Filed under: Feminism, feminist theory, feministing, liberal feminism, masculinity, men, pro-feminist males | Tags: ending gender violence, Feminism, feminism's failure, feminist critique, Feminist dissent, Feminist Majority Foundation, feministing, GMP, Good Men Project, group think within feminism, Hugo Schywzer, liberal feminism, Men within feminism, National Organization for Women, pro-feminist men, Third-wave feminism, Transnational feminism, why people shy away from feminism
So, to start off with, a disclaimer: I originally posted this on Feministing.com, but it was taken off about 30 minutes after it was posted. Irony of it all? The post is about how the mainstream feminist movement doesn’t deal with dissent very well. Here, then is my effort to restart an old blog. Original content of the piece originally posted on Feministing is below.
I found feminism in the fall of 2005. I was an American soldier at the time, interested in going into politics, and started my college career as a political science studies major. Something about gender studies pulled me in. If I wanted to change lives and help women, I needed to know their plight. I signed up for my first women’s studies class – Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, it was called, and immediately got pulled into the feminist world. Feminism grabbed me by the collar, pulled me and loved and respected me. I eventually became a women’s studies major as well, and relished in the feminist organizations on campus and weekend getaways at feminist conferences. But as I grew within politics as well as the movement, there was a sense of uneasiness – one that I completely ignored and wrote off as male privilege tugging at me. Eventually, I’d had enough. I turned in my feminist card, began to look at feminism from a larger perspective, and while I still stand for gender equality and believe with every fiber of my being that we have a responsibility to end sexism, the majority of which directed at women, I could no longer call myself a feminist. I went quietly because I knew the movement wasn’t about me. It was about women. Yet, with the fallout this week between the pro-feminist males at the Good Men Project, I can no longer stay quiet. The problems I had with the movement are the very same ones that played out recently. To put it more succinctly, the pro-feminist movement, although good by intentions, currently faces many problems and is a symptom of the larger cause with the feminist movement. I want to address these problems today, not because I want to attack it, but because I feel it can improve.
Being a man within the feminist movement isn’t easy. Right from the start, in Feminism 101 or whatever the name that version of the class is called at each Women’s Studies department, we are told to let go of our privilege and listen to women. We’re told to be aware of our gender and the power that it came with. We’re reminded that no matter how we view ourselves – that even if we think ourselves as just another well-intentioned guy looking to end gender discriminations, that we would be looked at differently by women, that we might inadvertently pose a threat by our actions, because of women’s experiences.
All fair points. Men within the movement do need to examine their actions and what they say, and indeed, men do have privilege and power within the movement. But that ends there. Because men are the minorities within the movement, and because we’re told to give up certain privileges and expectations, within the movement, men are not the ones in power. There’s nothing wrong with that. A reversal in roles within gender politics can be good. But such expectations become a problem when, rather being stuck in “gender neutral,” which is just as bad, the movement becomes stuck on gender overall. That is, when men’s gender becomes the focus of what they have to say, and women’s experiences become “truth” within the movement, we’re no longer practicing feminism; we’re deciding whether we agree with a person and what they have to say valid based on gender.
Because of that, any man who takes the time to speak about disagreements within the movement must be “mansplaining.” Any man who speaks ill of another feminist within the movement – as long as she isn’t pro-life or Naomi Wolf, is an MRA in disguise –a wolf in sheep clothing. Any man who challenges the experiences of women not based on her gender, but because some experiences might just be wrong regardless of gender, is considered a failure in feminism’s number one tenet – listen to women.
It is almost as if, within the feminist movement, there is a reversal in role in having a voice. Whereas within a greater society, the picture of obedient women who agree with the patriarchs, getting pats on the head and approval from men in power is a powerful one, within the feminist movement, it is also true for men. Suddenly, “truths” become the experiences of those in power instead of a group as a whole, and just as we’ve learned that those at the top rungs of the power ladder are less likely to see the whole picture, as they are blinded by their own privilege, the same can be said for that power within the feminist movement. I know it already. I know that someone will come along and say that this is yet just another argument from men who feel like their power is taken away, and are fighting for that power back. Such is not the case. I say this not because I want more feathers on my headdress, power at my disposal or more room at the podium, but because such a practice within the movement has hurt more than it’s helped the movement. Just as sexism has hurt our society as a whole, this practice – which is far from the sexisms women face in the “outside world” – has also hurt the progress of the feminist movement. As a result, much like women in patriarchy, men are conditioned from day one of the movement to be “good allies” – and by such – they are implicitly told that being a good ally meant spouting theories and ideals that the movement agrees with. Do so and one gets a reward and a pat on the back. Disagree and one gets labeled as a man threatened by having power taken away and, worse yet, a member of the MRA.
Yet another way the movement has silenced dissenting ideas is to accuse men who disagree with the movement’s certain messages of falsely being threatened. While, indeed, the language that some men use for fear of being silenced is ridiculously out of proportion, the truth is that some men within the movement are fearful of speaking out in disagreements for fear of being an outcast. Whereas “good allies” are taught to respect women’s perceived threats, and that based on lived experiences, women do have the right to feel threatened and men should take great care in recognizing that and not act in threatening ways, the experiences of men within the movement and the threats some of them feel, are cast of to the side. Any claims of being threatened, and let’s be fair – the threats men feel within the movement and the “reprisals” to be felt, are nothing compared to what women often have to deal with – are perceived as a silencing tactic by men to save their feelings, where men’s utmost concern is often not their feelings, but being able to speak truths within the movement without being outcast. In short, rather than listening to their allies, mainstream feminists revert to old and stale feminist theories, created originally not to examine the movement from within, but a gendered culture from the outside.
