One of the biggest sticking points between feminists and those who oppose them is this creeping thinking that “women are the oppressed gender, and men are not.” That it is only women who need the safe spaces, the redress of injustice, the activism, the specialized attention to problems only they face, the throwing off of traditional restrictions, and so on. Men are sometimes thought to need none of that; as the gender that is not oppressed, men are just fine as they are. They deserve no special attention.
I couldn’t disagree more. While it’s true that there are a million things that women have to deal with that men don’t (and that feminism is still very necessary), men also have their own struggles peculiar to their manhood, and things they go through and are expected to do as men that women are free from. That should not be denied.
And whether or not you want to play Oppression Olympics and talk about which gender faces more barriers, one thing is for sure: in the area of gender justice, women have been making great strides forward, talking to each other about the obstacles they face, calling out and defining their issues as women, and pushing back against sexist norms - while men’s issues are still most often shrouded in silence.
This silence around men’s issues is not the fault of feminists or feminism. Sure, there are bad feminists. There are bad doctors too. Does that make the practice of being a doctor a bad one? Feminism is overall a very progressive phenomenon – one that takes women’s issues, yanks them out of the dark, and calls them out so that they can be known about and dealt with.
The constructive answer to this problem is to replicate for men what feminism has been doing for women, rather than pushing back against feminism.
One of the big reasons feminism gets an undeserving bad rap sometimes is, frankly, because feminism’s work is far from over. Women are still not nearly equally represented in positions of visible power (how many state/national legislative bodies can you name that are even close to 50-50 male/female?) and women are still often looked at as victims, subject to the whims of society, rather than as the architects of their own lives.
The whole normative notion of femininity, in most societies, has a kernel of “vulnerability” and “delicateness” and even “sacrifice” at its core; thus there is a passive expectation, even from people who don’t have a sexist bone in their body, that women are going to be weaker and more yielding. This is one reason why anti-woman politics, such as the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood in the USA, can still quite easily get a foothold; despite the many examples out there of strong women, women as a group are still thought of, by and large, as people who don’t fight back – so they are easier to attack.
That is, except for the feminists. And since the “orthodox” expectation of women is to not fight back, the surprise that a feminist response to an attack on women inspires (this surprise is represented perfectly in the term “bitch”) often leads to an adversarial view of feminism – as though “feminism” is this great big she-dragon that breathes fire at men on women’s behalf, protecting women [the victims, of course] at the expense of men, keeping men from their children in divorces, decimating men’s ability to take initiative in romantic situations, and just waiting for the opportunity to label a guy with “creep!” or “perv!” or “abuser!” if they say something that isn’t politically correct.
This is definitely off the mark in terms of how and why things look this way. HOWEVER … I’d like to say to the anti-feminists out there, who don’t like how anti-male attitudes and stereotypes fester in some feminist environments: You’re quite right to feel this way. When I hear someone say “men don’t have any needs of their own,” or “all men are perverts” or even “the patriarchy is the problem, and feminism battles the patriarchy, and men benefit from that anyway,” I try to clarify that a progressive movement does not exclude or sideline other concerns, but rather, it works hand-in-hand with them (the same thing goes for male-focused movements, or any progressive movement for that matter).
So now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at feminism in the positive sense, in terms of the good that it has done and still does - and how replicating this for men could help men so much to draw out the problems they face and get some redress for their issues.
Consciousness and empowerment is where it’s at
A group that faces struggles cannot effectively deal with these struggles until it is able to empower itself. And the path to empowerment is paved with the cement of consciousness. This part of any anti-oppression project – consciousness-raising and empowerment – is the glue that binds all the other causes together and truly causes changes to occur on every level of society, right down to the very attitudes people have about others and themselves.
Now let’s clarify something: “empowerment” does not mean lording one’s power over others. Empowerment means that a person or group is able to feel a sense of self-determination. When a person is empowered, they have less of a need to dominate other people, because they are content with where they are and have less need to make comparative judgments about their position or abilities relative to others.
