How to simplify the complex

2014-11-10 16:45

Last week, in the dialogue after Slate released the Hollaback video showing a woman being harassed, even followed, on New York streets by strangers over several hours, the #DudesGreetingDudes hashtag trended on Twitter.

The topic was intended to highlight what it would feel like if men (who often claim that street harassment is not violence as women experience it) were “greeted” by other men.

As well- intentioned as it was, it did everything but highlight what women experience daily when they are harassed, touched, groped, told to smile and assaulted for exercising their right of association.

The conversation using the idea of heterosexual men being harassed by straight and gay men seems like a good example except it is not the same as when men harass women.

Because the power dynamics are not the same, men rarely plan their day around what they will wear so they are less likely to be harassed, around finding a way not to give a strange man their phone number without being harmed or killed – which women often worry about.

In framing street harassment around men, the full set of interlocking circumstances that make men a leading threat to women is absent. So when you try to explain the violence of sexual harassment by articulating it in terms of two men, you’ve missed the point.

You have also diminished the lived experience women continue to try and articulate. It also opens up the door for rebuttals such as: “Well, why didn’t you just fight back or ignore him,” which men are more likely to be able to do but women are not.

Similarly, a few weeks ago journalists at the Mail & Guardian attempted the R6 challenge to raise “awareness” about the plight of millions of South Africans who live on less than R6 a day.

Again, well-intentioned, but ultimately it was a mockery of the experience of poverty that focused on the R6-a-day aspect, not the other interlocking parts of poverty.

The participants were able to choose to live on that amount while retaining the comforts of their middle class lives.

This is while the people for whom it is supposedly for are also most likely impoverished in terms of time, health, social capital, education and security.

This is because the experience of being poor in South Africa is not only about food security. It is the daily structural violence the majority endures.

In an attempt to “understand”, we pick the part of the violence we like and, in so doing, mock at what it really means to live on R6 a day.

The risk with trying to understand a particular oppression in terms of the privileged classes is that the conversation becomes about those who have the means and experience of “trying out” sexual harassment or food poverty.

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