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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.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anna #

    I really enjoyed this, David. Much of what you say is why I chose to study sociology instead of women’s studies – I don’t think any discussion of feminism is complete without the inclusion of how we treat and socialize gender as a society. And that’s likely why a lot of men don’t want to identify as “feminist,” because they feel that feminism has nothing to do with them. Thanks for articulating – your writing style is lovely and engaging.

    As a side note, the UnWinona story hit home because it’s so easy to just accept men leering or making inappropriate comments or telling me I should smile more when I’m walking down the street as “normal,” when in fact it should not be.

    September 13, 2012
    • Thanks, Anna! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s a complicated issue that’s hard to pin down… Gender, man, not an easy nut to crack.

      September 13, 2012
  2. michael romano #

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the least common denominator is probably not the best staring point for such an undertaking,. Still, your provocative post does beg the question. What must the framework and vocabulary of “Masculinism” look like if it is to enlighten the ranks of the ” Didoheads” ?

    September 13, 2012
    • I’m less concerned with how to convert current Ditto Heads, than I am with how to prevent future Ditto Heads. There is something about the way men are raised that causes them to flee into Rush’s outstretched arms. Once he has them, I don’t think that there’s really anything anyone can do to get them back, at least not on a large scale.

      September 13, 2012
  3. But… it’s been done. It’s being done. What you’re calling for, feminism isn’t failing to do. Feminist writers have been the ones I’ve heard pointing out the problems with common tropes describing men; feminist critiques have been the ones I’ve heard unpacking exactly how dominant representations of men are enabling, infantilizing, and obstacles to male maturity. They’re not neglecting this analysis; they’re not neglecting to show men how inherited problems of patriarchy and gendered oppression are hindering their personal and group growth. (This is excepting, of course, the body of real but regrettable straw-feminists who just want to keep yelling until all the men are gone, and weird cowering assholes like Robert Jensen who think the solution is to forfeit male gender identity entirely. I have an enjoyably scathing review of the latter, to which I can link if so desired.)

    So my question is, if it’s being done, why is it not being heard? It’s a different problem, maybe one of making it thinkable for men to hear feminist analyses in the first place (which, for the reasons you’ve laid out, it’s kind of not).

    September 13, 2012
    • Dianna, you’re totally right. I should have been more careful in how I talked about feminists generally. There are of course plenty of feminists doing exactly what I’m saying needs to be done. And of course, any critique I can make is only possible because of the rockin’ feminists I’ve happily been exposed to over the years.

      I think some of it comes down to what may seem strange to critique: the privileging of female subject position within feminism. In 99% of the world, women have to work harder to be heard, but in discussions of gender, the male subject position is inherently less valuable, less valid, than its female equivalent. And of course women deserve to have a space in which they’re FINALLY listened to and valued. But from a strategic perspective, that sort of dismissal isn’t going to win allies. It’s not that some feminists aren’t talking about male issues. It’s a matter of how hard it is, how frightening it can be, to speak up on these topics when you’re a cis-man. And serious men with serious feminist leanings (a brave club of which I consider myself a lesser member) will and should fight through that to create a space for themselves in the discourse. But laymen aren’t going to do that because what’s the use? Why go to the trouble if every time you try to speak up you run the risk of being accused of sexism or the ignorance of privilege? For most men it must seem like a (righteous?) uphill battle with very little reward. So from a practical standpoint maybe the same advice can be given to well-intentioned female feminists as has been given to well-intentioned men in the workplace: recognize your privilege and choose to make space by speaking a little more quietly so as to not silence those for whom it is harder to speak. I suppose what I’m talking about is post-feminism, and that’s something I’ve never actually, in reality, experienced.

      The question of why the message isn’t getting through is a hard one. Privilege is resistant to even the most effective solvents, so certainly male unwillingness is an issue in this discussion, an issue which maybe only other men can address? Mentorship is key in all this. But, I think another big problem is that the “straw-feminists” are, like all extremists, louder than the feminists who take a more nuanced position. Here’s my question though: if I’m right in my supposition (the best way to help women is to give men an adult seat at the gender theory table), then is it fair to say that the feminist community needs to do a better job of speaking up when a, dare I say it, sexist take down of men takes place? In the same way that the liberal Christian community needs to make itself more visible if it wants people to stop saying all Christians are homophobic? That may be an unfair comparison, but as a heuristic, is there anything to it? Non-straw-feminism has an image problem. The persistence of that image problem (shrill women nagging for their rights) certainly starts in misogyny, but what’s the best way to solve the misapprehension?