With regard to feminism, when I talk about consciousness-raising and empowerment, I’m talking about the process of women reaching out and finding other women, encouraging other women, supporting other women, talking to each other about the problems they face as women, and sharing the approaches and solutions they have found to these problems. All [usually] without a great deal of focus on “fighting back against men” (something that is often confused with “fighting back against the system” or “fighting back against the sexist norms” both of which can be easily personified by a woman/women as well as a man/men).
THIS is the heart of feminism – An overall sense of sisterhood in womanhood, and a pride in womanhood, as a result. And from there comes the strength to build a movement and fight for change, which reinforces the sense of empowerment. The fact that some strands of feminism may seem power-hungry is due, in my opinion, to the lack of empowerment still felt among many women.
Now - if we apply the concept of “empowerment” to men, what do we see? Men these days are feeling less and less empowered as men. These men’s rights advocates, pickup artists, and “men going their own way” are searching for a sense of collective masculine empowerment. But this is very hard to do without a collective sense of self-understanding as men. That’s what women have – thanks to feminism – that many men are in desperate need of today.
What – not who – is stopping men from feeling empowered?
Anti-feminist men’s movements make the mistake of automatically looking for someone to blame when grappling with the barriers they face as men. This is negative and counterproductive. It’s a waste of brain power and energy, and it certainly does not endear people to the cause; if anything, it drives away potential allies and has the effect of preventing others from hearing the message. And these men’s movements continue to stay on the fringes, because they are seen as being combative and negative instead of constructive.
So … I decided to take a trip around the Internet, ask some friends, and reflect on my own personal experiences as a man to come up with a nice thorough list of the troubles men face in particular because they are men. Let’s start with the rampant stereotyping, from which we can take a look at the bigger picture, without throwing blame around. There are a lot of them – and please keep in mind, when I talk of stereotypes, I’m not talking about some little harmless joke; these stereotypes deeply cut into and affect men’s lives, often in a very silent manner; every social construct about men is infused with many of the assumptions that men are:
- Stone-hearted: stoic, devoid of much emotional expression unless that expression is one of anger or contempt. Thus, programmed / expected to handle a higher threshold of abuse.
- Narrow-minded - focused solely on their obsessions or the things that matter to them.
- Selfish and egotistical. Self-centered and self-serving.
- Socially ignorant – unable or unwilling to see the effects their actions have on others.
- Dumb – as in, emotionally not there. Out in the la-la land of their own minds.
- Shallow: easily distracted by or engrossed in their TV program or videogame or other obsession, if not drooling over a passing woman’s body parts.
- Unempathic – unable to express solidarity with other points of view that don’t reflect their own.
- Thick – unable / unwilling to listen; impenetrable.
- Pig-headed. Callous and rough. Unkind, with little attention paid to the consequences of one’s actions on others.
- Inflexible. Stubborn. Unable or unwilling to yield to others.
- Closed-minded. Stuck in their own head, unable to open up and take in / accept what’s around them.
- Simplistic. Focused solely on one or two particular details, thus unable to discern finer details.
- Bad at communication, being unable to discuss these finer details that they don’t discern.
- Lazy; always trying to do the bare minimum necessary. Minimal effort to get maximum return, if the effort needed involves more than a small amount of thought.
- Obsessive about the things they care about; willing to let everything else go for the pursuit of an obsession. Go fetch, doggie!
- Not self-aware. Having little understanding as to what makes them tick (which permits such obsessions because they don’t see how it affects them).
- Aimless – because when a man is neither self-aware nor obsessive, he’s often thought to be “without focus” which a man shouldn’t be, according to the normative “men must be in control” mentality.
- Impulsive: both the “aimlessness” and the “obsessiveness” are thought to contribute to this one, along with the selfish / narrow-minded stereotypes; the average man is often thought to be impulsive if he isn’t too “stoic” or “dumb” to embrace any of his impulses.
- Immature: not well-rounded, not fully grown up; still a child on the inside.
- Opportunistic – specifically, opportunistic for their own masculine goals, whether it be sex, power, or whatever else. Women also get stereotyped as opportunistic, but the stereotype focuses around a different set of goals.
- Untrustworthy – unable to be counted on or confided in. As though their “impulsiveness” combined with their innate “opportunism” will increase the chances of them betraying you.
