It’s Women’s History Month and, oh, how things have changed since this time last year. The primal screams of #MeToo and Time’s Up have given Americans a front-row seat to women’s history in the making. The show has been thrilling, inspiring, and, for men, absolutely unnerving.
They don’t know how to respond to our raised voices — or whether they even have the right to. They’re skulking off to the doghouses they feel banished to, paws over their eyes. Or they’re earnestly attempting to speak their piece about this new era of discourse between men and women, only to recoil in shock when it’s suggested that their gender makes their words irrelevant at the moment.
Men are so used to wielding all the power that they have no idea how to live in a country where women are at long last taking more of it. And women — tired of protecting men from their own discomfort — aren’t about to politely help them process their scary feelings.
Because we’re tired.
Every right that men have enjoyed, women have had to fight for — for the vote, for control of our bodies, for Title IX, for an end to sexual harassment. We did the grueling work of figuring out who we were, what we wanted, and then we went for it. That’s what responsible adults should do. But men, as a unit, have been spared that work, and it has them reeling.
Where, they wonder, is their place in the tectonic shift of #MeToo and Time’s Up? What are men for, anyway?
I think that much of the bad behavior and violent actions that men have been committing in the last few years is tied to the fact that they’re facing that question — it hums beneath everything — but just don’t know it. And by bad behavior and violent actions, I don’t just mean Weinstein-harassing and mass shootings, but men’s willful battering of reproductive rights, their cruel attempts to erode the social safety net, and their hostile polarization in Congress.
As women have gained ground in the workplace and in the economy, and even had the audacity to run for president, the unspoken question — “What are men for?” — has gained steam, too. And men are acting out, to the detriment of us all.
When you’ve held power forever – the way men have over women – you get used to not having to care about those over whom you hold sway. In fact, in studies of the brains of powerful people, Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC-Berkeley, has found that power actually impairs certain neural processes.
“In the behavioral research I’ve conducted over the past 20 years, I’ve uncovered a disturbing pattern,” Keltner wrote in a 2016 piece for the Harvard Business Review.
“While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade,” said Keltner. “The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior.”
So what should men do?
Here’s an idea:
Develop empathy, a virtue that gets a terrible rap as a “soft” female skill that’s inferior to hard-charging traits like analytical intelligence, technical innovation, financial prowess, and other attributes whose success can be measured in numbers and outcomes.
But the wisest grownups — be they CEOs or board presidents, parents or teachers, cops or coaches — know that without empathy for those who share the planet with us, they cannot engender loyalty or trust. That’s bad for families, for businesses, for societies — for civilization.
The way to get to empathy is by listening, before doing anything else. Before fixing, explaining, interpreting, dissembling, or devil’s advocating. Just hearing people out, without interruption or opinion, no matter how long it takes.
Which, when it comes to #MeToo and Time’s Up, doesn’t have to take as long as men fear it will. The truth is, no matter how impotent or demoralized men might feel right now, they still have the power to drastically shorten the time between chaos and understanding. They have the power to listen.
Simply by asking, “What is that like for you?” and “Can you tell me more?” and “How did that affect you?”
Good listeners then shut up and let others talk until they’re all talked out. Only then can they respond.
It’s called respect between equals. It saves us, and it’s what we’re here for.