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Archive for June, 2012

I had a lengthy chat with a producer from BBC Woman’s Hour the other day, about a feature they ran this morning on some men’s reluctance to identify as feminists. I missed out on the chance of a free BBC croissant in the end. This may have been partly down to my inconsiderate refusal to live in London like normal people, but in truth I think I lost her when I started channelling Nina Power on the reconstruction of feminism as a neoliberal capitalist accessory and the interchangeability of emancipation and consumption in the dominant discourse. With hindsight I should have stuck to the question of whether little girls can pee standing up.

The conversation did however give me pause to think about a fairly key question. I’m often told I am a feminist by others, in roughly equal measure as a compliment and an insult. I take it in the intended spirit either way. If others think I am a feminist so be it, but it is not how I define myself.  By coincidence, this morning also saw the launch of a new blog edited by Joseph Stashko, entitled Meninism, exploring the place of men in the movement. I had the honour of the first piece on there, in which I argue that the feminist trope “the patriarchy hurts men too” is not the solution to male-specific gender issues. The tl;dr version would be this: Even if patriarchy does hurt men too, that’s for men to realise and address; we can’t leave it to women and feminism to solve it for us.

Feminism is and should be a movement of women, for women and led by women. While any man can offer a voice of agreement, it is not for us to define the issues and prescribe the solutions. But with whom are we agreeing? Feminism is an impossibly diverse ideology, riven with internal argument and debate. To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.

If I’m forced to define my own politics, it would be in broad terms as a believer in social justice and human rights. From that perspective, I would have no qualms about telling a feminist that I think she is wrong about an issue. To take one example, there are many feminists who argue that there should be no prosecutions of women who make false allegations of rape. In my opinion, this is a patently unjust position, not from the perspective of feminism, but from the perspective of justice. A man who is grievously and maliciously wronged by such an act deserves redress, and others who may be so wronged deserve the protection of a legal deterrent. I can make that point more strongly and effectively if it is not prefaced by three little words ‘As a feminist…’ Indeed, I think a man who argues any point with those words is likely to find himself hoisted by the goolies, and probably deservedly so.

By identifying as a feminist, I would have a lot to lose, and little to gain. My stance does not preclude supporting feminists where I support their aims. For example, I wrote in support of the Slutwalk movement last year, not because I am a feminist, but because I agreed with the fundamental aims; I applauded their inclusive approach to men and trans people; and I admired the fusion of assertive female sexuality with demands for bodily autonomy and personal safety. I don’t need to define as a feminist to say that. On the contrary I’d like to think my words carry slightly more weight precisely because I do not.

Over the years I’ve been called feminist, pro-feminist and a ‘mangina’, I’ve been called anti-feminist and misogynist, and sometimes those allegations have all come in response to the same piece. Once there was a time when I cared about how my views were labelled by others, these days I mostly just eye them with curiosity. I’ll try to call the issues as I see them, and you can call me what you like. Deal?

UPDATE

By coincidence, the Good Men Project has also run a series this week on men’s place in feminism. There’s an awful lot of talk of transformational journeys and personal healing and the kind of thing that generally makes me reach for the sick-bowl. Sorry Tom, Hugo et al, but I don’t think the arena of gender politics is the best place to work through one’s personal demons and guilt. The series left me no more convinced about the value of the label “feminist”, and less convinced than ever about the label “good men” which is deeply problematic to me. One day I might come back to that.

But within the series, there’s a piece by GMP editor Noah Brand which is, I think, absolutely brilliant. Unlike me, Noah does identify as a feminist, but he does absolutely nail the point that feminism offers a lot to men, not just in terms of practical outcomes but in offering an intellectual toolbox to help us understand and analyse gender issues, and possibly even find some solutions. Go see.

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I am not the most dedicated gamer of my generation. I never owned a Pong machine or a Gameboy, a ZX Spectrum or a SNES. I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy. My only engagement with an XBox is the occasional attempt to prise my 10 year old son away from Minecraft, an experience roughly akin to dragging a hippie raver out of a K-hole. The closest I’ve come to pixellated sexual violence against women has been blasting a red shell up Princess Peach’s exhaust pipe on MarioKart.

