Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Letter to a Young Commentor, Part II

Greetings, Ducks! Sorry I fell off the face of the earth for a bit. But while I was away, reader Tamogochi was kind enough to respond to my reply to his previous comments.

I would like to answer you on why I'm not outraged.

That is because I see mistreatment as universal problem in our world: it happens in families, at workplaces, due to gender, race, social status, religious differences and ultimately between nations. It begins when one side expresses some kind of want/need towards the other. For example some people of the white race wanted to have free labor and had enforced slavery on another race. Similarly some men had been oppressing towards individual or all women. For them it didn't seem like a problem at all because they felt entitled to that (I think your term "privilege" might fit here). The other side wanted quite a different thing - not to be oppressed and equal rights. That seemed quite reasonable and fair to them but presented a real problem to the oppressors. And thus a conflict was born.

How can it be resolved? The easiest and the most popular way throughout the history has been by the use of force. The predator eats the prey and the strong enforces the weak. Men had been doing it for ages and they enjoyed the privilege they granted themselves even if they did not admit to having it. But there's also another and a much better way - cooperation/symbiosis. It happens when parties peacefully agree: you provide us what we want and we provide you what you want. That way rights and responsibilities are born.
So far, I'm with you. I myself tend to believe that a more communalist society would probably work better than our current system that places so much emphasis on the individual, and specifically tends to value people by how much dominance they have acheived; it's often quite subtle, but it's a nearly-universal part of our society. Take, for example, how people who are highly talented and skilled at some kind of operation--programming computers, analyzing budgets, designing ad campaigns--are pressured to enter management (tellingly, to have people under them), where they will direct other people to do the things that they do instead of doing them themselves; and if they don't go into management, they ultimately lack the respect and/or compensation of people who do go into management. Dominance, not necessarily talent, it what commands respect; the recent fiscal crisis has exposed just how little talent some of these people had.
And now we come to the issues of feminism. The way that I understand it is this: it's an organization that focuses on the problems of women and tries to solve them. Whether actively standing for women rights when necessary or trying to encourage them to reach more and to realize their full potential. And here I see a fundamental problem: if you focus your attention only on one side of the conflict you become subjective and might start to mistreat others. Then it's very easy to slip into a mode: you give us (women) what we want (rights, respect, power) and we don't care about your (men) problems. And they can get away with it because now they have a real power of an organization at their side that no single man can oppose. The way of enforcement of privileges in other words and the very thing feminism swore to fight.

I'd not call feminism an organization. (It reminds me of Will Rogers' famous line: "I don't belong to an organized party; I'm a Democrat.") Feminism is (or ought to be) a movement, but as part of that movement there will be many organizations, and many different points of view.

I think you are building a strawfeminist here. Somehow we are to suppose that by advocating for the rights of a specific oppressed majority (sorry, here in the US women are 51% of the population), you must ignore or even oppress another group: as if equality was a zero-sum game where you can only win if everybody loses.

I don't believe that; I think that equality and freedom are things that can be shared with all people, and that taking away a privilege is not the same as oppressing people.

I also have a few issues with how you frame this paragraph. First, you have women asking to be given rights. Which isn't the case at all, at least how I see it: women are demanding that their rights be respected. That is, the rights already belong to us; they can't be given--only respected.

Second, isn't telling that in a discussion of women's rights you immediately start talking about how this affects men? I mean, for real? It's so frustrating to time and time again bring up the troubles of an oppressed group, troubles that get ignored because the dominant group marginalizes all issues that don't directly affect themselves, and then have the dominant group show up to make it all about themselves! (In the feminist blogosphere, this argument is called but what about teh menz?)
"But we don't oppress men and only want to have certain rights and responsibilities for women" you might say. Is it too much to ask after all we do for them? We want to cooperate but men sometimes are not willing to participate and we have no other option than to fight.

