Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What Men Can Do: Guilt vs. Responsibility

I've begun reading The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women, and How All Men Can Help, by Jackson Katz. I'd like to thank whomever recommended the book to me, though I have since forgotten who did. (I seem to be acquiring good books on feminism, men and feminism, race theory and action and the like faster than I can read the damn things. But that's an embarrassment of riches, I suppose.) I'd like to first note that the subtitle seems to be unfortunate wording--to me it sounds like this is a book instructing men how to help other men hurt women. But, then, coming up with titles is a difficult sort of thing to do, so I don't fault him much for that.

So far I like Katz's writing style, and I like the fact that he isn't holding back, isn't coddling men around issues of violence against women. More importantly, though, I think it's great that he's addressing one of the things that often keeps men from doing good ally work, or from wanting to become feminist allies at all: guilt. More importantly, he addresses what I also see to be one of the main reasons that men sometimes let guilt get in the way of doing good ally work--the conflating of guilt with responsibility.

After giving us lots of statistics about the violence that men commit against women, Katz sends out a clarion call to men to become allies:
"It is long past time that men from all walks of life owned up to their part in all of this. The status quo is simply unacceptable. And while it is crucial that women and men work together to address the problem, the primary responsibility resides with men. Men, after all, are the primary perpetrators of rape, battering, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment, at least according to those radical feminists over at the FBI. So we can dispense with the idea that it is anti-male to say what everyone already knows to be true. There is an awful lot of violence against women in our society, and men commit the vast majority of it."--pp24

It probably goes without saying that I agree with Katz as far as he goes. I do think that the focus of the book, that of the violence men perpetrate against women, is too narrow for what I would want, if I could have whatever analysis I wanted (this, given that I haven't read the whole book yet)--I think that men's violence against women is one very important facet of the violence that men are taught in general; I think that an analysis of the violence men perpetrate against other men, against people of all genders, in addition to an analysis of the violence men perpetrate against women, is in order. I also recognize, however, that there is plenty to be said for the view that a good starting place to deal with this stuff is where Katz starts, given the damage men do against women.

But I digress.

Katz next lets us know that he's not going to coddle men (and the women who might help to coddle them), but neither is he going to try to use guilt to motivate:
"Is saying that unfair to men? Better yet, is telling the truth unfair to men? For those who think it is, please know that I am not going to spend a lot of time in this book catering to men's defensiveness around this subject. Or to women who feel obliged to rush to the defense of their sons and husbands. But let me be clear. I am also not going to guilt-trip twenty-first-century American men by blaming them for thousands of years of sexism and patriarchal oppression. Men shouldn't feel guilty simply for being born male. That's silly. If there is a reason to feel guilty, it should be about what they do or fail to do, not about their chance placement in one gender category."--pp24

And we do feel defensive, there's no doubt about it. Even the most adamant male feminist allies find ourselves feeling defensive about the abuses men have committed against women, and we don't just feel defensive about the abuses each of us, as individuals, have committed--we feel guilt about being men, from time to time at least. I think this is somewhat ridiculous, in some ways--but in other ways it reflects that we know that we have and do benefit from male privilege: No matter what degree we feel we participate in violence against women, we still benefit from violence that has been committed in the past, and violence that will be committed in the future, of men against women. So there will be some guilt there, and some defensiveness. But Katz hits the nail on the head when he points out the important distinction between guilt and responsibility:
"Nonetheless, when it comes to discussions about men and sexism, the concepts of guilt and responsibility are often confused. They are not the same thing. For conscientious men, especially those who are just beginning to grapple with the enormity of the problem of men's violence against women, feelings of guilt can be paralyzing, whereas feelings of responsibility at least have the potential to be energizing."--pp24

As men who would be feminist allies, we can recognize and appreciate all of our feelings, both our feelings of guilt and our feelings of responsibility. Still, we can try to use the feelings of responsibility to overcome the guilt to a degree where we can do something about the world apart from feeling defensive. I don't think this is ever easy, but it's a place from where to begin.

(As a side note: I have an intuition, one that I can't back up without some more thought, that most of the entire men's rights movement might be able to be traced back to defensiveness around feelings of guilt. Sometimes it seems as if there are two choices: Recognize the guilt and feel responsible, in the sense that Katz is talking about, or recognize the guilt and feel defensive. Allies do the former, and many MRA's do the latter. Again, not something I can fully back up just yet, just a thought.)
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