Saturday, June 11, 2016

How to insult women

Boy, she did you a favor

I grew up on Long Island where insults are stock and trade.  Find a weakness and exploit it.  That was the ethic.  Whatever your ethnic group, ancestry, religion or skin tone might be, you should expect it to be attacked.  If you couldn’t handle it, you were unworthy.

Although I try to reel it in, the tendency still shows up when I let my authentic self out of its pen.  My sense of humor can be biting. 

Men in nearly all cultures thrive on insults.  Some years ago, I signed a new client in my office.  Spotting a picture of my beautiful wife and me on the credenza, he said, “Boy, she did you a favor!”  It was a perfect ‘guy comment’ – both a compliment and an insult at the same time. 

My family is mostly male.  I grew up with two brothers, fathered two sons (one of whom is married to a man) and just became a grandfather to – you guessed it – another boy.  So, the Calia Y-chromosome of my paternal grandfather will carry on for at least another generation. 

What comes of all this masculinity?  Lots of insults, all meant in fun.  It’s how we bond. 

The entry of significant numbers of women into the professional ranks of the workforce beginning in the 1970’s changed the dynamic.  Court rulings have imposed a degree of risk on employers who must reign in a “hostile work environment” or face the consequences. 

I would personally argue that hostility comes in many forms and, while language is certainly part of the puzzle, it is not the final determinant.  Everything must be looked at in the context of a relationship. 

The coach assigned to help me launch a Vistage peer group pulled no punches.  She hit me right between the eyes with every comment and criticism.  She correctly perceived it was just what I needed.  Upon our success in launching the group, I sent her a certificate that granted her the title “No Bulls--t Broad”.  She was delighted at the joke and displayed the certificate prominently in her cubicle. 
Leaders of the pack

Absent our relationship, referring to a woman as a broad would be disparaging, at least since the Rat Pack passed into the annals of history. 

Still, I wonder where and how we should draw a line?  I mean if it’s okay to read ‘chick lit’ or take a date to a ‘chick flick’, why isn’t it okay to call a woman a chick?  And, is the blurry line between jocular fun and the damaging rhetoric of today’s pop culture contributing to a much larger problem?

This past week, the light sentence received by a white student-athlete at Stanford University for a rape he committed has caused a national outrage.  Refusing to be silent, the rape victim has written an open letter expressing her feelings.  It’s a powerful document that will resonate with everyone who enjoys a healthy relationship with a member of the opposite sex – father/daughter, brother/sister, husband/wife.

Its power has been enhanced by a video in which  the staff of the New York Daily news reading the letter aloud.

Here it is.  Prepared to be stunned.

I once served on the board of a Florida non-profit, Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse (AVDA).  The greatest challenge we faced was the silence of the victims.  So, the courage of the Stanford victim’s letter and the importance of its attention from the media and prominent people are not lost on me. 

Jesse Wallin (Stanford class of ‘08) founded an organization called Men Against Abuse Now (MAAN) in 2007.  Its web page begins with a prescription for “What Men Can Do…” reflecting that “words are powerful” and that “We live in a society in which words are often used to put women down, where calling a girl or woman a “bitch,” “freak,” “whore,” “baby,” or “dog” is common.”

So, I wonder.  Was I treating my female colleague as an equal when I gave her a compliment that was also an insult?  After all, that’s how I would have treated a male colleague.  Or, was my language contributing to a national problem? 

There’s a larger question for society, of course.  Will the Stanford rape case coalesce the efforts of organizations like AVDA and MAAN around a cultural shift that will make such events less likely?

I would like to think so.  But I’ve been wrong before.  I incorrectly predicted that the Newtown shooting would change our attitude about guns.

What do you think?

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