This morning, Shakes asked me why it is that there are so many men, including far too many progressive men, who seem so bloody-mindedly determined to malign and attack the feminist movement, even as they are supportive of individual feminists. What is it, she wondered, that makes it feel so threatening, that elicits the urge to try to discredit it or deny its necessity? It’s not an easy question to answer, particularly as it reminds me of positions I once held, because I had never stopped to question why I held them.
Men (and here, I generally mean straight men) are conditioned—by the news media, by the entertainment industry, by religious fundamentalism, by the government, and by other men—to believe that, first of all, they have a more important set of responsibilities and rights than women, and that, not only do they have these things, but that they deserve them and should do everything they can to defend them.
This tendency among men to swallow this bullshit strikes me as being particularly stupid.
The last 50 years have seen an incredible, historic change in the role that women play in the family, in the workplace, and in society as a whole. Their opportunities have expanded exponentially—the invention of the pill, the feminist movement, the acceptance of women in higher education, a wider set of expectations and greater freedom. It’s certainly not all perfect, but it’s gotten a lot better. During this time, men have struggled to redefine their own role in society, which has left modern men often feeling listless and without self-worth. That is not to say that they have any right to feel this way; it is simply to say that it is. The only reaction that predominated in any discernible way has been one of hostility toward the feminist movement, from the overt sexism of anti-choicers to the condescending sneering so often witnessed even in men who define themselves as progressive. Feminism is widely regarded as having somehow stripped men of their own status in society. There have been no real attempts to create a new set of values to which men can aspire that is not either a regressive traditionalism dressed up in family values or a petulant and pointless negativity toward the success that the feminist movement has had.
One of the greatest bulwarks against men accepting the feminist movement is that they seem to think that women gaining power must necessarily dilute their own exclusive powers and status. But in so holding onto this erroneous notion, they forget that they themselves are powerless in the face of the corporate plutocracy that now weighs down so heavily upon all of us. If they could get their heads around the fact that they too are powerless and insignificant and ignored, they would stop trying to beat up on the kids they perceive to be weaker and instead acknowledge their own weakness, ally themselves with them, and move forward with them in a new movement that would grant greater freedoms for all of us. It shouldn’t be about trying to maintain some illusory advantage over others. It should be about trying to create concrete advantages for all of us.
If men were smart, they wouldn’t fight against feminism. They would embrace it for what it really is: Humanism. (And stop fretting over whether the term “feminism” is exclusory; its principles aren’t.) They would incorporate the principles of all civil rights movements and collaborate with their proponents on the genesis of a vast humanist movement. Instead of feeling threatened by or put upon by these movements, instead of feeling they somehow denigrate straight, white men’s lives or their ability to be who they are, men would apply these ideas in an effort to improve their own lives, along with everyone else’s. What we need to do is confer all the rights and privileges that these men have traditionally enjoyed upon everyone else, and then, once we’ve done that, we can start thinking about what new rights, obligations, responsibilities we can confer on everyone, in order to make our society a more egalitarian and fair place to live.
Men need to get it through their heads that they, too, are under the heel of power structures that have no interest in promoting their welfare. They must understand that the rights and privileges that they have hitherto been enjoying fall far short of the privileges they could enjoy were they to try and achieve them. The internecine warfare that occurs between women and men, people of color and white people, straights and gays, as they all squabble like schoolchildren in an attempt to gain or deny rights, is exactly what those in power want. They promote it, they foment it, they do everything they can to aggravate it, because they know that if we were all ever to get our fucking shit together, and demand that the society we all live in and contribute to should be fair and decent to everyone, then the egregious wealth and power that they enjoy would finally meet its end.
What men need to understand is that their wives, the black guy across the street, the gay guy next door, are not the only ones toiling under the weight of a patriarchal system that doesn’t benefit all men, but instead a select few who hold all the power and all the wealth in their hands, the weight of a society that rewards capital and a slavish work mentality over human dignity and the freedom of individuals to express their own interests and realize their full potential as human beings.
Shakes once pointed out to me that the etymology of patriarchy is father, not man, which is an observation that struck right at the heart of the matter for me. In an abusive family, the sons are beat right along with the daughters. Would it not make more sense for these sons to band themselves with their sisters, with whom they, in fact, have more in common than with their father, instead of beating their sisters, too, as mere agents of the abusive father? In the latter case, they only sustain a system that is just as shitty for them as for their sisters. As we spoke about this, Shakes noted, “Abuse by proxy carries the same illusion of garnering the father’s approbation as the American Dream deceives those who will never walk the halls of power.” This relegation to powerlessness is not solved by a small-minded attempt to gain power over others who, in the grand scheme of things, are equally powerless.
We need to step out of the paradigm that has been set for us by the powerful few and which only serves to diminish any chance we may have of rectifying the terrible inequities that exist within our society. Instead, we need to define ourselves in a new way, and stick it, as they say, to The Man. If we ever manage to do this, we will have achieved something earth-shattering, something bigger than men or women alone, something worthy of humanity.