Backing Down



This article is best read while listening to Tom Petty:




What do feminists have to learn from Tom Petty? Well, lots. Because Tom Petty won’t back down. Oh he won’t back down. You can stand him up at the gates of hell – he’ll still stand his ground. Me? I’m not so steadfast. I’ll back down. And if you stand me up at the gates of hell, I’ll wonder if I got the time wrong. Or maybe the place. I mean, now that I come to think of it, the gates of hell do seem a pretty odd location for a rendezvous – perhaps I misread the e-mail.

Not so very long ago, I realised that, like a Tom Petty composed entirely of anti-matter, I was doing a lot of backing down. And it was weird, because I didn’t know I was doing it. But when the eye-scales fell, I could see, in retrospect, that I did it all the fecking time.

Please don’t misunderstand me – there are times when backing down is an exactly appropriate response to a situation. Like the time I went off on one about how childcare is so expensive due to silly shmilly laws about how many adults need to be in a room with children of a certain age at one time. When an actual childcare professional who knew shit about the subject and wasn’t just slurring some ill-informed sludge she’d found at the bottom of a bottle of Sainsbury’s own brand Pinto Grigio told me that I was basically advocating for the avoidable deaths and injuries of a substantial number of children annually, well, that was a good time to back down. And apologise. So I did. And that’s okay, isn’t it? We’re all assholes sometimes. 

I’m talking about something else. I was backing down in situations when I should’ve been speaking up. I was backing down in conversations about subjects that, relative to the person I was talking to, I was knowledgeable about. And, for the most part, I was backing down in conversations with men.

Okay, so, example. Once at a dinner party some guy – let’s call him Dude – started talking about phenomenology, which is a branch of philosophy dealing with perception. I was obsessed with phenomenology during my philosophy degree. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the phenomenology lecturer thought I fancied him. (Her? Again? No one is that interested in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. I knew these irresistable tweed elbow patches would work their sultry magic some day.) 

We all know that when we leave university the largely useless knowledge we accumulated there promptly disappears, just like the white does when snow melts. But I never left university – my head is full of white. And when I started to lecture, I was asked to put together an introduction to phenomenology for undergraduates. Which I did. So I’m not saying that I’m like the president of phenomenology or nothing, but I’m hardly a phenomenology amoeba. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that on the phenomenological scale from amoeba to president, I am much closer to president, and am certainly a highly differentiated life form on par with a dolphin or a graphic designer. I am sorry if that sounds conceited, but it is true.

Anyhoo, at the dinner party Dude started talking about phenomenology, explaining it to me all simple, as would be appropriate if I was indeed a single celled philosopher. So I told Dude that I studied phenomenology at university, and tried to enter the discussion as an equal. But he kept talking to me like I couldn’t possibly grasp the significance of what he was saying, actually utilising the phrase: ‘I think you’ve misunderstood the basic premise of phenomenology.’ 

This is the point at which I should have argued my ass off, right? But I didn’t – I backed down. I thought ‘he sounds pretty confident, and my undergraduate degree is a long time ago, and the lecture I’ve just given is only an introductory lecture, and I didn’t really revise the finer points when preparing it, soooo…..’ On Dude rabbitted while I listened, and there were times when I thought ‘I’m not sure that’s quite right actually, but I’m not one hundred percent sure it’s entirely wrong either – maybe it’s an esoteric interpretation that I don’t know about – and he really does sound very convinced….’ 

It didn’t occur to me until some time later that in this, and other such situations, I was being a BAD FEMINIST. Dude didn’t know feck all about phenomenology. He was just an icky ‘splainer. I was a dolphin! A dolphin! Why wasn’t I standing (or swimming) my ground (or, um, water)? 

In hindsight, here are the reasons: 

1. I would never, ever, speak with that level of authority about something if I didn’t feel I knew my shit. Ergo, I figure that when someone is speaking with such a level of authority that they must know their shit. 

2. I’ve been brought up in a culture in which men’s opinions are given more airtime and oftentimes assumed to be more authoritative. This has an impact on how I behave, and, also on how the Dudes# of the world behave. Dude assumes his opinion is more valuable than mine, and – at some subconscious, socially conditioned level – so do I.

I only realised that I was backing down when I got into a relationship with a Dude, because the incidences of backing down piled up. For example, I backed down in a conversation about the Irish banking crisis, which, as a concerned Paddy, I had been following through the blogs of top Irish economists since 2008. It later transpired that my (non-Irish) Dude had read one book on the issue, by a non-economist, aimed at a very general audience, and had no grasp on the economic measures (such as NAMA) specific to the Irish situation. But he spoke as though my opinions were trite and ill-informed – all things he’d considered before and dismissed – so I backed down.

Another time, we were debating the mind-body consciousness problem, something, again, as a philosophesse, to which I’ve given a lot of brain time. At one point, as I was putting forward an argument based on ‘new dualism’ (which I now know he had absolutely no familiarity with whatsoever), he said ‘yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this idea before,’ before dismissing it without any reason really. And so, chastened, I backed down. 

This happened over and over. But I didn’t even clock what was going on. I genuinely thought that my Dude was some kind of genius expert oracle sage – why else would he keep dismissing the points I made? Why else would he speak with such an authoritative tone? I even put the fact that his critiques of my ideas didn’t seem to make much sense down to him being so clever that I couldn’t keep up. 

And then came the light-bulb moment. We were talking about affirmative action. I had just spent two weeks studying all about affirmative action for a chapter of my PhD, so the arguments and counter-arguments were really fresh and juicy in my mind, and he was definitely saying some pretty uncool stuff (like: ‘if I was working with a black person and I knew they’d got their position through affirmative action, I wouldn’t have any respect for them.’), but, due to his tone and the way he was reacting to the things I said, I felt that old familiar tug – to back down. He sounded so confident that he was right, and he was so disparaging of my viewpoint.

But something clicked. The tone! The strategy of dismissing my points with ‘yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all that before’ instead of actually engaging with me! He was posturing! But worse – he didn’t even know he was posturing. He genuinely thought he was the president. He didn’t even know he was an amoeba. And he certainly couldn’t tell that I was a dolphin. His whole life people had acted like his opinions were valuable, and his whole life people pricked up their ears when he adopted his authoritative tone.

I’ve stopped backing down. I owe it to myself and to Mamma Feminism to be confident that I’m at least as smart and well informed as whatever Dude I get sat next to at a dinner party. And I don’t want to be in relationships with amoebas who think they’re presidents – from now on I’m only fucking dolphins, you know? 

And this shit is important. At the Women of the World festival recently I went to a ‘How To’ event, where I learned how to edit Wikipedia. Did you know that approximately 90% of Wikipedia editors are men? This means that the most widely used and accessed general knowledge source in the world is being written from a masculine perspective, and women’s histories and contributions to politics, society, science, technology, art and culture are being sidelined and even left out. The main reason the workshop leader gave for this was confidence – women don’t think they know enough to write and edit Wikipedia entries. Meanwhile, men with a fraction of their expertise are happily tip-tapping away. And I don’t want to man-bash – it’s awesome that so many men give their time and energy to such a valuable resource. But it’s pretty sad that women don’t have the confidence to do the same.

So my double X chromo homies, next time you feel like an amoeba, channel the spirit of Tom Petty. Don’t back down.

- Emer