those other men, those other white people

I thought that this piece by Mychal Denzel Smith on why feminism shouldn’t make men comfortable was interesting and well-argued, but it has this central problem that is endemic to left-wing writing right now: the men who read and share it will almost universally do so in the spirit of implicating some other men. The argument that men should be made uncomfortable by feminism becomes, when waged assertively, the means through which those men eliminate their discomfort with feminism.

In a world where we’ve raised the social costs of failing to adequately signal our political righteousness to unprecedented heights, we find ourselves in a kind of political arms race, particularly among the white educated progressives who are unquestionably a part of the power structure that they decry. After all, you can either be the target of someone else’s critique or you can, preemptively, be the one doing the critiquing.  Denzel Smith’s argument is correct and important, but it will exist in a rhetorical environment where its primary use will be to help place the men who share it on the side of the men who are not implicated by its argument. Like the endless complaining by white liberals about white people that is really about those other white people, there is a deep uselessness about political engagement by male feminists that serves ultimately to only critique those other men. Were politics a matter of sorting the good people from the bad, political problems would not be nearly so intractable. But since male privilege is expressed through material, economic, and political inequalities regardless of the personal righteousness of individuals, engaging in a way that merely identifies the superior virtue of specific men can actually make meaningful change more difficult.

None of which means that the men who share this post aren’t sincere. Indeed, nothing is more genuinely a part of 21st century elite liberal culture than the sincere distaste these privileged classes feel towards their privilege. One of the most bitter prerogatives of the privileged is the ability to possess both the power of unearned advantage and the nobility of an egalitarian soul.

I’m not saying don’t share the piece; it’s a very good piece. And I’m not saying don’t engage in arguments for social justice, which would be even worse than the current habit. I am saying that people seem to lack skepticism about their own political motives, when in fact of our various motives the political ones are the ones we should doubt most of all. And I’m saying that at some point the great muscular force of Social Justice Social Media has to confront the fact that merely identifying yourself as part of a political movement with your expressions and your vocabulary does not amount to actually being part of the solution. Constantly making loud noises online about the injustice of your unearned advantages does nothing to meaningfully remove you from the group which enjoys them.

Some people on my Facebook were passing around this comic about white privilege recently. It’s a pretty perfect distillation of what I’m talking about: politics as avoidance of self-implicature. You might find that statement weird– after all, she says that she indeed benefits from white privilege and sometimes “catches herself being racist once in awhile.” But such self-denigration lasts only a panel; inevitably, we come to the point where she ends her work by telling other white people to “fucking educate yourself.” Setting aside the question of whether anyone has ever been educated or persuaded by that kind of self-importance in the history of education or persuasion, there’s this necessary question: how can she actually be a part of a positive movement against the structural privileges that she claims to oppose when her arguments about those privileges inevitably end with her playing the role of righteous aggressor? At its ugliest, this risks being an appropriation of anti-racist political theory for the social and political pleasure of a white person. Is ending up being that righteous aggressor ultimately the point? It’s not a question that she could answer explicitly– answering affirmatively, of course, would simply restart the cycle. Neither can I, as of course these are the kind of questions that cry out for the tu quoque. But we can ask ourselves.

(By the way: if “catching yourself when you notice that your thoughts and actions are hurtful” could actually do anything about white supremacy, we wouldn’t have nearly the racial problems we have. The whole point is that because these are in fact structural features of our economy and government, individual white people being good has no meaningful impact on their negative power. But that’s less fun to draw in a comic.)

I would counsel anyone who considers themselves to be waging social justice politics online to ask themselves: if that engagement did not ultimately leave you, like the woman in the comic, telling other people to fucking educate themselves, would you still bother? And as more and more people adopt your tools, who will you have left to go to work on with them, if the answer isn’t yourself?

27 Comments

  1. This seems to me to clearly beg the question of the value of any of this “chat” online–at this blog or any other blog or professional/corporate media outlet.

    Activism is clearly about bodies–not about disembodied notes.

    I have wondered if the radio show I produce can be more “real” in its service towards a deeper conversation. I rate it above the blog and the magazine even though it will touch far fewer folks. That medium presents a voice, and one unvarnished by the needs of “entertainment,” in relation to other voices. Yes, I can be limiting and restrictive; I can choose “one side” of the argument; I can support any voice that isn’t served by the current power structure.

