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?