By Elizabeth Lee '16
As a kid — and, if I am being totally honest, sometimes still to this day — I would imagine myself riding horseback at the front of the line, hair blowing in the wind as I led thousands of troops into battle while wielding my sword. As I grew quieter and shyer with age, I came to believe myself incapable of being a leader, or even just being strong in general, because I was rarely the one making impassioned speeches to crowds or throwing punches at bullies. We feed into and live according to a culture that generally leads us to believe that strength means being aggressive and that winning means beating others.
When Pantene, a hair-products company, released an ad over the summer as part of its “Shine Strong” campaign, it sparked a debate over the gendered use of language — specifically the word “sorry.” Throughout the ad, women apologize for asking questions during meetings, using their own armrests and speaking first in a conversation. Many people responded positively, viewing the ad as a means of confronting women’s perceivably problematic tendency or, as an article in Latina Magazine put it, “incessant need” to apologize too much or at least the environment causing that need.
I could not agree more that women should not feel they have to apologize when speaking their minds or making reasonable requests. I often do wish I had more confidence and self value. Would that not also mean, however, that women should not have to apologize for apologizing or feel like less worthy individuals for operating on what they may perceive as a value of considerateness and empathy? Since when has feminism meant trying to empower women by encouraging them to adapt traits that are traditionally perceived as masculine? And at what point did saying “sorry” become a filler or indication of weakness rather than a sign of compassion or politeness?
Being an empowered person has more to do with self-actualizing than conforming to a particular method of confrontation — again, a typically perceived masculine approach of dominance and aggression. What I suppose many might, and do, say is that “that's just how the world works,” and if we want to get things done women have to be willing to match or overcome a certain level of aggression by refusing to apologize. But if we are suggesting an ideal version of how the world should operate, why is it we are telling women they need to change rather than men? Maybe some of those guys in the ad should have been apologizing out of politeness for interrupting and talking over someone or taking up someone else's space. Or an even better question, perhaps, is why do we continue to use these traits as a way of defining and polarizing gender roles?
In her recent and now popularly spread speech about the launching of the “He for She” campaign, famed actress and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson called upon men to take part in the fight against gender inequality — the fight she described as being for the sake of an individual’s freedom to be both “strong” and “sensitive.”
“It is time that we perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals,” Watson said. “If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are, we can all be freer.”
Whether Watson can or should serve as a contemporary icon of popular feminism has been heavily debated, but her words have nevertheless drawn attention to and provoked conversations about an important point: Bridging the gender gap should not have to mean one end conforms to or eliminates the other. Rather, we are more likely to reach a state of acceptance and cooperation in seeking an appreciation of balance and finding the value in difference.
There also seems to be the assumption that the use of words like “sorry” or “just” — as in “I was just wondering” — is a sign of timidity or devaluing one’s own thoughts and contributions. People should not have to feel the need to apologize for thinking what they have to say is valuable, but perhaps that is not why they are saying it. Perhaps what matters more is that they are still sharing those thoughts or acting upon what they think they should be allowed to do. You can say “sorry” and still be coming from a place of internal strength and compelling conviction. Eliminating “sorry” and all its relatives from our vocabulary when expressing opinions or self-assertion is not wrong and does not have to be part of a culture of domination. But why should they have to be equated with weakness and submissiveness on the other end of the spectrum instead of compassion or generosity?
The strength and self-assertion we often equate with aggressiveness and confidence do not always have to come at the expense of compassion and grace. Having those last two qualities in addition to the first two is much more noble and admirable, not to mention ultimately more effective in terms of communicating and compromise. Without some amount of aggressive conviction, the compassion approach may fall short of our goals to provoke change or be heard. Matching or one-upping someone else’s level of aggression can serve as a valuable means of creating tension and conflict that can help us grow, but it can also eventually reach a point of destruction. Making people feel weak, inadequate or less valuable for not being more confrontational is not necessarily an effective way of inspiring change. Instead, it can actually silence or discourage someone who otherwise could have something valuable to offer.
As someone who is often told that I apologize too frequently or unnecessarily, I also believe strongly in what I have to say. That happens to be why I am writing this piece. So why do I say sorry? Because I mean it. Aside from serving as a sign of deep remorse and a promise to be better, it is more generally a sign of empathy and compassion. It is not out of self-deprecation or careless trivialization of its significance. In the case of qualifying my words it is an acknowledgement not that I am wrong or not competent enough to make such assertions but that I could be wrong, that I respect that people may disagree or that I realize positive change requires compromise. It is a way of expressing that I can value myself and others simultaneously. It is an assertion that such empathy and compassion are not failures of strength but rather indications of it.