Tag Archives: patriarchy

Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

Most of us are tired of hearing about Jian Ghomeshi. I am. This is not about him, though it’s partly inspired by responses to what I wrote about the whole thing.  The debates about him have opened up space to talk about rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and how to deal with gender-based violence in our everyday lives (because it’s happening around us, whether we experience it or not).  It’s an opportunity for men, in particular, to take a more active role in all this, because if we’re not the perpetrators, we’re rarely active in preventing violence or supporting survivors.  As a man, I’m learning about a bunch of this for the first time, primarily from women who’ve been dealing with it because they have to. I think the public debate is an opportunity to notice some patterns and look around for alternatives. Here are three:

We are in rape culture; it’s in us

There are a lot of statements beginning with “I’m against rape culture, but…” People (usually men) then go on to say all kinds of things that reproduce rape culture. We don’t have all the facts, the women might be lying, this is someone’s private life, etc, etc. When these are pointed out and linked to rape culture, there are all kinds of contortions to explain how we really meant something else, and we’re all really against rape culture.

But if I admit that rape culture is pervasive, then (especially as a heterosexual man socialized into patriarchy), rape culture is something I’m struggling with and hopefully against, some of the time, not something I can oppose because I say so.  A lot of these conversations start and end with these debates and contortions, so they don’t feel very productive, and this is often taken as proof of the inadequacy of feminism. But this is the inadequacy of our engagement with feminism.  Feminism isn’t a stance, it’s a complex array of habits, behaviours, ways of thinking, and collective practices.  How can men welcome criticism?  How can we allow ourselves to be implicated?  How can we have more of these conversations with each other, more often, so that we don’t derail other conversations about supporting survivors or preventing sexual assault?  This is men’s work, a nascent movement to engage men in conversations—and action—around patriarchy and gendered violence.

Neutrality is not complexity or nuance

Another common pattern shares anxieties about the insistence that we should believe survivors.  Others have felt it important to remind everyone that false accusations of rape do exist.  There has been lots of analysis that shows how these sentiments are connected to rape culture.  But something else is going on here too.  When these statements are confronted, feminist analyses of rape culture are cast as simplistic and vicious.  Believing survivors is often contrasted with a more ‘complex’ stance that could productively deal with the conflict.  This ‘more complex’ stance is almost never elaborated, and when it is, it’s usually the simplistic fence-sitting stance, either filled with anxiety and indecision, or with cold neutrality.

The fetishism of law

This ‘neutral’ stance usually falls back on the law. It either assumes that perpetrators will be prosecuted (innocent until proven guilty!), or it takes on the mindset of a judge within the Western legal system as a way of seeing conflict. Judges seek a place of neutrality, with the assumption that they’ll eventually parcel out blame and punishment. Believing survivors gets conflated with rushing to a legal judgement. It’s true that believing survivors is a barrier to neutrality, and that’s why legalistic approaches tend to retraumatize survivors and enact new forms of violence. Feminists such as Andrea Smith have challenged this fetishism of law, pointing to the ways that law continues to uphold genocide, dispossession, exploitation and violence.  “Rather than uphold the law,” she argues, “indigenous feminism demands that progressives work against the law.”  In this sense, believing survivors isn’t a barrier to complexity; it’s the beginning of actually being able to address sexualized violence in our communities.  So what would collective, compassionate responses to sexual assault look like?  What would it mean to move beyond individualistic, principled stands?

Alternatives exist

There are already a bunch of collective responses to these questions, and unsurprisingly, they come out of feminism.  More specifically, they come out of queer, indigenous, and anti-racist feminism. Genderqueer and trans folks, communities of colour, and indigenous communities have spearheaded most of these experiments, often with the recognition that cops and courts consistently compound violence in their communities, rather than alleviating it, so there’s less willingness to rely on the law and legalistic thinking.

The Revolution Starts at Home is a compilation of insights from folks who have confronted intimate partner violence.   Numerous communities have developed collective responses to violence, which involves establishing alternatives to policing and incarceration while building supportive communities in the process, and reducing reliance on the legal system, often under the mantle of transformative justice.  INCITE!, a collective of women of colour, has organized around this for over a decade, and has developed an extensive set of accessible resources.  In some places, men are also taking more initiative to work with perpetrators and unpack rape culture amongst themselves, while trying to figure out how to be accountable to those most impacted by gender-based violence.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are already nascent alternatives to rape culture; we don’t have to start from scratch.  We can learn from them, nurture them and proliferate them.  In recent days, I’ve seen some men (and women) set themselves apart from feminism, claiming that it lacks complexity, nuance, or kindness.  I’ve done this a bunch.  But when I perceive feminism to be lacking complexity, I’m consistently reminded that this is my own failure to engage with feminist movements in more complex ways.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t simplistic analyses written by feminists.  Feminism isn’t a monolith, and there are plenty of contradictions.  But men (especially white, heterosexual, middle-class men) consistently position ourselves the ones who see complexity, nuance, and other possibilities, casting feminism (and feminists) as inadequate.  We rarely approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.

The real complexities—and concrete possibilities—have been developed by those who are resisting the interconnected systems of rape culture, incarceration, heteropatriarchy, policing, ableism, colonization, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and environmental degradation, among others.  Feminism is plenty complex.