- Sex-crazed – that a man will do “whatever it takes to get laid,” and that sex is always on men’s minds.
- Perverted – always willing to sexualize women and situations.
- Dirty, unkempt, and unhygenic. Particularly attributed to men of lower social standing.
- Disorganized. Sometimes in the same vein as lack of hygiene, but this one also teams up with “immature / not well-rounded” to give us the “absent-minded professor” stereotype of the male intellectual who can sit around and talk theory all day but has shockingly lacking basic skills in organization and order.
- Controlling. Psychologically pushy. Constantly demanding of “respect” or other desired actions from other people.
- Impatient. Always wanting things his way, on his time.
- Pompous and self-aggrandizing – because a man is supposed to have “swagger” in order to command “respect” and get things done on his terms.
- Coercive. Impulsive, impatient, and controlling at the same time.
- Domineering. Needing to always be in the driver’s seat, to be the “alpha male.”
- Power-hungry. Because a MAN can’t be weak, no sir!
- Combative. How else to get the power and respect a man needs? Get the fuck out of my way!
- Bigoted. Homophobic and misogynistic. More likely, in their “impulsive social ignorance,” to say or do something truly heinous on a bigoted or prejudiced level. Less tolerant of divergence from the norm (the usually much-greater taboo against male-male sexual activity relative to female-female sexual activity among women is often cited as evidence of this).
- Violent. More likely to start a physical fight, or to jump at the chance to engage in physical fighting, brawling, warmongering, or what-have-you.
- Threatening – because of the last few of these previous points, this one is kind of automatic. And thus…
- Potential rapists, child-molesters, murderers, violent criminals, etc. Whoever imagines a woman as a rapist? Sure, we all know by now that women can rape, yes – but the stereotype of who commits such heinous acts, along with child molestation and murder and other violent physical assault is ALWAYS male. This automatic association grouping violent and heinous crimes solely with masculinity forms the substantive basis for much general mistrust of men, particularly when such men will be interacting with women and children that they don’t know. Men sense this innate judgment and distrust and often resent it, and it does undeniably figure into real-life decisions about everything from child custody to certain kinds of job opportunities to the severity of a disciplinary action.
Before we continue, let’s keep some other things in mind, lest anybody get confused:
- This is not a statement about how true or false these things are regarding men. That debate is too massive to fully get into here. This is just a list of the common stereotypes.
- Such stereotypes don’t get applied equally to all men all the time. Every man has different experiences.
- This is a society-wide problem. “Women” and “feminists” are not the culprit. Men perpetuate these stereotypes onto themselves, in addition to women perpetuating them. Everybody is implicated.
- These negative stereotypes don’t erase the existence of positive ones associated with masculinity.
- There are also positive stereotypes attributed to women, in addition to the negative ones against women that feminism seeks to combat.
- Everything considered, these stereotypes mentioned here are still negative stereotypes that disproportionately affect men in a way that is not true for women as a group.
Stereotypes like these also function as double-edged swords. You see, if a man fulfills the “men are stubborn and aggressive” stereotype, well, he is doing what is expected of him, so there is no immediate bother – but the stereotype lives on and will come back to bite him and other men in the behind later on (i.e., his behaviors match some of the stereotypes, so suddenly all of the litany of male stereotypes – about everything from being dumb and uncaring to being a potential rapist – are potentially attributable to him). However, if the man embodies calmer, meeker behaviors not exemplified by the male stereotypes, people around him, both men and women, may very often question his manhood – as though he is failing at being a man.
Some of these stereotypes are so deeply embedded within us that often it doesn’t even take anyone else to pass a judgment; many men set their goals for satisfactory manhood in conjunction with some of these stereotypes, and lose confidence in themselves when they don’t feel they pass muster. It’s like no matter where you go or what you do, you’re fucked.
You feminists out there who are reading this know exactly what I’m talking about, with regard to women’s struggles. Because it’s the same monster: you play to the stereotype, you lose; you avoid the stereotype, you lose. And even when no one else attacks your womanhood, that inner judge inside you is always ready and waiting to shame you and tear you down, because “you aren’t good enough.”
