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What happens when you tell men to shush on Facebook

Comedian and writer Michele A’Court explains why she asked men to pipe down on her Facebook page, and how her request was received. The answer may surprise you…

Two days after the election of President Trump, I tried a social media experiment on my personal Facebook page. I asked men to shut up, and give women a little space to chat.

Here’s why I did that, and what happened next.

Friday morning, November 11, I posted a link to an opinion piece I’d written for the Press about waking up in Trumpland – the nightmares I’d had on election night, my fears for the future, my hope that if “grabbing ‘em by the pussy” becomes the standard White House greeting, Michelle Obama would continue to go high when Trump goes low, meaning she would punch him in the face on inauguration day.

Then I went off to make an emergency episode of our podcast, On the Rag, in which Alex Casey, Leonie Hayden and I talked about our emotional reaction to Trump’s win – the grief and fear – and also the constructive things we can do with those emotions: acknowledge them, share our stories with each other, support the kind of people Trump threatens and other practical actions we can take to deal with all this mad shit.

By the time I got home in the afternoon and looked at my Facebook page, the comments thread below my article about President-elect Trump wasn’t about Trump. It was about someone not mentioned in it – Hillary Clinton. The usual stuff – “Liar! Criminal! Laughs at rape victims! Married to a rapist!” – you know the drill. Remember, this wasn’t a pre-election piece comparing and contrasting two candidates; this was a post-election, “Holy shit! It’s Trump! How do we all feel?” post. But the conversation had been almost instantly hijacked from a discussion about the man who’d been elected to a different one about the woman who didn’t win.

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All (and I mean all) the “But Clinton!” comments were initiated by men. They emanated a lot of heat, shed no new light, and frequently included links to the same old stories that have been circulating for months. There was a lot of detailed talk about rape (again, from men), and personal insults between commenters (both sides). Occasionally, a woman would slip in to say, “I couldn’t sleep after the election either – thanks for letting me know I’m not alone”, but you could look down the thread and see women being squeezed out of the chat. They stopped commenting – apart from one stoic FB friend who kept posting amusing memes. Other than that small highlight, it was dispiriting. Men shouting, women falling silent, and wandering away.

While mulling that over, I read a terrific piece by Guardian columnist Lindy West printed in the New York Times. “Her Loss” was a very personal and emotional reaction to the election result and what it meant for women. West confessed to spending most of the election day in tears.

I cried because I want my daughters to feel that blazing pride, that affirmation of their boundless capacity — not from their husbands, but from their world, from the atmosphere, from inviolable wells of certainty inside themselves. I cried because it’s not fair, and I’m so tired, and every woman I know is so tired. I cried because I don’t even know what it feels like to be taken seriously — not fully, not in that whole, unequivocal, confident way that’s native to handshakes between men. I cried because it does things to you to always come second.

And I wanted to share that on my Facebook page without it leading to another long bullshit thread about the first woman to run for US President allegedly laughing at victims of rape. West’s piece was specifically about how this election felt to women. I specifically wanted women to join in with their responses.

So I posted the link with this at the top: “To all the men who have posted on my page about Hillary Clinton in the last little while, I offer you this. I do not invite you to comment on it. I invite you to read it (your call) and then shut up. And take a moment to think about what the last few days and months have felt like for women like us. Actually, much longer. Because I think this describes it very well.”

Immediately, the same men from my earlier post climbed in, along with several more. “Censorship!” “Sexist!” they cried. I opened a bottle of wine and stayed busy with the delete button for a couple of hours, then edited the top of my post with this: “Perhaps I haven’t been clear: for this one time, on my own personal page, I am not inviting or accepting comments from men and will delete them as soon as I see them. It is not your turn.”

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I was not trying to ban men from Facebook. Ha! As if! I was not even banning them from my page. I have a pretty open policy – most of my posts are set to “public” and I accept friend requests willy-nilly, only unfriending if someone becomes annoying, and blocking if someone becomes abusive.

With this post, I wanted any men who felt so moved to read the article as an insight into one of the “bubbles” that exist on social media. (I’m defining “bubble” here as a group of people who think differently from you.) And in my experience, you get a better insight when you read and think quietly than when you distract yourself by cutting and pasting a link to something which may or may not be related because you didn’t read the original article in the first place.

So I was offering something I thought was terrific for people to read, and then simply asking people who were not women not to comment on this one post, on this one day.