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Five ways Ghomeshi reveals rape culture

– by Nick Montgomery

Edit: most people are tired of Ghomeshi by now, but hopefully all this leads to more engagement in feminism, and an attempt to challenge rape culture and nurture alternatives.  I wrote a second piece about this here: Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

There is a frenzy of activity to find “the facts” about Jian Ghomeshi, the allegations against him, and the women who have shared their experiences. Thousands of fans have flocked to defend Ghomeshi and deride his accusers as vindictive slanderers.

Others have expressed their moral outrage that Ghomeshi could be such a monster.  Others have called for us to wait until there are “more facts.”  These are consistent patterns that arise when discussing rape, sexual assault, and gendered violence. They are some of the jianghomeshipatterns of rape culture.

As Jane Kirby explains, rape culture is “anything that normalizes unwanted, nonconsensual sex. In other words, rape culture is anything that makes rape seem like it is not really rape.” It gets disseminated through jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words, and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people think rape is inevitable.” There is also a pervasive idea that “actual rape” is isolated and exceptional. Responses to the allegations against Ghomeshi (including his own) have reinforced rape culture in at least five subtle and not-so-subtle ways:

1. Promoting sympathy for perpetrators and their reputations

In his recent statement, Ghomeshi says that a freelance writer teamed up with a jealous ex in a conspiracy to ruin his reputation. His fans and defenders have reiterated his argument, framing it as a malicious attempt to slander Ghomeshi.

This is a consistent pattern of rape culture: the promotion of worry and sympathy for those accused of sexual assault. It shifts the focus toward doubt and disbelief, toward how unfortunate it would be if the accusations were untrue. It centers perpetrators as (maybe? possibly? probably?) hapless victims of vindictive slander.

 2. Promoting victim-blaming and suspicion

Ghomeshi himself calls this a “campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend” Some of the most violent patterns of rape culture are made visible by the slew of misogynist attacks on women who come forward.  This is one of the most consistent and insidious patterns of rape culture.  Anna North writes that:

each of the women accusing Ghomeshi cite the case of Carla Ciccone as a reason they desire anonymity. Last year Ciccone wrote an article for the website XOJane about a ‘bad date’ with an unidentified, very popular Canadian radio host whom readers speculated to be Ghomeshi.

In the days that followed, Ciccone received hundreds of abusive messages and threats. An online video calling her a ‘scumbag of the Internet’ has been viewed over 397,000 times.

Those who speak up about sexual harassment or violence have long been subject to public scrutiny and criticism. But an onslaught of online abuse and threats has become a strikingly common response to women’s public statements — see for instance the threats Anita Sarkeesian and others have received when they speak publicly about misogyny in video games.

Blogger Elizabeth Hawksworth unpacks this eloquently:

What I want to talk about is the reactions that I’ve been seeing to his statement. A lot of people have been giving Ghomeshi the benefit of the doubt while full-on accusing the woman of ruining his career. Without knowing anything but what Ghomeshi has told us, people on Twitter and Facebook have been gleefully maligning her without taking into account that maybe there’s more to the story, here… Women everywhere are sexually assaulted by men in power. Many don’t bother to speak up because of reactions and consequences like this: Ghomeshi is a man in power and he is also well liked and well known. Chances are, he will be almost universally believed, while she will be accused of lying to get something from him. And while there is an extremely small percentage of women who do accuse men of sexual abuse in order to get something from them, the majority of women don’t. The majority of women speak up because they want justice. And right now, we don’t know what the real story is – but as someone who never spoke up when a man in power put me through hell, for a variety of reasons – I believe her until further notice.

3. Remaining neutral and waiting for ‘all the facts’

Many have responded to this debate by calling for sobriety and patience. Toronto Star columnist Vinay Menon—while making sure not to condone the “shocking allegations”—expressed regret that “many have already picked sides” before “all the facts” are known.  Menon reminds his readers that Ghomeshi is (legally) innocent until proven guilty.  We should approach sexual assault as judges would, presiding over a criminal trial.  But there is no criminal trial here; no one is pressing charges.  What matters isn’t whether we decide the Ghomeshi is guilty, but the ways we talk about the whole thing, and the implications of that.

The focus on innocent-until-proven-guilty shifts the onus back on survivors to prove that a sexual assault ‘really’ happened.  ‘Picking sides’ (or supporting survivors?) is cast as irrational and hasty, with neutrality held up as the ideal.  Due in part to this tendency, survivors of sexual assault don’t think they’ll be believed, or they fear that ‘concrete proof’ will be demanded of them—even by friends and family—and often they’re right.  As Ruth Davenport writes:

Women, it seems, must always have an agenda. We don’t actually slap scarlet letters on them anymore, but thanks to the internet, women who accuse a man of any kind of misbehaviour risk having not only their identities exposed and publicized, but also an eternal water-torture drip-drip-drip of daily character assassination.

Refusing to file a formal complaint – the decision made by approximately nine out of every 10 sexual assault victims isn’t a case of modesty or manipulation – it’s simple survival. And modern rape culture is thriving on it.

