Breda O’Brien: Women need to work with men who despise misogynist behaviour

Righteous anger should spur us to bring about change but also needs careful handling

Compassion, fear and anger are natural responses to a senseless tragedy like the death of Ashling Murphy. They get tangled up together, with one emotion feeding another.

Our compassion is based partly on identifying with the pain of her family, friends and community. We look at a beloved daughter, niece, friend or neighbour aged 23 and cold fear grips us. It could have so easily been her, we whisper. It could have been us.

The preternaturally talented Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a haunting song about grief in the musical, Hamilton. The show is famous for using the playful verbal dexterity of hip-hop to tell the story of a founding father but after the death of Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip, there is a slow, gentle, heartbreaking song.

Centuries of institutionalised belittling of women have left deeply ingrained cultural patterns. It is a systemic problem

It contains these lines: “If you see him in the street, walking by her side, talking by her side, have pity. They are going through the unimaginable.”


It is hard to listen to without tears standing unshed in your eyes. It is not really that we cannot imagine the grief. Our hearts and minds shy away from it, from the chasm of fear that opens before us at the very thought of it.

And then there is anger. There is such a thing as righteous anger – slow, smouldering rage at the injustices of the world and a burning passion to put them right. Women are inclined towards nurturing – but fierce, protective anger is part of nurturing, like the snarl of a mama bear when her cubs are threatened.

There is so much to be angry about, not just the killing of someone young, talented and kind. There are the everyday injustices, the myriad ways that the lives of women and girls are hemmed in and made small.

Girls cannot even cycle safely. Conn O'Donovan of Cork Cycling Campaign spoke at an Oireachtas committee this week and said that, in 2016, no teenage girls cycled to school in more than 120 towns.

As someone who teaches teenage girls, I know what they say about cycling. They are afraid of dangerous traffic but there is also the routine, everyday harassment faced by a teenage girl on a bike. Abuse shouted at them from cars, muscular Lycra-clad men forcing them out into traffic as they whizz by, and the fact of merely wearing a school uniform triggering lecherous, ugly and sexualised comments.

We should be angry about that, and our anger should spur us to bring about change. Like all fires, however, righteous anger needs careful handling. It is so easy for it to flame out and torch those who are undeserving of it.

Our real fears, our righteous anger, must be heard. Ultimately, though, it will be compassion that changes all that so urgently needs to be changed

Centuries of institutionalised belittling of women have left deeply ingrained cultural patterns. It is a systemic problem.

But just because a system is rotten, does not mean every individual within it is. In every situation, no matter how dire, there are always those who manage to keep their humanity. It is not precisely an inversion of the “few bad apples” theory, that is, the idea that the system is fundamentally sound but there are a few bad people in it. It is not that the system is rotten and a few people manage to remain decent. It is that a rotten system makes it more difficult, to put it in old-fashioned terms, for people to be good. Nonetheless, people manage it. Men manage it.

If we really want change, we must become curious about the men we know who cherish and respect women. How did they learn those attitudes? What influenced them? Why would they sooner suffer a beating than shout sexualised abuse at a teenage girl on a bike?

Someone or several someones in their lives modelled fundamental decency. Someone taught them, probably mostly without words, that every person deserves care simply because of our shared humanity. Someone counteracted in a powerful way the pornified view of women as just things to be shamed and sexually exploited. Someone demonstrated that cultural conditioning limits your choices but never takes them completely away.

Some of those someones are men.

If we really want to counteract the noxious influences of a culture that is often openly contemptuous of women, we need to look at the men we know who, nevertheless, successfully resist that conditioning.

It is tempting and easy to blame everything on some amorphous entity called men. Where does that leave Raymond Murphy in his grief for his daughter, Ashling? Or Cathal, her brother, or Ryan, her boyfriend? Or Mickey Harte and John McAreavey in their grief for Michaela? Where does it leave all the good fathers who worry themselves to death about their daughters but also, their sons? Women grieve. Men grieve, too.

It is true that women learn from an early age that the world is not safe, that they must constantly be on the alert, that the threat of rape is ever present. If we want that reality to change, we women need to work with the men who despise and grieve that reality.

Our real fears, our righteous anger, must be heard. Ultimately, though, it will be compassion that changes all that so urgently needs to be changed.