      September 13, 2012
      • And, of course, a post-feminist discourse is only possible in a post-feminist world. And this world certainly isn’t that. But could we get there faster if we acted as if a little?

        September 13, 2012
  4. I debated on posting this comment :P

    I really enjoyed reading this and, in many cases, I think you’re spot on. Contemporary popular feminism has developed a level of jingoism where extreme cases are dramatised at the expense of thoughtful discussion. And thoughtful discussion needs to happen. What about gay people? What about bisexual people? What about people who consider themselves asexual? It’s not the same. In fact, it’s honestly very confusing. And it would help if we could talk sensibly about it.

    But (and you knew there was a but coming in here, didn’t you?) I think my perspective may be a little different from yours. I grew up in Virginia–which, aside from a few enclaves–can be pretty intolerant people who don’t want to live a traditional livestyle. I went to law school in Virginia and briefly attempted to work in litigation in Virginia. I still get treated like an idiot. My last boss actually told me “women can’t do math.” He even repeated it on the phone for his friends a few times–showing that it wasn’t just some verbal ejaculation that he hadn’t intended or truly believed. The ironic thing is that I was actually correcting a mistake that he had made.

    Here in Virginia, where marriage is constitutionally defined as being between a man and a woman and the Pentagon is full of well-paid manly men who hang out in cigar bars staffed by women half their age, the statement that “anyone with half a brain can see that feminism and gay rights and transgendered rights are going to win this battle” seems a little less obvious than it might to people living in more enlightened locales. Granted, I might easily be able to solve the problem by just packing all my earthly possessions and moving. It’s pretty tempting to try it. Because I give up on teaching the cavemen how to be enlightened males with radical notions of their place in this world.

    And that’s the sad part. Posts like UnWinona’s are not, in my opinion, a celebration of how awesome it is to be a feminist. It’s one woman giving up on constructive criticism. Because, from where I sit, it doesn’t seem like straight men are even trying to meet me half-way. I’d be happy to give them a grown-up seat at the gender table. But I sincerely doubt they’d even consider sitting down.

    September 14, 2012
    • And it occurs to me that that was a bit ranty and maybe I should have debated a bit longer before posting. Sorry about that.

      But thanks for giving me a place to vent a little frustration.

      September 14, 2012
      • No way, Loraine! You posted an important perspective to this whole debate! Being raised in a hippie household in Northern California has given me only a rough outline of what it’s like in the rest of the country. Keep it coming! I’ll reply more fully to you first comment web I’m not typing on a cellphone.

        September 14, 2012
    • Hi, Lorraine. (Good to meet you digitally. Are you part of the GMHS crew? Go Mustangs?) I guess I’m taking an “arc of history” perspective on all this. Probably the dudes smoking those cigars can never be convinced that women are just as capable as they are, but if they’re hanging out in bars staffed by women half their ages, then they’re in their 40s or 50s, right? I hope that as with gay rights, the next generation will have a more evolved way of behaving. That certainly doesn’t help people like you who have to deal with the dinosaurs, but things are at least heading in the right direction.

      Also, as someone from one of the most liberal areas in the US, let me guarantee you that we have our fair share of misogynists. They’re just quieter about it.

      September 14, 2012
      • Hi David. Nice to meet you as well. I did go to GMHS–eons ago, it seems.

        I conceed that a fair portion of what I was ranting about was just my old boss. Honestly, he was a bit frustrating to work with at times but, overall, he was not a horrible person who deserved a lot of ill will. Again, sorry for the rantiness.

