The Eye of the Needle


Well, if I’m going to start writing again, and one of my main obstacles to writing is a strong conviction that there are very few topics about which I am qualified to write…

I might as well start with one of the topics about which I am least qualified to write.

This is Scuba Nurse’s fault. Or Sarah Wilson’s fault. Or #YesAllWomen’s fault. Or Elliot Rodger’s fault. Or society’s.

(It’s not their fault that I am writing again – that’s other people’s fault, people who are coincidentally all women, but that is irrelevant here. It is Scuba Nurse’s fault that I’m writing this. Or Sarah Wilson’s. And so on.)

In order of causality…

1. Society is such as it is.
2. Several days ago, a 22-year-old man named Elliot Rodger went on a murder spree in California.
3. His attitudes towards women, expressed in his own online publications, struck nerves among women whose responses struck chords among others, through the #YesAllWomen hashtag.
4. Scuba Nurse noticed men reacting in various ways to the phenomenon, including asking the question, “What can I do?” and wrote a blog post answering that question.
5. (Sarah replied to Scube’s tweet about it, which is how I came to read it, as I had glanced away from Twitter at the exact moment Scube had tweeted. Sarah’s complicity is included here for the sake of completeness.)
6. I’m calling Scuba Nurse “Scube” now.

And so I read Scube’s blog post.

I grew up as a nice boy. I believed I was nice. I probably actually was nice. That was the consensus.

In my late teens and early 20s, I suffered heavily from depression. I misdiagnosed my niceness as the root cause of my problems, and proceeded to remove it. It was a lengthy process.

At the age of 20, I was still mostly nice.

One day, around Auckland, there appeared a number of messages spray-painted on the footpath, in Ponsonby and in Myers Park, and probably other places.

They said this:


Some friends of mine and I thought this was hysterically funny for two reasons. Firstly, because what was the point of it? Was someone going to read it and change their mind? Etc.

Secondly, we found it hilarious because we joked about adding punctuation to the spray-painted messages.

Well, we found ourselves hilarious, I suppose would be more accurate.

I was still mostly nice back then. And my friends were all nice.

Scube’s first piece of advice on what men can do is to not make this about them. So I’m obviously ignoring that one. This post is about me, and maybe other guys.

Then she lists some really brilliant advice, which naturally I see as a checklist, a test by which I can score myself, which level I’m on, how much more XP I need to level up, how many pats out of 10 on the back I can give myself.

Check, check, check, check. Pat, pat, pat, pat.

There’s a good story in the Bible. No, there is. There’s a good story in the Bible, where this self-congratulatory fellow comes up to Jesus and says, “Word up.” (I’m translating from the Aramaic.)

He says, “Word up, Jesus. I am awesome. I’ve done all the things. I’ve checked all the boxes. I’ve clocked the game, right? Are there any more levels?”

I’m not a youth pastor, by the way. I tried once, but my goatee comes through all patchy.

Six years later, aged 26, I had cured myself of niceness so successfully that I had forgotten that the procedure had ever taken place and had come around full circle to once again believing that I was nice.

I was the editor of a student magazine called Craccum, and one of my favourite things about my magazine was a funny cartoon written and drawn by a very talented guy. He was also nice.

In one of these funny cartoons, a guy is taking a very drunk girl home and he is sober and she hits on him, invites him in for sex. He nobly declines, saying that she was drunk and it wouldn’t be right.

After the door closes, he bangs his head repeatedly on the wall, chiding himself, “Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!”

The punchline is a public service announcement: “Be prepared. Always carry a condom.”

The joke is that if he had brought a condom, he would have slept with raped her. That was the joke, and I thought it was brilliantly funny, and also considered myself to be one of the nicest, most cleverest, most enlightened folks around. Humble about it too, I’m not even kidding.

No one challenged me on that cartoon. No one complained.

So Jesus says to the guy, “Oh, it’s very awesome that you’ve done all of the things. There’s just one level left for you to beat.”

And the guy says, “Cool bananas! (In Aramaic.) I’m awesome at the other levels. What’s this one?”

And Jesus goes, “Oh, for this level, you have to sell everything you own and give everything to the needy.”

And Scube, she goes, “Be the killjoy. Be the guy who calls out rape/misogyny/domestic violence jokes.”

Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes.

All of my friends are nice. They’re even nicer than I was when I was nice, and I’m reliably informed that I was very nice indeed.

Even most of my acquaintances are nice. I think so, anyway.

