Context and cock-ups: why are people so determined to make excuses for sexism?

It's not "just a tweet." It's an attitude

This week, I had an argument with a strange man on Facebook.

I’m not normally in the habit of such things, preferring to deliberately staple my own palm to my forehead as the more useful and less painful process. But every so often, a red flag of dickery gets wafted that my bullish rage just can’t resist charging at. Also, I was bored.

The argument was about the FA’s tweet celebrating the homecoming of England’s Women’s World Cup team – “Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title – heroes” – and the subsequent Twitter eruption. As I believe Mary Wollstonecraft might have put it: WTF, dude?

The FA’s content editor James Callow shrugged off the outcry with a blasé “I reject any accusation of sexism”. (Why doesn’t this work for other things in life? “I reject this council tax bill!” “I reject the accusation that I ate your croissant! My jumper may be covered in pastry flakes, but NAY – I reject it!”) Meanwhile the dude on my Facebook feed took his rejection one step further, by declaring it “a little bit pathetic” that so many of us had “chosen” to get angry.

 

“Are you saying that the FA seriously set out to cause offence?” he spluttered. “I agree that the tweet was ever so slightly insensitive but to cry sexism is a bit extreme.”

“Of course they didn’t set out to cause offence,” I replied. “Ingrained sexism rarely does, that’s the point. That’s what makes it, er, ingrained. And yes, it’s insensitive… and why is it insensitive?”

“Oh wait, that’s right – because it’s sexist.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve faceplanted a keyboard at this line of argument, and sadly for my smeary laptop, I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. But I find it just as baffling, as interesting even, as I do infuriating. Why are so many people so reluctant to point at sexism and call it by its name?

It’s a trend we see all the time, for this and so many of life’s other horrible –isms. “Oh it’s not sexist – just from another time.” Yep, a sexist time. “Oh he wasn’t being sexist, just ignorant.” Yeeeah, ignorant to the rights of women for basic equality. “It’s not sexist, just a bit patronising to women!” Hold on while I lob this dictionary at your head.

If we were to be generous, we could say that it’s because people, and especially the kind of reportedly good, decent people who start sentences with “I’m all for equality but…” or “I consider myself a feminist, but…”, basically don’t want to think about how messed up society is. Still is. Because frankly, it’s depressing.

Once you start noticing every little instance of inequality in day to day life it becomes a kind of grim, reverse Where’s Wally, with discrimination and bigotry looming up a you from every direction until you’re forced to seek solace under a duvet.

I get that, I do. It’s why we change the channel when big-eyed adverts for the NSPCC come on, why we swerve to avoid the chugger with his stats about climate change. You know that dark things are lurking in the shadows, but you’d rather stay on the sunny side of the street.

Or, perhaps it’s lack of exposure. Maybe when you’re cushioned in a life where you don’t feel defined by your status as a parent or partner, a life where nobody has ever grabbed your arse in the street or warned you that your outfit is tantamount to a rape invite, then kicking off about a clumsy tweet does look disproportionate.

Maybe we do all look like The Girls Who Cried Wolf, if you’ve never seen a wolf or heard a wolf or had reason to feel scared about wolves. If actually, you’re unwilling to take a leap of faith and believe that wolves are out there despite other people (thousands and millions of other people) telling you they are.

Or, if we were to give up the generosity, we could decide it’s laziness. Laziness, coupled with fear of change, mixed in with a healthy dollop of #NotAllMen-style defensiveness. Even when the sexism-deniers aren’t guilty of any such crimes themselves, there’s still an odd reluctance to admit it even happens – in case, what, they get tarred with the same brush?

If they don’t admit there’s a problem, then they don’t have to worry about finding a mob of angry feminists at their door, come to yell at them and punish them and light a bra beacon in their shrubbery.

So yes, it’s far easier to grasp for a reason something isn’t sexist than to acknowledge it, confront it, and try to make things better. But oh, imagine if they didn’t choose the easier option! Because it’s not even that easy, from the looks of all the spluttering. Imagine, just imagine, if the naysayers spent even half the energy they do on finding excuses for sexism on actually trying to help the cause instead.

Imagine if, instead of going puce in the face trying to convince us that the cause of each day’s Twitterstorm is actually, totally fine, they used that time and those words to argue against the things they DID agree were wrong. Imagine if they stopped being scared or lazy or defensive, stopped trying to hold back the tide like a load of digital age King Canutes, and instead let the world change.

Because the thing is this: a tweet is small. My Facebook foe was right about that. A quote stupidly used out of context is not the same as a gender pay gap or a sexual assault or a human life. But they’re all part of the same rich tapestry of bullshit and injustice. All those small things add up to one huge thing. And if we let one small thing slide, then the next, then the next, the huge thing carries on being huge, and society goes on unchanged.

Not everyone gets deeply offended by the same stuff, of course, and that’s fine. That’s humanity. Likewise nobody can be TOTALLY COCKING FURIOUS about every single sexist thing they see – it’d be exhausting, you’d probably get a crick in your neck and there would never be any time to watch Netflix. We all need perspective, and we all make mistakes.

But spending hours of your life determinedly looking for reasons to let everyday sexism off the hook? Mate. I think that’s a little bit pathetic.