A few strident voices and headline-grabbing acts can make a huge difference to public perception – most especially if they are not countered immediately.
So if somebody like David Davis makes an inappropriate pass at somebody like Diane Abbott in a public place, and the woman gets all the disapproval for telling him where to go in no uncertain terms, that’s as good as a signal to any other sexist git out there that they can go ahead and do the same to women they know.
That’s one reason Mr Davies must be brought to book for what he did.
Worse still is the possibility that the victims of this behaviour, and people who see the way they are treated, will use it as a reason to keep their own heads below the parapet and not get involved.
It is a very easy choice. If you get hurt yourself, or see it happening to someone else in a way that could happen to you, you shrink away and do your best to ensure that it won’t.
That’s a certain way of ensuring this abuse will continue.
And, sadly, it also provides an excuse for other people – perhaps those who are more easily-led – to allow it to happen as well, rather than stand up against it.
But real, societal, change only happens when enough people stand up against abuses. And they need people to rally around.
That’s why it is vital that people of strong character – not just women or members of minority groups, but all of us – stand up, draw a line in the sand and then start pushing it back towards the offenders.
Because we shouldn’t be telling them they can have any space at all to do the things they try to do. They are to be stopped. Then they are to be pushed back.
That’s why I think people who see the way women in the public space are treated should not retreat from speaking up publicly or being involved in politics.
They should be shouting for the opportunity to replace the dinosaurs who have perpetrated the abuse – and loud enough to ensure they can’t be ignored.
And men like myself should be shouting along with them.
The Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And as a young woman the “book I wanted to read” was a narrative where a black woman could be a member of the UK parliament.
But suppose that someone had told me back then that 30 years on I would be receiving stuff like this: “Pathetic useless fat black piece of shit Abbott. Just a piece of pig shit pond slime who should be fucking hung (if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”). I think that even the young, fearless Diane Abbott might have paused for thought.
I receive racist and sexist abuse online on a daily basis. I have had rape threats, death threats, and am referred to routinely as a bitch and/or nigger, and am sent horrible images on Twitter. The death threats include an EDL-affiliated account with the tag “burn Diane Abbott”.
Last week was a perfect storm. Parliament and the parliamentary Labour party were roiled by the vote on Brexit. There were journalists outside my house on a daily basis; a Tory councillor was suspended for retweeting an image of me as an ape with lipstick. And accompanying it all, a crescendo of blatantly racist and sexist abuse online.
Then, just when I thought the worst was over, there was horrible coverage in a Sunday tabloid of a misogynist text exchange about me sent by a cabinet minister. Such sexism towards female MPs is sadly still commonplace: only last week, a Tory MP had to apologise for making barking noises at the SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh as she spoke in a debate.
I went into politics to create space for women and other groups who have historically been treated unfairly. Once, the pushback was against the actual arguments for equality and social justice. Now the pushback is the politics of personal destruction. This is doubly effective for opponents of social progress. Not only does it tend to marginalise the female “offender”, but other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly, let alone getting involved in political activity.
Who needs their intelligence, motivation and personal appearance to be savaged in the tabloids and online? Better to stay silent or say whatever the men are saying.
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