One of my biggest pet peeves is the question, “How are you?”
It’s become so shockingly meaningless that I always have an internal, visceral reaction of annoyance when asked the question…even though I’ve caught myself asking the same question to others.
This empty question annoys me because people don’t really care to hear the answer and we usually never give an honest answer if we aren’t doing well. Whenever someone, a friend, a stranger, asks how we are doing, we often reply, “okay, great, etc.”
So why do we ask the question so flippantly, as if it’s the equivalent of saying hello to someone?
For me, the question of “how are you” speaks to the larger issue of the misplacement of positivity and gratitude in our society.
Am I saying we overly positive?
No, I’m not saying that.
What I am saying is that our tendency to answer the “how are you question” with a positive and light response represents a larger tendency in our society in which we like to collectively bury or ignore our problems and pretend like everything is “okay.”
But when it comes to examining the big issues that still plague us as a society, we apply that same mentality of burying our problems in order to go about our day.
One of the most pressing problems that we smooth over as “okay” is where the issue of gender equity stands today. So often, I hear people talking about all the wonderful progress we’ve made in combating gender discrimination. I get emails and messages via social media from readers who say that there has been so much progress for women, that I should acknowledge it and spend my time worrying about bigger problems.
I like to call this the myth of “look how far we’ve come.”
It’s this myth that doesn’t allow us to fully combat this issue of gender discrimination, because when we ask the question of “how are you,” in the context of women and the struggles they must overcome in our current world, things are definitely not okay–but often, the answer for those who refuse to fully acknowledge and absorb what’s really going on is still, “Everything is fine. Everything is okay.”
This is the equivalent of putting one’s head in the sand and is something that both men and women do.
The other day, a friend of mine, a woman, told me that I should focus on women in “Third-World countries” with respect to my writing and advocacy, because women in the Western world don’t need empathy.
For the record, empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy doesn’t mean you have pity for someone or look down on them.
While I don’t disagree with her that women living in countries that regularly employ physical, economic, and emotional violence as ways to control them deserve much needed advocacy, the idea that Western women don’t need “empathy” is ridiculous at best and incredibly dangerous at worst.
This column isn’t about a lack of gratitude, or not honoring the women (and a few men) who have helped get the gender battle to where it is today. It’s about turning off our auto-pilot and realizing we–in the Western world–still have far to go in the fight for gender equity. Many of us (mostly men) move about so easily in our lives, unaware of the imbalance, but for so many women, they are painfully aware.
This past year, I’ve been told by lots of people that I am “too angry,” when it comes to advocacy for gender equity. It’s funny, because I’ve been angrier before, it’s just my anger had nothing to do with women’s rights, so people didn’t have much to say about it.
As a man, I’ve always been given room to feel angry, but now that I’m addressing something related to women, my anger is now criticized and maligned.
I’m angry that our system of government has been co-opted by one sex, leading to an incredible imbalance in governance.
I’m angry–angry that women don’t see accurate representations of themselves in the media. Angry that the media, at large, has attempted to write off the sexism women face by declaring as The Atlantic did, “the end of men,” when men continue to dominate positions of power and influence.
I’m angry that women’s voices are still muted in many subtle ways.
Do you ever want to tell someone, maybe someone you aren’t close to, or perhaps a stranger that everything is “not okay” when they ask ubiquitous “how are you” question?
I do. And with respect to gender rights, I’m tired of saying “Look how far we’ve come!”
Because that’s the equivalent of answering “Everything is okay.”
And as far as I’m concerned, everything is far from okay. So I’m not going to give the same scripted answer anymore, until things really are fine.
As long as I share an elevator with two young women who couldn’t be older than 12 and overhear them talk about how they have to cut down on carbs, everything is not okay.
As long as the United States still ranks 81st in the world with respect to women representation in government, everything is not okay.
As long as there are only two women in this room, everything is not okay.
As long as women hold just 17 percent of the seats in Congress, everything is not okay.
As long as men still blame women for this gap in Congress by making the claim that more women vote than men, so it’s up to women to vote for women, everything is not okay and not getting better. And if you think this is just about voting, you clearly don’t get it.
As long as there are 31 United States senators who vote against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women act, everything is not okay.
As long as people who hate women, who have waged a war on women, try to gaslight the citizenry by telling us that the phrase “the war on women” is merely a political ploy and not based in reality, everything is not okay.
As long as I see stories about Hillary Clinton’s hair, makeup, clothing when I never see a single story about U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s hair or clothing, everything is not okay and it’s not getting better.
As long as we are told the reality television programs that consistently portray women as conniving, unhinged and erratic are simply a guilty pleasure, and not a destructive misogynistic form of entertainment, everything is not okay.
As long as women have to face street harassment (a.k.a. cat calling) that makes them feel unsafe, humiliated, and degraded, and as long as people wave off this harassment as “boys will be boys,” everything is not okay.
As long as there are magazine covers like this one, where a “bachelor” gets to smile and enjoy the limelight, while the women in the cast are portrayed as crazy, cat-fighting maniacs, everything is not okay
As long as people say “You must be on your period” to women and men when someone is either a.) speaking their mind or b.) happens to be in a bad mood, everything is not okay.
As long as people (including women) keep using “pussy” to indicate weakness, everything is not okay. Yes, it’s a big deal to continually refer to a woman’s body part in a derogatory way to indicate weakness in anyone or anything.
As long as women lead 40 percent of small businesses, but get less than 10 percent of venture capital funding, everything is not okay.
As long as women only hold 16 percent of board seats on public companies, causing an imbalance in leadership of the companies that employ millions of people across the United States and around the world, everything is not okay.
As long thousands of untested rape kits languish in police departments across the United States, allowing thousands of sexual predators to go unprosecuted, everything is far from okay.
As long as 1-in-4 college women will face, according to the US Justice Department, an attempted or completed rape, everything is not okay.
So is that it? Is that all it’s going to take in order for me to acknowledge that everything is okay? That things have gotten better? To take a break?
The idea that you can look at a group that faces discrimination and simply declare that everything is okay because a bunch of laws have been passed or because someone who is a part of that group anecdotally claims that things have improved, is ridiculous.
Remember, we can’t pass laws or individually force people to abandon their social conditioning.
It’s a depressing reality, but this is the burden of social conditioning. It took thousands of years for us to get here, and it may take thousands of years to get out.
This idea that we don’t need to be angry because everything is getting better or because people look at their lives and feel good about where they are, is individualism at it’s worse: “Because my life is okay, that means no one like me needs help.”
I feel responsible, as a man, not because I feel that my gender can can save women, but because I am where I am today, in large part, due to male privilege and the sacrifices that women in my life have made for me and for other men.
So don’t tell me not to be angry, because I’m pissed off that so many of us can pretend like nothing is wrong.
My friend Susie uses a phrase that perfectly represents where we sit today on the issue of gender imbalance.
“The house is on fire and the kids are upstairs,” she says.
Except by acting like everything is OKAY, we’ve just called off the firefighters.