Letter to a Young Male Feminist

I’m active on a Reddit forum called /r/AskFeminists, and today I got a message from a guy who’s trying to find his way on the path of being a guy who believes in feminism, while also enduring a lot of harsh attacks that feel personal. (I have no idea how old he is, but I’m guessing he’s younger than me.)

I wrote a letter to him, which I thought I might reproduce here for posterity. Perhaps it will be useful and/or interesting for someone else. (I’ve removed some of the more specific elements from his original message to me.)

Thank you for your kind message. I understand where you’re coming from, and I hope I can be of service.

One of the most important things I realized on my journey was that patriarchal conceptions of masculinity are a poison injection that we guys receive on a daily basis — you’ve got to be physically strong, you’ve got to be cold and indifferent to suffering, you’ve got to dominate other people (especially women). This poison sucks our humanity away unless we resist it, and it also (this is key) causes untold suffering for women.

As a result, many female feminists are frustrated and angry — as they should be. Many black people are justifiably frustrated and angry when police officers kill unarmed black folks, but they’re angry at white supremacy, not individual white people. (Of course unrepentant or oblivious white people can also incur wrath, but activists with #BlackLivesMatter understand that nothing changes unless we attack the roots of white supremacy, and we make very little progress when we go after individual white folks.)

Patriarchy is a different monster from white supremacy, but in both cases we (or at least I can speak for myself here — not sure what your racial/ethnic background is) have a responsibility to fight against the mindset and structures of privilege.

The key for us, as allies in a struggle against these “abstract monsters” (as I call them) is to distinguish justified anger against patriarchy (or white supremacy, or cisgender superiority or class dominance or whatever it is) and anger toward individuals. (Of course some feminists are just bitter or mean, and they may lash out at individuals.)

The worst thing you can do is confuse the two, because diverting a critique of a system into a discussion on personalities is part of the dominant-culture trap. (If you haven’t yet watched it, please take a few minutes and enjoy this important — and entertaining — video from JaySmooth called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist.)

So all of that is a bit of prelude. Let’s see if I can offer some specific, concrete advice for you.

  1. When someone criticizes men as a whole, do this: (A) Ask yourself — Do I do that? Is it true about me? (B) If so, confess and think/talk about how you can make some changes. If not, move on. (C) Ask yourself — Is that a fair generalization? In my experience and research, does that apply to most guys? (D) If so, agree and commiserate about the nature of the problem. If possible, offer your unique insight from “inside the club”. If not, explain why you disagree.
  2. Recognize that equal treatment alone isn’t necessarily enough to solve huge historical problems. Native Americans were killed off by the millions and had all their land stolen. Making sure they are taxed at the same rate as white folks isn’t going to do much to recalibrate the historical imbalance at the core of their dilemma. The same is true about addressing the centuries of patriarchal violence that have created our current context between men and women. Of course equality is a perfect goal in the long term — but sometimes it’s not enough.
  3. Put this quote somewhere you can see it every day: “The true human ideal is to forgive those who are foolish and help those who are evil.” – Bankei Yotaku. Cultivate an essence of forgiveness. That way, when someone foolishly misdirects their anger at you, instead of becoming defensive, you can reflexively say: “I don’t blame you for being mad, and while I don’t like being the target of that anger, I share your frustration at the patriarchy.”
  4. Do more asking of questions than making of statements, especially when talking with people who disagree with you. Let’s say someone makes a claim like “Men can’t be feminists.” (I’ve heard that before.) Start by simply asking: “Why not?” You might follow up by asking: “Can white people be allies in the struggle against white supremacy?” Most of the time, I’ve found, when I disagree with someone, there’s a difference of understanding about what a word means, or how we apply a particular rule of thumb. When we ask questions (rather than barreling ahead, certain in an assumption), we increase the likelihood of a productive/respectful dialogue.
  5. Remember that you still have a lot to learn. As Socrates said: “The more I learn, the more I realize I know nothing.” It’s tempting for me to think that I’ve “made it” to a level of enlightenment, where I don’t deserve any criticism at all. But none of us ever reaches this place, especially if we don’t live a daily life of irritation/aggravation/violence from systems of oppression. We have to be willing to be self-aware and (when necessary) self-critical at all times.

Now let’s see if I can answer your questions directly.

I find myself turned off by the really harsh stereotyping and especially the arguing, judgement, and condemnation. How do you deal with that aspect of it?

Hopefully I’ve answered this, but let me also say that some argument can be helpful. If we feel stifled or restricted, then we may not be able to have the honest (but painful) conversations needed to shatter illusions and oppressive mindsets.

Of course you should always be confident to stand up for yourself as a person, and talking simply about how you feel can be a good way to do this. (Remember that part of the poison of patriarchy tells us that we should never do this.) Use “I” statements and stay focused on yourself as an individual, while acknowledging larger problems and not trying to focus the discussion on you.

How do you deal with all the different voices saying 100 different things and telling you what you, as a man, are supposed to be?