Thought men face a different set of issues, we still go through the same sort of process of being judged – and of self-judgment and shaming – with regard to our manhood. We just don’t talk about it very much. But we desperately need to talk about it.
Why are male issues not more talked about?
There are a number of reasons. The most obvious [yet not very talked about] one, perhaps, is the passive thinking that “men are the norm.” There is society, and then there is women in society. It’s very rare that a man was ever distinguished in history for being specifically a male member of the human race that accomplished some feat, because males are thought to be the “common accomplishers of feats.” Of course, this passive thinking shows just how deep the stain of sexism runs – as well as how it hurts both genders.
There is also the masculine code about being strong and stoic and not getting too emotionally mushy; not spilling your guts. That would be exposing yourself and making yourself vulnerable – something that is such a strong taboo that even men without such insecurities don’t realize how much their behavior has still been shaped by social expectations to “take it like a man” to the point that, out of sheer habit, they don’t open up about their issues.
Sure, many men find ways to let go and open up with people the know well and are comfortable with – but the idea that men as a group would publicly admit the ways in which they are vulnerable, that they have problems that need attention, does not mix well with the prevailing view of “men in control.” Both men themselves and society at large hold hidden but very present expectations that men must be in control and “have it together.” Admitting that you feel weak and powerless and, moreover, out of ideas for how to respond to a problem – this goes against the “I’m in control” and “I have it together” image that men are taught is so important to maintain.
This is, I suspect, a major reason why many men and male-focused movements throw blame at feminism; simply saying “there is a problem and I don’t know what to do about it” does not feel as good and empowering, at first, as saying, “there is the problem, X person/movement is to blame, let’s get ‘em!” The idea of jumping into battle temporarily takes away from men’s sense of powerlessness by turning the focus toward a new activity of problem eradication or conquest – something simple and graspable, in any event – rather than all this complex shit that one doesn’t have an answer to. After all, feminism does have everything to do with the changing of sexual and gender norms in the past 100 years, so there is a seemingly logical association made. Thus, it is thought, if you can beat down the feminists, even if it’s in a small argument and nothing really changes in the big picture, a sense of victory can be felt, just for a moment at least.
But those outbursts of raw male anger are not making anything better, for men or for women; in fact, they are digging a deeper hole for men to climb out of. Any man that wants to talk about men’s issues (such as myself) is faced with the task of first separating himself from the negative rhetoric often associated with this uncontrolled male anger in order to be heard clearly. If men want their issues to be heard and talked about the way women’s issues are, it is necessary to completely reject the negative mudball-throwing school of activism. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a continuous spinning of the wheels.
The uselessness of an adversarial approach to feminism
This issue – the rejection of feminism – is one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of a healthy men’s empowerment movement. Those of you out there who profess to hate feminism – you realize that without feminism, we would have little notion of women as even being adults, let alone in any way equal to men … right?
You may not like where some modern strands of feminism go; you may find yourself at loggerheads with some people that call themselves feminists. That’s ok. It happens to me all the time. But let’s be real here: do you want women to go back to being thought of as unfit / unable to work most jobs, unable to vote, to buy property, to freely choose sexual partners, to go outside of their home alone, to achieve pretty much any measure of independence for themselves from their family? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then you are not completely against feminism and you inherently recognize feminism’s progressive qualities at least to some extent. Because without feminism, we are still in the dark ages as far as women are concerned.
Some people say “well, ok … it’s just that feminism has gone too far.” But saying that “feminism has gone too far” is not the same thing as being against feminism. After all, as you read this, there are still parts of the world where women
- cannot vote
- cannot drive
- are unable to get property in their name
- are circumscribed from working paying jobs
- are discouraged / prohibited from pursuing an education
- are prohibited from having any open leadership role in their community
- are required to wear clothing covering their face and hair
- cannot walk down the street alone
- are subject to clitoris removal in infancy – or even in childhood
- are bound to marry somebody that they didn’t choose, often at a very young age
- must tolerate their male partner having multiple other partners, but cannot themselves take other partners
- are prohibited from reporting a rape committed by a man they are married to
- can be raped as a “punishment” or “corrective” gesture
- can be killed for having sex outside of marriage – or even being the victim of a rape
So yes, I understand the disagreements with some of the branches of modern feminism. But when vitriolic attacks on “feminism” as a whole are put out there by angry individuals that want to “strike a blow for justice,” it gives the rest of us no choice but to completely and unequivocally side with feminism, even though most of us have some key disagreements with one thing or another within feminism. Because as much as many people may not like some of the modern faces of feminism, the vast majority of people who live somewhere with a living feminist tradition do recognize, even if only passively or subconsciously, that feminism as a whole has been a development of great progressive character in our societies, and that this progress is worth being upheld and defended.