    Is there value in the committed voice that is attached to a body and “sound signature”? Is that more “active” than the pen–more blood in the throat than ink?

  2. The tendency on social media to peddle one’s own virtue and to get sniffy at others’ flaws goes far beyond the subject of politics. It affects everything. I grew up in a small town, one so isolated that there were no TV stations near enough to receive and only one radio station. So it was the very opposite of an urban setting– everything was interactive. Contrary, perhaps, to what people might think, one of the characteristics of urbanity is it allows lots of passive spectatorship: you can watch plays, you can “sit and watch the world go by”, you can flaneur around, you know, which sort of implies nonjudgmental noninterference. In my small town it seemed that judgment and interference marked most people’s observations of each other — because, you know, they could and there was nothing else to do. Social media sometimes feels like this sort of village.

  3. I love reading articles that point this out, but is it only because I can then feel superior to the online social justice scolds?

    However, setting aside the fact that how I feel is what matters most, I think a lot of this stuff is age-related. When I volunteer-taught, I found that at a certain age the children were highly invested in being told the ‘right way’ to do things. I can remember myself at a younger age — maybe not that much younger than I am now — just wishing people would tell me the d**n rules once and for all so I could memorize them and be done with it.

    Some of this comes from desire to do things right, some from desire to please authorities, some from desire to boss the others in the group, some from downright hatred. The more I think about the psychology of rules and rule-making, the more diverse and twisted it seems.

    1. I love reading articles that point this out, but is it only because I can then feel superior to the online social justice scolds?

      You know, I’ve kind of been wondering that myself….

  4. All meaningful expression isdivisive. Even the anodyne-seeming, non-argumentative stuff. Likewise, there is no congregation–be it physical or conceptual–without segregation, no solidarity without drawing a line separating Us from Them.

    The worry shouldn’t be whether or not indignation leads to conceptual divisions, but whether that indignation can be better sublimated, like by encouraging people to take action beyond identifying themselves with the Righteous. This worry is pointed considering the state of online identity politics discourse, and super especially pointed in light of Smith’s essay, which takes the “ablution via self-denunciation” approach to new heights of sanctimony.

    Here’s the lesson I got both from Smith’s essay and that cartoon you linked to: We are almost exclusively concerned with semiotic purity. That’s why the incantations signalling such purity are now being made so loud and hideously.

  5. One of the most bitter prerogatives of the privileged is the ability to possess both the power of unearned advantage and the nobility of an egalitarian soul.

    Is being able to survive being made uncomfortable by feminism an unearned privilege? I don’t believe so. Subtract the sanctimony of the online world and there are people who have earned whatever understanding they have. It may not be perfect understanding, and it should not cause someone to say simply ‘educate yourself’, but it’s real.

  6. This gets to why I believe self-identified male people such as myself should not identify as feminists. It’s a classic cop-out and it puts believers in a position of telling the wimmin how they should be running their politics. I can still get to identify as a humanist and say that human means all the humans, but humans behave like dirty and vicious animals too often for me to be totally comfortable with that identity. Surely we can and someday will do better.

    On topic, I was going to point to the story of the “rich young ruler” in Mark chapter 10: Jesus tells him, “sell what you have and give to the poor”. People think this is about holy poverty, but people who have read the whole story know that Jesus was not overly concerned with the economics of things. Jesus is really telling the young liberal (…Pharisee…) “check your privilege, leave it at the door.” And the fellow went away sad, because he couldn’t let go.

  7. Sanctimony is a real problem for online activism, and yeah, there is a danger that in condemning it, you become sanctimonious—guilty of what you condemn in others, a hypocrite.

    Both of these problems come about because the debate is framed in the language of personal morality. We should avoid condemning sanctimony. Why? Because that is self-contradictory and self-defeating. It only heightens the obsession with personal morality.

    But I still believe it’s important to critique sanctimony. Part of what I think you’re getting at is that moral perfection is an impossible goal because it produces arrogance.

