Joining the struggle against sexism won’t make you less of a man | Jonathan Freedland

From Twitter rape threats to lads' mags, women are confronting misogyny – but until more men join them, the battle can't be won

The way I remember it, we sat for at least 10 minutes in silence. No one wanted to be the first to speak, for fear that would look too domineering. Even the people who'd organised the group stayed quiet, each of them reluctant to play the role of "leader", with its dread, patriarchal associations. So we stayed seated in our circle of wooden chairs, earnestly mute. When one man did finally start talking, it was in a whispered mumble, lest he be deemed excessively assertive.

Ah, happy memories of student life, specifically my first (and, I fear, last) meeting of the Wadham College men's group at Oxford in the autumn of 1986. Hard to recall now whether I went along out of simple curiosity or because I'd heard that the fastest way to a Wadham woman's heart was via an anti-sexist discussion forum, but it didn't seem so outlandish back then. This was the era when Andrea Dworkin was a disapproving presence on every female student's bookshelf and when a French guidebook directed tourists to Wadham to gaze at the "beautiful feminists" reclining on the lawns. So embedded were the new anti-sexist mores, college rumour told of a third-year who had trained himself not to get an erection with his girlfriend, thereby avoiding a physical state that was irredeemably aggressive.

It wasn't nostalgia that brought back these memories, but rather a glimpsed photograph of Alastair Campbell wearing an 80s-style T-shirt bearing, in bold capital letters, the slogan No More Page Three. Good for him and good for that campaign, which advanced this week with the decision by the Irish edition of the Sun to drop the famous topless picture in deference to what it called "cultural differences". But the Campbell snap and the response – tweeted jokes about the former spin guru's chest or urging him to get the rest of his kit off – confirmed both how rare and how open to ridicule are forays by men into the war against sexism.

That there is a battle to be fought is surely beyond doubt. Whether it's a prosecuting barrister branding a 13-year-old female victim of sexual abuse "predatory", or the ongoing death and rape threats against women who speak out on social media, all those who care about even basic notions of fairness or justice can see there is a momentous struggle to be joined. Yet men hesitate. Register the voices who rise up to object to these or any of the other instances, constant and ubiquitous, of sexism and misogyny and they overwhelmingly belong to women.

Perhaps that's inevitable. An attack on any group will be felt first and most keenly by that group: it usually falls to Jews, for example, to sound the alarm over antisemitism. But that rule is not universal. The backlash against the Home Office's "Go Home" vans, a hateful scheme now under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority, has not been the exclusive preserve of immigrants, legal or illegal, or the descendants of immigrants. Even Nigel Farage denounced it.

But somehow men leave the heavy lifting against gender bias and gender hatred to women. The most charitable explanation is that men worry they cannot speak about this subject authentically, that their perspective is of less value than a woman's. Others fret they'll get it wrong, that they'll inadvertently say something that is itself sexist, thereby revealing that they too don't "get it" – so it's safer to say nothing. The diffidence of the men who took part in last week's #twittersilence was striking, several indicating that they were only "sort of" taking part.

Underlying all of this is that fear of ridicule, the suspicion that there is something funny about a man in a No Page Three T-shirt, or even about the simple act of calling himself a feminist. My remembered student experience is part of that, the notion that if a heterosexual man takes anti-sexism too seriously he'll end up emasculated, humourless and ideologically barred from expressing sexual desire – in other words, less of a man.

The result in what should be a universal movement for human equality is a big gap where the men should be. Of course the differences between sexism and racism are vast, but it's useful to recall the great civil rights struggles of 50 years ago all the same. That was an African-American movement from top to bottom, from its leaders to its grassroots, as it had to be. But white anti-racists were part of it. Scan the photographs of those freedom marches and there are white faces as well as black.

That was necessary, for the twin and bleakly simple reasons that white Americans were both the problem and an essential part of the solution: racism did not exist in the abstract, but in the hearts of white people and white-led institutions, and it was white people who held the power to change things. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks prevailed because they not only raised the consciousness of black America, they moved and shifted white society too.

Again, the parallel is imperfect, but surely contemporary feminism has to engage men for similar reasons. Dip into the eye-opening @EverydaySexism feed on Twitter and you will see evidence of the most egregious discrimination – women assaulted and insulted as they go about their daily lives – almost all of it committed by men. At the risk of stating the obvious, progress requires more than the testimony of the woman told in a job interview that it'd be nice to have some "eye candy" around. It will also require men to stop saying it.