There must have been a less sexist way to phrase that, don't you think? Again: women aren't asking for rights because we serve some social role well; we demand the rights that belong to us as human beings.
Let's look at an example of what's really happening: a problem of verbal abuse at the workplace. The conflict is obvious: men want to use certain sexually loaded words towards the other gender and women don't want that happening (or to be more specific they want respect and equality for themselves). And the solution for it? Feminist movement gathers enough political strength and a law is passed that prohibits that kind of discrimination. A great victory for the human race. But is it really?

What most tend to overlook is that it has really solved the problem only for one side of the conflict. Men did not have a problem of verbal abuse from women so the law solves nothing for them. And did anyone care to listen to what they really wanted? What has caused them to be sexually abusive in the first place? Nobody was interested in that. It was much easier to put a label "animals", "primates" and not to care at all. What took place afterwards is that men pushed their unsolved problems deeper and it has resulted in a more sophisticated and undetectable ways to discriminate women. The women once again retaliated. And now I, as a man, am viewed as a potential abuser everywhere I go - like I am responsible for what others of my gender had done in the past. I constantly hear things "men are pigs, aggressive, insensitive, uncaring, unemotional, bloodthirsty" and so on. This passive form of discrimination hurts me and makes me feel like a second rate human even if I've never done an abusive thing towards women. Come to think of it I too might easily become outraged because of this. I might even go as far as join a movement of masculinists who fight feminists. But what another senseless war would ever accomplish?
There really must have been a less sexist way to put that. Sigh. Let's start from the beginning.

I'd love to have some real sympathy for how you feel. And in fact, I do: I don't like it when anyone is called names, or anyone has assumptions made about them because of how they look. But. In the specific case you cite--give me a break. If you think it's hard to be called a predator, try actually being the prey. You forget, perhaps, who you are talking to. I am a trans woman. I've walked down dark streets as a man, as a cross-dresser, and as a woman. I've been called a faggot, whistled at, had lewd suggestions made to me on the street. I'm a double target: first for being a woman, and then for being trans; for many women like me, rape is only the starting point.

You clearly don't understand that. I won't say can't, because I think you can--I think anyone with a conscience and the willingness to listen to other peoples' stories can gain an understanding of what it is like to feel constantly targeted.

And I have to ask the question: why are you angry at me, at feminists, at women for demanding that predatory behavior--even things as seemingly trivial as being called names--be punished? Why are you angry at us, instead of them--the predatory guys, the jerks, the ones who benefit from the threat of violence and violation that constantly surrounds women in this society? Don't act like you don't have a stake in this fight; you've already shown that you do, because you're complaining about the results.

I mean, why be angry about the last century of slow, very incremental female empowerment and not pissed off about the hundreds of centuries of female oppression? Why not take on the assholes who are ruining it for the rest of you?

I don't think it's fair that people are calling you names and making unfounded accusations. I also don't think it's fair that you're comparing what's happening to you to the kind of toxic environments that harrassing speech such as the kind that is prohibited by law, because that can be much, much worse. I don't think it's fair to compare the "outrage" you might feel about your treatment to the outrageous way that women continue to be treated throughout the world. As if because you don't get outraged over name-calling, I shouldn't be outraged over how one in four women in South Africa is raped before she even turns 16.

I don't get outraged because of name-calling; I get outraged about hate speech that damages men by making them think that it's okay to denigrate women, that it's okay to look upon women as things or objects, that it's okay to continue the fundamental inequality of the human race.
It could have been a much different outcome if both sides listened - men and women cooperated towards solving their shared problems. Maybe what was best in
the situation was not to punish the abusers but to provide them help in dealing with their emotional problems? Maybe what needs to be done is to change how women treat men (in removing that passive discrimination I spoke about) and how are they up-brought by their mothers by teaching them a value of empathy and compassion? If we really thought about it we would have probably came to even better ideas than that.
How was what happened not cooperation? I mean, the last time I checked, there's not a legislative body anywhere in the United States that isn't majority male, so somebody cooperated to write the laws. And why shouldn't we punish people for breaking the law? You won't get an argument from me that many laws (drug violations, for example) might benefit from alternatives to incarceration, but people don't generally go to jail for sexual harrassment. Instead, the company and individuals have to pay a person for causing her damage; it's a matter of civil, not criminal law.