    To me sanctimony seems incoherent and contradictory for people who think of themselves as challenging the status quo. I wonder who is the intended or imagined recipient of a message like “go fucking educate yourself.” Or even Mychal Denzel Smith’s claim that men ought to interrogate and dismantle patriarchy.

    These injunctions are very common, and made from a position of moral authority the speaker believes their audience acknowledges. They assume that feminism/anti-racism is the dominant normative system in society, and there are only questions about how to live up to the standard (examining privilege) or who should be doing what (male agency is the key to feminist social change, I guess?).

  8. The piece by Smith is absurd. If feminism doesn’t make men comfortable, feminism will never succeed.

    Why has acceptance of gay marriage skyrocketed recently? Because people have become more comfortable with it.

    A man (or woman) who is going to take useful action must first be comfortable with taking that action.

    1. I suggest reading McKenzie’s original article that he quotes, then re-reading Smith’s article again.

      ‘… This message is flawed and unfortunate, as well. Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily. This is problematic for the same reason telling white people that they should end racism because racism “holds us all back as a society, so eradicating it will help you, too,” is problematic.

      Firstly, because even if that’s true, it does nothing to create solidarity. I have never met a white person who decided to take on anti-racism work because of the negative effects of racism on white people. Literally, never. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who genuinely supports feminist ideals because of the ways they benefit men first. If I did know people like this, I wouldn’t like them. I’d question why the often brutal oppression of people of color and women and especially women of color wasn’t enough to get them interested, but having an epiphany about the ways men and/or white people are kinda also hurt by these constructs because “something something society and also men should be able to cry, too” made them jump right on board…’

      http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/09/im-really-emma-watsons-feminism-speech-u-n/

  9. Freddie, how does this square with other posts of yours about being an effective leftist by, essentially, not excluding those who aren’t already with you but instead working to build a majority?

  10. Mychal Denzel Smith’s article was terrible. It was the perfect expression of patriarchal feminism, which looks a lot more like male chivalry (minus the corresponding female obligations) than actual gender egalitarianism.

    Egalitarians recognize that — unlike race privilege, or class privilege, or a variety of other privileges — gender privilege is a two-way street. (American) men are much more likely to be killed on the job than women … ten times more likely, as a matter of fact, according to the most recent government figures. Men are also vastly more likely to be murdered than women, and much more likely to end up in jail. Only men are required to sign up for Selective Service. It is still legally permissible to permanently cut and tear large portions of the most sensitive parts of a man’s sex organ from his body … while he’s an infant … and often with only partially effective anaesthesia, or none at all.

    This is far from an exhaustive list of the ways society’s current gender roles oppress men, some of which can be readily measured, while others can’t.

    A genuine egalitarian feminism won’t just make men uncomfortable … it will also make women uncomfortable, as both male privilege and female privilege will be recognized as barriers to true freedom from gender oppression. That’s the actual ‘hot seat’ that Mychal himself is avoiding.

    1. “This is far from an exhaustive list of the ways society’s current gender roles oppress men”

      I also highly recommend McKenzie’s original article (quoted by Smith) to you:

      http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/09/im-really-emma-watsons-feminism-speech-u-n/

      Further, you should become a socialist. For example, this is not “gender oppression.” This is labor/class exploitation:

      “(American) men are much more likely to be killed on the job than women … ten times more likely, as a matter of fact, according to the most recent government figures. “

      Marxism defines/analyzes/theorizes exploitation as something very different than oppression. Add Marxism to your theoretical toolbelt, and you’ll realize how and why the things you are conceptualizing as “gender oppression” of men are actually not gender oppression. Men ARE harmed by the gender oppression of women, but that does not mean men are oppressed by gender as women and LGBTQ people are. (in Mia McKenzie’s article, she briefly touches on the concept of “femininity” – her paragraph here represents a good segue into understanding how feminist theory sets the foundation out of which LGBTQ theories emerge. LGBTQ theories address how LGBTQ people/males/men are oppressed by gender – and it is important to understand that this is BECAUSE women are oppressed by gender. For instance, heterosexism emerges from sexism. Feminist theory is capable of showing that even though heteronormative men are harmed by gender norms, they are NOT oppressed by gender norms as women are. Understanding that requires a thorough understanding of what oppression is. When you inevitably still recognize “but hey – life is still really miserable and difficult and violent for a ton of white, straight, gender-conforming men too!” then that’s your cue to start delving into Marxism to understand class exploitation – which is something completely different than oppression – and to understand how white heteronormative men are exploited and oppressed by CLASS, not gender. Check out Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici. Also, Marx’s Capital Illustrated by David N. Smith looks to be a great intro. Then tell everybody you know!!)