That is why anyone who wants to raise the profile of men’s issues must not indiscriminately attack feminism. Attacking feminism outright amounts to basically attacking a key pillar on which modern free civilization exists. That’s not going to win you a lot of friends – even among men who should be receptive to a male empowerment message.
The trouble with “feminism has gone too far”
People that call themselves “feminist” can be adversarial also, of course; this article is written to correct some of that, in part. But as I have said before – it’s important not to magnify one’s dislike of part of feminism into a rejection of the whole. Saying that feminism has “gone too far” is often used to imply that the work of feminism is only in the past, and now, it is useless; that women have achieved complete freedom from the things that oppress them, and no more specifically female-oriented empowerment is necessary. This is not the case – feminism is still incredibly important worldwide, including in those countries that already have a substantial history of feminist activism. I’ll get into that another time.
The “wretched gender?”
For much of modern history, women have not only been looked at as weak, but also often as wretched, or pathetic. This has definitely changed, however, wherever feminism has left its mark. These days, it often seems like things are the other way around: men are made out to be the gender that has fallen behind. Many men’s rights activists point out that in a lot of TV programs and other shows, men are often made out to be these stumbling, bumbling idiots who don’t have a clue about what’s going on around them, or their “privileged existence” – and these stereotypes have some concrete founding: Several books have been written lately about the decline of men (examples: 1 2 3) and it has been widely noted that men have been losing steam in many fields of education and academic achievement, at a time when such achievements mean more than ever before.
This situation is real. Those stereotypes listed earlier in this article are not happening out of thin air – and while it is quite true that visible power is concentrated worldwide heavily in the hands of men, this does not negate at all the sense of powerlessness that so many men who are not in positions of visible power feel in their everyday lives.
“But men still rule the world”
- This does not at all mean that men are happier, more fulfilled, or more satisfied with who they are, and
- This certainly does not mean that all men are doing the “ruling.”
One of the problems I have with the “men rule the world” view of things is that it excludes an awful lot of men. That’s like saying “Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center” or “Americans love dictators.” It’s a gross misunderstanding of reality based on simplistic labels regarding the identity of a few people that are way more visible than the rest who act “in the name of” the rest – and also often act very differently from the rest. For every man in a position of visible power, there are twenty who have little to no sense of empowerment – who are working their tails off, out of work, buried in debt, unable to move up in life, and so on. If you tell these men that they rule over women and thus are in positions of power as oppressors, it looks like folly, because their whole life experience tells them otherwise – especially when it comes to the power most of them don’t have outside the home, in the workplace, courts, and other public arenas.
And even in the home, personal relationships are a lot more complicated than stereotypes suggest, and whether or not the women many of these men know and live with also feel powerless does not change the men’s own feeling of powerlessness. Take it from me – I’ve been in a miserable heterosexual marriage; both parties often simultaneously feel powerless!
The issue of “male privilege”
Think about this for a second: which men are most likely to get angriest when it is suggested that they [men] are the oppressors, or that they wield power over women? Those that feel most unfulfilled, invalidated, marginalized, powerless, and overall ignored, of course. That’s why the Internet is full of them. Some may say that “these men simply don’t like having their privilege challenged,” but I often see, in these angry moments, a desperate sense of flailing powerlessness; the “male privilege” spoken about by others is thought by many of these men simply as “the benefits of being a man” in equal measure to “the benefits of being a woman” that men have no access to. And now these benefits are to be taken away from men with no corresponding action against women’s “privileges?” Yet another reason many men get frustrated with what they perceive as a one-sided feminist assault on their livelihood as men.
