During Belfast Culture Night in 2016, local Pro Choice Activists put up signs and posters which said “This Cunt Bites Back”.
In response to this, the posters were taken down, by Belfast City Council, supposedly on the grounds of the word “cunt” being not family friendly.
The fact they took them down in the first place is a debate for another day but what followed was predictable, enlightening, and frustrating in equal measure.
Namely, the organisers (male) and other men, telling female activists what was, and wasn’t, acceptable, advisable or palatable when dealing with the issue of abortion here in Northern Ireland.
The level of male self-confidence and entitlement needed to tell female activists how they should go about demanding their rights really is staggering, and is incredibly common here.
This is just one example and I’m sure if you talk to any woman, she could tell you an awful lot more.
“I wish I had the confidence of a mediocre white male” is piece of internet wisdom that hasn’t quite made the leap to mainstream usage but it is apt for those of us living in Northern Ireland.
It is used to express exasperation at the constant stream of mediocre men who are disproportionately rewarded for essentially getting up in the morning and cashing in on the layers of privilege we enjoy.
For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that I am, in fact, a man and I am bound to, on some level, exhibit some of the traits I am writing about here.
Whether it is consciously or unconsciously, supposedly well-meaning or not – we all do it.
Whilst many societies are, by design, male-centered, Northern Ireland is particularly so because of the recent history of conflict here. As a general rule, conflict societies marginalize women more with the focus of being put on the violence perpetuated by men, against men.
In this context, gender roles become more polarized with men being portrayed as warrior or soldier and women being cast in the role of mothers and nurses.
On top of this, during the Troubles, each side had to “stick to their own”, meaning a united women’s movement was impossible. In fact, the UN has criticized the UK for not having a gender sensitive approach to Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. This is a legacy of The Troubles that rarely gets mentioned.
All of this provides the overall context in which we, as men, experience life in Northern Ireland and goes some way to explaining why our sense of entitlement and overconfidence is so rife.
The high profile examples of this confidence in the face mediocrity are too many to list but the low profile, day to day examples of this confidence must be just as exhausting to run into again and again.
It only takes a walk around a town centre at lunchtime to see groups of young men swaggering around with navy blue suits and brown shoes, talking loudly about “the match” and monopolising space within cafes.
It is a kind of laddishness by stealth, an assumption that whatever the time, wherever the place – our need to be heard and seen trumps all others.
This St Patrick’s Day, BBC Northern Ireland will televise the rugby schools cup final. It may seem harmless enough but think about how this feeds into the psyche of the young men taking part, and those watching on.
This is not to say we shouldn’t celebrate the achievements of young people but when this happens in isolation, with only one demographic lauded, namely Grammar School educated boys, we have to ask questions about the knock on effects this kind of adulation can engender.
We, as a society, pick and choose who we lavish praise upon and what for. That choice invariably tends to be male.
I’ve never done it, but I imagine running for elected office takes a certain amount of confidence. Is the entitlement we instil in men in NI the reason they made up 70% of elected candidates in the 2017 Assembly Elections?
With most in Northern Ireland still voting along the traditional lines, many of our local elected representatives get voted in for what feels like the price of showing up.
If we instilled the same confidence in our young girls, more would no doubt show up and seek election. This isn’t to put the blame onto women for not seeking office, more to lament the different messages we as a society send out.
Essentially, that male voices and experience matter more.
Online this manifests itself in a number of ways from “mansplaining’’ to entering ourselves into conversations between women that we don’t need to. Not to mention the ridiculousness of saying “Not all men” or the like when there is a discussion of misogyny.
On top of this, often within supposedly liberal circles, there tends to be a policing of the tone women take when engaging in activism – particularly around women’s issues.
Telling a woman how to campaign for her rights, (assuming you, as a man, know better) and telling her she doesn’t have autonomy and agency over her body are both, at their core, informed by the same misogyny and sense of male entitlement.
If we are being honest with ourselves, if we judge ourselves by the standards of people who aren’t male, heterosexual, white, cisgendered – have we maybe had it a bit easier? Have doors opened for us that maybe wouldn’t for others?
On reflection, I am certain I haven’t had to work as hard as a woman or someone from a minority to achieve what I have achieved. Yet, I no doubt walk around with an air of someone who has dragged himself up by his bootstraps, all by himself, no help from anyone.
In reality, whilst it’s healthy to be proud of your accomplishments, I think we, as men need to realise we’ve been getting help all along and we just didn’t realise it.
And recognition of that help, is even before we start to discuss how tiring it must to have to face sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or all of the above, on a daily basis, and how this can hold people back.
We need to learn how to be better allies to women and minorities, and we need to listen about how best to do that – rather than assuming our version of allyship is the ideal one.
In practice, we need to keep quiet, listen, and not project such a sense of arrogance – because that arrogance is stifling for others. It’s only then can we see other points of view thrive, and a real, progressive Northern Ireland – where all rights are respected and upheld – emerge.
Robbie Best is from Bangor and now lives in in Belfast, working in communications in the charity sector.
Follow him on Twitter.
Image Credit: @theawkwardstag