When an injustice occurs, it’s human to be angry.  Being angry is easy, and it feels good and cathartic.  But in order to actually address systemic injustices, we need to be mindful of the ways in which we allow that anger to shape our response. Today, on a summer Monday morning, there are two recent media stories  on my mind that evoke systemic injustices:  the Trayvon Martin case and the “Don’t be that girl” campaign in Edmonton, Alberta.

The Trayvon Martin case has received considerable coverage, so I’ll spend a little bit of time on the story that has emerged in Edmonton. Both evoke the same questions about identifying the right enemy, whether “enemy” is even the right framework, and the ways in which we effectively or ineffectively use anger to create the change we wish to see in the world.

Some time ago, Sexual Assault Voices of Edmonton (SAVE) created a poster series, “Don’t be that guy,” that called out non-consensual sexual behaviors that constitute sexual assault. For example, one featured a photo of two men sitting on a bed and says, “It’s not sex if he changes his mind.” This series was provocative in that its audience was those who were committing crimes, not those who were victims of them.

In response, Men’s Rights Edmonton created a poster series, “Don’t be that girl,” that calls out the fact that false accusation of rape is against the law. For example, one features a photo of a woman with a group of men and says, “Just because you regret a one night stand, doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.”

MRE positioned these posters as a counter to the SAVE posters, and framed the campaign as an angry attack. The anti-sexual assault community, and particularly SAVE, has responded back with anger as well, suing MRE for copyright infringement.  Some say the MRE posters make a good point.  Others say they are blaming victims. There has been a bunch of legal rage and street rage flying around on the internet that has captured the media’s attention. Unfortunately, extreme perspectives on both sides of this discussion have distracted the majority of regular folks from focusing on the facts.

So here are some facts to consider:

  • Men commit acts of sexual violence against men and women.
  • Women commit acts of sexual violence against men and women.
  • Men make false accusations of sexual violence.
  • Women make false accusations of sexual violence.

These are so certainly facts that I’m not even going to footnote them. Sure, we can have arguments about who does more of what and which situation is worse for which person, but creating a hierarchy of human suffering, in my opinion, is a colossal waste of time.

And here are some opinions that most reasonable people wouldn’t disagree with:

  • Sexual violence is wrong.
  • False accusation is wrong.

Being against sexual violence doesn’t mean that you support false accusations of rape. Just as being against carjacking doesn’t mean that you support people who make up stories of it happening. Though from the latest media and blogging brou-ha-ha, that’s exactly what you would think is the case.

So how have we somehow twisted this into a discussion about how anti-sexual violence advocates somehow support false accusation? And that speaking about the fear of false accusation of rape means that you are a victim-blamer and support rapists?

We shouldn’t afraid to talk about false accusations of sexual violence.  They do happen, and we shouldn’t discount the impact on those who have been falsely accused.  But they are also rare.  And people who are afraid of being falsely accused, a fear that is often grounded in misinformation, shouldn’t be made to feel like they are supporting actual rapists.  They are separate issues, each incredibly important. And they are NOT polar opposites.

If MRE wanted to do a provocative parallel to the SAVE campaign, they could have focused on female perpetrators.  SAVE’s posters did address both male and female victims, but not male and female perpetrators.  While not as common, they do exist, and it’s important to bring voice to them.  Instead, MRE created a parallel between being against rapists and being against people who are falsely accused.  Which is totally not the case at all.

Furthermore, both sides of this debate are focused on the wrong enemies.  SAVE and SAVE supporters are focused on men’s rights activists and people who highlight the possibility of false accusation as the enemy.  False accusations are rare. A campaign like this makes it harder for women to come forward. MRE and their supporters are highlighting women who make false accusations as the enemy. False accusations happen. False accusations are a crime. False accusations damage people’s lives.

While all of these points are factual, shouting them back and forth to each other isn’t exactly productive and won’t make a difference on either issue. We all really ought to be working together to change the one thing that can make a difference for both the falsely accused and those who are sexually assaulted: the justice system.

Instead of working together on improving the justice system to be fair, impartial, and compassionate to both victims of crimes and those who are accused of committing them, we are pitting men against women and just making each other more and more angry.

It made me think about how we discuss false accusation of other crimes. We talk about the wrongly convicted, or in the case of Trayvon Martin, the failure of the justice system and racism.  False accusation of rape targets women making false accusation.  False accusation of murder targets an imperfect justice system and society that has systemically incorporated a set of beliefs about race and gender into its rules, regulations, and policies.

The justice system is indeed deeply flawed. And it perfectly reflects the ways in which our culture is flawed. After all, it was made by humans, not by robots. But should the racist and sexist people be our enemies?  Or are they victims too? When we set out to “attack” those with the “wrong” beliefs, we have let go of our compassion and hope and given into our anger and fear.

We ALL have the power to change ourselves and those around us, and more importantly impact the systems that influence the communities in which we live. We can talk about the real issues, the core issues, from a place of vulnerability and compassion. We can proactively seek out those who hold opinions we don’t agree with and try to understand their lived experience. We can reject polarizing conversations like those that are emerging around Edmonton and Trayvon Martin, and instead focus on the values that we all share. We can support and elect leaders who will do the same.

This is OUR world. We create it and re-create it each and every day. We can project our disappointment with ourselves onto invisible enemies, or we can do the hard work of understanding how our values and emotions may be working against each other.