That means a change in men, but also perhaps in the struggle itself. For there is not just a gender gap on this issue. Wary as I am of pointing it out, there does seem to be a gulf separating the feminist conversation currently aired loudest in the public sphere and the kind of monotonous, grinding experience recorded by @EverydaySexism. It is the culture wars that grab media interest – a run of pop videos featuring topless women; proposed "modesty" wrappings to hide the covers of lads' mags; Jane Austen on bank notes; horrors on Twitter – yet it is the stubborn problems of unequal pay, low conviction rates for rape, workplace discrimination against mothers and, say, the need for statutory carer's leave, which probably speak more directly to the lives of women outside the media bubble.

For now, though, the challenge is for men to find their place – and to be welcomed – in a struggle that may be led by the women's movement but which is surely a human cause. We've tried sitting in silence – and it hasn't worked.

Twitter: @Freedland


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Dangerous dogs legislation – don’t mess it up again | Jonathan Freedland

The Dangerous Dogs Act was rushed through in 1991. The government's brief consultation risks making the same mistakes

Where regular folk speak of a dog's dinner, or even a dog's breakfast, political types refer instead to "dangerous dogs". In Westminster, that's the byword for a spectacular mess, specifically legislation botched through being rushed. If a minister ponders a panicked response to a news story, a wise spad, or special adviser, will be on hand to whisper: "Careful, that could end up being a bit dangerous dogs."

The phrase owes its origins to the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, one of the low watermarks of the John Major era. The government is now promising to improve on that notoriously poor bit of lawmaking. Today it launches a consultation, proposing among other things harsher punishment for owners of dogs that kill. (Leading on the effort is the animal welfare minister who, rather unfortunately given the context, is called Lord de Mauley.)

Few could argue with the consultation's main thrust, that the current maximum jail sentence of two years is too low for cases that have led to loss of life. Instinctively, one feels that the death of 14-year-old Jade Anderson, savaged by four dogs near Wigan in March, or the 15 others who have been killed by dangerous dogs since 2005, merits harsher punishment than that. This consultation will ask what new maximum sentence would be more appropriate for such a crime: seven years, 10 years, 14 years or even life imprisonment.

Of course there will be cases where that maximum will be inappropriate, where the dog owner never intended to cause any harm. But you don't have to have set your animal on someone deliberately to share some responsibility for what they do. An unrestrained rottweiler or bull terrier can be a weapon every bit as lethal as a loaded gun. If it's yours, you're at least partly responsible for the consequences.

But increasing the punishment for lethal attacks is not enough. Surely it's just as important to prevent such attacks happening in the first place. This is why campaigners are calling for Dog Control Notices, already in place in Scotland, which would enable local councils to crack down on the illegal breeding and deliberate training of aggressive "status dogs", kept by their owners to be part-trophy, part-weapon. You don't have to have read Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo – with its pair of pitbulls fed a mixture of Special Brew and Tabasco to increase their levels of aggression – to recognise the problem.

Above all, ministers need to learn from the fiasco of 1991. Things then were too rushed. Yet today's consultation is set to run only until 1 September: less than a month and conducted when many people will be away or unaware of the entire exercise. Put simply, this consultation should go wider and run longer. Otherwise, this Tory-led government risks repeating the error of the last one – and making a dog's dinner of an attempt to tackle a serious problem.


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We can’t afford to be cynical about the Israel-Palestinian peace talks | Jonathan Freedland

John Kerry has shown the will to get things moving, and even old hands aren't as pessimistic as usual. There's room for hope

You can't fault him on expectations management. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has succeeded in launching a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative for which almost no one has high hopes. Conventional wisdom suggests the effort is, if not doomed from the very start, at least hobbled by stubborn facts akin to those that have thwarted every peace effort since the Oslo accords, which will be 20 years old next month. To take just a few: the Palestinians remain divided between Hamas and Fatah, and their president is weak; Israel's governing coalition includes parties explicitly hostile to a two-state solution; the US has shown itself unwilling to impose the pressure required to get a deal.

One veteran negotiator says his fellow Palestinians "are either sceptical or actively opposed", and the Israelis are no more enthusiastic. In Washington and Europe some eyebrows have been raised. With Egypt and Syria unravelling, is it really wise for the Kerry to be spending so much time and energy going down an alley that everyone knows ends in a brick wall?

