LOUISE O'NEILL: I don’t know if we would have seen this level of anger even five years ago

I was surprised to see a recent glut of articles worrying about the fate of Christmas parties in the #MeToo era, says Lousie O'Neill.

Collins Dictionary revealed ‘single-use’ as their word of the year for 2018, referring to products that are designed to be disposal, used once and then thrown away. 

The other words that were in the running were ‘gaslight’ and ‘MeToo’, showing that, as Helen Newstead of Collins Dictionary said, “this has been a year where awareness and often anger over a variety of issues has led to the rise of new words.” 

The term ‘gaslight’ concerns a form of psychological abuse where “false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory”, and can steadily eat away the victim’s sense of self as they question their own instincts and sanity. 

It originated with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light - later adapted as a movie starring Ingrid Bergman - where an abusive husband attempts to convince his wife that she is going insane, telling her she is imagining that the gas light in the house is dimming every night when it is he who is causing it to do so.

It’s noteworthy that this term, and ‘MeToo’ have been included in Collins Dictionary digital edition, as it highlights the shift that has been happening over the last number of years regarding women in particular; the roles that we have been expected to play in society, and the culture of violence that we have endured for centuries. 

It feels as if we have hit a tipping point, with people taking to the street in the #IBelieveHer rallies after the verdict was handed down in the Ulster Rugby case, and the protests following the shocking comments about a teenage girl’s underwear in a rape trial in Cork. 

While it beggars belief that a member of the judicial system thought it was appropriate to ask a jury to consider ‘a thong with a lace front’ as some form of consent, the outrage that followed has given me hope that attitudes are changing. I don’t know if we would have seen this level of anger, both at home and on a global scale, even five years ago. Given this sense of hope, I was surprised to see a recent glut of articles worrying about the fate of Christmas parties in the #MeToo era. 

A study in the US found that only 65% of companies surveyed were hosting a holiday bash - the lowest percentage since 2009, when the world was in the depths of an economic recession - and cited concerns about the potential for inappropriate behaviour, and any resulting lawsuits that may ensue. Many of the articles I read were of the ‘political correctness gone mad!’ variety, bemoaning the death of the office flirtation in the face of the ‘feminazis’, and seemed extraordinarily tone deaf, given the current political climate. Granted, I work from home so I don’t have any office parties to attend. 

(Unless I install a disco ball in my writing room and dance around in my dressing gown while attempting to awkwardly flirt with my reflection in the mirror, I don’t have to worry about inadvertently offending a colleague or getting fired because I drank too much and vomited on the CEO’s shoes.) 

But I do feel annoyed at this insinuation that #MeToo is a bad thing, that it’s gone too far, that it’s ruining everyone’s fun. Because who was having fun when sexual harassment was rampant, and dealing with a lecherous boss was just considered part of the job? It certainly wasn’t the victims, anyway, seeing their careers thwarted and their ambitions foiled while their abusers’ bad behaviour was ignored. 

Blaming #MeToo is inexcusably lazy, and, similarly to asserting that all feminists hate men, secretly hate sex, and see makeup/shaving their legs/wearing bras as a betrayal of The Cause, it feels like an insidious attempt to undermine the movement. It’s a relatively clever, if over-used technique; casting the fight for equality as ‘boring’, as if wanting the world to be fair is akin to being a giant spoilsport. 

It’s also amusing to me that feminists, so often touted as ‘man-haters’, are the ones insisting that of course men know the difference between innocent flirting and, you know, sexual assault, and they don’t need to cancel all the Christmas parties in order to avoid getting the two confused. But just in case you are still worried, here are guidelines:

  • I’m afraid of saying anything in case I get it wrong!” Telling someone their new haircut suits them? Fine. Commenting on a colleague’s body/sex appeal/short skirt etc is weird and unacceptable and can you stop it please and maybe think about undergoing some intensive therapy?
  • If you are in a position of power and have the ability to affect someone’s career trajectory, it’s probably best if you don’t get romantically or sexually involved with them. Two words: Bill Clinton.
  • “I can’t even shake hands with people anymore in case they accuse me of assault!” SIGH. Okay. So, touching someone’s arm while making a point? Grand. “Accidentally” brushing against someone’s breasts or ass in the kitchen? Not so much. In general, just be aware of social cues and body language, don’t pretend to be ignorant of tone (the way you say something can be just as important as what you say), and have respect for one another. I don’t think that’s so difficult now, is it?
  • Lousie says

    BUY: Timmy’s Technology Trouble by Niamh Ahern and illustrated by Valentina Boschi, is a picture book which tells the story of a little boy’s relationship with technology. It feels especially timely, given how concerned most adults are about the impact screen time is having on their children.

    READ: I recently discovered Liberty on the Lighter Side, a blog about a South African mother of four who now lives in Wexford. Liberty is funny, smart, and extremely honest about the challenges that face women in their forties and beyond. libertyonthelighterside.com

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