I knew next to nothing about, which to my mind suggested that it’d be an interesting course to take. It turned out to be a very enjoyable class – the lecturer was excellent at presenting difficult or controversial topics and defusing emotional discussions before they could turn into nasty arguments. As one of two guys taking the course, and the only one in my tutorial group, I never felt like I didn’t belong there.

I still don’t get rape.

Apart from that impression, all I remember about my tutorials is a discussion about women in the workplace which involved one student inadvertently using the phrase “men tend to squirm when they’re under a woman,” and the failure of our group to come up with definitive answers to the questions “so, as a man, is it actually possible for me to be a feminist?” and “what is it about rape?”

Sixteen years later, I’m still not sure if I can be a feminist*, and I still don’t get rape.

Obviously, I get why it’s bad. I get why it’s a feminist issue. But I don’t understand why it’s special – and that’s the impression I get: that rape is different from all of the other countless horrors human beings inflict on one another, that it’s in some way exceptional.**

While there are no shortage of reasons why rape is inexcusably terrible, I can’t think of any that are unique to it. My understanding is that the reason why rape was the original “fate worse than death” was because, at the time, a woman’s “value” was linked to her virginity, so that to rape a woman was to rob her of her worth as a human being – that attitude is thankfully much less prevalent today (and I’m assuming totally rejected in feminist circles), but rape’s special status persists.

When Lindy West wrote this article in response to the Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy, I though I was finally going to get some answers. In it, she explicitly states that rape is different:

The reason that “rape jokes” become such a contentious issue as opposed to, say, “cancer jokes” or “dead baby jokes” (yawn) is because rape is different from other horrors in some very specific ways.

But her explanation – a tortured analogy involving threshing machines – doesn’t make any sense to me, in part because it’s really hard to find an interpretation that doesn’t hinge on the idea of all men being potential rapists (seriously – are the “threshing machines” rapists or just men in general?) The salient point seems to be that rape is different because of the culture of rape that exists in society today – later on she says, referring to an earlier piece of hers on Sex and the City 2:

I chose “rape” on purpose at the time—because it’s gendered and jarring and I wanted to convey the severity of my disgust, as a woman, with that fucking garbage movie. But if I wrote that review today, would I write it the same way? Nope. I would probably write “bludgeoned.” Because right now, as I see it, there is no systematic cultural influence that leads to the mass bludgeoning of people.

As I see it, there definitely is. I’d be a fool to deny that rape culture exists, but I’d also argue that it’s as a subset, or maybe a symptom, of a wider culture of violence. As a society we don’t just condone acts of violence – any violence – we glorify them, provided the person on the receiving end deserves it. We routinely blame the victims of violence in cases where it’s seen as their just desserts – when they’re asking for it.

A while ago there was a photo being passed around Tumblr of a woman holding up her bandaged hand, with the accompanying text explaining that she broke it by punching a man in the face after she overheard him making dodgy comments about a woman on the other side of the road. And she was celebrated for it – she committed an act of violence on a total stranger in the street, but it’s OK because he deserved it.

We all remember how the Internet went ape over Casey Heynes, the Australian boy who body slammed another boy who had been bullying him by hitting him repeatedly in the face. I’m going to have to come over all sanctimonious here, because even at the time I couldn’t find anything to celebrate in a video of two children hurting each other, and I was actively repulsed by a lot of the commentary, which made Casey the vessel for a million vicarious revenge fantasies, and elevated his bully to some sort of Darth Voldemort figure. I read comments confidently diagnosing the bully as a psychopath, who should be grateful for the “lesson” he received. He got was he was asking for, and that’s fucking great.

Those are a couple of isolated cases, but every person I know, including devoted feminists and of course myself***, jokes about beating people, killing them, setting them on fire for any number of trivial reasons, mostly because they disapprove of the other people’s actions or opinions. The idea that violent actions are justified provided the recipient’s actions make them deserving of it is reinforced by just about every aspect of society – sport, pop culture, education (“traditions” like bullying, hazing and fagging), justice (prison is where we send bad people to be beaten up and, yes, raped). These attitudes are behind everything from verbal intimidation to wars and mass murders – people don’t commit atrocities while curling a moustache and proclaiming “for evil!” – they believe that their violence is justified and that their victims deserve it.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while – I was set to write something earlier, when my thunder was stolen by Caitlin Moran’s recent column where she argues that we should stop using the word “rape” and just talk about “violence” (on the grounds that rape implies sex, and as soon as sex is introduced, people’s brains leak out their ears and they start acting like arseholes). I’m not sure how facetious she’s being there, but whether or not she really thinks we should lose the word altogether (I don’t), I’m definitely sympathetic to the view that rape is bad because rape is violence, and I also question the need to break it out as something altogether other.