This focus on “due process” is linked to policing, courts, and incarceration.  It naturalizes these systems as the only way of responding to sexual assault.  As Vikki Law recently argued, this carceral mindset justifies the expansion of policing and prisons (especially in poor communities of colour), and discourages grassroots, community-based responses and long-term organizing against gender-based violence.  This is not to say that survivors shouldn’t report rape as a crime, or that supporters shouldn’t support them doing so.  The point is that this legalistic mindset gets in the way of supporting survivors, unlearning rape culture, and organizing to dismantle it.

4. Casting the concept of rape culture as alarmist, conspiratorial, or crazy

A few months ago Jian Ghomeshi actually hosted a “debate,” about whether rape culture is “helpful or even accurate,” in which Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute denied the existence of rape culture, claimed that drinking is the reason for sexual assault, and blaming women for being assaulted. MacDonald’s opponent, Lise Gotell, sounded shocked that she was put in a position where she had to explain things like “drinking doesn’t cause rape, it’s the decisions of rapists that cause rape.”  By constructing a debate around whether rape culture ‘actually’ exists, and legitimizing its detractors, Ghomeshi and the CBC framed rape culture as a suspicious idea, creating barriers to understanding rape culture and the ways it can be named, challenged, and dismantled.

This year, the wake of campus sexual assaults and misogynist violence at Canadian universities led to broader discussions about rape culture on campuses, spearheaded by feminists, and this elicited an anti-feminist backlash.  Detractors have suggested that the concept of rape culture is a fanatical misunderstanding of culture and norms. Quotation marks are magical. In the hands of its anti-feminist critics, rape culture becomes “rape culture”—a strange and distorted view of reality, founded on irrationality and conspiracy. The same sentiments are circulating now, in relation to the recent scandal.  Reactionaries understand this tactic all too well, using it to frame issues like climate change: by turning it into a question of legitimate debate (“so-called climate change”), they’ve already scored a victory, because they derail any conversation about collective responses to the problem.

5. Constructing rapists as inhuman monsters

Part of rape culture is the persistent tendency to cast perpetrators of sexual assault as unredeemable monsters, and rape as an exceptional event.  The frenzy surrounding Ghomeshi reflects this: it is dramatic and revelatory, antagonistic and isolated. Either Ghomeshi a guilty monster or a hapless victim of slander.  Sexual assault is terrible, but it’s also pervasive. As Jane Kirby explains:

Young men are taught that rape means jumping out of the bushes, attacking a stranger, and violently forcing her to have sex with him. While this can be true, they often don’t know that 70 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and that they could rape their classmate, friend, girlfriend, or wife. They might not be sure what consent really means.

When sexual assault is understood as an exceptional act committed by monsters, it’s impossible to talk about the ways that it’s happening in our communities and amongst our friends, families, and co-workers.  This is not about policing the way that survivors talk about their perpetrators; they should use whatever words they want to.  Those who see rape as as something perpetrated by anonymous monsters (unsurprisingly) tend to be people who have never experienced sexual assault or supported those who have.  Like the perpetrators, they are usually men.  I used to think of rape this way, and I’m still prone to understanding sexual assault in simplistic, either/or ways.  But hearing stories of survivors makes very clear that rape and sexual assault happens between friends, family, and partners, and it’s complicated and layered.

Making rapists into monsters pathologizes rapists, searching for individualized ‘disorders’ rather than linking sexual assault to misogyny, male entitlement, and patriarchal socialization.  It also discourages perpetrators from being accountable for sexual assault.  Perpetrators are faced with the choice of being seen (and seeing themselves) as evil, inhuman monsters, or existing in a state of denial and doing whatever they can to discredit survivors who come forward.  If more men were capable of unpacking our relationships to rape culture and patriarchy, we could create more supports for perpetrators and be more proactive in addressing rape culture, without putting the onus on survivors and their supporters.  All this shit swirling around Ghomeshi could be an opportunity for more men, in particular, to join the many women, genderqueer, and trans folks who are interrupting rape culture and nurturing alternatives.

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This was written by me (a man), but all of these points around rape culture—insofar as they represent meaningful insights—were drawn directly and indirectly from women, genderqueer and trans folks, and a few men. The fuck-ups are my own.

Resources:

Vikki Law: Resisting Gender Violence without Cops or Prisons

In her article “Against Carceral Feminism,” Vikki Law criticizes currents of feminism that call for more policing and harsher sentences for domestic violence.  She shows how this ‘carceral feminism’ (advocated primarily by white, middle-class feminists) justifies the expansion of the prison industrial complex, obscures the violence of policing and incarceration, and fails to address the connections between gender-based violence and economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, racism, and the structural violence perpetuated against communities of colour.

Carceral feminism abets the growth of the state’s worst functions, while obscuring the shrinking of its best. At the same time, it conveniently ignores the anti-violence efforts and organizing by those who have always known that criminalized responses pose further threats rather than promises of safety.

Law points to a number of alternatives to carceral feminism, developed primarily by people of colour who have never been able to rely on policing and prisons for safety, including INCITE!, Critical Resistance, Creative Interventions, and The Revolution Starts at Home. In the video below, Law unpacks the roots of gender-based violence, and the ways that policing not only fails to stop gender-based violence, but often makes things worse for women (especially black and brown women of colour).  She talks about organizations and communities that are creating grassroots alternatives to cops and policing, which effectively curb gender-based violence without relying on prisons, policing, and the state.

