I debated whether or not to share this critique
A week ago, a blogger going by the name of UnWinona told the online world about the harassment women face on a regular basis. In her post, she described a particularly bad train ride: a group of boys in their late teens boarded the train, approached her, invaded her private space, hit on her, and then, when their advances were rebuffed, began a campaign of catcalls and verbal harassment; after the teenagers disembarked, another man boarded the train, approached her, invaded her private space, hit on her, and then, when his advances were rebuffed, flew in to a violent rage.
When I first read the piece, I reacted—like most people—with outrage. However, as I read the comments that followed and then reread the post, I began to feel more and more uneasy about how the piece characterizes the actions of men generally. In reaction to those characterizations, I composed not a defense of the men who harassed her but a limited critique of how she and some of her commenters have framed the issue. Essentially, I tried to unpack the collateral damage that occurs when we—as a society—decide that men are predatory until proven harmless. In the piece, I went to great lengths to qualify and contextualize my argument, but in the end, I realized that I just couldn’t post what I’d written. Not because I’ve rethought my position, but because I realized that as a man—gay or not—it would be social suicide for me to react with anything but predictable outrage. While I do, of course, find the behavior of the men described in UnWinona’s post outrageous, I see something more complicated at work here, but in the current political climate, it seems dangerous for a man to speak up on behalf of men.
You may be wondering what kind of apologist I must be if I read a story about a woman being verbally assaulted and physically threatened and try to talk about the male subject position rather than violence against women. And who do I think I am, as a white male, weighing in on issues of oppression? I can’t really answer those questions. I can only offer that, in my opinion, those sorts of silencing attitudes sabotage the movement they’re meant to serve. Let me explain.
The number one impediment to the practical campaign for long-term female empowerment and sexual safety isn’t the GOP or religion or the Media or or testosterone or all the male boardrooms on Wall Street; it’s the emotional, psychological and philosophical underdevelopment of the American male. Over the last three generations, feminist academics have been quietly and not so quietly refining and then disseminating an impressive body of philosophical thought, and an army of feminist political/community activists have been hard at work bringing those philosophical ideals into practice. The structural gains that have resulted from all that work are what make a commentary like UnWinona’s even possible.
Here’s the problem, though: while women have been working hard for decades to build a body of empowering critical theory, while women have been teaching each other to interrogate and articulate their experience of the world, men have been enjoying the complacency of privilege. Although that must have been less exhausting than the yeoman’s work being done on the other side of the gender divide, men are starting to suffer the consequences of that indolence. And unfortunately, so are women.
Most men, especially the type of man who would commit the harassment UnWinona experienced, are given none of the modern psychological and philosophical tools that feminists (male or female) use to process their lived experiences. These men have no vocabulary to express masculinity except as the counter proof of feminism. “What are all those girls complaining about? I don’t whine because, unlike them, I’m strong.” Some of this internal denseness has been handed down through the generations, parent to child, but some of it comes from how we talk about privilege. Men, especially straight men, are told they have nothing to complain about, so most of them—the decent ones, at least—keep their mouths shut. The jackasses bring up the “injustices” they suffer (“Why isn’t there a Straight Pride Parade?”) but that only serves to reinforce for the non-jackasses that—really—they have no right to complain. But, complaint is where sophisticated, evolving introspection starts from, and only by expressing those complaints do people learn to interrogate and test their emotional perceptions. If we ghettoize rather than train that sort of fledgling gender awareness, then frustration becomes righteous anger and the ranks of the Ditto Heads swell. The reason Rush Limbaugh has an audience is that he creates a non-threatening—albeit toxic, intellectually sloppy, politically inflected—space in which men can voice their anxieties.
Another important fact that too often gets laughed off as the whining of the privileged is that men are actually facing some pretty disruptive social changes. I’m not talking about material status: men still get paid better; promoted faster; and listened to more. I’m talking about gender identity; from women in the workplace to gay marriage, what it means to be male is shifting under their feet. Although these shifts are necessary and ultimately beneficial—even for the male population that resists them—such shifts disrupt to how men think about themselves.
Since so many men are still weighted down by antique notions about what it means to be “strong” and since so many men haven’t been equipped with the tools to process the feelings that arise in mature and measured ways, is it really that surprising that young white men are susceptible to rightwing retrograde ideologies? Is it really that surprising that a certain type of man, with a certain type of stubborn personality, resists feminism as a threat? Is it really that surprising that, not having been equipped with the tools to detect anything but the most overt oppression, many men treat feminists like they’re crying wolf? And having watched women campaign against what they think is invented oppression, are we really that surprised when male conservative ideologues mobilize the specter of oppression in bad faith (covering birth control = RELIGIOUS OPPRESSION!)? Not that they’re right in any of that, but are we really that surprised?
Anyone with half a brain can see that feminism and gay rights and transgendered rights are going to win this battle. Sure, right now, the people fighting to maintain the status quo are still powerful and numerous, but in ten years, twenty years, this will be a non-issue. Unless we can’t manage to involve men in the program of gender revolution. If feminism’s growing status makes men feel silenced and invalidates their half of the shifting gender experience, then the culture wars will never end. However, if we can give the male subject position a vocabulary and a voice, if they are included and educated and shown the remarkable benefits of a modern theoretical framework, then social change will really be possible. This won’t reify male privilege; it will allow men to relax their hold on it. For 6o years, feminists have been convincing more and more women to let go of the old secure, if harmful, structures and wade into the frightening unknown of fledgling feminism, saying, “Come on in; the water’s fine.” Now it’s time for feminists to do the same for men, to convince them that they aren’t losing anything, to show them the empowerment of a humane, nuanced masculinist worldview.
This masculism should not be seen as being in competition with current progressive ideologies (feminism, queer theory and trans-theory); it should instead be viewed as an inheritor of radical gender politics, the culmination of a long tradition of feminist activism. Ideological empowerment, more than the strictest laws and most vigilant population, is how we’ll really manage the epidemic of violence against women.