2017 rewind: Who has to apologise?

We’re into the top 5 most-read posts on Boots Theory in 2017. First up, we revisit the Metiria Turei story, and ask ourselves why so many people’s lasting impression is, “well she didn’t apologise, that’s what made it so bad.”

Originally published 3 October 2017.

An excellent piece by Maddie Holden at The Spinoff on the sexism of the 2017 election got me thinking. She writes:

Enter Metiria Turei. We’re all familiar with the story of her ousting from Parliament for a forgivable, decades-old mistake that shed light on the glaring deficiencies of our welfare system, but perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that her treatment related to her gender. It’s simply a matter of honesty and trust, we’ve been told, and charges of a racist, sexist double standard have been dismissed using fine-tooth comb analysis. It was her attitude, they said, and any MP who broke a law would be expected to pay with her otherwise flawless career in public service.

On the Sunday morning after election day I was on a panel for Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning, where the topic of Turei’s resignation came up. Fellow panelist Neil Miller said it “rankled” with many people he knew that Metiria Turei didn’t apologise, or appear contrite enough. Now, I stand by what I said then, i.e. “what the hell did she have to apologise for?” (weka at The Standard has helpfully transcribed some of my comments in this post, and here’s an awesome round-up of posts analysing the real reasons Turei resigned.)

But with the lens of Holden’s article, another thought struck me: the sexist double standards of apologies.

If you are a woman, especially a poor Māori woman, and you do something wrong out of the noblest of motives – providing for your child – let’s be honest: no apology would be enough. If you didn’t cry, it would be proof you weren’t sincere. If you did cry, it would be proof you were a weak feeeeeeemale and unfit for politics anyway. Whatever words you use, they will be found wanting; it’s all well and good to say sorry now, the talkback twerps would sneer, but why did you do it in the first place you awful bludger?

But if you’re a man? Well.

If you’re a man, you can shrug your shoulders and say “oh, those things I said weren’t actually my view, or even factually correct, soz.”

If you’re a man, you get to say “my lawyers told me it was okay” or “I reckon it’s pretty legal” and this does not in fact rule you out of being Prime Minister or Minister of Finance (but then, even blatantly lying about budget figures apparently doesn’t rule you out from being Minister of Finance).

If you’re a man, you get to say “oh well my life was just really hard back then when I physically assaulted my partner repeatedly” and pillars of the community will queue up to denounce anyone who doesn’t give you a second chance even when you continue to propagate violent rhetoric and label yourself the victim.

If you’re a man, you get to demean survivors of sexual assault live on air, refuse to take personal responsibility for it and get handed plum political roles while other people insist that we should just take it on faith that you’ve changed, even as you offer more non-apologies.

Hell, if you’re a man you can say “I’ve offered to apologise” when your government utterly screws up the handling of a sexual assault case and that’s somehow the end of the matter, and even if you subsequently refuse to apologise you get damning headlines like: “PM not keen on apology”.

Not.

Bloody.

KEEN?

Can you imagine it? Can you hear the shrieking that would have ensued if Metiria Turei had called a press conference, sniffled a bit and said “Look, I feel bad if anyone was offended, but I only offer apologies when there’s a serious reason for me to do so, I obviously never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it was a long time ago and has been taken out of context”?

Because that’s all a man would have to do.

It may well “rankle” for some people that Metiria Turei never apologised, for something which requires no apology from anyone with a heart. But let’s not allow this to become the received wisdom, as though any apology would have satisfied the critics. They are not fair-minded even-handed assessors of a complex situation; they are hateful troll-monkeys who would always be able to find some reason to demonise a Māori woman whose true crime was surviving and challenging the status quo.

What I read on my holidays

We’re still in that quiet time of year where not a lot is happening unless you’re into cricket. Here are a few longer reads I’ve been enjoying over the downtime.

New York Times: How tough is it to change a culture of harassment? Ask women at Ford

The jobs were the best they would ever have: collecting union wages while working at Ford, one of America’s most storied companies. But inside two Chicago plants, the women found menace.

Bosses and fellow laborers treated them as property or prey. Men crudely commented on their breasts and buttocks; graffiti of penises was carved into tables, spray-painted onto floors and scribbled onto walls. They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.

That was a quarter-century ago. Today, women at those plants say they have been subjected to many of the same abuses. And like those who complained before them, they say they were mocked, dismissed, threatened and ostracized. One described being called “snitch bitch,” while another was accused of “raping the company.” Many of the men who they say hounded them kept their jobs.

Al Jazeera: Why is the West praising Malala, but ignoring Ahed?

Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, was recently arrested in a night-time raid on her home. The Israeli authorities accuse her of “assaulting” an Israeli soldier and an officer. A day earlier she had confronted Israeli soldiers who had entered her family’s backyard. The incident happened shortly after a soldier shot her 14-year-old cousin in the head with a rubber bullet, and fired tear-gas canisters directly at their home, breaking windows.

Her mother and cousin were arrested later as well. All three remain in detention.