When Unicorns Speak

Cindy Milstein on the nastiness (and the patriarchy) of the anarchist milieu: “Too many times, anarchists have told me that they are too scared to write or speak publicly. They are rightly worried that they will be dragged through the mud, particularly in highly personal ways. I can’t say I blame them. It shouldn’t be a necessity that one needs a thick, hard skin to give voice to ideas and imagination, to share our sharp and inquisitive minds as gifts with each other. It shouldn’t be a requirement that one have to deal with lies, insults, and nastiness.”

Outside the Circle

unicorn

One of my great sorrows — as a critically constructive, “prefigurativist” anarchist writer — is that a small number of loud antiauthoritarian voices, too often patriarchal ones, seem to enjoy bullying the vast majority of anarchistic folks into silence. Such bullies are frequently male writers and/or males who control various DIY means of production/publication. They cow into submission those who want to engage in dialogue, grapple with hard questions, think aloud, do experimental and theoretical writing, and in these and other ways, help to cultivate many politically engaged street intellectuals — and just plain nice, caring people who happen to be anarchists.

Too many times, anarchists have told me that they are too scared to write or speak publicly. They are rightly worried that they will be dragged through the mud, particularly in highly personal ways. I can’t say I blame them. It shouldn’t be a necessity that one needs…

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Sarah Hunt: Why are we hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause of #MMIW?

Short piece in Rabble by Sarah Hunt: “Why are we so hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause, yet so comfortable naming all the “risk factors” associated with the lives of Indigenous girls who have died? Why are we not looking more closely at the “risk factors” that lead to violence in the lives of the perpetrators? Isn’t that truly where the responsibility for this epidemic lies? When Pickton was convicted, why didn’t we see national coverage of the root causes of his actions and that of other white male serial killers?”

Like a lake in a thunderstorm: men, patriarchy, and feminism

For all of us who are men who believe in social justice, who want healthy and beautiful lives for our loved ones, and who are working for positive change in the world, let us commit or re-commit to making feminism central in our lives, values, and actions.

Chris Crass

A friend recently pointed out that in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings—and the feminist responses that followed—the silence from male allies has been deafening. As many feminists have explained, the Isla Vista killings were not an extraordinary occurrence; rather, they were a particularly violent and visible outcome of misogyny and male entitlement. My friend challenged me to write something in response to all this. I’m grateful for that challenge because the process of putting this piece together has reminded me how much I have to work on, and how important it is for men to do this work individually, interpersonally, and collectively. As Cecilia Winterfox writes:

It’s both exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics with men who haven’t bothered to think about their own privilege before. Men are not entitled to expect feminists to educate them. Real change will only happen when men accept that the burden of education is on them, not on women.

The burden of explaining and combatting patriarchy and misogyny consistently falls to women, and men can do more. I am not writing to convince anyone that patriarchy, misogyny and rape culture are real and they need to be challenged and dismantled. Women, queer and trans folks, and some men have explained and re-explained what these structures are and how they work, why it’s hard for men to see them, why all men are implicated, and some basic ways to change our behavior. The outpouring of feminist analysis that followed the Isla Vista shootings has created more space to have more radical, constructive, public conversations about misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy, and the role men can play in uprooting these systems. How can men take this as an opportunity to deepen our commitments to feminism? How can we be more vocal and active in addressing misogyny and patriarchy? If we were better at taking this on, what would we say and do? What are the obstacles? What are the potentials and pitfalls of this work? There are a bunch more questions below, drawn from feminist theory and practice.  I don’t think these questions are asking for straightforward answers from men; they’re asking us to respond to them with integrity, openness, and uncertainty. These questions ask us to challenge ourselves and each other, without any guarantees or formulas. Sometimes what we need to do is embarrassingly simple, sometimes it’s complex, but it’s never easy, because easy isn’t transformative.

What are men waiting for?

It’s less risky for men—especially straight white men like me—to speak out against patriarchy: As Ben Atherton Zemon writes:

When I write about feminism and men’s violence against women, I often receive supportive comments. While some of the praise is earned, much of it gives me a lot of credit for doing very little.

Atherton-Zemon contrasts this experience with that of women he knows who are consistently stalked, verbally abused, and threatened with rape and murder for speaking out against patriarchy and misogyny. How can men be responsive to this? It’s absolutely crucial for men to interrupt patriarchal violence, and become more vocal in challenging sexism. But if we just join in feminist conversations, we can end up silencing the women who’ve been having them for a long time. How can we make more conversations happen, and help create more feminist spaces and conversations?

makeitfeminist

These questions aren’t new; they’re part of an ongoing, too-quiet, too-small conversation about men’s work: the ways men can challenge patriarchy and gender-based violence personally, interpersonally, among families and caregivers, and in broader communities and institutions where we live and work. I’m not an expert in feminism, or men’s work, or anything else I’m writing about here, but I am really lucky to have men in my life who are constantly modeling feminist practices to me, and to have inspiring women in my life who are holding me accountable and providing feminist leadership. At the end of this piece there’s a list of online feminist resources, which I’ve drawn on and quoted to write this.

