CHRONICLE. Henrik Sjövall, who is the faculty’s officer for equal opportunities, is upset by what has come to light in the stories of the #metoo movement. How could he not have seen it earlier? As a man, does he bear some of the collective blame?
From where did this movement obtain its tremendous power?
From stories! The concrete stories that reek of truth, stories so unlikely that they simply must be true, because no one could compose such a lie! Stories that grab hold of you, stories that cause you to feel ashamed as a member of the male gender, stories that cross all reasonable boundaries. One might be able to convince oneself that the first story “must be an exaggeration”; the second one as well. But like a stubborn leaky faucet, they keep coming. It is simply not possible to make all of this up!
And then comes the reaction: as a man, why the hell have I not seen this!?
Sure, I’ve participated in locker room talk and tasteless dirty jokes; I’ve even thought that guys who were “ladies’ men” who treated women like living mattresses were kind of cool. But in a way, all of that has been toned down through the course of life, and now it is rarer for these types of “jokes” to pop up, even in the locker room.
A few years ago, the so-called “feminist train” passed through the medical school. Already upon beginning term 1, they declared that they would “run riot”, and that they did. In every course, they put on their feminist eyeglasses and wrote down all of the shortcomings they found, and reported these to the head of the department, entirely in accordance with procedure. Eventually they reached the internal medicine course and I received their comments from my department head at the time, with the challenge: “take a look at that and see if there’s something we need to do!”
It began as a breeze
And so I did. About ten pages, large and small. Using a sort of qualitative research methodology for structure, I found three main themes: completely unacceptable statements from individual teachers (“how nice, a whole group of cute girls this time!”); unsuitable case descriptions (the men are office managers or plumbers; the women are housewives or cashiers) and the third theme: dated teaching materials that did not take gender issues into account. The action programme included serious conversations with several teachers and a review of the case descriptions. Rewriting American textbooks was of course unrealistic. I thought I had done what could be done and I put the papers in a binder, where they still are (I did not throw them away, and I have long considered writing something about that, now that I am the officer for equal opportunities).
Time passed, and then boom: it began as a breeze but has now transformed into a full hurricane!
Does anyone remember King Augeas’ stables? The Greek hero Hercules was going to complete a number of great achievements, truly difficult tasks. Capture Cerberus, the dog who guarded the gates of the underworld; take care of the many-headed hydra; hold the world for Atlas. He did so gallantly, but he thought that King Augeas’ stables would be a tough project. King Augeas had enormous stables which he had never cleaned, filled with manure and dung, dark pens, filth everywhere. And Hercules was expected to fix this in a few days.
What did he do? He found a spade and started digging. Had this guy gone crazy? No, he was smart: he dug a new trench for a nearby river and diverted it into the stables. After a few days, everything was completely clean.
The question now is how to get everything clean
I think you can view the reports of the #metoo movement as a variation on King Augeas’ stables. The question now is how to get everything clean. Telling off King Augeas or his stable boys hardly solves any problems, though of course, they may not do this again! Is there a river we can lead in, without destroying the furnishings?
Last weekend, I participated in a workshop at Kungälv Hospital about narrative medicine. Narrative medicine involves releasing the patient’s personal stories when you take down a medical history. Nothing strange here, really: the creation of stories is the brain’s main strategy for long-term storage of information. The Swedish Association for Narrative Medicine had invited John Lauder, a global authority on narrative techniques. We received guidance, among other things, in the form of a talk at the podium with a volunteer at the meeting who had taken down a real conflict situation. And what came up, if not the very phenomenon of belittling? Then small group talks – once again, two cases of belittling, with elements of both gender and ethnicity! Three out of three cases. It chafed, enormously. And none of those involved seemed willing to push it further, perhaps for fear of retaliation, perhaps to not be stamped as a “troublemaker”. None of them seemed to be familiar with the work environment legislation that makes this kind of occurrence directly illegal. It is “the employer’s responsibility to ensure…” otherwise it is in violation of the Work Environment Act! And the burden of proof is on the employer; experienced discrimination is discrimination, period!
So, what to do? The #metoo movement has a strength and durability that makes questioning seem unreasonable. This exists here and now, right among us, and we are all participating in this game, whether consciously or not. The fact that this phenomenon has an even greater magnitude in other countries and cultures is irrelevant.
We must try to investigate this deeply, try to find the mechanisms, both those that can be remedied and those that cannot (if they exist). We have the stories; I’m not sure that we need to look for more: they’re arriving in a constant flood from every direction. I considered the possibility of an academic hearing, in the vein of an American Senate hearing, but I think there is a high risk of people ganging up on others who are unable to defend themselves. It could also be possible to turn this into a project, to split the problem into sub-problems, appoint workgroups tasked with developing an action plan, implement it and ensure it is carried out – the method of choice for airlines.
How about education; can we educate this away? We have tons of antidiscrimination programmes at Sahlgrenska Academy, but they are neither obligatory nor tested and therefore only affect a fraction of students. This too should probably be reviewed. In the medical profession, we have a mandate to be quite close to people and we therefore have a mighty responsibility to be role models when it comes discrimination. Are we bearing this responsibility?
And unfortunately, even in our own ranks, there are individuals with unacceptable attitudes towards gender and ethnicity. We must be tough with these people: straighten up, or we will start a notification process!
I’ve gotten it all out now. As a member of the male gender, I feel a sense of collective blame with regard to the #metoo movement’s stories, somewhat reminiscent of original sin. Why have I not seen this? Have I been a passive observer who bears some of the blame for all of this?
I don’t know. Do you?