Fergus Finlay: I have turned a blind eye to cheap, vulgar sexism — it is all men

Fergus Finlay: I have turned a blind eye to cheap, vulgar sexism — it is all men

A photo of Ashling Murphy among flowers and candles at a makeshift shrine during a vigil in her memory at Leinster House, Dublin, following her murder while jogging along the Grand Canal in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

We've all had a week to try to come to terms with the murder of Ashling Murphy. I’m still not sure what to say. I fear I may not have the right to say anything, and I would never wish to intrude on the terrible traumatic grief her family must be going through.

But as a human being, I cannot begin to countenance the depth of pain involved. In any family death, there is immense pain and loss. In situations where the death is traumatic, it can sometimes be impossible to get to a point of mourning until the trauma is addressed. Questions remain forever, and the question that can never be answered is why? Deep support over a long time is essential. There are no words, no formula, no solution that can ever make it right.

As the father of four daughters, each of whom means more to me than my life, I cannot begin to countenance how I would cope if such a thing was perpetrated on any of them. I know the aching, unbridgeable hole it would leave in me. I know the rage I would feel towards the perpetrator. I know how hard it would be for me to ever reach a point of forgiveness, let alone to move on.

And as a man, an ordinary man, I have to say I am surprised by the depth of anger and shame I feel. Not for the first time in my life, and to be honest I don’t know why this terrible crime against one young woman would make it more acute. But every time I stop to think about it, it is a mix of anger and shame that comes over me.

In part my anger has been exacerbated by this terrible “not all men” nonsense we’ve all had to endure on social media. That’s how it started anyway and was quickly followed by “men are murdered too”. There are, it seems, people who believe this nonsense — some of them attention-seekers, some ideological, and some just plain blinkered.

If we don’t understand and accept one simple premise as a starting point, we’re never going to change this.

Every one of us

It is all men. Me. You. Every other man in our culture. Every single one of us.

I hope it is the case — though how can I be sure? — that no woman has ever felt uncomfortable in my presence. I hope it is the case — again, how can I be sure? — that every woman I’ve ever known has felt respected as an equal by me.

But I also know it is the case that I have allowed myself to snigger at off-colour sexist jokes. I know it is the case that I have been in company where cheap and vulgar sexism was the order of the day, and I didn’t call it out. I spoke at a function one time, not too long ago, and the guy who was doing MC on the day (a university professor) sneered at the person last on stage, saying that he hoped she’d be able to manage the steps because of the tightness of her skirt. There was more in that vein. I was horrified at his carry-on and said absolutely nothing.

They’re just minor examples.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve had hundreds of opportunities not to turn a blind eye over my lifetime. I don’t know how many I’ve passed up, but I’m certain it was too many

But it goes much deeper than that. At a time when multiple reports were being published into the sexual abuse of children by priests and clerics in different dioceses throughout Ireland, there was a common refrain of “not all priests”, and there was much sympathy for priests who tried to do their best and were being tarred as abusers because of the behaviour of some.

It was true in its way, but it masked a much deeper truth. Every single one of those priests belonged to an institution that believed in protecting the abusers. Priests who didn’t abuse realised that refusing to see what was going on and keeping their mouths shut was the best policy. Whether they wanted to or not that made them complicit. And it gave the abusers impunity. Impunity means freedom from punishment. If you have impunity, nothing is off limits.

Throughout my lifetime, a high degree of impunity has attached itself to crimes of domestic violence, to crimes carried out under the influence of drink. Crimes of violence against women are graduated, so that judges often talk about “the less or the more serious end”. How many times have we seen rape trials turned into effective attacks on women who were raped?

You know who devised all those systems and laws and procedures? Men did. Throughout my lifetime men have used their entrenched power to ensure that women have a lot less power. And it continues to give men impunity — to harass, to embarrass, to wolf whistle, to intimidate and frighten. And it happens thousands of times a day to women.

It is men who have built empires on pornography, trafficking and prostitution. Men who are the customers of these trades. Men who have done little or nothing to put an end to them.

Throughout my lifetime the notion of equality between men and women has been resented, and frequently actively resisted, by men 

The right of a woman to a job, the right of a woman to equal pay, the right of a woman to decent childcare support, the right of a woman to make decisions about her own body — none of these rights were won without a battle in which men were usually on the other side. None of them have been fully won yet. No man was ever sent to a Magdalene laundry. No man was ever locked up in a mother and baby home. No man ever had his new-born child taken away from him under duress. If those things had happened to men, do you think there would be a long, drawn-out battle about restitution?

Change is possible

I’m not saying that I know how to change all that, but I know it’s possible. At one time in Ireland you could, with impunity, hit a child. We’ve taken that impunity away.

If we decide to, we can remove impunity from anyone who thinks it’s OK to sneer at a woman or frighten a woman or intimidate a woman. Of course it will involve changing laws and structures and making certain that the onus of responsibility shifts. And stop all this nonsense about arming women with pepper spray to fight for themselves. Doesn’t it make just as much logical sense to argue that every man should be compulsorily fitted with a tracking device?

But change has to start with one acknowledgement. It is all men. If we don’t accept that, we cannot change what is, to what needs to be. When all men recognise that equality means equality, and that equality spans every aspect of life, things will begin to change. No-one should have impunity from inflicting pain or fear on others. And no man can be exempt from doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

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