I can feel the blood rising, a quickening of the heartbeat, flushing of the face, shifting in my seat, and an urge to either shout out or leave the room.
‘I’m sorry, but you just can’t deny there is a biological-based difference between the way men and women behave.’
This statement was voiced by only one relative at a recent family gathering, but it reflected the room’s general consensus following a prolonged discussion. We had been discussing why, in the case of a couple that we know, the woman was keenly waiting for her male partner to propose marriage rather than asking him herself. The conversation had swung back, as ever, to a familiar biologically based reinscription of gender binaries.
I’ve never been a fan of confrontation (seriously, who is?) and I’ve always been one to enjoy trying to understand others’ points of view, especially as part of lively debate. For me, I believe that there is no black and white with any issue, no ‘truth’ or explicit ‘right or wrong’ on either side. But as I tried to put forward my own point of view — which was in direct opposition to everyone else in the room — I realised it felt totally different and much, much harder than having a discussion in university with classmates, or a chat with friends in the pub. It was even harder than chipping in to a conversation in the office, where, as heated as they can get, there is a distance which acts as an emotional buffer.
It seems there is something acutely upsetting (surely I’m not alone here), about having such distinctly different views to those who you not only love, but also respect and look to for guidance and understanding in every other area of your life. Those with whom your other views in most other areas largely align, which is, by and large, why they are close to you.
And so while I, on the one hand, tried to argue my point as much as possible, I was also listening to a voice in my head saying that I didn’t want to cause a rupture within a group of people that I love and want to have the best possible relations with. This voice said that I had to close the debate down before it got any more heated; that I should not say everything that I wanted to say; that I should not ultimately try to ‘win’ the argument (perhaps unfair to me, since I’ve heard a lot more of the different standpoints on such topics, having studied it). I’ve always felt that convincing someone to agree with your point of view is not necessarily the goal of a heated discussion. Getting your view out there — even if just to make someone aware that this other point of view exists, even if they then choose to dismiss it — can still create a small shift in their consciousness. Maybe even, at some level, open them up to a wider perspective. But in this context the stakes seemed higher, heightened by emotion and the need for them to understand where I was coming from, which made it even more important to me. Realistically, I know that’s very unlikely to happen as they have not been exposed to the arguments that I have, and they are not as interested in exploring these issues — and that’s entirely their prerogative.
But as Kaammini outlined in her blog on why she decided to set up Gender and the City, there is a point at which each of us who want to do our bit to reduce any harm caused by how gender is constructed, feel like we can no longer stay quite on such issues. We know that the personal is political: it is the very stuff that makes up our day to day lives, in every situation, and at every moment. We know that gender is everywhere and we know that such debates and confrontation are inescapable as a result. If we don’t address it in our personal lives we are arguably doing as much harm as any far-reaching social policy.
There will always be disagreement — even within feminism and gender — as we all have different perspectives and positions. But how do we get over this stumbling block? How do we assert our point of view and attempt to challenge the status quo when our personal relationships may be at stake and the emotional fallout, from our perspective, too great? How do we discuss these issues without such negative emotions and frustrations holding us back or causing us too much damage?
I don’t want to fall out with anyone whom, on every other level, I love and respect. One of the things about gender is that, because it’s all around us, it often comes up in everyday conversation and appears to many as an easily resolvable issue (I’m sure if my Master’s had been in quantum physics, say, I would have less people offering me their opinion on the subject). And just because they haven’t thought about it as much as me doesn’t mean that their opinion is less relevant, but it does mean there is an imbalance between how much emotional investment they have in said subject compared to me. Mostly, they aren’t getting upset like me. I can only conclude that in order to continue to raise such issues I need to forcibly separate my emotions from the discussion. But it is a difficult line to tread and one I am still struggling with to the point that I often have stop conversations, go silent, or actively avoid such topics, in order to preserve relationships that are important to me. This often feels like a very uncomfortable position to be in.
In the situation described above, I will confess that I just told myself to stop talking, limit the damage, change the subject and go home. So I stepped outside thinking I just need to calm down; not get so worked up about such matters in these situations; not hold my family to account in terms of gender politics, and questioned whether is was worth it (to me) to spoil such occasions — “making” problems where there are none. So there I was standing waiting for the bus home, on a quiet, dark corner in south London, when a man appeared from around the corner and starts harassing me, saying he wants to talk to me, take me out sometime etc, even though I am completely ignoring him… Thankfully the bus arrived almost immediately. But it reminded me of exactly why such discussions are so important, and can’t be ignored and why we can’t give up and why we have to make these connections. No matter how hard it is. Perhaps a necessary part of putting gender in the centre of our lives is harnessing the emotion that it raises rather than ignoring it and channelling it in the right direction. Easier said than done.