But all of this isn’t about men at all. It’s not about Hugo, it’s not about the Good Men Project, and it’s most certainly not about men. The fall out between GMP and Hugo is symptom of bigger issues within the pro-feminist men as well as the feminist movement: how to deal with dissent and intellectual challenges. Just as feminism challenges conventional wisdoms of gender roles within a larger society, there also has to be room within the feminist movement for disagreements and challenges of feminist theories that are stale, tired and no longer make sense. At the current time, there is no room for that. There is a monopoly within the movement, and anyone who disagrees is written off as sexist, antifeminist or misogynistic. The feminist movement and the pro-feminist men’s movement within it have a lot of growing up to do.
Within the mainstream movement, unless one is a cookie-cutter feminist, one is considered wrong. Suddenly, the pro-life feminist who works every bit just as hard for comprehensive sex education, to promote girls education and fight for gender equality, becomes a misogynist who does not trust women, and has no room within NOW or the FMF. Any woman, and I’ve seen the discussions within my own eyes, who acknowledges a need for feminism but doesn’t see it as being important in her own life for she’s lived a life of privilege, is labeled a “victim of the patriarchy” and apparently does know her own life. Feminists think she knows herself less than feminists know her. Feminists, again, I’ve seen firsthand, will claim she is blinded by patriarchy and she herself is a victim. Women who have passionate concerns of the feminist movement – the Naomi Wolf, Camille Paglia and the likes, all the sudden become non-feminists, and even get implicitly compared to Nazis in the process. And men get it too. All the sudden, for all he’d done for the women’s movement, Edward Kennedy, in endorsing Barrack Obama over Hillary Clinton, became a betrayer of women, according to Marcia Pappas of New York State NOW. Even well-intentioned and decidedly feminist organizations and writers, the Good Men Project is a good example, become misogynistic for straying from the narratives of what mainstream feminism requires of them.
Because of this, mainstream feminism as we know it becomes an echo chamber. Rather than being open to new ideas and looking at itself critically – “being introspective,” one calls it when encouraging male feminists to look within themselves – the current feminist movement becomes more interested in whether someone agrees with them. The measuring stick for being good feminists, and good men, in this case, isn’t about the work one does or the difference one makes, but rather, whether one spouts of ideas that are in agreement with others within the movement.
As a result, the people the current feminist movement set out to help aren’t helped at all. In fact, their voices are silenced. When Amanda Marcotte suggested sending a certain politician sanitary pads in protest over anti-choice legislations, rather than condemning the idea as being counterproductive, feminists jumped on board – all the while, young girls in Global South nations continued to miss school days when their menstruation cycles begin and they do not have any sanitary pads with which to take of themselves. Instead of calling out NOW for its condemnation of David Letterman for his affairs with a subordinate, feminist supporters jumped on board with it, all the meanwhile taking away the voice of the woman in question, without so much as asking her whether her relationship was consensual or considering that, perhaps, the relationship was a part of her choice. In short, the feminist movement of the current time will support women’s choices, but only if they agree with those choices. Instead of reaching out to men and young boys to mentor them on issues of consent and respect for their partners, and at the same time, listening to the concerns of young men and their experiences regarding sex and masculinity, feminists across America attended Slut Walk last summer and fall, choosing instead to solve the problems with one-way conversations rather than listening to the people they wished to change. After all, if men are the problems in the sexual assault epidemic, and they are, the right thing to do – the effective thing to do is to engage them in conversations, not to yell at them. In the end, Slut Walk accomplished nothing because mainstream feminists were more interested in having a day at the park with the people they agreed with rather than doing the tough thing and engaging the people they disagreed with.
In “The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help,” Jackson Katz posits that men concerned about gender equality must live examples of being good allies to encourage their sons to do the same – often, Katz writes, this means supporting women’s causes and not turning a blind eye to Take Back the Night and other events with a focus on eradicating gender violence. What this does, he goes on, is impresses upon boys that gender violence is their concerns, too, and that it also falls upon them to end gender violence. While it is true that men must make good examples for young boys (and girls) regarding the eradication of gender violence and promoting gender equality, by simply attending rallies and not challenging conventional wisdoms of the movement also sends another message – that men can help, and that such help is welcomed, but only if it falls in line with the narrative an perspectives of the mainstream feminist movement, which sometimes can be wrong. It’s no wonder so many men and boys – and so many women interested in feminism – shy away from it. While they want to help, many are threatened by the possibilities of being called sexist, stupid, unaware of their own privilege, a victim of the patriarchy, and too many other names that have been thrown toward dissenting feminists when disagreements happen.
As a result of this, the mainstream feminist movement becomes less effective than it can be because it consists of people who share the same ideas and values about what works and what doesn’t.
Epistemologically, by only welcoming those whose ideas fall in line with their own, mainstream feminists not only denies themselves the ability to grow, but also the experiences and skill sets important to achieve its end states. Moreover, the rejection of new and dissenting ideas also takes away some of its credibility of becoming a welcoming organization. If feminism asks of men to listen to women, then the movement in itself must also listen to men – and women – who come to it with genuine interests and support, but may not share the same ideas
The world isn’t black and white; it does not consist of only good and evil; and, most certainly, it’s not about us vs. them. It consists of various ideas, some good, some bad, and we ought to focus on the ideas that work best, rather than whether someone working alongside us, for the greater good of the world, agrees with us.
In all, the fallout experience between GMP and Hugo is a “fail forward” experience. It can serve as a learning experience. It can allow all feminists to look within themselves and ask not whether others agree with them, but whether the practices and cultures within the movement are best for gender equality. Until it does that, until it chooses to welcome all ideas, and condemn bad ideas regardless of from whom such ideas came, and allows the men and women within the movement to share ideas that might not necessarily reflect the conventional viewpoints and theories of feminism, it will have shortchanged itself, and even more, will have shortchanged the people it wishes to help.
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