Men’s problems first? Go compare

Alex Lozupone (Tduk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
bell hooks by Alex Lozupone

10 minute read

There have been at least a zillion times when I have asked myself one of these two questions: 1. How can I articulate my belief in the importance of foregrounding men’s oppression, without sounding like an apologist for the men’s movement (and being hated)? And 2. Why do I repeatedly focus on the oppression of men, when it’s bound to get me hated, and when frankly there’s a shit-ton of women’s oppression to be getting on with? At times, the impetus to pursue this theme feels like a masochistic sentencing to a lifetime of being hated and misunderstood – chosen because it seems ethically better, that is, psychically more bearable, to be hated, than to be calling oneself a coward. After all, it’s myself I actually live with. But it’s okay, don’t feel sorry for me, because I think I may be getting somewhere.

A friend shared this bell hooks quote earlier this year, which immediately made me want to upload all her work into my brain:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself,  he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

Although I’ve repeatedly exposed myself to this quote (gotta love a hard copy), it is only today that the word I needed most jumped up and grabbed me. Do you want to guess? Go on. Just have a guess. Just guess! No, not emotional, the magic word is first.

Just pick a side?

My hurdle in crossing the bridge (!) from the desert of impotent conviction to the fertile jungle of engaged public debate has been how to avoid comparing the oppression of men with that of women. Feminist women are quite naturally suspicious of anyone ‘championing’ men’s oppression, partly because we know where this story goes: women needing to be more considerate in asking men to stop oppressing us, because men have problems too. It’s hard to change. And anyway now that about 52% of graduates (in the US) are women, society is clearly destined for a total collapse, so there’s not much point whining about equal pay any more.

But giving illustrative examples of how men are oppressed is incredibly tempting, if your conviction is that a collective conscious awareness of these dynamics would further feminist goals no end, and ultimately render feminist campaigning redundant / successful, which is what feminists want. Right?

To exemplify or not to exemplify? In itself this is a fascinating question, which if memory serves me correctly, Plato had a lot to say about. What I say is this: when you exemplify men’s oppression, people hear you comparing it to women’s, whether you do or not. I bend over backwards to avoid it. Someone sensible do tell if this relates in any way whatsoever to the philosophical debate on exemplification…

Until today this has felt like an internal stalemate, because I do view comparison as a treacherous device, convenient for its rhetorical ability to distract us from even leading the horse of an abstract sharing of ideas, to the water of engagement with material reality. Have a drink? Forget it. Instead, repeat after me: “No of course I don’t think men are the real victims.”

According some primacy to the oppression of men within the patriarchal system has seemed beyond the pale politically. As a result I’ve bent over backwards (yoga teacher check me out: all this working out while working), to redefine the terms of my own thinking. Embrace feminism more fully: this is a seductive option. Pick a side. Belong. Eventually the issue of primacy became the red herring. If only I and we could stop comparing and get to work. Let us join hands in a big circle and simply hear everyone’s personal oppression story. Keep no tally. Release the pain and embrace everyone for their honest sharing. Enable everyone to realise the falsehoods of contemporary gender roles, the contingent truths of embodied manhood and womanhood in all their situated pain and glory. Celebrate those who make a profoundly individual choice of identity. See through the total time-wasting sideshow of the ‘war of the sexes’ and practice solidarity, at home and away.

The importance of age

Over the past few decades we’ve stepped from theme to theme to grasp oppression, creating intersectionality to keep our heads above water as we go. Age may not be the last parameter we wake up to, but it was new and exciting not so long ago. Viewing men in general as oppressors – as collectively responsible for holding and maintaining a system of privilege which by its inception disadvantages women socially and economically – may seem fair. Powerless and disenfranchised men may seem like an inconvenient minority, at best the exception that proves the rule. But hooks’ truth, that the first act of violence men are required to perform is on themselves, in order to make every other, subsequent act possible, puts the primacy where it belongs: in age. It is not the same for those born female. It is different, not comparable, completely different.

Acknowledging that the laying down of psychic rules which foreclose parts of the mechanism we inherit, which make us capable of a fully human flourishing, comes before we are then able to oppress others, is not the same as saying that the simple fact of our having endured this process means our problems become primary over any problems we inflict on others. That’s completely mad. For a start, in this context, we know girls are just as heavily conditioned into gender roles. If we focus on emotional expressiveness, it’s tempting to say that girls are given more freedom. However, there are other lenses through which to view a fully rounded human. More pertinently, girls are often refused anger and disdain just as boys are refused sadness, fear or vulnerability. Nevertheless, tackling the taproots of oppressive behaviour may avert some of the despair that comes from seeing hard won social improvements get lost over time. And that means helping domineering men to undo their programming. Letting go of our identity is almost impossible, it requires a massive safety net. A lot of women know this from the experience of personal battling with men, and ourselves. Becoming meaningfully equal depends on becoming well rounded.

Adults act out not only from our own childhoods but from and through the social structures we see around us – we absorb, repeat, get suspicious, panic, challenge, tire, absorb, repeat. When we collaborate we can break down old structures that no longer serve us and replace them with something new, or with empty space where things might grow unpredicted. But breaking down parts doesn’t equate to things getting better. If we want to effectively challenge men’s oppression of women, we can challenge social structures forever, or we can challenge the gender programming of children at the same time and change things.

I realise most people understand this. What we need to spend more time on is understanding where the particular fashions for programming the girls and boys who are currently adults lend themselves to an entrenchment, or to a loosening, of certain social and interpersonal structures that delay or oppose the increasing economic and public equality of women. We are no longer working with a uniform mass of similar men, as if we ever were. Now there are some men who get this as well as any woman. The deep insights they can have into how gender scripts damage men are an essential ingredient to add to any that women may gain from observation.