There has been a curious lack of support for Ahed from Western feminist groups, human rights advocates and state officials who otherwise present themselves as the purveyors of human rights and champions of girls’ empowerment.

Giovanni Tiso: On polite Nazis and the violence of speech

The error in believing that fascism can be defeated through debate stems partly from the failure to see violence in speech, and in the exercise of speech. Few would fail to recognise that violence when watching the 90-second video, and the fixed stares of those fifteen men, whose every gesture signified: ‘We could hurt you, but choose not to. For now.’

Graham Cameron: Māori health and education models can work for everyone

We need to move past the assumption prevalent in our public services that if it was written by a Māori academic, has Māori words and concepts, and Māori people are using it, then it is only aimed at Māori. These models are aimed beyond the individual to building functional communities and whānau; ethnicity has very little to do with it.

What did she expect?

The facts are this: a young woman went to Rhythm & Vines. A young man there decided to grope her. She fought back. It was caught on video. And then the victim-blaming began.

(I’m linking to Newhub’s coverage of this, despite their BLOODY AUTOPLAYING VIDEOS, because their headline was one of the better ones, even if their Twitter account flubbed it).

Many will rush to object to my description of the events, because I’ve missed out the one factor that seems to have made this newsworthy: the woman in question wasn’t wearing a shirt at the time.

To them I say: poppycock.

Wearing a shirt has never been protection from assault. Wearing a full-length tracksuit or a burqa or a nun’s habit or probably even a spacesuit has never stopped men from choosing to touch women without their consent – consider Jen Brockman’s art exhibit, “What Were You Wearing?” (content note: discussion of specifics of sexual assault) which displays everything from bikinis to sports uniforms to businesswear, all worn by survivors of sexual assault, none serving as protection.

I’ve seen a lot of people condemn the young man, but add: “what did she expect?”

I can only guess: she expected to go out and have a good time. She expected grown men to be able to control where they put their hands. She expected to be treated like a human being with personal space and boundaries and the right to exist in public without harassment.

None of that should be unthinkable in New Zealand in 2018.

She probably didn’t expect a major New Zealand newspaper to publish the sneering criticisms of her made by Gable Tostee, an abusive Australian dickhead who was, at the very least, closely implicated in the death of another young woman and who has, at a minimum, acted like an unrepentant skidmark ever since avoiding any consequences for that.

But then nobody outside the Kardashian family should really have to worry about shoddy clickbait journalism before they leave the house in the morning.

What interests me in people’s responses is the line some draw, separating the assault committed against this young woman – obviously it’s terrible, he shouldn’t have done that, tut tut tut – and their own pearl-clutching disapproval of her attire, or lack of it.

“She should have covered up, though,” they say.

“She should try doing that in Dubai,” they sneer.

What did she expect, after all?

These are standard responses to any news about a woman being assaulted or harassed, especially in public. What they fail to understand – and get very indignant when you point it out – is there’s no line separating his actions and their criticism. There’s a line connecting them.

No man ever woke up one day and decided to pull a set of toxic, predatory attitudes towards women’s bodies out of thin air. No person ever had a lightbulb go off over their head and thought, “You know, actually I should just grab strangers without asking first, that sounds like fun.” We are products of our environments, and our attitudes and reflexes are products of the attitudes and messages we encounter in society. That’s basic psychology, sociology, anthropology and life.

Our attitudes to women’s public nudity (or public frivolity, or public breathing) and sexual assault boil down to some very basic principles:

  1. Women are fair game, especially if they’re acting “improperly” (drinking alcohol, wearing revealing or no clothing).
  2. Men cannot control their own actions.
  3. Therefore, women must take steps to ensure men don’t act in abusive or violent ways.

People don’t want to see it. They protest: “I’m not saying she’s to blame, but whatdidsheexpectwouldhappen?” and “Of course he shouldn’t have grabbed her, but sheshouldhavecoveredherselfupinpublic!” The condemnation is almost reflexive. “I wouldn’t have dressed like that,” they declare, as though the patriarchy will reward them with safety.

But there’s no wall insulating the criticisms levelled against this woman (or any woman). They have clear implications, and demonstrable impact on broader society. When you say, “what did she expect” or “she should have covered herself up” the obvious, only sensible meaning is: she should have expected assault and changed her behaviour – covered herself up – to avoid it. Which means in turn: it was her fault for not avoiding it.

Women hear this, every day. And as many as 91% of sexual assaults are never reported to the Police. Coincidence? Apparently.

Men hear this too. And what do we expect them to do if they’re told every day, “you don’t have to have impulse control, women should manage your behaviour for you”? If they see a guy get smacked for groping a woman and all of Facebook tells them, “well the problem is she wasn’t dressed properly”?

It would still be assault if she’d been dressed “properly”. “Properly dressed” women are assaulted every day. Because there’s always another reason why he couldn’t stop himself, and another thing she should have done to stop him.

The person responsible for assault is the person who commits assault. And this guy committed assault. And he could have stopped himself. And it is our job, as members of the society he lives in, to send that message.