So I don’t have much in the way of informed opinions about misogyny in video games, I’ll leave that to others. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the debate surrounding Kickstarter Anita Sarkeesian, as good an illustration as we’ll ever need of the vitriol of the new gender wars. An intense storm of hatred was roused by her modest idea to crowd-fund research into sexism in the games industry. The many thousands of hostile comments posted on Sarkeesian’s YouTube video were of course heavily gendered and sexualised, but so too was some of the retaliation – notably Charlie Brooker’s description of the mob as “idiotic pebbledicks” who are terrified of women.

If one of the worst offences committed by sexists and anti-feminists online is to reduce women and their opinions to their genitalia and sexual worth, I’m not sure how the cause is helped by turning the precise same missiles around and hurling them back in the other direction – however deserving of mockery and disgust the targets might be.  Without doubt, the hate-fest directed at Sarkeesian was repellent and indefensible. It was a display of the madness of crowds which would have come as no surprise to Mackay or Le Bon (Gustave, that is, not Simon.) There were a few sane voices raised in defence of the gaming culture, and a few reasonable points made about creative freedom and the demands of the free market. But such comments were few and far between, and lost in a swamp of ugly abuse.

In all the online articles and commentary that appeared, a point recurred that this phenomenon is an inevitable price of freedom. If we grant free expression, we also grant freedom to abuse, insult and offend. It’s a seductive argument, with a lot of merit. Offence is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and there has never been an opinion of value which didn’t cause offence to someone. But just as my right to swing my fist ends where it meets your right to not be punched in the face, so my right to freedom of speech does not extend to the point where it silences others.

Let there be no doubt, the hate campaign waged against Anita Sarkeesian was a concerted attempt to silence her voice, using intimidation and psychological warfare. The misogyny expressed may have been rooted deep in the personalities of her antagonists, but in most cases I doubt it. Instead I suspect it was instrumental, using vocabulary consciously chosen to wound as deeply as possible, and aimed at the (assumed) weak points of a woman and a feminist.

This boot can sometimes be on the other foot. While there is no direct symmetry, we have seen the same principle at play in the concerted attempts of some feminists (mostly, but not entirely historic) to stifle debate about male victims and female perpetrators of domestic violence, with activists, writers and academics being branded misogynists and abusers for even raising the issues. Anyone who dares to raise a sceptical voice in many feminist blog spaces can expect more aggression and abuse than reasoned debate. The urge to silence opponents is probably a human one, and for that reason it is all the more important we are conscious of it in ourselves and wary of it in others.

Those who participate in online hate campaigns are not the champions of freedom of speech, but its worst enemies. If they consider themselves libertarians, they are a disgrace to the label. It is not easy to see the solution. Censorship is never the answer, far too many babies go out with the filthy bathwater. Nor do I want to see our prisons filled with hot-headed flamers and trolls.

All we can do is be wise to the nature of these online flame wars, and be prepared to challenge abusive, insulting, silencing behaviour wherever it emerges; be prepared to confront bullies and mob mentality wherever they arise.

We can do that by questioning what they pack in their politics, not what they pack in their pants.

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In the spring of 1979, the long battle for social justice and equality in the UK entered a dramatic new era. In electing Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British people served notice that gender was no longer an insurmountable barrier to attaining even the highest office. The ultimate glass ceiling had been breached and shattered, and for twelve long years the shards would rain painfully down on the poor, the working class and the vulnerable, leaving deep wounds which bleed to this day in our inner cities and the former industrial heartlands of Britain.

At the precise same time, five hundred miles from Downing Street, I was watching at close quarters as a very different battle for gender justice raged. I was a first year pupil at a large state school in the East of Scotland, a mixed-sex comprehensive which merely aspired to the standard of bog. As was typical of the time, each week our class was divided for a couple of hours. The girls would learn home economics (a euphemism for cookery and sewing) while the boys would take technical studies – metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I was ham-fisted and uninterested in the subject, then as now, and my lacklustre efforts to shape some dowelling rods into a wobbly mug rack must have been as frustrating and pointless for my unfortunate teachers as they were for me.  More than once I’d pondered whether it might be more useful for me to learn how to boil an egg

In my form class were a couple of pupils, aged 12 or 13, who took exception to the school rules. Aileen and Helen were very clever and quietly assertive. One day they decided that their education might be better served by the rudiments of engineering than the need to whip up a sponge cake or let down a petticoat hem. They lined up for a battle for equality, flanked by supportive parents and, crucially, the head of the technical department. Across those trenches were the head of home economics – an elderly, fearsome traditionalist called Miss Dyer, the headmaster and school council.