Given that, I’m buggered if I know why any men would want to get amongst it with the chat. But, man, they were keen. Delete, delete, delete.

So far, so predictable, I guess. But then some things happened. A couple of men who seemed quite cross personally messaged me to complain about my “sexism” and “censorship”. So I refilled my glass, and wrote back to each one of them, explaining that I wanted to create a space where women could do the talking about how women felt. That I was thinking of my personal Facebook page as my living room and today I was only inviting women to sit down and chat. Men could observe if they wanted – welcome! – but the conversation was for and about women.

And after the briefest of back-and-forths, each of them suddenly wrote some version of, “OK, cheers!” and we were done. It was way less adversarial than I might have expected. Personal engagement seemed to diffuse the anger quickly. I found myself feeling warmly towards someone whose middle name on their profile is “Feral”.

While hovering over the delete button, I also saw several men writing positive and encouraging comments, and taking on the angry dudes. I deleted those, too (rules are rules) and messaged each of them to explain why. One of them wrote, “Absolutely no worries… Totally respect your request.” Another man re-posted his supportive comment separately and tagged me into it, so it appeared above the original post on my page. I thanked him publicly, and so did fifty other women. If he’d been in my actual living room, I would have poured him a glass of wine, and invited him out on the deck for a chat.

So what happened on the thread? That was the really good bit. Women told personal stories: about what they’ve been saying to their sons and daughters about the election; about feeling physically sick; about their dreams for their daughters; stories about what is happening in their kids’ classrooms; experiences of sexism at work; about racism at school; and admitting to each other that they too cried real tears on election night. Plus dozens of comments about how nice it was to get to say all these things without being shouted down, and thanks. Sure, there was the odd snarly response directed at men who were angry about being silenced – usually some version of, “See how it feels, buddy?” – before I could get to the delete button. But there it was – a long, long list of women being open, and honest, and vulnerable, and kind to each other. A genuine sense of “Me, too!” and “You are not alone”. Social media that was heavy on the “social”.

Another thing I noticed: with one exception, the comments were first-person responses. At the beginning, one woman had simply posted a link to a John Pilger article about liberals being responsible for Trump’s victory. Two women immediately replied, “Yawn”. That was the only external link posted. Which meant that there were no more: “Here, let me slap you with what someone else said,” but a whole conversation consisting of, “This is how I feel, this is what I’ve experienced, this is what I think.” Which is exactly what I wanted to create a space for – a place where women’s voices and real stories were heard.

It was engaging. The post (the link to West’s piece plus my “shush” preamble) was shared 127 times. As well as all the comments, it elicited 1,013 responses. For those who like numbers that included 864 thumbs, 131 hearts, 11 laughs, 4 wows, and 3 angry faces – which I assume were directed at me rather than West’s lovely writing.

There was only one woman who said she didn’t love it. It was, she said, “male bashing” and I should “tear the tab off the toughen-up can” and she would “pity a man” for the backlash he’d get if he’d asked women to shush. To be honest, I think that is effectively what happened when men bombarded my earlier Trump post with “But Hillary!”. Importantly, it also matters that West’s opinion piece wasn’t about men at all – they didn’t get a mention, weren’t being criticised, and there were no allegations against them to defend. It was about women.

Still, this is a useful thing to consider. Here’s my position: If gay people (or people of colour, or Muslims, or any other group targeted by Trump) want to talk about their fears about Trump’s presidency without straight/white/Christian folk leaping in with their reckons, I would totally respect that.

Also, if a man put up a post detailing a man’s emotional response to a major event affecting men in a specific way and asked women to leave men to discuss their own emotional responses amongst themselves with openness and vulnerability, the sisters and I would be fucken rapt. I’d bloody love to see that, and I promise I wouldn’t make a peep in that space if they asked me not to – but I’d read the shit out of it and probably discuss it elsewhere because that would be awesome.

I’m holding onto the hope that this might happen. I had some nice chats on Messenger that seemed to get somewhere. And a few days after the post, someone put this on my page without any other explanation: “In light of Michele A’Court’s post on Saturday, I’d like to apologise to Rosemary for mansplaining her reaction to the US election for her… Still learning.” – John.


Hear more from Michele A’Court in On the Rag, our monthly feminist podcast (like us on Facebook).

You can subscribe to On the Rag using iTunesStitcher or your favourite podcast client (RSS feed).

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