      1. Edit:

        This should say: “[…]how many white heteronormative men are exploited and oppressed by CLASS, not gender” – with the exception being, of course, the white heteronormative men who are capitalists.

      2. Sarah, I found much of your response to me frustrating, but I do appreciate your taking the time to reply.

        “Further, you should become a socialist.”

        This made me chuckle a little. I already am a democratic socialist, and I’ve been one for … well, let’s just say quite a while and leave it at that.

        “Marxism defines/analyzes/theorizes exploitation as something very different than oppression.”

        This may be true, but it’s not really relevant to my comment.

        “Add Marxism to your theoretical toolbelt, and you’ll realize how and why the things you are conceptualizing as “gender oppression” of men are actually not gender oppression.”

        Marx produced some extraordinarily important insights regarding the exploitation of labor by capitalists. However, I’ve found cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris’s analysis of the weaknesses of certain aspects of classic Marxist theory to be pretty persuasive. One of those weaknesses was the absence of a coherent understanding of human society’s most important ‘production’ of all: namely, that of other human beings. Marx simply didn’t have that strong a grasp of the distinct role that the domestic and political economies played in mediating feedback between what Marx called the “base” and the superstructure of a society. It is precisely in the domestic and political economies where gender is often salient. (Marx also didn’t understand the critical importance of birth control and the Malthusian dynamic in shaping societies’ evolution, and referred to Malthus himself as a “baboon.”)

        “Men ARE harmed by the gender oppression of women, but that does not mean men are oppressed by gender as women and LGBTQ people are.”

        And here I must politely but emphatically disagree. I reject the Super Secret Code Word definition of the word “oppression” which includes women but somehow manages to exclude men no matter how clearly men have it worse than women along some cultural dimension. I find this rhetorical gerrymandering of the word to be an example of a truly noxious form of academic obscurantism.

        If it can be accurately stated that women are oppressed by gender in the developed West (and I do think that’s accurate), then it’s also unquestionably true that men are oppressed by gender as well. (And yes, that includes white, heterosexual, cissexual, gender-conforming males.) There is no part of the class dynamic that can explain why it’s permissible in America to slice off a highly sensitive portion of the sex organ of a non-consenting underage male, but strictly forbidden — even unthinkable — to do the same to an underage female. Economic class distinctions do not explain the criminal sentencing disparity that favors women over men. Economic class distinctions do not explain why, overall, men lead shorter lives than women (significantly shorter than can be reasonably explained by genetic differences). Economic class distinctions do not explain why men are more likely to be victims of violence than women. Contrast these facts with how race privilege plays out in those last three dimensions: whites enjoy sentencing disparities, longer lives, and less violence than African Americans (though class divisions do play a significant role in all three cases).

        Since we appear to be recommending books to each other, I would like to point you to two excellent Marvin Harris tomes: Cannibals and Kings and Cultural Materialism. (You may enjoy Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches as well.) Harris doesn’t preoccupy himself with issues of gender, but he does touch on it and has some useful things to say to gender egalitarians. For example, he speculates that pre-state societies were not rigidly structured around gender, and notes that humans have a lower sexual dimorphism than any other pongid.

        1. I appreciate you taking the time to respond as well! Unfortunately I don’t have much time to give a thorough response, so my apologies that this response will read abruptly!

          “This may be true, but it’s not really relevant to my comment.”

          This is where I must politely but emphatically disagree. This was regarding your comment that “American men are 10x’s more likely to be killed on the job than women.”

