Whether it's Bernie Sanders or any well-meaning ally, men need to learn that being accountable isn't the same as weakness.
With less than 30 days to go before Iowa, the American left is currently tearing itself apart over the question of whether it is a critical injury to a man’s dignity to say the words “I’m sorry.”
Last Monday, CNN published a story alleging that, in a private 2018 meeting about her upcoming campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders told Senator Elizabeth Warren that a woman could not win the 2020 election. The sources, all unnamed, were people Warren had repeated his remarks to at the time. Sanders angrily refuted the story, claiming that it was “ludicrous,” and further claimed at Tuesday’s debates that “I didn’t say it.” Warren herself released a statement confirming CNN’s report, saying that “among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” Both candidates have reiterated that they are long-time personal friends.
Yet there is nothing “ludicrous” in Warren’s story, as any woman who has been condescended to by a well-meaning male friend or colleague knows. Sanders has a history of sticking his foot in his mouth when it comes to electing women; his public remarks over the past few years have ranged from angry sarcasm (“I’m a woman, vote for me!”) to complaining about how feminism affects his own political chances. (“I think we are running against a lot of problems… there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected.”) He has also argued—openly, and for years—that the best way to win over bigoted conservative voters is to avoid challenging their biases, and that running candidates with marginalized identities courts backlash: He has urged progressives to “get off” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage to win over the white working class, and, speaking of Black Democratic candidates Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, argued that they lost their races because “there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American.”
It is completely credible that a man with those beliefs would tell a female friend—gently, constructively, with genuine respect, without realizing there is anything offensive in what he is saying—that her presidential campaign will be doomed by her gender. He might even say it without realizing he’s said it. By Sanders’s own recollection, “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could”—which, as Rebecca Traister has noted, is not remotely incompatible with Warren’s account. Yes, the statement that “a woman can’t win” is sexist, because, aside from being objectively wrong, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; it dissuades women from running, and dissuades voters from supporting women because they fear backing a lost cause. But it’s also not unforgivable. This is the kind of blunder decent people make every day—a man thinks he’s being helpful and protective, a woman feels patronized and condescended to, and a brief but decisive “back off, dude” must be issued in order to clear the air. It takes 30 seconds to make the mistake, and thirty seconds to atone; none of this ever needed to be an apocalyptic, bitter confrontation.
Yet no one can be forgiven until they say they’re sorry, and this, Sanders and his supporters have furiously refused to do. Sanders set the tone early, by flat-out calling the report a lie rather than acknowledging that his statements may have been more offensive than he intended. His supporters have followed suit, suggesting without evidence that Warren had planted the story, or framing Warren as a vicious, underhanded aggressor. “This is about as dirty as politics gets,” bemoaned Matt Taibbi, while Will Menaker of Chapo Trap House called it “by far the dirtiest attack of this campaign so far.” Multiple people compared Warren’s statement—which was, again, that a colleague had said something irritating in a meeting—to false rape accusations: “Cannot believe Liz Warren is trying to MeToo Bernie,” wrote Liz Franczak.
But of course, “#MeToo-ing” someone—that is, alleging that they have raped or sexually assaulted you—is not an act of violence. Raping someone is. Remembering that a man said something sexist in a conversation is not an act of aggression. Saying something sexist is. It’s deeply disturbing that people who consider themselves “leftists” could get their priorities this backward. There’s no sign that Warren planned this conflict, or that she wants to continue it; in Tuesday, BuzzFeed reported that key Warren supporters had received messages from her campaign, telling them that “our goal is de-escalation and focusing on our shared goals.” Yet by doubling down on the sexist stereotyping of Warren as a conniving, untrustworthy, lying woman—something this camp has done before, to Warren and to any other woman who gets in the way of Sanders’s success—the Sanders camp have made the conversation more misogynist than it ever had to be.
