Since the debate on Sunday, the Internet has far and wide lauded the final question, asked by Karl Becker, for attempting to bring more positivity and friendliness into the debate. To the audience’s surprise, he asked the candidates, “regardless of the current rhetoric,” to “name one positive thing that [they] respect in one another.”
I can understand the American public’s enthusiastic response. This election season has seen an unprecedented level of toxic hate speech, accompanied by a shocking rise in hate violence nationwide. In its report on hate groups and domestic terrorism, the Southern Poverty Law Center went so far as to call 2016 a year of “extraordinary violence.” For many of us, the memory of President Obama’s exhilarating Hope campaign now seems impossibly far away.
And yet this debate question, while it represents a healthy intent, leads America in an unhealthy direction. Rather than attempting to target the roots of inequality and negativity in this election season, Becker’s prompt sought to smooth it over with a temporary veneer. While Becker called for more respect between the candidates, women were left wondering: When will we receive the respect that we deserve?
In the days preceding the second presidential debate, tapes of Donald Trump were released to the public in which he speaks about aggressively moving on women, kissing them and “grabbing them by the pussy” without their consent. Prior to that, he’d made countless lewd statements about women, ranging from ridiculing former Miss Universe Alicia Machado about her weight to objectifying comments about his own wife and daughter. During the debate, his apology for his comments on the tapes, which many feel equate to bragging about sexual assault, fell far short of sincerity. Rather than take responsibility, he defaulted to a “locker-room talk” excuse, suggesting that his behavior was normal among men. In this sense, Donald Trump is the dangerous epitome of white male privilege. He proudly flaunts his disregard for paying taxes; threatens jail to his opponent; and openly denigrates women, minorities, immigrants, Muslims, the military establishment, and a great many other vital components of American society that deserve our protection and dedication. And yet not only does he experience no consequences, but we even ask his opponent to compliment him on camera.
An additional vital issue here is the cultural standard that this question enforces. Every day, women are sexually assaulted and harassed. For so many women, it is impossible to speak out about sexual assault. Our society has taught us that it is dangerous for us to break the silence, that acting polite and playing nice is safer than causing problems. If we do, we are the ones who are labeled and judged; all too rarely do the perpetrators face due consequences. At Sunday’s debate, in the last question of the night, America watched its first female presidential candidate be asked to pay respect to a man who glorifies sexual assault, a man who parades his misogyny on a national stage and capitalizes on bigotry and disenfranchisement. I find this deeply problematic.
Adding fuel to the fire on Sunday night, Trump also conducted a press conference prior to the debate with a woman whose rapist Hillary Clinton had represented as a public defender, as well as three women who had previously accused President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. Afterwards, these women were invited to the press conference and seated in the front row. To be clear, I do not argue that these women should not have been present; they of course had every right to attend. All women are absolutely fully entitled to their own opinions and individual responses to their situations. It does, however, concern and sadden me that they and their experiences were subject to such manipulation by Trump.
If we are to improve the treatment of women in our society, the first step is to take a stand both together and as individuals and refuse to allow our stories and ourselves to be used and manipulated by those who have no interest in our betterment. The Trumps of this world were not born this way. This behavior was learned, and it will take a massive, multigenerational reeducation effort to cleanse our society of this rot. However, women must know their own self-worth before they can teach it.
Men, for their part, have a responsibility here as well. Do not rely on temporary veneers to improve a situation. Do not ask for pleasant words, but rather for the difficult stories. Ask the women in your life about their experiences with sexual assault. Listen to everything they have to say. Women, we must speak up: together, louder, more often, and with men present. Amplify each other’s stories. Be an ally: to one another and to other communities facing similar challenges. And above all: Vote. Every chance you get, in every election you can. Take your fight to the polls.