Brendan Cox Should Say Sorry And Mean It, And Then Go Away

Sophie Walker
(PA Archive/PA Images)

Dear Brendan

I met you once last year at an event for International Women’s Day. We talked for about 10 minutes and have had no contact since, so I was surprised when you wrote a private message to me at the weekend via Twitter asking for advice.

I saw your resignation statement – the announcement that you were standing down from charity work in response to claims of harassment and sexual assault - and was immediately struck by the way in which you presented as an apology something that seemed to minimise and dismiss even those instances of “inappropriate” behaviour you acknowledge. These were several years ago, you said (as though the passage of time made them smaller) and you never acted in bad faith. How often have we seen such apologies for apologies since the start of the #MeToo campaign?

I tweeted how deficient yours was as a mea culpa and within minutes a private message from you landed. “Would be good to talk to you about your views on what I should do,” you wrote.

Forgive me, but my first thought was to wonder how many women received similar messages asking how you can improve your ways—or at least appear to do so.

I wonder if you even understand what you’ve done.

First there is your history at Save the Children. Harassment is the result of a power imbalance. I believe that you are clever enough to know this. I believe that you understand, as many men do, that arguing over what does or doesn’t constitute harassment, what was or wasn’t intentional, isn’t the point. Did you ever pursue anyone who could fire you? Anyone who could say no without fearing the consequences?

You asked for advice, Brendan, so here’s some: Stop pursuing women in order to make yourself feel better. I don’t just mean you should avoid harassing women - that should really go without saying. Stop asking women to help you fix your mistakes or forgive you for them.

Secondly, there’s your statement. “My actions were never malicious but they were at times inappropriate” is the defence of a man who seems to not have not taken the time to reflect on the influence you wield. Ask yourself why you acted the way did. 

You don’t get a free pass just because you might be doing good things in other parts of your life. As your example and the scandal roiling Oxfam illustrate, that can make things worse, because directly or indirectly the repercussions hit some of the most vulnerable.

Nobody should be surprised that supposedly good men do bad things. When I read your statement, I thought of some of the men I encounter in my work as a feminist activist. There are old-fashioned, unvarnished sexists and then there are the ones who are blinded by their own sense of virtue. Like the man who stands too close to me when he comes to ask questions after a talk I’ve given. The man who explains the importance of his experiences because he cares about women and demands I stand in silent acknowledgement until he is finished. To show that while I may think I have power, he still has more. That I have just as much power as he lets me have.

Luckily there are also many men who are true allies to women, men with whom I am glad to work and glad to know. They understand that you can’t make space for other people unless you take up less space yourself.

You can do better: by stepping back. Redefine the fundamentals of advocacy that you and other men in the aid sector have so badly stained. To empower the vulnerable, those with power must give it without limit or condition. Say sorry and mean it, and then go away.

I hope this helps.