*I guess if asked I’d say that I consider myself one. Though I have quibbles with some of the superficialities, I don’t see how a thinking person could argue with the central principles or goals of feminism.

**I’m being very careful not to say “worse” here – I’ve seen enough online arguments to know that trying to compare atrocities is an incredibly unattractive undertaking, and only ever ends badly for both sides.

***Obviously I’m a total hypocrite in this regard – I play fighting games, love action movies and in this blog alone I’ve already joked about punching, stabbing and performing non-specific acts of self-abuse with a beltsander.

Be Nice to Nice Guys, as Long as They’re Nice

I’ve been sitting on this for a long time – longer than this blog has been in existence, for starters. I keep expecting the current Nice Guy thing to go out of style and for the Internet to move on, but it keeps coming up, and every time it pisses me off. I’ve not been sure whether it would be best to write this angry or not – the ideas come to me when I’m angry, but a sober head has proved best for actually putting it together. See for yourself if it turned out OK.

I can see how I could have been one of them fairly easily.

It’s a funny word, “nice”. It’s earliest meaning was “foolish or stupid” – since then it’s gone from “fussy” to “dainty” to “precise” to “kind and thoughtful”, and these days, apparently, to “whiney, passive aggressive, douchey” up to and including and “sociopathic”. There’s a lot of online vitriol and mockery directed at the misogyny and hypocrisy of “Nice Guys” – guys who sulk about how unfair it is that they’re so “nice”, yet the women they’re interested in don’t want to date/have sex with them, the stupid fucking bitches. (I’d hunt down links to specific examples, but that’d just get me angry and depressed again.) Some of the scorn is fully justified, but it can also be very hurtful (to people and to language – some articles at least acknowledge that the behaviour they’re talking about isn’t nice at all, and that these “Nice Guys” are nothing of the sort; other things I’ve read seem to be actively redefining “nice” into a pejorative).

A lot of the time, these things make me angry, because they remind me of my experience of being a Nice Guy, which consisted largely of being very sad for a very long time. Fortunately for me, this was a dozen or more years ago, before the rise of the current “Nice Guy” meme; otherwise I’d have been feeling alone, defective and unlovable while also believing that the entire Internet was lining up to tell me what a cunt I was for it. I don’t like to think how that might have turned out.

The significance of the term “Nice Guy” seems to have changed quite a bit since it applied to me – while these days the issue is men calling themselves nice and being a problem to women about it, back in my day, when Mastodons roamed and petrol was three doubloons a firkin, the problem was woman calling men nice, and the men not appreciating it.

In January of 2000, on the first site I ever wrote for, I put up a post on this, in response to some of the female contributors asking why guys hated being called “nice”. The site no longer exists, so I can’t give a link, but here’s an extract:

Being called “nice” is at best a consolation prize, and at worst, a reminder that in the eyes of women, you don’t rate. Note that I didn’t say “you don’t rate well” (if asked by a third party, I expect most women would say I’d be quite a catch for someone – just not for themselves), I said “don’t rate” – you’re not even a consideration when women are looking for a relationship. Speaking from personal experience, I have twice been involved in conversations with a bunch of people when the topic has involved eligible males, at which point all of the other single guys present have been ticked off, and I’ve been overlooked. That’s how being called “nice” makes a guy feel – overlooked.