Aileen and Helen’s claim for gender rights went all the way to the local authority, and they won. That September they joined the boys in the workshops, the first two girls ever to study technical subjects at Perth High. They were not only bright and gifted with their hands, but of course they were highly motivated and, almost inevitably, they finished the year at the top of the class by some distance. Their mug racks probably still stand to this day, while I never did master a soft boiled egg. A year later, the rules changed and both boys and girls were finally provided with a genuinely comprehensive education.

I don’t think anyone in my class objected to or resented the girls’ victory. To me, and I think the vast majority of my peers, their demands were palpably, unarguably just and fair. As a female industrial chemist was taking charge of the country, how could it possibly be right that girls were excluded from any subject?

My generation was born and raised with women’s liberation in the air. Those crusty old men who resisted the tide were mocked and branded male chauvinist pigs. From an early age our teachers and, in many cases, our parents impressed upon us a certainty that girls could do anything boys can do – if not always vice versa. The battle fought by two young girls in my own class was being replicated in other schools, workplaces and households throughout the country and the developed world. Legislation for equal pay and equal opportunities was in place and beginning to take chunk after chunk out of historic inequalities. If anything seemed strange to me, it was not that women were demanding and achieving equal rights, it was that those rights had ever been denied in the first place.

Jumping forward about 30 years, I find myself writing about the trenches of a new gender war. It is for the most part a war of words not bullets. Others have used a similar metaphor to allege or describe the War Against Women or the War Against Boys, detailing the physical, political and social impacts of our gender disordered society, I do not subscribe to either case. Instead, the war I describe is the frontline of the debate, the angry, vitriolic volleys of argument, abuse and insults that provide the mood music to all discussion of men’s and women’s issues online.

Of course like all media, the internet thrives on conflict. Arguments about religion, politics, ethnicity or the environment can also spark impassioned dispute and some nasty name-calling, but gender debates stand out for the sheer animosity. The threads and blogs are not just politically charged; they are wildly emotional and deeply personal.

Some see this as the sparks from the dying embers of a patriarchal era, the last gasps of male chauvinism. I believe the phenomenon is new, and different. Most of the people involved seemed to be younger than me, born and raised in the era of equal rights. Susan Faludi’s epic feminist tome Backlash detailed the reactionary forces of the capitalist establishment which strive to keep women in their place, from the media to academia to big business. Those forces still exist, as a quick glance at the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame will reveal, but these new voices are different. They are not, for the most part, the custodians of power and privilege stomping on uppity egalitarian rebels.

The cry from that side of these trenches is more a chorus of despair from (mostly) young men who feel disempowered, maligned and yes, perhaps, emasculated by the prevailing analysis of gender issues. On the other side are feminists who mostly find it laughable that any man could complain about his place in the gender pecking order when it is still overwhelmingly men who run our institutions, our corporations and our governments. At the salient peak of feminism, we have women using their expensive private schooling, Oxbridge degrees, national newspaper columns and Westminster lobby passes to decry the privilege of men, be they billionaire bankers or homeless street-drinkers.

It seems to me that something is often absent from these debates on both sides, and that is a willingness to view the battlefield from the other side. The hostile, accusatory tone of gender debates has led to many positions becoming defensive. The online wars become ever more entrenched. If we are to find a path out of the trenches, it will be on a map drawn with compassion and empathy.

I’m not the first to make this point, and if I am not standing on the shoulders of giants here, I’m at least treading on the toes of a few fellow travellers. Nonetheless I expect and indeed welcome plenty of disagreement with my positions from men and women, feminists and men’s rights activists alike. I’m not hoping or even attempting to fix the men’s movement, far less fix feminism. If readers take anything from this blog, I hope it is that amid the blogosphere’s myriad commands to check our privilege and check our facts, we make occasional effort to check our empathy too.

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