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Knowing When To Speak And When To Shut Up





The Mayor of London’s summer 2023 campaign to address sexist conduct among men seemed to backfire. It was well-intentioned, for sure, but felt unreal. Who would really say MAAATE to a friend when they were casually sexist? And if they did, the sense was the ad makers imagined a working class Cockney straight from a Guy Richie film or a paunchy West Ham fan tanked up before a big game; the whiff of classism all too potent.


That it got people talking in the silly season passes as a result for the campaign. But the awkwardness of MAAATE reveals something telling: it really is uncomfortable crossing someone when you think they are out of line.


We are cheerleaders with our friends, careful round colleagues, and positively silent with strangers.


Proverbs 27: 6 tells us: ‘well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts’. In reality, most people flinch from inflicting that wound in case it spoils the friendship and this may be why some friendships slowly fade away rather than blow up; eventually attitudes become intolerable but we don’t say so.


Our circumspection with colleagues is because we kind of know them and we don’t. Relationships are more likely to be surface deep and we worry that crossing someone may mean they look for ways of getting back at us, as the surface friendship is peeled away to reveal something darker.


Meanwhile, in the modern, urban world, we don’t know if the stranger we challenge might be quick to violence.


These are the stories we tell ourselves so we can sum up to say nothing, but deep down we are left feeling uneasy. Jesus was clear how abuse originates in the human heart and St James over how damaging words can be. And it is a much shorter step from words to actions than we like to think.


Our lips, then, are the vital link between our hearts and our hands.


But does crossing someone for what they say make a difference or is it just another nail in the coffin of free speech? And is there still the odour of classism at play?


There are certainly different cultures in play within the UK itself and the charge has been levelled that campaigns like White Ribbon are a group of articulate middle class people with the verbal agility to tiptoe through a minefield of approved language looking down on those who find it harder to summon the words and who, in any case, just express gender relations differently. But no culture can get a free pass when words unambiguously show contempt for people based on their identity. Verbal cruelty and nastiness is easily spotted: just ask the person on the receiving end of it.


No-one wants to become a poster boy for Orwell’s 1984, a member of the thought police looking to catch people out and punish them. But the ‘death of free speech’ claim can be looked at a different way: how many of us have a memory of not challenging another person when they said something out of turn about someone else when we should have? I expect we all do; mine are etched in my mind.


There really are times when we need to speak up.


And maybe to be spoken to.


For there is another way of looking at male sexism. It isn’t what we say as men but when we won’t shut up. When we do not listen properly to women and interrupt them. When we tell them what they actually told us five minutes earlier.


This is a personal record I am much more unsure of.


White Ribbon and other campaigns are about calling out sexism when we should. The culture becomes better still when men go this step further.


As the beleaguered LAPD officer said to John McClane fighting terrorists in the Die Hard skyscraper (as macho a context as you could imagine):


If you are what I think you are, then you’ll know when to listen, when to shut up and when to pray.



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