I think you're the first person I've encountered who feels that girls aren't brought up to feel empathy. I mean, isn't that the stereotype? Guys aren't allowed to have feelings, but girls are supposed to be so good at them?

And again, seriously: if these are shared problems (they are), then why do so few dudes care about them?
That's why I feel being outraged is not good - it hinders our ability to listen and see the situation clearly and invites us to mistreat other people just as we have been mistreated ourselves. I don't consider myself feminist or masculinist - I would rather be humanist.

Well, I disagree--I think the natural response to seeing people being oppressed should be outrage, and that my outrage helps me, inspires me, keeps me working on helping people.

And I'm a humanist as well; I don't think there's a need to be either a feminist or a humanist. My advocacy for one part of the human race doesn't diminish my advocacy for the rest of it; it just shows where my main interest lies.

Thank you again for responding--I know English isn't your first language. I do hope you continue to think about these things.

Very best,

C.L. Minou


  1. You've been very patient with some pretty thin arguments, so I'll try to refrain from snark, myself.

    I'd just like to point out that bringing up children isn't just their mothers' job! If your correspondent is serious about seeking cooperative solutions, shouldn't fathers be involved, too?

    Also, a significant percentage of sexual harassment claims are brought by men. In the majority of those cases, their harassers are other men, who've typically made the complainant's workdays miserable by impugning his masculinity. So the legislation resulting from feminist activism against sexual harassment has also created justice for men, too.

    I'm also unsure why your correspondent chooses to focus on violence. Yes, historically seen, much change has occurred through violence, but feminism has been a notable exception to this. Apart from Valerie Solanas (who was certifiably insane) very, very few feminists have advocated violence against men. Some have called for separatism, but that's very far from bloodshed or even destruction of property.

  2. I'm a bit puzzled why have you called several parts of my comment as sexist. To me it seemed like I just spoke up what's on my mind and took care not to offend any individual or a group. Maybe it's cross-cultural or language thing :/

    Our views seem to differentiate in a few places: the first is whether rights for a certain social group can be "demanded" as you put it. If I look at the picture from a neutral position (say if I am a martian) then such thing as a right to do something for humans does not exist per se. After all if all humans were removed from a planet or if you lived alone on an uninhabited island "the right" itself would become meaningless. From my point of view it is rather created and assigned during interactions. And it can be done in one of the two ways I have described: either self appointed or due to a mutual agreement. Universal human rights did not exist until they were put into UN document. There's also a third option that is maintained by certain religions - that rights are assigned by God but I will not go into that.

    When someone comes out and demands a right to do something a lot of things can happen:
    1) they can be heard and a mutual agreement reached which assigns not only rights but also responsibilities for it.
    2) they can be ignored or an agreement is impossible
    2a) they go and take what they think is theirs by force and ignore any responsibility
    2b) they go and take what they think is theirs by force but accept responsibility for their actions
    2c) they give up their demands

    Some common sense tells me that 1 and 2b are the best possible solutions to a conflict while 2a is a way of enforcing a privilege. But the gap between 2a and 2b is very thin.

    I mentioned the problems of men in my previous post for a very specific reason - they are the only way to objectively measure whether feminism leans towards 2a or 2b. Are women accepting the responsibility for what their demands are doing to the other side? The example that I have given shows me that they are not and I can give a lot more. But to be fair there are also a lot of cases where things went according to 1 or 2b scenario and I'm really proud that they were able to achieve that.

    That being said I do agree with you that the problems you have mentioned are much more serious then the ones that I have to go through as a man. I do see them (problems for women) and I would very much like to help. I'm just concerned about the way that feminism does it right now.