The problem with the “privilege” formulation is that, especially in cases of “challenging male privilege,” it often appears to the men being challenged as though their privilege is a bad thing that must be taken away – a negative paradigm – when the real issue is that everybody should have such privileges: ok, so men can walk alone with less fear of rape and violent assault than women, men can travel to certain places alone that women can’t, men earn more money in the same job than women, men are more likely to get an automatic “respect” in positions of authority in which women have to prove themselves, yes, ok … but the solution to this is not to “knock back male privilege” to the point where men have it as bad as women, but rather, to fight so that women can have it as good as men. THAT would be the positive [and yes, very feminist] response.
No matter what the level of privilege (or lack thereof), men that truly feel validated and empowered do not feel this deep need to “fight back” every time something questionable is said about men. They may disagree (the way I do, for example), but they don’t take it nearly as personally. Lashing out is a hallmark of feeling disempowered, not privileged. The solution to the lashing out is healthy empowerment.
How gender-training promotes different values in men and women
One of the things about traditional gendered upbringing is that, for members of both normative genders, one set of values tends to get emphasized way more than the other. The values and characteristics on the left, in purple, are much more cultivated in women; those on the right, in blue, much more cultivated in men:
- Vulnerability versus resistance.
- Gentleness versus firmness.
- Consideration of others versus consideration of self.
- Patience in response to injustice versus fighting back in response to injustice.
- Empathic listening skills versus solution-oriented listening skills.
- Self-understanding from the point of view of others’ needs versus understanding of others in regard to self-needs.
- Awareness of feelings versus ability to think objectively.
- Complex understanding versus straightforward understanding.
- Attention to subtleties versus attention to the big picture.
- Ability to hear others speak versus ability to speak out.
- Consciously letting others have attention versus commanding attention.
- Letting somebody else win or get it right versus winning or getting something right yourself.
Each of these characteristics, on both sides, has its value; women are disproportionately trained in the purple values on the left. They often face a struggle to cultivate the corresponding values on the right. But wherever a modern sense of female empowerment has taken hold, there are women proudly and reflexively embodying the values on the right as well as on the left. And that’s good. The best scenario is one in which a person is able to encompass all of these characteristics at the appropriate times, balancing each of them out in such a way as to resist when resistance is called for, vulnerability when it’s time to be vulnerable, and so on.
What is stunting men’s growth is that modern society is that as a group, men are generally learning only the values in blue, on the right. Though individual men do learn the [traditionally "female"] skills in purple on the left, there is pretty much no imperative among men as a group to do such a thing; society settles for men that learn only this one set of skills on the right side, while many modern women are constantly encouraging each other to learn both kinds of skills, and feminism has won parts of society over to helping that cause. That is a big reason why, as a group, men are falling behind in so many areas.
As long as we as a society don’t do anything to modify such trends and cultivate more well-roundedness in our boys, we are simply raising another generation of males to be condemned to having the same half-baked set of social skills that we see in many men in previous generations – thus the stereotypes of men being bumbling, stumbling idiots; without those traditionally “female” skills like empathy and self-understanding from other points of view, how are these men ever supposed to grasp the things that society has let them miss out on? Whatever privileges such men have are often invisible to these same men – something that frustrates everyone, when all is said and done. Invisible privilege doesn’t feel like privilege at all. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist – but I am saying that the person experiencing such privilege is very unaware of it, especially when such privilege, by its very nature, hampers one’s ability to develop awareness of themself in relation to others. That feels more like an impediment than a privilege.
The wrong kind of empowerment
Members of which gender commit the vast majority of *violent* crime? I’m totally not saying here that women are exempt from doing criminal, harmful things, but think about something for a second: the more flagrantly violent a crime is, the higher the percentage is of men that commit it. A friend of mine recently remarked that he had heard of exactly one female serial killer; I have noticed on my own that instances of female dictators and female officials at the very top of an armed forces hierarchy almost don’t exist.