This is an excellent question, especially because that sounds like a perfect description of what patriarchy itself means for men. Think about all the ads, movies, TV shows, and discussions with fathers and friends that send these messages. Think about Lady Macbeth telling her husband: “When you durst do it [kill the king], then you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man.” (Yeah, women can feed us poisonous patriarchal messages too.)

I would point out that you’re living (and, I imagine, growing up) in a very different context from the one in which I came of age. (I’m 40; I assume you’re younger.) There’s a level of vitriol and acerbic rage on Tumblr that I never really experienced. Of course lesbian separatism is nothing new; and one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had was with a lesbian separatist who made a very convincing case for why she would never feel safe living among men. (I still don’t agree with the principle, but I understand why people have that perspective, along with black nationalism, etc.)

The point, of course, is that you must develop an independent and critical awareness of what it means to be a man. You’re way ahead of most guys — you’ve started asking questions about how we got to this point, and you’re willing to push yourself to do better and fight for what’s right. Perhaps my best advice is: Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t sublimate your individuality based on what one or two people tell you to do, but don’t be afraid to deeply consider everyone’s point of view. (The ability to question our assumptions is one of the most essential elements of human consciousness, and one — unfortunately — that most people ignore or abandon.)

Do you have some good writings I could read?

Yes. One of the most important books I’ve ever read was Men On Rape: What They Have to Say about Sexual Violence. There’s some horrifying stuff in there from men speaking honestly about how they see sexual violence and their relationship to it. Obviously feminism is about much more than ending the rape of women by men, but this was an alarming eye-opener for me, and its themes bleed into many other parts of life.

I also recommend Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. It’s got a couple dozen essays from women of many walks of life. They do a good job discussing their lives and the movement as they see/live it.

Finally, you might want to check out a book called Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Social Justice. Again, I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but he writes powerfully and honestly as a man trying to fight against patriarchal violence.

You’ll notice that I’ve linked to books here, because I’ve found that — while online discussions can be a good way to have smaller conversations — I think that much of what passes for “dialogue” or “argument” online gets wrapped up very quickly in its own assumptions and prejudices. When we write on paper for a general audience, we have to be more open and comprehensive. If your impression of feminism and feminists comes mostly from online interactions (as is true for lots of young people these days; please correct me if I’m wrong in your case), I encourage you to broaden that sample.

Well, that’s a quick response to your message; I hope it’s useful. Good luck to you, and thanks again for writing.

Through the Shades: Walgreens “Dance Team”

Didactic Synapse is proud to present a new feature: Through the Shades. Using the metaphor of the 1988 movie They Live, I’ll be deconstructing popular media to expose the festering putrescence beneath the veneer of consumerist fulfillment.

Walgreens has been running the “Dance Team” commercial in regular rotation recently on Hulu (a paid service which still forces hideous ads down our throats). I don’t really recommend watching it, but here it is anyway:

There are so many things that nauseate me here, but it’s taken me a while to sort through them. Let’s start with…

  • Walgreens’ slogan: “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy”. No one in Walgreens is healthy. That’s why they’re in Walgreens! If my health were good, why would I be standing in line to fill my acid reflux prescription? And no one in Walgreens is happy, either. I live two blocks from a Walgreens, and everyone always has horrible desperation painted on their faces. Whether feeding their nicotine fix, stuffing chocolate into their craven maws (my usual purpose), or purchasing cheap sunglasses to ward off UAV blindness, we’re all stumbling around in a discontented daze under fluorescent misery.

Lest anyone think I’m a total sourpuss, let me confess to some positives in this spot:

  • The dance team is profoundly multicultural. African-American, Asian-American, white-American, all bouncing around with each other and gettin down on stage. Dance Mom is a strong black woman who’s able to problem-solve and “never miss a beat”. She’s adaptive, supportive, and joyous.
  • It’s a fun 30 seconds. The girl on the sidewalk is into it. The music is peppy and the expressions are filled with enthusiasm. These adorable kids are not just having fun; this is the best weekend of their lives so far. They take 6th at the competition, but they couldn’t be happier.
  • Old and new technologies are blended seamlessly. Dance Mom is snapping pictures with her phone (while dancing, which must have resulted in some blurry shots that got deleted), but she gets them developed into 4 x 6 glossies. Tweens and middle-aged folks all get what they want.

Ironically, it is this relentless positivity that sickens me the most. So let’s explore the negatives already.

