I’ve been doing a bunch of thinking lately. I mean, most of it has been about, like, cat videos and comic books, but over the past week a significant part of my brain has been occupied by the following question:
What place do men have in the feminist movement?
First of all, let me straight up say that I think that they for sure have a place, and an important one at that. I like dudes, I think they are super great and that many of them have important, valuable things to say about feminism. And I don’t think that we have a hope in hell of achieving equality if only self-identified women are welcome in the feminist movement.
I don’t think that men have any place as leaders in the movement. I don’t think that they should ever, ever lecture women on how to be feminists. And I sure as hell don’t think that they should claim to support equality while at the same time decrying things like the term “privilege” as a silencing tactic.
There have been a few things this week that have kept this issue at the forefront of my thoughts. First, there was this article that a friend of mine wrote for the Huffington Post about Charles Clymer, the man who runs the Facebook group Equality for Women. Clymer styles himself as a feminist and supporter of gender equality, but has been known to silence women (deleting their comments if they disagree with him, banning them if they question these deletions), and has also written troubling things like this post on why “bitch” and “cunt” can’t ever be reclaimed by women. Even worse, Clymer wrote this email to one of the women who was unhappy with his behaviour:
Stephanie, I’m going to let you in on a little secret that, apparently, no one has had the guts to tell you up to this point in your life: having a vagina does not grant you magical powers of perception and nuance anymore than my penis magically blinds me from the horrors of the world.
You have to earn respect for your opinion. I’m not going to hand it to you because you’re a woman talking women’s rights.
And yes, I am the leader of this page. These are my moderators, who I have selected for the page that I created and into which I have poured money for advertising, and make no mistake: I do hold executive privilege (your favorite word, apparently), and I do have the final say on decisions. However, I trust my mods, and instead of being a dictator, we work as a team of equals. They let me know when something’s off, and I listen to them and heed their advice.
I run this page, a feminist blog, write a column for another feminist blog (under a woman editor-in-chief who respects my writing and invited me to contribute articles), and on top of all that, I volunteer 30-40 hours a week at a feminist lobbying firm.
Here’s a good question: what the fuck have you done for women’s rights, lately, other than troll the page I created?
You want to talk about privilege? Fine, we’ll talk about privilege. What about your idiot privilege? It would seem you’re so used to people not calling you out for being an absolute fucking moron that you’ve become blind to how your asshat actions affect others.
So no, after us reaching out to you, you decided to insult me, and, more importantly, my moderators with your bullshit, half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek apology.
Supposedly, you’re an outstanding feminist but have no problem telling my women moderators how they’re supposed to think and feel.
Please accept my invitation of hide-and-go-fuck-yourself.
And one more thing: If I ever see your name on my page again, I will report you for harassment and block you.
Feel free to relay this message to the 1% of women feminists out there who foam at the mouth and put their bullshit on everyone else who disagrees with them.
I just … I’m not even sure that I have the words to explain how fucked up this is. Wait, no, here are a few: a man who is purportedly trying to raise women up is using his position of power and influence to belittle and silence women. He’s disrespectful, condescending, and seems to think that because he took Feminism 101 that trumps any kind of lived experience that women might have had.
Another thing that’s got me thinking about men and feminism is the discussion that this article inspired on The Belle Jar’s Facebook page. In it, a few men (men that I know and really like!) mentioned that they find the feminist movement to be unfriendly towards men, and that they believe that women should “make room” for men in feminism. And you know what? I honestly do think that men have a place in the feminist movement, I swear to God that I do. But I think that place is, as my friend Ryan would say, at the back of the room. If you, a hypothetical dude, really want women to achieve equality, then you do whatever you can to give them a platform. You stand back, let them speak, and you fucking listen. And above all, you let women shape the direction of the feminist movement. Dudes, you know I love you, but this ain’t about you.
The final thing that really got me going this week was this speech given by Ronald Lindsay at the Women in Secularism conference. The talk starts out fine-ish, with some discussion of the history of the subjugation and subordination of women, but then, somewhere towards the middle, things become problematic.
