Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What Men Can Do Wednesday: Avoid Othering, Avoid Demonizing

Choosing Conversations
Talking with people who have radically different opinions and worldviews can be difficult. It can be difficult enough that it sometimes feels like it's not worth it. And, of course, sometimes it isn't worth it--we have a finite amount of time in our lives, so we have to pick and choose our causes, and we have to make decisions about where to spend our time and energy.

So I constantly find myself wondering when it is and when it isn't worthwhile having certain discussions. When I was younger, and a more vehement atheist, usually I was making these decisions around whether or not it was worth my time to talk with 'the devout'. These days, I spend a good deal of time thinking about whether or not to respond to the online (mostly) opinions of various men who identify as "Men's Rights Activists" (or those who identify as anti-feminists).

Labels are Useful and Dangerous
Part of the reason I spend any time at all thinking about these things is that I tend to think I'm interacting with individual people, rather than members of a group--and I'm more inclined to respond to individual people who treat me as an individual person who disagrees with an idea I posted about than I am to respond to "an MRA" who is commenting because he has a problem with "feminism". Not that I have a problem with labels in general--I think as shorthand, they are useful--maybe even necessarily so. After all, I fall on the call-myself-a-feminist side of the can-men-be-feminists-or-only-allies debate; labels mean something, are important, have effects in the world. Words, to a certain degree, are power. But at the same time I think that identity, particularly political/social identity, is a sticky wicket, and that care should be taken to note that grouping people together is often going to help us miss an important part of the larger picture; responding to movements, rather than to individuals, carries a similar risk.

Defining Others
That said, when people who do identify as MRAs make what appear to me to be the same poor arguments again and again, I find myself tuning out, and overgeneralizing about "them". This is pretty much how 'othering' works. An individual with an opinion gets lumped together (or lumps himself together) with a group, the group gets a handy-dandy-not-complex label, and then the individual can become a villain.

This blog doesn't have the traffic that lots of good feminist blogs do, so all of this is coming from a guy who has had little experience as being the object of derision among the more vocal self-identified anti-feminists. (Here I'm even probably making a mistake by equivocating 'MRA' and 'anti-feminist'.) Blogs with high traffic have to moderate comments in a way that I will likely never have to do, in part because of the fringe-of-the-fringe-of-the-fringe of MRAs, who, say, make rape and death threats. So I can understand the reaction of wanting to lump MRAs into one category, and then describe that category in a way that, certainly, the MRAs are going to disagree with. I think this is what Jeff Fecke has done over at Shakesville in his post on the definition of MRA--he's presented a sort of 'MRAs for Dummies' post from a feminist point of view, and it's brought out some (in my opinion) good discussion but, unfortunately, the comments seem to be mostly not-so-helpful, on all sides. There seems to be less discussion and more cheerleading.

The Work I Want to Do
or, Here's Where I Get Into Trouble with Other Feminist Allies
And that's fine. Cheerleading has its place, I think, and can be useful and good, as part of a larger discussion. But I also think that posts that oversimplify group identity can sometimes be more trouble than they are worth, and I count Fecke's post as one of 'em. Yes, there are horrific MRAs. Yes, I think that MRAs tend to not understand some things that I think I do understand about the world. And yes, lots of MRAs, from my experience, have what I would call a misogynistic streak. But I also recognize, and think it's important to point out, that then there are some self-identified MRAs who I simply disagree with on a deep level--without having to demonize them. I think demonizing is a kind of othering, and I think it should be avoided if one can.

(Side note: One can't always get anything done from one's 'side' of things--I think, for instance, that nothing I say as an atheist will convince far-right evangelicals to back on on their stance on much of anything; moderate Xtians, however, can probably do some good there by shouting at the evangelicals. I think that more 'moderate' MRAs need to more often condemn the rape apologists and the like, for instance.)

Sometimes one has to generalize, simply because, as I noted above, we have a finite amount of time, and have to pick and choose--and this sometimes requires generalizing.

But, even while generalizing, I'd like to keep in mind that not all takes on "men's rights" are equal, and that, just like there is not one 'feminism' that all feminists partake in like some Platonic ideal, that there are self-identified MRAs who are more worth talking to as individuals, and that there are self-identified MRAs who are less worth talking to as individuals. And, though the time I spend talking to/with MRAs may vary depending on how much value I place on the conversation, and on having the conversation with that individual, painting with the broad brush that Fecke paints with as regards MRAs isn't the sort of work I want to be doing, though I see that it has its place. A definition of MRA given by a feminist ought to be the beginning of a conversation about what MRAs think, who they are, and what they want--not the end of such a conversation.

Why So Willing?
I've picked my own brain for the reason why I'm willing to give conversations with some MRAs a chance, why I'm willing to spend so much time on having what sometimes feel like the same conversations over and over again, even though we obviously disagree on a deep level about the world. One reason I find is that I have an intuition (that I can't support much, frankly--perhaps it's more of a hope?) that some MRAs think the way they do because, just like those of us men who identify as feminists or as feminist allies, they've been screwed over by traditional male masculinity--and I am interested in this one commonality. Why do I react to the shackles of traditional masculinity (in part) by embracing feminism, while some MRAs react by focusing on demonizing 'feminism', (even though, in my mind, feminism doesn't have enough of an effect on the world, as a movement, and as such seem unworthy of MRAs time) instead of focusing on how other men and traditional masculinity has screwed us all over?

I think I'm (so far) willing to have some conversations with (some) self-identified MRAs because I'm fascinated by the path they've taken, as compared to my own. And, for now at least, some of those conversations are worth having, if partly to avoid the demonizing and othering that is mostly a waste of time.
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