This is not an indictment of men as dictators and authoritarians; it is, however, a recognition of how broadly our image of men – and men’s own image of themselves – is influenced by these details. The more openly competitive, win-or-lose, black-and-white thinking – which prevails far more openly and frequently among groups of men than among women – subtly teaches men that a measure of their sense of empowerment is found in how much power they are able to wield over other people. This is very much the wrong kind of empowerment.
Not that individual women can’t also think this way – sure they can. But because of a certain tacit acceptance that “boys will be boys,” a creeping tolerance of more potentially domineering and violent tendencies develops generally among men. Women who develop power-hungry tendencies develop them as individuals in contrast to the feminine norm – whereas when a man is power-hungry and domineering, we tend not to be surprised – as though this is a “normal,” though often regrettable, expression of masculine behavior.
Being able to express strength, lead others, and take charge is a valuable skill for anyone to have at their disposal, no matter what their gender. But when, as a man, you constantly hear messages over your lifetime that in order to be empowered, you can’t be weak, that you can’t be passive, that you can’t let others mess with you, that you must always be strong, always ready to stand up and fight, always ambitious, always the “alpha male,” and all that other normative rubbish, it tends after a while to stick. Especially when you are given NO sense of an alternative way to feel empowered – to feel your strength through letting go and accepting things, for example.
It’s not surprising, then, that many men, when challenged, often get stuck in one of two paradigms: macho self-aggrandizement on the one hand, or just completely turning off, tuning out, and receding into their own world on the other. Neither way is a model for healthy male self empowerment.
What is to be done?
I’ve got some ideas. This applies to everybody who wants to discuss men’s self-empowerment, of course, but I am particularly directing myself to other men here, since we are talking about men dealing with men’s issues:
- Let’s talk! Break your silence about what affects you. Bring your life out of the shadows – even if you don’t think this is that serious of an issue. Other men and women need to hear from you.
- Don’t neglect your own observations. If you see some place in which men are at a higher risk than women or are significantly behind women in opportunity / development, don’t be afraid to talk about it! This is the whole problem: this stuff is not being talked about enough.
- Take a principled but uncombative stance when talking about men’s issues. If bullied or ridiculed, be firm about your convictions without “striking back” in an aggressive way. An aggressive reaction is exactly what bullies want, because it shows that they’ve gotten to you, and then they get to look like the good guys. Don’t fall for it.
- Always use nonviolent communication when talking. Disagree with ideas, yes – but do not attack or slur the people saying them. Mudball-throwers aren’t serious about being constructive and moving forward – they just destroy. Don’t be one of those.
- Distinguish yourself from those that are “on your side” that you do disagree with. I, for example, am advocating male empowerment, but I will have nothing to do with those hot-headed folks whose idea of empowerment is diatribes against feminism. I also am a feminist, but you’ll never find me siding with anybody, feminist or not, who wishes to exclude trans people, or who thinks that men need no empowerment. It’s important to make these things clear.
- Be as constructive as possible. When you are going to shoot down an idea, offer an alternative viewpoint. Avoid falling into too much either-or thinking. Overwhelming negativity also lowers the level of discussion and ultimately gets nowhere. An empowering dynamic raises the level of discussion.
- Don’t debate just for the sake of disagreeing. If you disagree, that’s ok – but don’t fetishize it and turn it into a verbal gunfight. If you want to be constructive, the emphasis should be on agreement and common ground when possible.
- Discuss in order to learn and to inform - not to win. Constructive discussion is about learning each other’s point of view, so that we can better understand why the other side believes things that we may find ridiculous. If you are going to engage, you might as well learn. The other side does have its reasons for thinking the way they do, and if they see that you are open to hearing their point of view, they will likely be more open to learn from you.
- Don’t try to take advantage of somebody’s inability to express themself perfectly. If the other person is just not able, for whatever reason, to be quick and well-organized with their thoughts, give them some room. Don’t overpower them. Engage them in a way that you are able to understand them as best as possible. This is part of playing to learn as opposed to winning an argument.
- Don’t give people who communicate violently or negatively what they want. If somebody can’t extract themselves from a combative, domineering position, you have every right to say “ok, I guess we disagree” and walk away, so as not to waste your time. Don’t fall into their I-win-you-lose mode of debate. It’s a waste of breath and brainpower.
