Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sexism #5: Entitlement

I haven't added to my series on sexism in several months. It's not that I haven't been thinking about it, but there have been other things going on – summer, markets, festival, moving, house-sitting.

In some ways, I lead a life that is relatively sheltered from sexism: I don't consume a lot of advertising, many of my friends and neighbours are not sexist. But I still have encounters with sexist behaviour that are too frequent for my liking. This behaviour takes the form of jokes (about feminists or fat girls or sexy girls), discussions of who's hot and who's not, obsessions with weight loss, weight gain and relationships and occasional, casual, conversational references to women as floozies or sluts. (Yes, I live in rural Nova Scotia, and yes, it does still feel like 1956 here some of the time).

Some of this behaviour is engaged in by men I know, and some by women I know. And some of it is engaged in by me. I have my own internalized sexism, my own set of beliefs that I am trying to work with all the time, to revise and rethink and transform.

I try very hard to remember that sexism is bad behaviour and that people who indulge in it are not bad people. We are all products of our culture.

That doesn't mean it's not still frustrating and hurtful to encounter unexamined and unapologetic sexist behaviour. As I discussed in my post about sexism and protagonism back in April, there are some people who do not not seem to understand that people can be protagonists in their own lives even if those people are not men (or not white, or are living with a disability, mental illness, etc., etc.)

It's pretty easy to spot those people. When I'm having a conversation with another person, it's  clear to me when I'm being treated as an equal human being and when I'm being treated as an objectified "woman", an entity that is being assessed for its potential usefulness to the other person, a person who assumes they are the only protagonist in the conversation.

And that assumption about who counts and who does not, is closely related with today's topic: entitlement.

We're entitled to tell you who you are and what you want

Here's a recent example from my own life of being subjected to someone else's sense of entitlement.

Some friends who have headed out west for the winter hosted a farewell-for-now music show a couple of weeks ago at our local community hall. They invited a number of people, including me, to join them on stage to sing or play a song or two.

I was introduced along the lines of "Our friend, the lovely and talented Alex Hickey" or something like that. And as I got up on stage, I heard a male voice heckle from the audience, "and she's available."

"That's debatable," was the response that popped out of my mouth.

But what I wish I had had the presence of mind to say, was, "Why do you feel entitled to decide what my relationship status is – or should be – let alone shouting it at me in a room full of people?"

I'm pretty sure I recognized the voice of that heckler and I don't think he has any specific, hostile feelings toward me as a person. I don't think he was trying to be mean. Maybe he was even trying to be helpful, thinking he could help me to hook up with someone.

The problem is that his heckling didn't take me into account. I wasn't a protagonist in that moment; I was an object. A thing. An available thing.

That comment was based on that man's beliefs and ideas, projected onto me. I'm a single woman and a single woman is obviously "available", à la carte, for men to peruse and either accept or reject.

I have to admit that I have felt that way during a large portion of my life. And at various times, I have traded away some important parts of myself in return for feeling loved and/or sanctioned by the hetero-normative, pair-bonded system that dominates our culture.

I don't feel that way right now. I've learned the hard way that the cost of being in a relationship with someone can be much higher than the cost of not being in a relationship with someone. And that the rewards of loving someone else can be much slimmer than the rewards of loving and valuing oneself.

Who's Entitled?

I admit that I was furious for a couple of days after being heckled like that. My inner monologue ran along the lines of How dare he?, railing against his assumptions, sense of entitlement and down-right rudeness, hurling his assumptions at me while I was trying to do my job, for Pete's sake! Oh, I had my outrage worked up into a fine, self-righteous frenzy, I can tell you.

It took me a while to calm down about it.

It took me a while to calm down about it because I felt hurt and vulnerable. I felt humiliated by that comment. It took me right back to high school, back to the smart, geeky, emotionally-wounded girl I was in my teens, who didn't have a boyfriend, who felt rejected – and rejecting – and pretended not to care.

I felt entitled to judge and be angry at people back in those days. It was my survival. And being thrown back into those feelings threw me back into my judgment and outrage.

A humble and gentle heart is an antidote for entitlement

I went to a concert in Halifax last Friday, a benefit for Syrian Refugees that was put on by a number of my friends in the folk music community. There was some awesome, hard-core, traditional folk music, the kind of music I love: Vince Morash, Ann Fearon and James Crouse, Clary Croft and Dan McKinnon. And there was also a theatrical/musical piece about rights and responsibilities, performed by the youth theatre group, Project ARC. It was excellent: moving and fun and sincere and wholehearted.

Their piece held a big message for me – and for everyone – that none of us are entitled to anything, that our varied assignments in terms of class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. don't make us more or less human than anyone else. The only things we're entitled to are our inalienable human rights – rights that are extended to every human equally, are ours from birth and cannot be taken away. Coupled with those rights, we each have responsibilities; we all make choices and take actions to either hurt and belittle other people or to respect them and treat them as equals. Or to do nothing.

Sometimes the world feels to me like a wilderness of assumptions and needs and compulsions and demands and expectations. I am trying to build a life that is centred in authenticity and peace, but I  often have experiences that pull me from the path – experiences that stir up anger and outrage, frustration and the risk of being totally overwhelmed by the hugeness of the task before me.

And in that place of feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable, it is far too easy for me to resort to feeling entitled to judge others and to hold them in contempt.  

I was very grateful to receive a reminder last Friday night that I am no more entitled to my judgments than anyone else is to theirs. And that the task of living an authentic life is not overwhelmingly large, but simply the same size as I am. No bigger and no smaller.

It is my responsibility to keep a firm grip on my own sense of myself. No matter what forces push me in what directions, it is always my choice: whom I decide to spend time with and how I want to talk and think and behave toward myself and toward other people.

I believe the best road through the wilderness is not broad, straight and paved with outrage and hurt feelings, but is narrow, winding and organic, delicately picked out between trees, using empathy and compassion – toward others and toward ourselves.

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