QUARTERLY ESSAY 84 The Reckoning



Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox

Jess Hill’s Quarterly Essay is, like all her work, a powerful example of how anger can be artfully harnessed to thorough, evidence-based, utterly convincing argument. Even if you already accepted the sentiment and thought you knew the facts, Hill’s essay renews the energy for change.

In her final pages, she raises the most urgent questions for men who hold themselves innocent of harassing, abusing, raping, objectifying and coercing: men who are also angry, without having been direct victims themselves, yet tentative about entering the debate and who do not quite know how to help. Hill asks: “What right do men have to talk about #MeToo? Do we as women really want them in this conversation? Should we only accept men with spotless records as allies? Can we trust heterosexual men to speak honestly, and not just use the movement as cover? Do we, ultimately, believe it’s possible for them to change?”

These are pressing questions for men who have inherited the privileges of structural injustice while claiming the “spotless record.” My instinctive response, in the face of white-hot female rage, is silence and submission. If my time’s up, the floor is yours. I am quick to shut up. If I am irredeemably implicated by my advantages, and the willingness to change is not the same as the capacity to change, then I am the first to get out of the way.

Yet if Hill and others believed an effective way forward is for all men to move aside and STFU, then she would have said so. Instead, she promotes the idea that for change to be ongoing, coalitions must be built and maintained.

Many years ago, I met Nina Funnell when she was in the early days of her work to expose and end sexual abuse on university campuses. I offered help. If I have dedicated my writing career to the defeat of a single adversary (never underestimate the importance of revenge in a writer’s motivations), my nemesis can be portrayed succinctly – and Jess Hill does so at the heart of her essay – as my personal Christian Porter. Through satire, extended analysis in fiction and nonfiction, every means possible. I have given a life to exposing such men, in the somewhat optimistic hope of bringing about some kind of self-recognition and reflection. If you like, Funnell and I had the same target in our sights.

Of course, she didn’t need my help. She had the testimony of thousands of women who had their own young Christian Porters. And while I was, I hoped, holding such men to account for their subtler abuses and their blind habitation of their glittering burrows, Funnell was potentially uncovering actual crimes. As a male observing toxic masculinity, as someone whose sufferings were relatively minor, I could only go so far.

So should the male voice, with his privileges and impending decrepitude, simply box up his good intentions and vanish? In many ways, it would be a relief. It has never been as easy as it is now to be misunderstood, and when you are misread and anathematised by your friends and allies, the overwhelming temptation is to curl up in a ball and be silent.

Yet shutting up and submitting, being too humble, not challenging forceful personalities, yielding the floor – this was what my kind did in the first place. It was our part in letting our Christian Porters do what they did. Fear of confrontation, fear of power and fear of ridicule lay behind our complicity in their acts. Silence and withdrawal by the many is what enables crimes by the few. Male passivity doesn’t get as much coverage as active violence, but is one of the (in)actions that got us here.

Hill co-wrote her final chapter with her husband, David Hollier. She accepts Josh Bornstein’s first-person plural pronoun when he asks, “Are we winning?” This ought to clarify the message for men who consider themselves innocent and yet still guilty, who wonder if the best thing they can do is to be silent. The “unceasing” battle that Hill describes in her conclusion can be fought in many ways, but she suggests that it can only be won by working together.

Malcolm Knox


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 84, The Reckoning. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 85, Not Waving, Drowning.


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