A lot of my friends and acquaintances make rape/misogyny/violence jokes and find them funny, just like I did when I was nice. So being nice doesn’t stop you from making those jokes, finding them funny.

And a few of my friends, they call people out on things like that. So being nice doesn’t stop you from calling out people making those jokes.

Me, I don’t do either. I don’t make rape jokes or find them funny. And I don’t call people out on them. This is not because I am nice, or because I am not nice.

I was never actually nice. I just wanted people to like me.

Six years after I had published that cartoon, I pulled out my bound collected edition of all of my year’s Craccum issues, in order to demonstrate to someone how terribly clever I once was.

I remembered how hilarious that one particular cartoon had been, so I found it and was about to show it (off) to my friend. I read the cartoon for the first time in years.

My first thought was, “That can’t be right.”

And then, “Oh man, there was a rape joke and it slipped right past me! I thought the other joke in it was funny!”

But there was no other joke in it, I realised.

What had changed? Back then I found it hilarious and now I found it saddening, not even funny enough to laugh in spite of myself, not even funny at all.

I’ve spent some time this evening trying to work out what it was that shifted my perspective on these jokes. Because that’s what it is, I think – a shift in perspective. I have not become better, or smarter, and certainly not nicer. I didn’t cross a threshold of improvement. My perspective just shifted.

I have tried to remember the first time I had that different perspective.

And I have remembered this one conversation, from five years ago.

I just wanted people to like me.

And I was on bFM radio with Jose Barbosa. A few years earlier he had got it into his head that I’d be worth having a weekly slot on an afternoon show talking complete rubbish, and no one thought to tell him otherwise.

The trailer for Seth Rogan’s “Observe and Report” had just come out. The reason we were going to discuss it on air was because there had been some controversy around it. In one particular clip in the trailer, Rogan’s character is having sex with a woman who is so drunk that she seems unconscious. He stops, and she wakes up enough to tell him to keep going. That’s the joke.

So some feminists had been complaining about it and I was researching what they were saying so that Jose and I could talk pop culture on the show. My intention was to present the whole thing as a nice balanced two sides of the story.

While I tried to prep for the show, I was struggling to find the non-feminist side to the story. They had a point.

So I go into the show and I’m talking with Jose. As I said, I wanted people to like me, especially cool people, and Jose was cool in my books.

He says, “So, we’re going to talk about this movie Observe and Report.”

And I say, “Yes.”

He says, “I’ve seen the trailer.”

And I say, “Yes.”

At this point, if Jose had said, “It’s hilarious and those feminists are just massive killjoys,” I would have laughed and agreed, despite my qualms. This is because I am a coward and I want people to like me.

And I don’t know if Jose felt any pressure to say anything like that. Questioning Seth Rogan could be considered sacrilegious in some circles. For all I know, he might have thought I was cool and wanted me to like him too. For all I know, he might have felt like saying something like that.

Fortunately for me, what Jose said was, “It’s a fucking rape joke and it’s appalling.” Or something along those lines.

I was grateful. Like, vocally grateful. “I’m so glad you said that! I was afraid that I was going to have to disagree with you!” I think those were my exact words. 29 years old, big-time superhero coming through. Afraid of disagreement.

That’s the earliest I can remember that shift of perspective occurring.

And it was helped along by someone calling out a rape joke.

I’m not nicer or better or smarter than I was when I thought rape jokes are funny. And I don’t think that people who find them funny are meaner, worse or stupider than I am now.

But I am grateful for that shift in perspective, partly because it makes me less likely to unwittingly make someone feel terrible with my words, partly because it makes me less likely to actively encourage that kind of thinking and those kinds of words in others. And so I am grateful to the women who called out Seth Rogan, and I am grateful to Jose for speaking his mind.

I was never actually nice. I just wanted people to like me. And people don’t like killjoys. They don’t like interruptions and downers. Mainly I think that they don’t like people who make them feel mean or bad or stupid.

When jokes about violence against women are made around me, I don’t laugh, but I don’t speak up. I imagine disappointment and defensiveness and aggression and conflict. I worry, and it’s easy to say nothing.

But now I’ve got this new worry. What if someone else is like I was back then – thinking that maybe this isn’t okay, that it isn’t funny, someone who wants to be liked, hoping that someone else would speak up, being grateful if they did.

Maybe lots of people are like that, and we’re all just too cowardly to recognise each other.

Maybe you don’t have to be nicer or better or smarter. Maybe you just have to be braver.

I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Why did it have to be snakes.