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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.