  3. The second point of disagreement between us was whether one should become furious over things you have described. That's more of a personal philosophy for me: I do not think that being hurt gives you a reason to become outraged. After all we have a choice in that matter and I believe that staying calm and reasonable is a more productive state. If I am fueled by anger and similar enraging emotions then the probability that I will choose 2a as a solution to my problems is greatly increased. There is a great truth in an ancient story where a hero who slew a dragon had eventually became the new beast.

  4. Tamogochi,

    I believe that we have certain rights by virtue of being human,; they are our birthright by virtue of being what we are. I need neither a document nor a creator to make them exist; they belong to us, are part of the dignity of being a conscious species.

    I called things that you wrote sexist because you consistently oriented your writing towards a male-centered point of view, a place where women are pliantly asking for rights (rights that will only be granted if they live up to their "responsibilities.") Yet you make no similar requirements for men; where are the responsibilities for the rights they excercise? Why is it that women have to agitate to get things like sexual harrassment laws passed--shouldn't men be responsible and not allow such things to happen in the first place? Why do you constantly place women in the position of having to prove ourselves worthy of having the same rights as men?

    That's the sort of thing I found sexist.

    You seem to think that my outrage causes me to foam at the mouth and yell at every man I meet. Quite the contrary; I believe in civil discourse and listening to other people. My outrage finds itself as a deep commitment to make things better, to not stand for the status quo, to continue to fight even when I am exhausted. It frees me from cynicism and complacency smug acceptance of the privileges I have by accident of birth. It fuels my activism.

    Without it, I no doubt would find it easy enough to just let things stand, to not rock the boat, to shrug off outrages because they don't affect me. But they all affect me.

    I leave you with the words of John Donne:

    "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

  5. I see now. I'm sorry if I sounded ignorant - diminishing your work or the problems you're trying to solve was not my intent.

    That same quote can be applied to my philosophy too. What I mean is that no matter what right I demand or exercise - whether I believe it's my birthright or something that I appoint myself - it always affects other people around me and I should be aware of that.

    Even our conversation here is a good example: from my point it is my basic human right to say whatever I want to whomever I want and if they can't handle it then it's THEIR problem. I was not even aware in how I was hurting you by saying certain things just because you're different from me. So it's MY problem also in how I exercise that right.

  6. Okay, C here's something that confuses me:

    Early in this post you express frutration toward the response some men have to feminist issues: "But what about teh menz?" I'm with you here. Responding to a valid argument with a dodgle like "hey it sucks for us too" must be some sort of fallacy (I'll leave it to the rhetorical types to name it).

    But further along you say
    "If you think it's hard to be called a predator, try actually being the prey."

    Which seems to me like a "but what about teh womenz?" response. If "what about men?" is an invalid response to the serious problems women face "What about women?" is equally invalid in regards to mens issues.

    Likewise on the matter of rights and responsibilities, you say:

    :why are you angry at me, at feminists, at women for demanding that predatory behavior--even things as seemingly trivial as being called names--be punished? Why are you angry at us, instead of them--the predatory guys, the jerks, the ones who benefit from the threat of violence and violation that constantly surrounds women in this society? "

    1) Being angry about a feminist argument and being angry at other men needn't be mutually exclusive. Actually, they needn't be related at all. As a former man, I AM pissed off about the suspicion I received when I didn't deserve it, and as a future woman, I'm more pissed off about the jerks who threaten violence.

    2) You say that feminism isn't asking for rights, but simply asserting the rights that women already have coming, which I agree with 100%. But in the above passage, you seem to argue that men's rights, in this case, the right to not be judged violent due to one's sex, must be earned. Perhaps I'm reading something into your words here?

    If this isn't a zero-sum game, and I firmly agree with you that it isn't, why are you so quick to dismiss the complaints of men? Advancing the better treatment of men doesn't have to be an infringement on the advancement of the better treatment of women.

    Or am I missing something?

    PS I largely agree with the main thrust of your post here, and with most of the arguments and examples within. The above is just a little part I disagree with, and frankly, I think it undermines your thesis.

    --Leah B