This piece centers feminism—and the culprits of patriarchy and misogyny it confronts—and I’m writing primarily to men and other masculine-leaning folks, from my own experience as a white, educated, middle-class cis-man. While I’ve learned from people with very different experiences, my perspective and analysis are still shaped by a confluence of massive privilege, sheltered and benefitting from the everyday, layered violences of racism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, among others. What I write will be most relevant to other white, heterosexual men. We are also the biggest perpetrators of violence and misogyny, which means engaging white hetero dudes is an urgent task, and we can and should develop an intersectional, anti-oppressive praxis. All men are starting from different places, with different experiences and things to work on, but we can learn a lot from sharing those experiences and trying to figure things out together. We can’t wait until we feel like experts, or until we’ve figured it all out, because unlearning and confronting patriarchy is a life-long project, full of mistakes.

How can we unlearn patriarchy and support the leadership of women?

Even among men who have are committed to feminism, women and trans folks are consistently silenced and marginalized, and men—especially white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero-cis-men—end up in positions of leadership and recognition. When these problems are raised by women, men often get defensive. These problems aren’t new; feminists have been naming and resisting patriarchy for centuries. In the 60s and 70s, organizations like Movement for a New Society, a radical feminist anti-war organization, explored the ways that men tend to talk first, too much, too loud, and too often. Men take conversations over, we get defensive, restate what others have said, present our ideas as definitive, put down others’ ideas, intellectualize and avoid vulnerability, condescend and compete, and speak for others in meetings and conversations.

The fact that all of these behaviours are still widespread attests to the persistence of patriarchy. I struggle with these things all the time, and constantly find myself taking up more space in conversations with a lot of women in my life. It’s a life-long project to change our conduct by thinking relationally, being mindful of how our ways of speaking impact others (especially folks who aren’t white hetero men). How can we learn to listen and be more curious, vulnerable, and attuned to the ways we speak and hold ourselves? How can we create spaces of emotional connection and ongoing care—especially with other men—beyond mere exchanges of ideas or opinions?

What would it mean for men to root feminism in our everyday lives?

One way to move beyond conversation is to center care and the reproduction of everyday life, for which women are often responsible. I have been part of these patriarchal dynamics in activist collectives, shared houses, and intimate relationships, and it’s still one of the major things I need to be working on. Women and others not socialized into patriarchal masculinity are left with the less gratifying, less public, less visible forms of work, like sweeping floors in the house, caring for friends and family, and making a budget for the organization. Being mindful of what needs to get done to care for people and maintain collectives and communities in material ways—and doing it—is really basic and it’s embarrassingly difficult for me sometimes. It’s also not a question of good analysis: the male role models in my life haven’t developed these capacities by reading the right books, but by being proactive, vigilant, and accountable to the women in their lives. What do we do when nobody’s looking? I think these low-to-the-ground, quiet forms of feminism are among the most important. They tend to be less public and less celebrated, and they are absolutely crucial to creating space for women to take on more of the creative and visionary work of smashing patriarchy (and other things).

A consistent reminder from friends and mentors who read earlier versions of this piece was the reminder that as men, we’ll almost always benefit from taking on feminist practices: we will often be congratulated, recognized, and valued for doing work that others are always already doing. Being more vulnerable and emotionally available makes me a more attractive partner or lover; learning anti-oppressive practices makes me more hirable; developing a feminist analysis lends me authority and status; and I can be congratulated for doing childcare or housework just because it’s unexpected. Taking on feminism can shore up new forms of male privilege in weird ways. What are the implications of all this? I think part of it is a reminder there’s no endpoint: as C.B. Egret explains in Ex Masculus,

there also isn’t a plateau you are going to get to where you can brush your hands off, claiming to have reached official ally status. The work is life. It doesn’t end but only gets deeper and richer and fuller, like a lake in a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorms are powerful, exhilarating, dangerous, transformative, and humbling all at the same time, and there’s no shelter in the middle of a lake. I’m learning that there’s a deep ambivalence in taking on feminism as a man, especially a man who benefits from other layers of privilege. A lot of unlearning patriarchy—like becoming more vulnerable and emotionally available—can be a transformative, life-affirming process, and it can end up reinforcing patriarchy in all kinds of ways. Men can use emotional literacy to manipulate situations and center their own needs in new ways. We can allow ourselves to be celebrated as feminists, in ways that reinforce patriarchal, self-centered conditioning. But ambivalent doesn’t mean ineffective or unimportant: I think it means that feminism, for men, will always be tricky, full of pitfalls, and absolutely crucial. How can we be attuned to this ambivalence, and navigate it with integrity? How can we push ourselves to take on practices and roles that are unlikely to be celebrated or even noticed? How can we redirect recognition or privilege in ways that benefit or support others? How can we have more of these conversations with each other as men, and how can we support each other in deepening individual and collective feminist practices?

bellhooksmenfeminism

How can men work collectively to challenge patriarchy and misogyny?