“Overlooked” is still the word that best sums up the way I felt back then. (There seems to be something to that these days as well – the only “Nice Guys” talked about are the ones that aren’t actually nice at all – you’d be forgiven for thinking that genuinely nice guys don’t even exist.) I believe these days the kids talk about being “friendzoned”, and there’s a significant backlash against that term as well: “what’s wrong with being friendzoned? Why would you complain that someone wants to be your friend?” Which ignores the actual problem: it’s that women always and only want to be your friend, and never anything more. At the age of 25 (that’s having gone right through university and out the other side), every woman I’d ever expressed an interest in had ultimately turned me down (to be fair, that wasn’t a huge number – there’s the vicious cycle, where the more you’re rejected, the lower your confidence becomes, which makes you more likely to be rejected and less likely to try in the first place). Nevertheless, any woman whose opinion of me was sought would have told you how “nice” I was. This got very confusing and frustrating – if women weren’t interested in me romantically or platonically, that would at least make sense. But the fact that I was clearly likable didn’t seem to fit with the fact that no-one liked me as more-than-a-friend.

(Note that I haven’t mentioned sex at all – “Nice Guys” are commonly portrayed as arseholes bitching that woman won’t fuck them. I didn’t want sex, I wanted to be loved; I wanted some indication that I was even in any way lovable. As far as I was concerned, sex was something that came “later” – once you were in an actual relationship*.)

Pathos aside, I have some amount of sympathy for at least some of the “Nice Guys”, because I can see how I could have been one of them fairly easily. Having experienced nothing but failure in my attempts at a relationship, I had to wonder what the problem was. Since the only common factor in all of those failures was me, the only reasonable conclusion was that whatever problem there was lay with me, which, as you can imagine, is a soul-crushing thing to have to admit to (and only serves to increase the frustration, since I still didn’t know what the problem actually was).

I’m aware this is getting a bit Straw Man-ish, since the experience I’m complaining about is a different phenomenon from the one that’s around today, but there is a point. If I’d had a bit more pride or a bit less self-awareness, I doubt I’d have had it in me to accept that the problem was in me, which would have left me with the only option of assuming the problem was with all teh wimmenz. Sure, it sounds obviously dumb-headed when you say it like that, but still, I don’t have it in me to condemn a guy for taking that leap, when the alternative is acknowledging that there must be something fundamentally wrong with him on a personal level. Inward frustration turns into outwardly-directed anger mighty quickly – here’s how that post of mine continued:

And after this happens a lot (and when you’re a nice guy it does happen a lot), you really start to feel this huge sense of frustration – you’re surrounded by women who like you, but not one of them likes you enough, and this frustration is compounded every time a new woman tells you how “nice” you are, and expects you to be pleased to hear it… Eventually you just want to explode at the next person who says it to you and say “well if I’m so fucking great, why don’t I have women lining up, Hmm?! If being nice is such a plus in the eyes of women in general, why aren’t I beating them off with a stick?! Explain that!!”. But I don’t, because I know they mean well – it wouldn’t be nice to.

Again, in my case, self-awareness kept any temptations into shitty behaviour in check, but I can see it easily going another way.

“Nice Guys” are currently a convenient (fashionable?) target for people who want to establish some feminist cred; “Nice Guys” are douchebag misogynists, so it’s OK to write articles calling them assholes and make memes mocking them; to “other” them. I have two problems with this:

  1. The “Nice Guy” attitude isn’t always borne out of douchey entitlement; sometimes it comes from hurt and confusion from a person who just doesn’t know a better way of dealing with it. All this will do is increase the hurt.
  2. Actual nice guys read it too, and, even though it may not be directed at them, and may not describe their behaviour, they’re the ones who will actually take it to heart, since part of being nice is having empathy and caring what other people think.

Nice Guy syndrome seems analogous to Asperger syndrome. (Yeah, that’ll get people on your side – compare relationship difficulties to a genuine mental disorder. Hear me out, OK?) It’s real, it’s painful and it’s abused by dicks on the Internet to excuse their shitty behaviour. Sure, have a go at people who self-identify as Nice Guys, but who are really just looking for an excuse for their experiences and behaviour, but don’t make “nice” into an insult – all that does is cause pain to people who don’t deserve it.

*With the benefit of hindsight, a big part of my problem appears to have been my assumptions about how relationships work. I assumed (based largely on what I saw in pop culture) that it went: meet someone -> get to know them -> get to like them -> try to start a relationship, in the hope that they like you too -> sexy stuff. From my observation, most relationships actually went: hook up with someone at a party (sexy stuff) -> get to know them -> start a relationship if it turns out you actually like being around them for any length of time. Which, indeed, is eventually how I got together with the woman who is now my wife.