Yet talk to those who follow this conflict most closely and you find something surprising. Nothing so reckless as unbridled optimism, – they've all seen too much failure for that – but what one longtime insider comically calls a "cautious non-pessimism". It's the unfamiliar sensation of spotting a glimmer of light in the usually reliable gloom.

No one thinks the two sides have suddenly seen merit in each other's cause. Rather, they've found themselves in a blame game they don't want to lose. Neither wants to be left with the dead cat on their doorstep, as Kerry's Texan predecessor James Baker so memorably put it. Kerry has played on that skilfully, herding both sides into a room under threat of being named and shamed as spoilers if they refuse. So long as they fear being cast as the naysayer, they're likely to stay there.

The upheavals in the wider Middle East play a part too. Initially, it was assumed that the Arab revolts would militate against any peace breakthrough: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas lost key backers, the US was distracted, and Israel was reluctant to draw final borders just as the tectonic plates around it were shifting. But regional change can work the other way. Recent events have weakened Hamas's position, depriving it of allies in Cairo and Damascus, which has created some space for Abbas. Meanwhile, Kerry knows his chance of getting progress on Syria is meagre, so why not have a go in an area where the US might just have an impact? For his part, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's chief focus remains Iran. But to act there he will need US help – and if that means saying yes to Kerry now, so be it.

None of this amounts to a cue to put flowers in your hair and start singing Give Peace a Chance. But if cautious non-pessimism is in the air, there are a few moves Kerry can make to boost the prospects for success.

First, he needs to ensure either he or his just-appointed envoy, Martin Indyk, maintain the current level of intense involvement. On this the Palestinians and Israelis I've spoken to grudgingly agree – Kerry's persistence and determination has been crucial. He has made six visits to the region in four months, even as his wife battled serious illness. If either side hoped to let things drift, or for momentum to stall, Kerry has dispelled that hope. He just keeps showing up. And if a US secretary of state is repeatedly in your office demanding something, eventually it becomes impossible to say no.

This is what Tony Blair had in mind when, in his memoirs, he offered lessons for the Middle East from his success in Northern Ireland. "The thing needs to be gripped and focused on," he wrote, recalling the constant, daily engagement he and his office had on the Ulster issue. In Israel-Palestine, wrote Blair, "no one has ever gripped it long enough or firmly enough". It was not sufficient to pay "intermittent" attention. "If it was gripped, it would be solved." That may be too hopeful, but Kerry seems to subscribe to the same philosophy. While Obama's first envoy, George Mitchell, believed in endless listening – diplomacy as therapy – Kerry is what Blair would doubtless call a gripper.

Second, he needs to show a flexible approach to the tricky matter of timing. Leave things open-ended and they will drift, each side coming up with stalling tactics designed to run out the clock. But set too hard a deadline, establish what Yitzhak Rabin mocked as a "sacred date", and a process that was building its own rhythm can become fatally rushed – witness the scramble for progress in the last days of the Clinton administration. Kerry has spoken of a nine-month process, but wisely he has not waited until the twilight of the Obama presidency to start it. He's given himself time. But he needs to ensure the parties have neither too much time nor too little.

Third, this needs to be about peace, not process. Israeli officials have spoken openly in the past of their comfort with talks that never end but which give the country diplomatic cover. To prevent that, Kerry has to ensure both sides are pressed to speak about specifics, not generalities. Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations says, for instance: "If Bibi gets through this without showing a map, it will have failed."

The favoured formula is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That's useful in avoiding a past mistake: a focus on security measures taking priority over the concrete business of agreeing a border. There will have to be both. But that does not mean that progress on issues left over from the 1967 war – relating to the occupied territories – has to be held hostage to thornier questions dating back to the birth of Israel in 1948, such as the status of refugees or Israel's character as a Jewish state. It might be possible to forge an agreement encompassing the former even without a final agreement addressing all of the latter.

Finally, experience suggests it is not a good idea to prepare for failure. Speak of a fallback option and, says one Israeli official, "that exerts a magnetic attraction of its own". Soon the two sides are lobbying the US over the contents of plan B rather than striving to reach plan A.

The smart money says this will fail; in the Middle East, failure is always the safer bet. But while cynicism is certainly the easiest posture, when it comes to this conflict, it's not the right one. Too many lives have been lost or broken to be cynical about an effort to make peace. The least we can offer is our hope.

Twitter: @freedland


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