And stop treating walking garbage heaps like Gable Tostee as celebrities.

Who has to apologise?

An excellent piece by Maddie Holden at The Spinoff on the sexism of the 2017 election got me thinking. She writes:

Enter Metiria Turei. We’re all familiar with the story of her ousting from Parliament for a forgivable, decades-old mistake that shed light on the glaring deficiencies of our welfare system, but perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that her treatment related to her gender. It’s simply a matter of honesty and trust, we’ve been told, and charges of a racist, sexist double standard have been dismissed using fine-tooth comb analysis. It was her attitude, they said, and any MP who broke a law would be expected to pay with her otherwise flawless career in public service.

On the Sunday morning after election day I was on a panel for Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning, where the topic of Turei’s resignation came up. Fellow panelist Neil Miller said it “rankled” with many people he knew that Metiria Turei didn’t apologise, or appear contrite enough. Now, I stand by what I said then, i.e. “what the hell did she have to apologise for?”(weka at The Standard has helpfully transcribed some of my comments in this post, and here’s an awesome round-up of posts analysing the real reasons Turei resigned.)

But with the lens of Holden’s article, another thought struck me: the sexist double standards of apologies.

If you are a woman, especially a poor Māori woman, and you do something wrong out of the noblest of motives – providing for your child – let’s be honest: no apology would be enough. If you didn’t cry, it would be proof you weren’t sincere. If you did cry, it would be proof you were a weak feeeeeeemale and unfit for politics anyway. Whatever words you use, they will be found wanting; it’s all well and good to say sorry now, the talkback twerps would sneer, but why did you do it in the first place you awful bludger?

But if you’re a man? Well.

If you’re a man, you can shrug your shoulders and say “oh, those things I said weren’t actually my view, or even factually correct, soz.”

If you’re a man, you get to say “my lawyers told me it was okay” or “I reckon it’s pretty legal” and this does not in fact rule you out of being Prime Minister or Minister of Finance (but then, even blatantly lying about budget figures apparently doesn’t rule you out from being Minister of Finance).

If you’re a man, you get to say “oh well my life was just really hard back then when I physically assaulted my partner repeatedly” and pillars of the community will queue up to denounce anyone who doesn’t give you a second chance even when you continue to propagate violent rhetoric and label yourself the victim.

If you’re a man, you get to demean survivors of sexual assault live on air, refuse to take personal responsibility for it and get handed plum political roles while other people insist that we should just take it on faith that you’ve changed, even as you offer more non-apologies.

Hell, if you’re a man you can say “I’ve offered to apologise” when your government utterly screws up the handling of a sexual assault case and that’s somehow the end of the matter, and even if you subsequently refuse to apologise you get damning headlines like: “PM not keen on apology”.

Not.

Bloody.

KEEN?

Can you imagine it? Can you hear the shrieking that would have ensued if Metiria Turei had called a press conference, sniffled a bit and said “Look, I feel bad if anyone was offended, but I only offer apologies when there’s a serious reason for me to do so, I obviously never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it was a long time ago and has been taken out of context”?

Because that’s all a man would have to do.

It may well “rankle” for some people that Metiria Turei never apologised, for something which requires no apology from anyone with a heart. But let’s not allow this to become the received wisdom, as though any apology would have satisfied the critics. They are not fair-minded even-handed assessors of a complex situation; they are hateful troll-monkeys who would always be able to find some reason to demonise a Māori woman whose true crime was surviving and challenging the status quo.

Sunday reads

A few pieces that caught my eye this week.

Mark Brown: If you’re asking ‘What real poor person could be at Glastonbury?’ you’ve never been poor

Culture makes your world bigger. Beauty makes your world bigger. A night out, a cream cake, a trip to the cinema, a something that is yours and yours alone. Having things you love now makes it easier to live in a world that tells you it doesn’t love you. They make the days differ from each other. They make you feel alive. Being poor is a struggle to feel alive, to feel part of the world and all of the things it has to offer.

When you are poor you feel you are continually trying to steal and get ownership of culture that you can’t quite afford, knowing that eventually you’ll have to go back to where you came from and to the struggles you face. You have to blag and graft and save and sneak into culture when you’re poor. It takes years to feel like you have any right. You can never quite afford it but you do it anyway because otherwise is a kind of death. You scrimp, you save you blow your money because if you don’t you are only what they say you are: an animal that just eats and shits and wants only a place to sleep.

Katelyn Burns: The Strange, Sad Case Of Laci Green — Feminist Hero Turned Anti-Feminist Defender

[Content note: discussion of online harassment, trolling, misogyny, transmisogyny]

… that someone so influential in the progressive online space could make such a complete 180 has shaken the social justice community to its core. How could a defender of equality change so much, so quickly? And what does it mean for those who had come to trust Green’s safe space online?

The answers to these questions are chillingly incomplete — and raise questions anew about the safety of online spaces for those who routinely face harassment.

Katelyn is also well worth a follow on Twitter.