        I’m still not as convinced as you are that things are “headed in the right direction.” Even if we just abandon people in their 40s and 50s to rampant chauvenism (which seems like an awful lot of people to simply discount) I’m still not convinced of some fantastically savvy younger generation. The Twilight series (with its stunningly useless heroine) was a smash hit. And video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Batman:Arkham Asylum–featuring heavily muscled men wearing armor or driving recklessly while anorexic women with surprisingly large bosoms prance around in skimpy outfits–have also been very successful. And it seems cyber-bullying has taken homophobia and aggression against girls to new levels. I’m not at all convinced we’re headed in the right direction.

        Again, I agree with the main tenet of your article (that, in order for gender roles to be legitimately revolutionized, we must consider all genders and orientations as equal players in the transformation). As for the rest, I’m content to agree to disagree. I may just be a big pessimist.

        September 17, 2012
        • I guess coming from a gay rights perspective, I have to believe that things will keep getting better, at least in terms of acceptance and equality. Think how far we’ve come in the last 30 years. Women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights. And hey, with any luck Hilary Clinton will be the president in 2016, so I have hope. Not that things are, will be or could be perfect, but I have hope. But that’s an act of faith like any other.

          September 17, 2012
  5. brooke carlson #

    thank you, david, for sharing your insight and delving into
    a complex, emotional, and significant discussion. as a straight, white, feminist, man, i found so much in what you wrote, yet i like most your claim for inclusion and change. “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

    September 14, 2012
    • Thanks, Brooke! It’s a hard needle to thread. I’m glad you enjoyed it. HCB says hi. : )

      September 14, 2012
  6. Cathy Sarto #

    I wish I had seen this post sooner. You did a great job of navigating an argument fraught with tension; I was confused as to why you would even attempt it until I got to the “beef.”

    The men who are now in their 30s should hopefully have benefitted from a more feminist upbringing. But that doesn’t excuse any of the men in their 40s and 50s who want to stay married or in a relationship. They should have learned by trial and error in the meantime, if they’re ever going to.

    I’m not sure why it should be the women who teach the men? Could you imagine men teaching men being more effective? You could even use the 12-step model – “I’m a recovering chauvinist”….

    As a female teacher at a high school, I describe situations involving teenage boys behavior to my may colleagues that they simply don’t experience. My male colleagues prevent or suppress antagonistic or inappropriate boy behavior by puffing up and looking intimidating. If that’s being taught, man to boy, then it seems clear that boys will perpetuate that tactic in their relationships with people who are not as big or strong. How could women even touch that in a conversation with men or boys?

    I also agree with much of what you express. I’d love to see you published in Harpers or the Atlantic. This stuff is great!

    March 25, 2013
    • Hi Cathy,

      Thank you so much for your reply. (Also, I’m sorry I’ve been so slow to respond myself. My Korean language class is kicking my butt, which causes acute flakiness.)

      I had never thought about the ways in which male authority figures (probably even myself included) use their masculinity to control their male subordinates. And of course that reinforces chauvinism and aggressive behavior. Of course! That’s a really valuable insight on which I need to think further.

      And I certainly agree that it is the responsibility of men to take this on as a social project. I just think that, very very understandably, female feminists are fed up with having to tackle this subject over and over again, and that frustration seeps into the rhetoric. Which is, again, TOTALLY FAIR. Men aren’t doing enough to embrace the really powerful truths of the feminist revolution. However, I think that frustration is a strategic liability because it gets in the way of an empathetic understanding of the other side. As with every social impasse, I think the solution lies in greater empathy on both sides, not because feminists owe it to stubborn boorish men, but because it yields better results. Empathy will offer us the most promising points of entry in the debate.

      But also, my feelings on this have softened somewhat. I’ve spent more time looking at MRA (men’s rights advocacy) groups and, boy howdy, that is some dark shit. Those guys are CRAZY. So, while I think some of my points are still valid, to some degree I look back on it and think that maybe I spoke before really understanding the environment in which most feminist internet personas exist. They’re at war and deserve to be pissed about it.

      If you’re interested in a really skillful presentation on the topic, I recommend Lindy West at Jezebel. She’s goofy, but really, really good. Here’s her recent piece on this kind of thing:

      Anyway. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment. And I hope everybody on Isbel is doing well. :)

      April 7, 2013

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