I am just starting to think about how to engage other men beyond my circle of close friends, and even among friends, really uncomfortable transformative conversations are rare. I am often scared of this work with other men: scared of implicating myself, scared of letting down my defenses and being vulnerable, and scared that I’ll mess it all up or do it wrong somehow. One problem I grapple with—especially when I’m scared—is the tendency to distance myself from patriarchy and misogyny. Paul Kivel, a long-time men’s work activist, points to the pitfalls of talking down to other men about patriarchy:

[It] made us the “good” men with the “right” ideas and allowed us to feel powerful by attacking and berating other men. We became the best liberated men on the block, and that became another way of winning women’s approval and attention. It also allowed us to feel self-righteous toward other men.

It’s always easier for me to create distance, rather than finding a way to implicate myself in discussions about patriarchy and misogyny. Predictably, this shuts men down, and it makes the conversation safe for me, as long as I can stay on the “good” side of the good/bad men dichotomy. The worst part of this is that it makes it difficult to talk about and address misogyny and violence in a meaningful way: nobody wants to be the bad man.

Alexandra Brodsky writes about the urgent need to engage in uncomfortable conversations about “the texture of 20-something heterosexual sex in America, the insidious habits and habituations that look exactly like violence except, somehow, we’ve decided they aren’t violent.” It means having conversations about the ways we—as men—are implicated in blurring and crossing lines of consent, the ways we feel entitled to sex and the fulfillment of our fantasies, and how we let all this dissipate into the silences of rape culture and patriarchy. To address all this by implicating ourselves is profoundly uncomfortable. “We will have to disrupt the whole body, and though all men can help, most won’t want to. Today’s allies might think it’s easy not to be a rapist but find it harder to accept that their desires are not paramount,” Brodsky writes.

How can we engage each other in these conversations, as men? How can we create a shared language that helps us hold each other accountable? How can we support each other in setting goals, making commitments, and following through on them? One way that men have begun to do this is by holding men’s circles: intentional, pro-feminist gatherings of men to address patriarchy and misogyny among ourselves and in our communities. I recently found a zine called Ex Masculus: critical reflections on pro-feminist men’s groups, with writings from folks with a wide variety of experiences of men’s work. Toby explains the importance of men’s groups:

I know that in my life it’s been the times I’ve been with other guys (whether in formal groups or just hanging out and having real discussions) that have been the best times to work through my lifetime of socialization as a male. To some extent we know what the other person is going through, I am able to empathize with how hard it is to challenge those privileges and get to the bottom of why I treat people the way I do. It’s other guys who are able to support me when I make a mistake and need help figuring out what I did, and how not to do it again. Without some intentional space to make that possible it usually just doesn’t get talked about (p22).

The contributors in this zine share a broad array of insights into men’s work, and a common theme is the challenge to deepen our practices in these groups so that they are more accountable to women and actively challenge patriarchal violence. C.B. Egret explains that men’s groups can go wrong when they function as spaces “for other men to ‘confess’ their privileges and conditionings to one another, pay penance as such, pat one another on the back and go home feeling like good feminists” (51). Egret makes it clear that this is not about dismissing the ways that men’s groups can be spaces of care and healing. The point is that this work can be deepened, so that it’s more transformative for men involved, and leads to meaningful action beyond meetings. Vanessa, another Ex Masculus contributor, raises some crucial questions along these lines:

  • how do we deal with situations that come up where people we like are perpetrating abuse and assault in our communities?
  • how can we change our culture to begin to see confrontation as constructive?
  • where in the depths of ourselves are we recognising a need for a men’s group? is there shame there? guilt? is there fear? what else?
  • are we afraid of accountability processes?

Other contributors raise similar questions, pointing to the possibilities of using men’s groups to hold perpetrators accountable, provide support for survivors, and help create community healing and care. This is a high bar for men socialized into patriarchy—especially those new to feminism—and I read these as visionary goals that we can aspire to in men’s work.

Everything I’ve learned continually points me back to the recognition that there’s no universal formula, and we’re all coming at this with different experiences. Men’s groups are only one response among many that we can take to be more active in confronting patriarchy and misogyny on an everyday basis. How can we be more active in taking up the quiet work, the caring work, and the work that we won’t be recognized for? How can we engage with other men in ways that open space for transformative conversations about patriarchy and misogyny? How can we be accountable to women and trans folks and take leadership from them? What’s stopping us? I’ll end with some further questions by Vanessa, from Ex Masculus:

  • who have you abused in your life? how?
  • what comes to mind when you think about how the majority of the women and trans people you know could be survivors of sexual assault?
  • what do you have to gain from talking about your life experiences with other people relating to having male privilege?
  • what experiences have made you want to be accountable to people you have hurt?
  • how has your gender socialisation shaped your practice of consent? your sense of entitlement?
  • what makes you different from other “men”?
  • have you ever used the rhetoric of feminist allyship to gain credibility, or to seem attractive, to feminists you thought were cool / hot?
  • when you become down on yourself because of the amount of work you need to do to unlearn patriarchal indoctrination, how do you stay brave?

Acknowledgements

This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the feedback, edits, advice, and ongoing support and mentorship offered by Jeanette Sheehy, Kim Smith, Carla Bergman, Seb Bonet, and Dani Aiello. I wasn’t able to be responsive to all their insights, questions, and critiques, so I’m responsible for all the mistakes, omissions, problems, and other crappy bits.

