Misogyny, the relentless cultural messaging to women about what their bodies should look like, and all-too-frequently-tolerated violence towards women are certainly serious and worthy issues. No doubt.
But — I flinch to even suggest it, so violent may be the reaction — can this justify unbridled hostility towards men, generally?
I will use a particular post from a feminist blog I read regularly and respect, Unfogged, as an example. It’s a group blog, and one of the contributors, Tia, wrote a long post providing “advice for men about how to act and how to talk about feminism if you want to be a top notch human being in this regard”. The post consists of 10 suggestions to men, with elaborations of each. Here are excerpts that illustrate what I want to talk about.
1) If lots of women say something is important, it is. Your opinion, as a man, about the extent and nature of the problem is not valuable when the specific problem pertains to women’s experience.
3) When you tell us about the male perspective on the issue [...] consider that we already understand. And then consider that the reason it looks to you like the male perspective is being excluded or misunderstood is that we’re actually talking about ourselves, and the effect your actions have on us.
4) Try to pay attention to what’s actually being said. Before you respond to something, think hard about what their actual point is and whether you understand it. If you don’t understand it, ask questions.
6) Don’t say, “Men have problems too! Women are always doing mean things to men! [stamps foot] And we don’t complain about it as much!” [...] We bring up men’s problems because we want things to change. You bring them up because you’re invested in the current system, and you want to tell us we don’t have that much to complain about.
And when you constantly bring up that “men have problems too!” you often indicate that not only do you not understand women’s experience, you don’t really understand that you don’t understand.
Remember that the fact that you can construe your position as “moderate” because other people are bigger assholes than you [...] does not argue in favor of the legitimacy of your opinion. [Also, you probably don't understand the women in your life nearly as well as you think you do. They probably haven't talked to you about how they really feel because there] are powerful and profound rewards in our society for women who don’t call men on their bullshit.
9) Do not expect a cookie because other people in the world are bigger assholes than you. Men on Unfogged are mostly somewhat better than average when it comes to women’s concerns, and if I let it, that would make me cry myself to sleep at night.
As a man, I understood this list to be saying something like this (the numbers do not correspond):
- When it comes to issues that concern women, your opinion is almost certainly worthless.
- We (women) understand your (men’s) perspective, but you do not understand ours.
- You probably don’t even understand what we’re saying. If you ask nicely, we might explain it. Maybe.
- If women discuss their problems, it is for the Betterment of Society. If men discuss their problems, it is to Further The Oppressive Patriarchy.
- Even if you think you are a Nice Guy, you are probably, in fact, an Asshole. Furthermore, even if you think you have a close relationship with women in your life, you probably don’t, because you Wouldn’t Understand them if they really opened up to you, and knowing this, they probably haven’t. Asshole.
- Did I mention you’re an asshole?
I can accept point 1). If women want to get together and talk about what it’s like to be women, I can understand that my perspective, as a man, could very likely be extraneous. Not invalid, not oppressive, but extraneous. After all, I’m not a woman, so I can’t talk sensibly about what it’s like to be one.
But items 2) and beyond are a problem.
- If it’s so tricky for me to begin to understand women’s issues, what makes women magically able to fully grasp (and then dismiss) the male perspective?
- I’m sure that men sometimes bring up their own problems to minimize women’s. But surely it doesn’t follow that there are No Male Problems of Consequence, and that the only reason anyone would ever bring up male problems is as a club to silence women?
- I don’t like being called an asshole.
To generalize this even more, posts like this, directed at men, make me hear something like this:
As a man, your opinion is likely to be bad. Not just off-topic, or extraneous, but bad. In the sense of evil. Your perspective is likely to be ignorant and oppressive. You are likely to espouse the continued oppression and subjugation of women.
Because you embody and carry this oppression like an infection, you are bad.
Now, maybe I have yet to lose any feminist readers. Maybe, they are thinking, this is all true: men in our society, due simply to the way they’ve been socialized, are likely to carry and perpetuate a system of thought that subjugates women. This isn’t prejudice, perhaps they would say: it’s just fact.
But it’s the jump from protesting how our society is currently set up to vilifying men themselves, that bothers me. This jump happened when Tia pulled out the word “asshole” and ascribed deliberately malicious motives to men, generally, by accusing them of bringing up their problems “to tell us [women] we don’t have that much to complain about”.
Is it really legitimate to declare men, en masse, as being presumptively in a state of moral culpability, for the crime of being men?
I feel like the subtext in this post, and in some other feminists’ perspectives, is that although a small number of men are righteous, having elevated their consciousness and repudiated the repressive role they were assigned through their socialization, most men are in a state of moral disgrace, wallowing in ignorance, and that those men are reprehensible, and personally, morally, culpable.
To be sure, there are men who are consciously and deliberately cruel, violent, manipulative, and exploitative of women. But I would hope we could all agree that such men are in a small minority, and that we can all rightly condemn them.
But, no matter what you might think of how our society is currently organized, and how it socializes boys and girls, is it right to hold culpable men who carry no malice or ill will of their own towards women?
I mean the question sincerely. Is it legitimate to blame them?
Addendum: I expect this post to be controversial, so much so that I wrote to Tia to ask her opinion before putting it up. She hasn’t had time to compose a complete reply, but says that I have gravely misunderstood her. Fair enough; I look forward to any eventual commentary.
I would, though, emphasize above all that I don’t mean this post as a critique of the prima facie content of Tia’s post. Tia’s post is a list of advice to men when talking to feminists, and it’s probably reasonably good advice. As I tried to highlight by laying out how I “heard” Tia’s list, I mean to address the subtext of her post.
One point of legitimate disagreement could simply be over whether there is, in fact, any subtext that looks anything like what I’ve described here. Maybe I’ve imagined it. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I’m projecting. I see these all as legitimate possibilities.
But to those that will say that Tia never called me an asshole, or said that men are in a state of moral culpability by default: yes, I understand that. But in the same way that men telling women on the street to “smile, honey” don’t actually say “you are an ornament and you exist to please men”, I heard more than Tia said.