This has been maddening for many women to witness precisely because it is such a familiar confrontation. Watching Warren get blasted and victim-blamed simply for being hurt by a friend’s clueless statement mirrors the ways many of us have been wounded by the men in our lives. Most women genuinely want to have good relationships with their male friends and colleagues. When someone presents himself as a “good,” feminist man, we want to believe it, because a life where you cannot trust half the planet is no life at all. Yet these unequal relationships—women with male friends, queer people with straight friends, people of color who socialize with white people—only work if the privileged party is willing to make themselves vulnerable and admit that there are things they don’t know. At the point where solidarity conflicts with self-interest, men routinely fall apart and blow up at women rather than admit they’ve made a mistake.
Any genuine solidarity, or even genuine friendship, will entail broaching uncomfortable topics—for example, the fact that you’re both running for the same job, and you might be the first woman to ever get it. Sometimes, in those tough moments, people say and do the wrong thing. Hearing that you’ve messed up can be a way to understand the issues better, but only if you’re willing to learn from it. If someone close to you points out that you’ve said something sexist, you gain nothing by blowing up at them or calling them a liar. Only the hurt person knows for sure how damaging your comment was. You can shame that person, and thereby end or damage the relationship, or you can say you’re sorry. Even if you don’t fully comprehend how you hurt someone, the apology itself is an act of growth; it means you admit that your actions can have an impact you didn’t anticipate. It probably won’t feel great—we all prefer to maintain an image of ourselves as evolved, well-meaning people, and apologizing means confronting your own failures. But when your pride forecloses your ability to learn or grow as a person, that pride will ruin your life.
Yet that humility that solidarity entails is deeply at odds with a culture where being a man, or being a leader, means never admitting weakness. Men, in particular, are socialized not to apologize: It’s a submissive gesture, a sign that you’ve done something wrong. There are lifestyle advice guides for men entitled Real Men Don’t Apologize; there are articles in men’s magazines about how, since apologizing entails feeling bad about something you’ve done, it should be avoided. (“He tried apologizing for past wrongdoings, but it didn’t make him feel any better. Is saying ‘I’m sorry’ really worth the trouble?”) Men famously apologize less than women in office settings, in part because women apologize for no reason, just to make sure the people around them don’t feel threatened.
Sanders, in particular, has staked his reputation on the idea that he is almost literally infallible, and will never need to bend to outside pressure or apologize for anything; when marginalized people or groups disagree with him or try to hold him accountable for past mistakes, he routinely goes on the offensive, whether that’s calling Planned Parenthood “the establishment” for backing his rival or staying quiet while his supporters fervidly tweet snake emojis and #NeverWarren hashtags about his long-time ally. But he’s not even the only male candidate in this cycle to conspicuously flunk the apology test: Joe Biden, when called to the mat for his treatment of Anita Hill or his habit of inappropriately touching female colleagues, struggled with a few half-assed “I’m sorry someone felt a way for a thing that happened” or “times have changed” statements, and ultimately concluded that “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”
This pattern is scary for reasons beyond interpersonal relationships. For a progressive, electing a president is not electing a hero or a friend or a God; it’s choosing the person you want to fight with for the next four years. Change happens from the ground up, when marginalized people and activists effectively pressure their leaders to take their agendas on board. Warren has shown that she can be pressured in the right ways; she’s reversed her stance on FOSTA-SESTA in response to pressure from sex work activists, crafted disability plans that were actually made in consultation with disabled activists, and taken on the best part of her opponents’ platforms after they dropped out. Sanders, meanwhile, furiously repudiates any sign that he might be wrong about anything. If he cannot apologize for a simple social slip-up, how is he going to respond when anti-gun advocates call him to the mat for his spotty record? When abortion-rights advocates need him to launch a strong and unequivocal defense of Roe? When we cannot “get off” same-sex marriage and need to take swift, strong action to reinstate the rights of transgender people, which Trump has continuously rolled back?
A man who thinks he’s right about everything is a man who doesn’t listen to anyone. Refusing to admit fault may make a man, but it doesn’t make a leader. Right now, it’s Elizabeth Warren who is being slammed for daring to point out a problem, but if this pattern continues, it’s all of us who will be left wanting an apology.
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