Resources

Summary: amory starr – Grumpywarriorcool

ignitingarevIn this accessible, perceptive short essay from Igniting a Revolution, amory starr criticizes what she calls “grumpywarriorcool:” ways of being in activist spaces that are unkind, unfeeling, and exclusive.  She unpacks the way that whiteness and patriarchy has been “smuggled in” to radical organizing spaces, despite solidarity work and explicit opposition to these forms of oppression.  This is a summary of her article, and because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, some of my own experiences and reflections are in here too.  This relates closely to Jamie Heckert’s argument in “Anarchy without Opposition,” which I summarized last week here.

starr is arguing that grumpywarriorcool is a symptom of whiteness and patriarchy in spaces that are often explicitly anti-oppressive.  She discusses subtle forms of conduct at meetings and other organizing spaces that ‘smuggle in’ practices and behaviours that appear neutral or even liberatory, but may actually reflect and reproduce patriarchy, whiteness and classism, alienating communities of colour in particular.

In this sense, she explains, “it’s not what we work on that makes our politics racist, it’s how we do it that matters… What I have finally begun to realize is that the how is deep and subtle” (377).

She identifies and unpacks a few behaviours, assumptions, and practices in particular, which come together to create grumpywarriorcool:

1) Blanket ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ can mask internalized oppression or exclusivity: starr argues that invoking ‘culture’ to defend individualistic behaviour “claims a socio-moral status beyond reprove and a horizontality which obviates critique.  It is this framework of cultural diversity which makes it difficult to identify and address internalized oppression within radical and revolutionary countercultures” (378).  starr gives a polemical/sarcastic example: “i’m going to stink, i’m going in there even though i’m contagious, i’m going to bring my barking dog, i have the right to do whatever the fuck i want and people just have to deal with it and i’m going to call this ‘cultural diversity’… meanwhile other folks around are feeling like another white guy is doing whatever the fuck he wants” (379).  This also connects to the idea of ‘taking up too much space’ at meetings.  A familiar concept to radicals, the idea of sharing space says that we should all pay attention to how much space each of us is taking up, and we should make sure there’s space for everyone to speak and share ideas.  It has emerged in response to real problems: white dudes like me are often louder, and they talk forever, silencing others.  starr quotes her friend Jane here, who argues that the resulting ethic of ‘not taking up too much space’ can be part of the problem: “Get over it.  You better figure out how to be democratic and still be full of life” (384).  How can we figure out how to avoid dominating spaces while also bringing our passion and excitement?  Are there ways of being that actually open up or create space?  starr isn’t pretending there’s a perfect solution here: “while no culture can be universally welcoming landing pad, that doesn’t mean that organizers are absolved of any responsibility for culture” (378).

2) Norms of fearlessness, self-sacrifice, and bravery: starr argues that these norms can obfuscate the value of fear, hesitations, doubts, and silences.  “Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind behind profound doubt and fear” (378).  Norms of fearlessness make it difficult to share (and work through) fears, anxieties, and doubts.

3) Individualism and the dream of shedding the past to find community in the future: “a hallmark of white countercultures is the vision of individualistic self-creation in which oppressive childhood values and institutions are cast off, and political compassion embraces what might best be theorized as ‘imagined community‘” (380).  This describes my process of radicalization to a tee: i came to see my middle-class, white, suburban upbringing as the thing I had to unlearn, and (parts of) anarchist subculture became the community i belonged to.  This isn’t a problem in itself (well, there were lots of problems with this anarchist community, but that’s different).  The problem is that this experience gets universalized, and “many find it hard to imagine parents participating in radical political action” (380) because my reality (and the one I impose on everyone else) is that people have an ‘awakening’ sometime in their 20s, and they organize in ways that work for other, twenty-somethings.  In contrast, starr argues, many activists of colour “envision social movements in intimate terms; fighting racism is protecting their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children.  Struggle and survival are principles learned at home, from family and elders, at church” (380).  Indeed, I’m just starting to recognize in concrete terms that it tends to be white, middle-class people (NOT all people) who lack community.  I’m just starting to learn about and prioritize care, vulnerability, trust, and generosity, while recognizing that these values and practices are second-nature to folks with different backgrounds than my own.

4) This individualism has important implications beyond misunderstandings and false universalisms.  It means that intellectual and formal aspects of politics are often privileged over everyday life and the nitty-gritty face-to-face interactions that happen in organizing.  This one hit a chord with me: “when activists focus energy on clever communications and/or disruptions which even the mainstream media will cover, they imagine that the cleverness and surprising courage of these actions will excite people to participate in various capacities” (380).  This is the classic anarchist fantasy of ‘propaganda by the deed’.  Disruption leads to inspiration leads to politicization and recruitment leads to creating a community of resistance: “joining a movement is understood as an individual intellectual act, not a social one” (381).  To admit that this is a fantasy connected to whiteness and masculinity doesn’t mean that it’s totally ineffective, but it’s likely to attract more people like me: people who’ve felt alone, and get attracted to politics for intellectual reasons, or because it seems exciting and daring.

