It Will Not Stand

However, I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world or, perhaps, even make a perceptible difference – but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort. – Isaac Asimov

The last month has been an important one for my view of the world. Some of my own naivety has come to the surface, my perspective on interpersonal relationships and power challenged, and I’ve had to rethink things that I was pretty sure I was pretty sure about. None of these, I think, are bad things, and I suppose I was long overdue for this kind of spiritual colonic.

Most of this centers on the ongoing story of men and women, especially as we have seen in play out in the Bill Cosby story. Further, I was jolted out of neutral by this Daily Beast article, that reminded us of the men many hold in high regard despite the things they have said and done in their own relationships. Men like Mike Tyson, John Lennon, Sean Connery and Woody Allen. We hear it, we process it, and we move on. And it often leaves no trace after.

When I started talking about these ideas with others in the HR community, which I’ve always thought of as a safe place for everyone involved, I began to hear a very different story. Tales of not just inequity in the way women are treated, but of behavior that I would never have imagined would take place. Of threats. Of coercion. Of the unwelcome and sometimes aggressive advances in exchange for professional courtesy (or to avoid professional sabotage). I found it all very hard to believe, mostly because of my aforementioned naive outlook. But it happens, and it takes very little digging to start getting to the stories.

What I thought was really interesting were the responses I got from others when I started talking about it, and wanting to speak up. While there was no pushback on the fundamental ideals, and some very verbal support, there were a number of questions raised that, I think, reveal much about the way we see the issue.  I thought sharing some of them a good place to start the converstation. For the record, not one of these came from only a single person.

Why do you think you should speak up on this? (Alternate versions: What gives you the right to speak on it? How are you in a position to talk about this?)

This was the most common response. And it’s a very valid question. Two things immediately come to mind:  First, through this process I learned that people I care deeply about are being hurt in ways to which I’ve been blind, and I don’t know how to say nothing about it. This led to a really interesting question about women “needing” the protection of men, and the implication they can’t look out for themselves. That’s neither the case, nor the message. The strongest, most resilient people I know are women in our community. But despite that, the problem persists. And that’s not something we should be OK with.

The second part of that is about acknowledging the problem. I know it’s not coming from all directions, and I know that there are many men in our world that are mindful and supportive. But those who have acted otherwise have caused real damage. And If I hadn’t stumbled into these stories, I would never have known. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. So it is my hope that by talking about the issue, we can start to hold ourselves to a higher standard as a community.

Do you really think writing about it will make a difference?

I don’t know. I hope so. I know talking about it with others has really made me question some of my assumptions. But I know that not writing about it certainly will not bring change. Maybe that’s enough of a reason to say something. I’m not advocating any specific response or outing of the accused as I was asked by someone if I had planned on doing so. Of course the answer is no. I’ve heard stories, and while I trust what I’ve heard, they are not my stories to tell.

Maybe I’m still naïve in thinking we can bring about change by having an honest discussion of the problem. But I’m hoping it is at least a start.

Do you think there is anyone in our space (or in business) that hasn’t treated women differently in some way?

This question led to some really in depth discussions about power and the treatment of others. One of the most interesting piece was talking about what we often think of as “good manners,” which can easily be looked at as “men must take care of women because they are weak.” Simple things like holding the door for someone, where you stand in the elevator, offering to carry parcels, and general deference can all be seen as expressions of power over others. I’ll admit, as a white male, I’ve never given it much thought before now. I don’t know what it would feel like to be on the receiving end. I’d hope it would be taken as intended, but maybe I’m wrong about that, too.

I’m confident that every one of us, with enough reflection, could come up with examples of their own behavior toward someone from any gender/race/religion/orientation that would be looked on as questionable. Maybe it wasn’t because they were [insert demographic here], but does that matter to the other person? Does experience being discriminated against taint every other negative interaction you have? Again, not questions I can answer, but certainly ones I’ve been trying to think through.

As the month progressed, the eye of the nation turned to Ferguson and the violence that has spread since the Grand Jury declined to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Whatever your views on the outcome, it has highlighted the ways in which people can be terribly inhumane to those around them, in both the names of protection and justice.  And I as watched this scene unfold just miles from my home, my feelings moved from anger and indignation to sadness and disappointment in myself and our community.

Intentions are often overlooked when the behavior is easy to attack, and we forget that the person on the other end of our actions is just that. A person. And people by nature are fragile, needful of others in defining them, in supporting them, in nurturing them, and in appreciating them. While everyone may operate on different levels of need, there is a place for external validation in our collective psyche that drives us to need each other.

So I’m sharing these thoughts for a few reasons.

First, I am terribly ashamed that it has taken me this long to ask the questions and hear the stories of those I care about. And I don’t want anyone else to move through our community as blindly as I have.

Second, I think it is important that we acknowledge this kind of behavior is not OK. And that goes beyond the treatment of women. It stretches across our treatment of each other, and the things that happen on a regular basis. Bullying, lies, theft, gossip, and general disregard for the humans around us are so much less than we each deserve.

Third, I hope by speaking up I can be part of more discussions on the topic, learning more about the people around me and finding ways to support them. By doing so, I know I’ve already had some of my long held beliefs not just questioned but changed, and I think I’m a better person for it.

For some reason, as I thought through this, I kept coming back to The Big Lebowski and the repeated proclamation, “This aggression will not stand, man.”  At its core, this is about aggression towards those around us.  And it will not stand.

We owe it to ourselves and each other to speak up, to question, to listen, and to commit to being better.  And while a blog post certainly isn’t the answer, maybe it can be part of getting to one.  I hope that you’ll take a moment to think about the issue and talk to those with whom you are close. The conversation might just change your outlook on the world. Or theirs.

 

 

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