"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Men Can Do: On Meaningful Discussions and Confrontations

I'm still reading Katz' The Macho Paradox, and it's still got me thinking. Early on, Katz addresses the fact that many men feel immediately, personally, defensive when people point out the amount of violence men perpetrate against women. Katz sees this defensiveness as one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of getting more men to comprehend and embrace feminist ideals:

“When I work with men, I try to address the concepts of guilt and responsibility up front because I know from long experience—and a lot of trial and error—that if the goal is to inspire more men to engage in transformative action, we need to do more than simply tell them to stop behaving badly. That is sure to provoke a defensive reaction. Defensiveness, in fact, is one of the greatest obstacles to men's involvement in meaningful discussions about gender violence. Simply stated, a surprising number of non-violent men cannot hear about the bad things some men do to women without feeling blamed themselves.”--pp25
There's a lot going on here. Is our goal to inspire more men to engage in transformative action? That's one of my goals, certainly—but goals are usually only best understood in comparison with other goals. It is more important to inspire men to change themselves, and to change the world, than it is to stop men from doing violence against women? Of course I would say these two goals are inextricably intertwined, but I also understand that sometimes you just have to pick a goal, and stick to it for while. Katz is suggesting that inspiring men ought to be our primary goal.

I don't think that it ought to be the top priority for all (male) feminists all of the time. First of all, sometimes we just don't need to care about the defensiveness of men. Sometimes, defensiveness be damned, we want and need to vent. Sometimes, defensiveness be damned, we are more concerned with using the stick, rather than the carrot. Sometimes, defensiveness be damned, we need to focus on building up women and providing them safe(er) spaces, rather than coddling men. And Katz recognizes this—he does, after all, start the book out by noting that he's not writing the damn thing to coddle men. He's trying to be practical. Along those lines, he points out that lots of us feel like it's not worth the confrontation—that we do indeed pick our battles:

“In anticipation of defensive hostility, many women (and some anti-sexist men) censor themselves in discussions with men about sensitive issues like rape, sexual harassment, and abuse in relationships. They decide that it is not worth such confrontations with men in their professional or personal lives. The cost is too high in terms of ill feelings and interpersonal tensions. So a lot goes unsaid. Moreover, because defensiveness is the enemy of critical thinking, an awful lot of men who stand to greatly benefit from reading and reflecting on decades of brilliant academic and popular work on gender, power, and violence instead avoid it like the plague. So a lot goes unread.”--pp25
I think it's easy to fall into a habit of avoiding confrontation in this way—and it may be even more easy for feminist men to do so, using their privilege as a nice little safety blanket. But I also think it's necessary to recognize that it's sometimes necessary to avoid confrontation, if only to simply keep one's sanity. (And, indeed, sometimes we avoid confrontations because they are genuinely, immediately dangerous to us—the best thing to do sometimes is to just walk away.) We need to take care so as not to expect way too much of ourselves, and of our allies. We can create despair in ourselves and in our community if we're not careful, by setting impossibly high standards of behavior in terms of when we choose to stand up to the sexist asshats of the world. And there is plenty of despair to go around without us creating any more.

That said, I think we have to be equally careful to not back down from confrontations, and in this way I think I may disagree slightly with Katz. If our goal is to inspire men to create change, we may want to be careful to not first inspire defensiveness in them—but that all depends on our audience, and who is speaking to them, and when. Context is mightily important, and timing. Sometimes we might want to avoid defensiveness—but sometimes we might allow some men to get defensive, if only to allow other men to see how patently ridiculous that can be. Sometimes we might make 'em defensive on purpose. I have in mind here the sort of disparaging comedy that people like Stephen Colbert tend to do. Take the famous clip of him asking the congressperson who is trying to get the 10 Commandments installed in courtrooms in his state. When Colbert asks him to name the commandments, and the guy can name two (sort of), Colbert is humiliating the guy. There is little concern for how defensive that guy might have become, and yet a point has been made, and made well: You're posturing, you jerk. Engaging with anti-feminist men in similar ways can do a lot of work. (Amanda Marcotte is particularly good at this, in blogland.) If only I were as funny (and had the same team of writers) as Colbert. (or Marcotte!) Of course, Colbert is a pretty good feminist himself...

Other times, I fully appreciate where Katz is coming from. He goes to schools and talks about gender inequalities, espousing not only feminism, but trying to encourage a change away from the parts of culture with help to bring about men's violence against women. He goes to groups who specifically want/need/request to be talked to about sexism. I think in these places, it's probably a general good rule of thumb to do what one can to get one's point across without creating defensiveness, if possible. But of course most of us aren't doing feminist work in those spaces—we are at work, we are walking down the street, we're in bars and restaurants (ok, I'm not generally in bars, but I like me some food-other-people-have-made). In these places, it's not often clean cut, and various strategies need to be employed. And, as Katz points out, sometimes there's just no getting around the defensiveness, because many men have good reason to be defensive, because they are guilty of what is being called out:
“But not all men who react defensively are irrational. Some men actually have a troubled conscience, based on past (or present) perpetrations. No point in soft-pedaling this: there are millions of men in our society who (accurately) hear calls for men to speak out about gender violence as direct criticism of their own behavior. Many men get defensive and hostile at the mere mention of gender violence because they have reason to be defensive. The only way these men would not get defensive is if no one ever brought up the subject.”--pp25
One way to embrace them is to use feminist thinking itself to reframe just what confrontation can be, in which contexts it can and ought to happen, and what we ought to be arguing about. One great tool that I've gleaned from feminist theory is to learn to recognize false dichotomies and supposed conceptual 'binaries'-- and to call them out. "You're either with us or against us" tends to be a sort of anti-feminist way of thinking (though not always!), for instance. And I think developing a tendency to resist rigid binaries and to spot false dichotomies can help men who would be feminist allies to a great degree: We can recognize that it's not the case that we're either men or feminists, but not both, as the simplest example. We can also recognize that we can be part of a subset of humanity who causes a lot of damage while acknowledging that we, as individuals, don't have to shroud ourselves in guilt for all of the damage, even though we may still feel be responsible for it.
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