A piece in today’s Times, by the columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris:
Opinion writers attempting a difficult column on a sensitive subject will recognise the shiver of worry that the wrong people may be cheering. I worry as I write now. It’s about the killing of Sarah Everard.
So, first, please understand this. I’m not joining the “what’s all this nonsense about women’s security?” brigade. I don’t doubt the physical threat women feel in public places is often intense, a thorn in the side, never quite absent. Millions of women have millions of stories and there’s a great, half-concealed well of injustice to be confronted.
Nor do I think sexual harassment, rape or assault is always unconnected with wrongheaded male attitudes: the boy who thinks it’s OK to grab a girl’s thigh under the table is less likely to take no for an answer in the bedroom too. The boy who doesn’t tell his mate that harassing this girl is not on will be complicit. We’ve a long way to go in recognising and correcting assumptions of male entitlement. “Everyday sexism” is a disfiguring reality I’ve been learning to spot, including in myself.
But I don’t believe this terrible killing has anything to teach us about commonplace male attitudes or impulses. It is not a reflection on men as a gender. It was not an extreme example of everyday behaviour. It does not show that our streets are generally unsafe. Sympathy for one woman should not be used to whip up antipathy towards men generally, to justify hatred of the police, or as a recruiting sergeant for the extreme fringes of feminism. Why have so few spoken up to say this?
One who has done so is Everard’s university friend, Helena Edwards. Her death, Edwards says, “has been hijacked”. People are using this killing to pursue causes, some justified, some not, none connected with one man’s monstrous crime. Largely uncontested, an idea has arisen that a single, rare, sick, random killing is a kind of allegory for misogyny generally: an extreme example of what all women face from men.
It is not. Virtually every man in Britain has been nauseated by this atrocity. To insinuate that we’re in some way, just by virtue of our gender, part of this, is an insult I take personally, as will millions of men. Antipathy towards masculinity in general, and towards the police in particular, dishonours Everard’s memory. One ghastly alleged abduction and murder points to no useful conclusions at all on women’s safety, or the risk of violence or murder by men.
Consistently, more than two thirds of homicide victims are men. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators are also men. Men are much more likely to kill, and twice as likely to be killed. A man outdoors is at a greater risk of attack than a woman.
But the risks are usually tiny. Everard was not foolish, not gambling with her life, by walking home after dark. The greatest risk to pedestrians is being hit by cars, not strangers. She was very, very unlucky. But somehow this has been turned into a dark parable about male attitudes and women’s struggle for equality. The impression is given that men, by being men, are on some kind of a continuum that starts with holding mildly inappropriate attitudes towards women, and ends with killing them: all of us somewhere on the same slippery slope from a silly sexist joke to the assassin’s den, each fumbled pass a gateway drug to murder.
But there is no continuum. A normal man might (or might not) have unreconstructed attitudes to the opposite sex but would no more initiate a murderous attack on a woman than run naked down the street. The link just isn’t there. Among some of my own male age group, old-fashioned and now (rightly) unacceptable attitudes towards the place of women in society are typically associated with strikingly chivalrous behaviour.
Sweden’s homicide rate is about the same as ours; their ratio of male to female victims not so different. But in their social progress on feminist issues they’re miles ahead. It is entirely imaginable that an enlightened society should achieve a near-perfect state of gender equality and gender respect but without any reduction in its quotient of violent psychopaths.
I’ve worked in politics and the media for nearly half a century. A nation’s attention span can be both short and, while it lasts, very fierce. It is also quite randomly bestowed. It is like a high-intensity roving searchlight, sweeping haphazardly across a vast landscape of potential news and, when it lights on something, locking on to it. Then, for a while, a man, a woman, a child-abusing bishop, a dangerous breed of dog, a new illegal drug, an invasive African cockroach or a particularly vile murder stand illuminated, caught as in a magnesium flash: freeze-framed in unreal prominence against the unlit infinity of other news.
No editor or journalist, and no prime minister, can entirely ignore the spasms of public anger or grief that we report, and by reporting amplify. But we should remember that most will pass, often with unseemly speed. Deft statesmanship strikes a worldly balance between indulging and quietly dampening down: a sort of shock-absorber between the news cycle and responsible public administration. Is it this Tory party, this Labour opposition, or just the febrile, social-media-frenzied era to which they think they must surrender, to blame for the headline-driven bouncing-around that now passes for government?
Plain-clothes police spies in nightclubs? Really? A splurge of new streetlighting to prevent abductions? Really? Misogyny a hate crime? Really? You begin to wonder whether what we used to call lawmaking should be seen as just the making of a people-pleasing noise.
By next weekend Cressida Dick will hopefully still be leading the Metropolitan Police and this tragedy will have fled public attention, though never the hearts of Everard’s family and friends. But the insecurity many women feel in public spaces will not have disappeared. We need some calm reflection on where that insecurity is warranted, where it is not, and what practical steps could be taken to make things better.
A week in which report and comment shrank from analysis, bigged up fringe groups and fringe opinions, and slopped around in photographs of bouquets and the Duchess of Cambridge, has only aggravated fears. It has deflected attention from the myriad individual small ways we could heal individually small wounds. That would be the difficult response. We chose the lazy one — or silence. It was not brave.
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