This is an article I wrote over a year ago and decided not to post because it wouldn’t have helped the conversation at the time. I came across it and decided it was still relevant, sadly. A lot of things have been said about sexism, but there is also a lot be said about communication.
Outrage is energizing, but it can also alienate potential allies. At the time, the outrage touched a nerve and I felt compelled to speak.
Here is what I said…
I have been bombarded lately by things with news about the Isla Vista killings. Article after article after article talking about misogyny, women’s rights, men’s rights, and everything. I had decided earlier that I wasn’t going to write anything about it. Not because I don’t have anything relevant to say, but because I’m a guy, and I don’t want to be the guy “speaking from a position of privilege” about “stuff I don’t know.” The outrage has been palpable, as is evident in a lot of the articles I’ve read. Something in me finally couldn’t take it anymore.
Let me be perfectly clear: what happened was horrible, for the victims, for the families, and for the family of the shooter. I am also a feminist with a resume of action and support. I sincerely believe that women are still fighting for equality in this society (let alone in other cultures), and that the cultural values that we hand to both men and women are often unhealthy and untenable. I am WITH women on this fight.
… and many of them are engaging in the discussion wrong. Not everyone, but enough to put my teeth on edge.
What was being said was true. And not helpful. And often engaging in the same things that lead to lousy gender roles and misogyny, only in reverse. I’ve been writing lately about critical thinking lately, so here is some of mine:
It isn’t men vs. women. It is human.
Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Everyone on the planet is trying to figure things out on their own.
Now being human has its own needs: food, water, shelter, sex and security. Notice that I put sex in there? We are mammals, and whether we like it or not there is a biological imperative to reproduce. But we immediately follow that up with “security.” Now, we have communities that have survived the test of time. But they aren’t perfect… parents try to give to their offspring a blueprint for roles in life.
Those roles kind of suck. They are a work in progress. Please, please, please, let us keep working on them.
Any culture or institution that gets control of how we think of these things is immensely powerful. Control how people eat? Power. Control peoples sense of security or fear? Power. Control or deny sexuality? Power.
Many people couple thought with action. To some people, thinking is as bad as doing. That is the trap.
Men are not the enemy
Let me tell you a personal story. I grew up with a single mom (and I also hit the mom jackpot…), and I attribute my love of strong women to her and my family. When I was growing up, my mom had a nice big circle of friends. Some of her women friends would get together and talk, and on more than one occasion I heard the phrase “All men are scum. Except for you, Colin.” Not from my mother herself, but her friends. People who were important to her and to me. I understand the feeling that was behind the statement, I even understand the (attempted) amendment on my behalf. It was still alienating and offputting to be lumped in with “scum”, and the backpedal felt just like a backpedal. It took a long time for me to reconcile the hurt that they were obviously feeling with the undeniable fact that I was male. It took a long time, but I came to like who I am and define for myself what being a man really means. I recognize that they were pushing back against the horrible expectations that had been put upon them.
I believe that all people, female and male, have inherent worth. I believe that “no means no”, that stop is an order, and that anyone who tries to make sexual demands on a woman simply because she is female is a sick and dangerous individual. All women are to be respected.
But nobody every told me that it works both ways. Ever.
Men are victims of the culture as well. I never valued being a man. We hear phrases all the time that supposedly have some meaning, but the context for these things have changed so radically, we need to re-define for ourselves what it means to be a man. “Man-up”, “Man-handle” or even simply “be a man”. How degrading is it to have these things pushed at us, without any regard for what are the expectations are for men.
What I have learned about being a man is this: it is a good thing. I love my body, its quirks, and the pleasure it gives me. I value being physically strong, and I know that being physically strong doesn’t detract from my intelligence or sensitivity. I learned that men can be beautiful and sexy, not just women. I learned that being a man doesn’t mean having to automatically defer to women, just because she hasn’t spoken up yet. I’ve learned that it is okay to be a sexual being, and that desiring someone isn’t sick or wrong. I’ve learned that on dates I’m not simply a wallet with a funny personality attached. Being hairy doesn’t make me stupid, or unattractive. That I can receive just as well as give. For me, being a man means that I enjoy being a warrior, a protector to my friends and family; and that being a protector doesn’t mean that I can’t nurture.
Having a penis does not relegate me to role of a wallet on legs, to being sexually unappreciative of my partners, that I don’t have be the provider, or that I’m supposed to stoically hide my feelings. I get to define what my role is. My partners get to define what their roles are. THAT is the way it should be.
Let me be clear: both genders have horrible roles and expectations, and women clearly have the short end of the stick. Expectations around appearance, capabilities, and roles for women are still nowhere near equal to men. The fact that these are improvements from previous roles are terrible, and a world of work needs to be done.
The thing that we need to remember is that whatever your gender, everyone has a story to tell. And more people need to be on board if we want to make cultural changes stick.
Changing culture and making allies… mostly
Not everyone can be an ally. When making cultural changes, it doesn’t pay to preach to the fringes. The feminist side already knows the problems that need fixing, and the chauvinist side would rather return to the 1950’s without Rosie the Riveter. The people who need to be moved are the center. The people who are otherwise indifferent or put off by either side.
I’m a teacher at heart. I believe that change starts with education. And that the lessons that people learn are those that they teach themselves.
There are men who are so completely off the rails that they believe that they are entitled to sex with women, anytime and anywhere (that was Elliot Rodger’s and his cronies complaint). Misogyny is a cultural problem, and many men have a false sense of being a victim. You know what helps the fight? Let chauvinists talk. So many of them are self-important, entitled assholes… the best thing that you can do is to poke the bear and stand back. Let them say what they have to say. By they time they are done, they will have succeeded in proving that changes need to happen.
That is when reasonable voices can take the stage. Outrage at this point just would serve to polarize, but the acknowledgement that those men have been speaking the same line of crap for years. Women can stand up as leaders, as people who don’t deserve to be marginalized. Men can stand up and ask to be supporters, and can change their own roles as well. And finally those institutions, religions, and groups that try to use gender and sexuality as a means of social power will either change, or lose their popular approval and into the lunatic fringe where they belong.
Positive change can happen for everyone… but only if we stop vilifying each other and can listen and work together. Both sides can win only when we can agree to meet in the middle, and keep the discussion alive.
Postscript: In retrospect, I can see why the very polarized discussion can be helpful. Anger is a useful emotion, it is an impetus for change and can be very unifying. But ultimately, setting aside baggage needs to happen before anyone can change.
I’ll step down off my soap box now, and return us to our regularly scheduled Summertime fun.
Now go out there and change the world. Or change your mind about something. Same difference.