This brings me to the concept of privilege, a concept much in use these days. Let me emphasize at the outset that I think it’s a concept that has some validity and utility; it’s also a concept that can be misused, misused as a way to try to silence critics. In what way does it have validity? I think there is sufficient evidence to indicate that there are socially embedded advantages that men have over women, in a very general sense. These advantages manifest in various ways, such as the persistent pay gap between men and women. Also, I’m not a believer in a priori arguments, but I will say that given the thousands of years that women were subordinated to men, it would be absolutely amazing if in the space of several decades all the social advantages that men had were promptly and completely eradicated. Legislation can be very effective for securing rights, but changing deeply engrained patterns of behavior can take some time.
So, basically, it’s fine to talk about privilege as long as it’s only in a general, societal sense. That’s totally kosher. But calling a specific male out on his specific male privilege? That’s apparently called “silencing critics.”
But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.
First of all, you can’t listen if you don’t shut up. Pretty much physically impossible. And guess what? If you are a man, then you fucking don’t know what it’s like to experience x, y and z, and if you are actually interested in learning about, then yes, you have to shut up and listen.
This approach doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. You’re a heretic spreading the lies of Satan, and anything you say is wrong. You’re a member of the bourgeoisie, defending your ownership of the means of production, and everything you say is just a lie to justify your power. You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women.
Dude. We’ve tried reasoned arguments, and you (general male you, not you, Ronald Lindsay, specifically) didn’t want to hear them. We’ve tried explaining ourselves and you called us hysterical and accused us of overreacting. We’ve tried to engage and include men in the feminist movement, only to be told that we’re not going about it the right way. We’ve been pushed around, condescended to, belittled, and much, much worse. And now? Now we’re exhausted. If you’re not interested in shutting up and listening to what we have to say, then you’re not interested in gender equality. Not really. Not in any meaningful sense, anyway.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think the concept of privilege is useful; in fact it is too useful to have it ossified and turned into a dogma.
By the way, with respect to the “Shut up and listen” meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the “shut up” part that troubles me, not the “listen” part. Listening is good. People do have different life experiences, and many women have had experiences and perspectives from which men can and should learn. But having had certain experiences does not automatically turn one into an authority to whom others must defer. Listen, listen carefully, but where appropriate, question and engage.
No one is saying that you can’t “question” or “engage,” but you need to understand that at the end of the day, yes, women’s lived experiences make them an authority on the inequality of women. I can’t believe that I have to say that, but apparently I do.
I started my talk with that reading from the New Testament which unmistakably assigned women a subordinate role. Both the symbol of that oppression and the vehicle for enforcing that oppression was silence. Enforced silence is always and everywhere the enemy of truth and progress. If someone is forbidden from speaking, you are obviously not going to hear what they have to say.
Good lord, no one is silencing you. And this time I am specifically talking to you, Ronald Lindsay. Do you even know what the word “silencing” means, old white dude? You have a huge platform, your organization has 14,000 fans on Facebook, and you have so many people listening to you. Just because someone reminds you of your privilege does not mean that you are being silenced.
As my grandmother would say, Jesus, Mary and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
(I added in the Gordon-Levitt part, in case that wasn’t clear)
But enforced silence is also a way of robbing someone of their humanity. Part of what allows us to give meaning to our lives is the ability to exercise certain core freedoms, such as freedom of conscience, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and reproductive freedom. We need these freedoms to take control of our own lives, to give shape and direction our own lives; otherwise, we are just going to be forced into a role that has been assigned to us.
You are not being robbed of your humanity. No one is trying to rob white, middle class men of their humanity. All that we’re trying to do is continue to assert our own humanity, which is apparently something that you want as well. But if you’re really interested in giving women a hand up, then you need to listen, even when it gets uncomfortable for you. Even when you don’t like what’s being said. Even when the word privilege comes up. And if you can’t do that? Then get the fuck out of the way, stop speaking at feminist conferences, and make room for someone who actually understands how equality works.
Look. There is certainly a place for men in the feminist movement, but that place is not in a position of leadership. Men should never, ever tell women what feminism is, why it’s necessary, and how it works. In the same way, a heterosexual person should not lecture LGBTQ folks on how to advocate for gay rights, and a white person shouldn’t be telling People of Colour how to fight against racism. It just doesn’t work that way. Privilege is a real thing, and it really does blind you to what an oppressed person’s life is really like.
If you want to be a good feminist man, you need to learn to be challenged. You need to learn to feel uncomfortable. Above all, you need to shut up and listen.