- Listen – a lot. Show interest in what those you are talking to actually think, and where they are coming from. What’s the point of having a discussion with them and trying to convince them of things they don’t know about if you aren’t going to listen to figure out first of all where their heads are at?
- Stay as clear as possible of assumptions. Speak for yourself, and mirror back what you hear other people say, rather than taking what they say and turning it into your own version of things. For example, you can say to someone “when you say X, it sounds to me like Y,” because you are clear that this is what you perceive – and you thus avoid making assumptions about *the* meaning of what somebody has said.
- Ask for clarification. A lot of the time, assumptions get made because of simple misunderstandings. Especially when you feel offended by something somebody says – ask them to clarify. Quite often, it’s not what you think.
- Frame what you have to say in less potentially offensive ways. Of course you can’t please everybody all the time – but remember, the less offensive your words are, the more likely you are to be heard. Part of the learning process, when discussing with someone who sees things differently than you, is learning what may make them feel belittled, also. Much of the time, a simple adjustment of the words one uses (like avoiding the term “bitch” to refer to a feminist, as an obvious example) can foster a great deal more openness; if the other person feels you are considering them and their values, they are much more likely to consider yours.
- Respect and advocate for female empowerment. You are free to disagree with me, of course – but I’ve just spent a long time here trying to convince you that female empowerment is not antithetical to male empowerment. We are teammates, comrades fighting against the same beast of social pigeon-holing and stereotyping, even though we go through very different forms of it. Which is something I want to address next.
Why “feminism” and “male empowerment?” Why not just “equality” or “humanism” or “normalism?”
The short answer is, because we don’t all face the same issues. Different pieces of the fight for equality have different names, because they concentrate on different aspects of injustice.
It also has to do with the fact, however, that these issues can also be very intimate. Many women who might not feel empowered in mixed company to speak out about their experiences regarding sexism will come forth and speak out in an environment for them and by them, specifically focusing on their particular issues. The same can be said about men: a lot of men keep very silent about the things that they are thinking and feeling inside, only opening up when they feel like they won’t be judged or misunderstood for the things they say. We need our separate safe-spaces – on all sides – until the day we truly feel safe enough to let them go. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
The thinking that we can all come together and work out our problems together is a very necessary one. We need cross-dialogue very much – this is how we learn about each other. But having cross-dialogue does not negate the need sometimes for people that are in a specific group that goes through a specific set of issues to create a safe space to talk about these issues amongst each other. We take this reality for granted when it comes to women; men, however, are not generally encouraged to seek out and create such safe spaces – unless it’s a “man-cave” that offers a respite from even thinking so much about challenging issues. Thus, when men face challenges specific to them, they can become prone to feeling that they have nowhere to say what is truly on their mind and be seriously listened to – by either society-at-large or other men.
Or, when men do speak their mind, they can get the feeling of having to walk on eggshells, lest somebody criticize them and call them out as being politically incorrect, or sexist, or “whiners.” This last epithet is an egregiously unfair macho-baiting slur, because it’s a slap in the face to men who do try to speak out about their issues – which is another understandable reason why some of these men oppose themselves to feminism. The good news is, the more men talk about their issues, the more resistance there will be generally toward such macho-baiting.
Feminists know that men don’t go through certain things that women go through, and that because of this, women have to be at the forefront of defining and dealing with their own issues. The same needs to be said – much more often – about men’s issues. Nobody is in a better place to call out and define the problems a group faces than a member of that particular group. It’s that simple.
Don’t be afraid …
… of the labels. They are not meant to be litmus tests of what you are or aren’t. Use them when they work for you, and avoid them when they don’t. I, for one, identify with “feminism.” I call myself a feminist. That doesn’t mean that you or anyone else has to go by that label. It also doesn’t mean that I’m going to agree with everything that other feminists say. And it CERTAINLY doesn’t stop me from advocating for male empowerment.
It also doesn’t mean that you should be afraid of me, or respect me any more, just because I call myself a feminist. Find out what I really believe, what I really want, and listen to me; I’ll listen to you, we’ll have a dialogue, and most of the time, we’ll find we actually have a great deal more in common than it seemed before.