5) Similarly, starr points to ‘smart radicalism’ as a fundamental premise of white organizing: a commitment to radical principles and theories, a ‘correct’ interpretation of these principles and theories, and the assumption that this correct radicalism will avoid fetishism or mistakes (382-3).  I’ve participated in this one, too: being part of spaces where people are hungry to correct each other and ‘get it right.’  starr suggests that this is often connected to an attack on ‘reformism’ within radical groups, where the militancy of members is judged by their willingness to engage in high-risk direct action.  She contrasts this to the priorities of anti-rarcism: “while ideological and tactical radicalism exist in antiracist organizing, they are not the standard by which organizations and organizers relate with participants.  Instead, friendliness, comfort, safety, generosity, and reliable personal connection are the necessary elements of ‘good’ political work (383).

6) Direct democracy can end up substituting formal equality for genuine relationships and exchange.  In direct democracy, leadership often exists in the form of ‘facilitation’ and tends to be temporary, rotating, and random “affirming that all participants have equal (and equally limited) authority (381).  starr isn’t dismissing this tradition, explaining that they’re “similar to anti-racist practices in that they are local (unlike mass actions and international campaigns), building community, and empower marginalized people” (381).  But, she says, these meetings themselves aren’t often comfortable or empowering, and this isn’t a priority because “white organizing assumes that activists arrive at meetings having decided already to be committed and to do inconvenient, uncomfortable things in the service of their commitments” (382).  This was another place where starr’s diagnosis hit home for me.  I’ve been to lots of meetings where people aren’t welcomed, ideas aren’t affirmed, and people aren’t friendly to each other.  When people are hesitant to commit to things, or complain that meetings suck, or stop showing up, I’ve often told myself it’s because they lack commitment.

7) This is one of the problems starr is pointing to: an everyday activist culture emerges lacking kindness, trust, generosity and vulnerability.  She calls this cool: “the reification of self-indulgent insecurity” (384).  It’s a problem because “it gets us into a place where we then feel undignified and vulnerable smiling, approaching someone, talking to strangers, or being unilaterally friendly” (384).  I don’t think this means making everything fun or easy; this mixes up ease with openness.  Nor is it about telling oppressed people to be more cheerful in their struggle: starr’s criticism is aimed clearly at privileged folks like me.  This really resonates: recognizing the reality of structural oppression and my privileged place within it not only made me feel guilty, it made me terrified of messing up.  And the best way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate others: never let your guard down, be relentlessly critical, and display your anti-oppression for the world to see.  As I cultivated this way of being, I found others who shared similar tendencies.  The result was an activist culture that was terrifying for newcomers and often cold even to insiders.

It’s not just that we have to be ‘critical’ of culture; we have to be open and able to having a range of conversations about subtle cultural behaviours and norms, in different ways.  The trap is to assume spaces or actions are culturally neutral and therefore inclusive, which starr argues amounts to “an act of indifference or disregard for other people” (which is often reflective of white and male privilege) (379).  starr frames this analysis as a way to “discuss together the kinds of power we believe in, how power manifests, and then what is the face, the gesture, the relationship with strangers, and the greeting?”

All of these elements intersect and reinforce each other to create what starr is calling grumpywarriorcool.

Grumpywarrior cool is the intersection of blanket ‘diversity’ that masks whiteness and patriarchy, norms of fearlessness and self-sacrifice, individualism and struggle-against-our-upbringing narratives, the fetishization of disruptive direct action and publicity, intellectual radicalism and correctness, and cool unwelcoming judgmental activist spaces.

So what are the implications of this critique?  These aren’t just failures of analysis, but deeply ingrained ways of being: just because I read this article and find it convincing doesn’t mean I’m going to start being vulnerable, open, and kind.  If starr’s analysis is correct, then grumpywarriorcool is something white activists are steeped in, and it will take a lots of work, dedication, and experimentation to create different ways of being.  These are the limits of critique: it’s one thing to unsettle and critique ways of being that have come to be natural or normal.  It’s another thing to displace them with an alternative; that’s a much bigger challenge. And if part of the problem is relentless critique that fetishes the ‘correct’ analysis, then this criticism of white activist culture is always in danger of participating in this dynamic.  The critique of grumpywarriorcool and end up being just another trump card to display radical/intellectual superiority.  As starr laments, it’s a strange challenge to talk to people about subtle behaviours, assumptions, and the looks on their faces–is this about telling people how to behave?

What’s the alternative?  starr suggests an ethic of discovery: “not only getting to know each other, but also interrogating the structural contents of political concepts and space we take for granted which, as it turns out, have a huge impact on the shape of our political work” (379).  I am just starting to see grumpywarriorcool as a problem in my own community, and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on alternatives that are more convivial, kind, and vulnerable.  In some ways, they’ve always been there, and I’ve dismissed them as wishy-washy, too hippy-ish, or they just freaked me out because I had to be vulnerable to share in those spaces.  In general, the spaces I’ve encountered are no less radical or militant, but there’s space for people to be silly, kind, joyful, sad, scared, supportive, vulnerable and angry.  It’s messier and more dangerous: when we open up to each other, there really is more danger of humiliation, getting hurt, and hurting others.  But this isn’t about yet another duty that tells white men like me that we need to do this or that: it’s about being really present and feeling alive.  For me, this has always been scarier than sneaky direct action.  starr ends the article with an updated exhortation from Black Panthers to white allies: “Let us see as central to our politics the replacement of indifference with discovery” (385).