  • The goal is for us to buy more stuff we don’t need. Like all commercials, this ad works in service to a blind fanatical consumerism, tied bone-deep into an affiliation with joy and happiness. We’re supposed to take those fun, peppy sensations and transfer them into our Walgreens schema. Just as we all get warm fuzzy associations with Disney starting at age zero (to the point where some of us just move into corporate HQ), the goal of modern advertising is not merely to convince us to buy one laundry detergent or athletic shoe. Instead, we’re meant to rearrange our entire psychology to link permanently the fun of these young people with the Walgreens brand. Kids can’t just be dancing to have fun anymore — they must do so for the benefit of a huge corporate ad blitz.
  • The flip side is a gut-level rejection of joy. Those of us who hate being manipulated by this kind of advertising reflexively make angry faces and roll our eyes when it begins. The more pervasive and ubiquitous this advertising is (and it gets more so every day), the more we make these faces and feel our stomachs churn. The danger is that we might eventually associate all instances of cute kids dancing and having fun with corporate manipulation, and then we become sour, bitter, cynical crankypants weirdos. (Or, in my case, more so.)
  • Three trips to Walgreens!? As soon as Sidewalk Girl gets in the minivan, her friend announces her Hair Disaster, which we’ll be generous and accept as a legit problem because they’re going into a competition. (It’s another example of advertising telling young girls that they never look good enough, but let’s give Walgreens the benefit of the doubt on this one.) Dance Mom assures her that it’s not a problem, and proceeds to pull a cache of hair products from her canvas Walgreens bag. (A not-at-all-subtle conflation of the corporate brand with environmental thinking, which is absurd and offensive, since Walgreens tosses every tiny thing we buy into atrocious plastic bags because they’re inexpensive.) Then, the whole team must go en masse and en danser into Walgreens again to buy makeup. (Lipstick? Mascara? Blemish remover?) Then, after the competition, they’ve got to swing back into Walgreens to get the developed pictures (sent from the phone, I imagine?) and buy some bags of snacks for the celebratory ride home. What nonsense.
  • Dancing inside Walgreens. This is the most horrible absurdity in the entire commercial, because suspension of disbelief breaks down completely. (And if it doesn’t break down for you, then your brain has been overtaken by the alien propaganda machine and you need serious help.) The only people dancing inside a Walgreens are people suffering from chronic irritable bowel syndrome who are having trouble waiting to buy diarrhea medicine.

There’s more, but that’s enough complaining for one afternoon. You’re a terrible company, Walgreens, and I urge you to stop running this commercial immediately. Thank you.

Didactic SynCast #98: A Huge Explosion of News

It’s been a really long time since I’ve done a podcast, and I appreciate all the kind words of encouragement (and demands) that I’ve gotten. Here, finally, is the new show! (Yay.)

DS#98: A Huge Explosion of News

Top Links + Action

Current Events



Killer Robots, Etc


Lupe Fiasco: “Mural”

Taibbi: The Divide

Matt Taibbi’s new book The Divide is superb. Everyone needs to read it right away. He oscillates from heartbreaking descriptions of people arrested for “blocking pedestrian traffic” (these arrests are purely done to meet police quotas) and enraging explanations of white-collar criminal activity that’s never investigated, let alone punished.

What emerges is a devastating critique of dysfunctional American injustice, especially for those on the top and bottom of our economic system. Toward the end he explains beautifully:

This goes far beyond the oft-quoted liberal cliché about how we now have “two Americas”, one for the rich and one for the poor, with different sets of laws and different levels of punishment (or more to the point, nonpunishment) for each. The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream. The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted.

The new truth is a sci-fi movie, a dystopia. And in this sci-fi world the issues aren’t justice and injustice, but biology and mortality. We have a giant, meat-grinding bureaucracy that literally alters the physical makeup of its citizens, systematically grinding down the losers in a smaller, meeker, lower race of animal while aggrandizing the winners, making them bigger than life, impervious, super-people.

Again, the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick. And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere.

What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that “second government” — a vast system of increasingly unmangeable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors. These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.

Rock is Cool but the Struggle is Better

In 1999 the Indigo Girls released a song called “Go”, on their album Come On Now Social. It’s got awesome lyrics about fighting for a better world and what we owe to those women and men who fought for us to have so much. Once upon a time I made a video for it, but I never put it on YouTube. If there’s any noise here, maybe I’ll upload it.

Anyway, there’s a line in the song that has always given me pause:

Feed the fire and fan the flame
I know you kids can stand the rain
I know the kids are still upsetters
‘Cause rock is cool but the struggle is better

It’s a good point (and it suits my point made in Creative Writing about building to the fourth line in a quatrain), but I want to pick up on the final concept there. I think one reason why so many kids find their way into rock (and not the struggle) is because it’s easy to find one’s place in rock. Especially today, when the varieties of music — and easy access to them — are at our fingertips, there’s a seductiveness that’s built into our social lives that protest and political activity doesn’t cater to. (This doesn’t even account for the massive industries organized around music, which we’ll take as a given.)

The truth is that taking action for a better world isn’t usually fun, and the vast majority of the population doesn’t take part. As a result, being in the struggle is often a lonely activity, and it can be exhausting. This is unfortunate, because (as Abbie Hoffman once pointed out) we need young people in the front, since they’re impatient and they haven’t grown jaded like so many adults.

As I’ve said elsewhere, however, being part of the struggle can provide a sense of history and purpose like nothing else in our fractured, chaotic world. (And it’s how I met my wife, heh.) More to the point, however: The struggle needs to happen, and there are plenty of people making rock a reality. Who among us is willing to step up and move the struggle forward?