          If this were oppression rather than exploitation – the question is, who then is the OPPRESSOR in this situation? Not women. American men are not 10x’s more likely to be killed on the job because women are oppressing men on the basis of gender – the reality is that women’s employment opportunities have historically been highly restricted. The reason not as many women are killed in certain industries is because women don’t have the same employment opportunities as men and historically & traditionally have been outright barred from most industries and professions, or even from waged labor whatsoever! So this is not a situation of women oppressing men. The situation is capitalists exploiting the working class (exploitation is why workers get killed – all for the sake and in the service of making capitalists’ profits) – but simultaneously restricting women from participating in the waged economy. Caliban and the Witch is a book I cannot recommend highly enough – it is immensely elucidating on this point. This book actually speaks to much of what you were saying in the paragraph beginning, “Marx produced some extraordinarily important insights …” as well.

          As for your point that more men are jailed than women – I also maintain this is not an issue of gender oppression. (oppression of men by women??) Primarily it is racial oppression. Secondarily it is class oppression more broadly. However, the reason the majority of inmates are men is because the organization of patriarchy under capitalism inherently places the “policing” of women often directly & ‘extrajudicially’ in the hands of men – the “policing” of women largely takes place in the domestic/sexual/social spheres. If you don’t want to simply take my word for it, once again, I must very highly recommend…!

          http://www.autonomedia.org/caliban

          1. “If this were oppression rather than exploitation – the question is, who then is the OPPRESSOR in this situation?

            I think you’re getting the concepts of oppression and exploitation upside down, Sarah. Exploitation may require the existence of a specific exploitative group, but generalized attitudes of society at large can be experienced as oppressive. There’s no need to attribute the source of oppression to any one specific group (though certainly there are times when it may originate from one group).

            Both men and women experience pressures to conform to ‘normal’ gender roles. And both men and women apply those pressures.

            “… the reality is that women’s employment opportunities have historically been highly restricted. The reason not as many women are killed in certain industries is because women don’t have the same employment opportunities as men and historically & traditionally have been outright barred from most industries and professions, or even from waged labor whatsoever!”

            It’s certainly true that, in the past, women have been denied the opportunity — or, in some cases, protected from the obligation — to take up certain work roles. But the notion that women today are flocking to careers in high-risk occupations like agriculture and construction only to be turned away does not sync with the evidence. For example, Norway was recently rated the most egalitarian society in the world … and yet Norwegian women are more likely to opt for traditional ‘feminine’ careers than women in less-developed nations.

            Your response seems to entirely overlook the societal pressures on men to be willing to take significant physical risks in order to reap the rewards of high-status and/or potentially lucrative occupations. (By “lucrative” I simply mean ‘more lucrative to the man in question than other safer occupations readily available to him.’)

            “As for your point that more men are jailed than women – I also maintain this is not an issue of gender oppression. (oppression of men by women??) Primarily it is racial oppression.”

            This is false. The gender disparity in incarceration rates exceeds the racial disparity … especially when you take economic class into account.

            “However, the reason the majority of inmates are men is because the organization of patriarchy under capitalism inherently places the “policing” of women often directly & ‘extrajudicially’ in the hands of men …”

            Once again, this does not line up with the evidence. Both men and women are more likely to murder men than they are to murder women, for example.

  11. If I share this perspective with others, what’s happening in the cycle of dissociation of critique by (appearing to embrace it through) sharing? Am sharing a critique in order to distance from your critique of sharing a critique in order to distance from a critique?

    Your point is well made and one I agree with (think I’m less-consciously-aware-of than I’d like to recognize), but at some point the meta-analytic collapses itself. We have to share ideas if we want change. The important thing will be for everyone’s feet to be held to the fire equally.

  12. “The argument that men should be made uncomfortable by feminism becomes, when waged assertively, the means through which those men eliminate their discomfort with feminism.”

    The way to cut through this on both ends is probably to worry less about whether the right people are made uncomfortable by the right things in the right ways and more about the nature of certain structures, the problems they cause, and the action being taken to amend or demolish them.

    The material value in a critique like this (beneficial or no depending on where you stand) is to get certain people to re-evaluate our preferred methods of waging the war for social justice, and whether the way online social interactions are structured, and the market objectives which underwrite them, aren’t in some ways antithetical to the kinds changes people want to use them to achieve.

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