What Exactly About All Men?
In her recent piece entitled “#yesallmen” Monjula Ray argued that all men contribute to a patriarchal social structure that serves as an impediment to the advancement of women and that all men benefit when “worthy women like Hillary Clinton are dragged down and mediocre white men like Donald Trump are promoted.”
For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree. I do, however, have my doubts about the utility of relying on specific – and particularly personal – allegations of misogyny in service of that larger point.
To be sure, her characterization of Jordan Chariton is well-deserved, if not a little more forgiving than he’s earned (though, in fairness, I recall editing out the phrase “fuck face” somewhere in there). The mind-boggling irony of Mark Halperin’s raging misogyny goes far beyond the fact that his reputation was built on and protected by the work of women he subsequently harassed and discarded. He literally wrote the book on Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Glenn Thrush was a prominent member of a New York Times politics desk that was relentlessly, obsessively, irrationally, and unfairly critical of Clinton during the 2016 campaign, particularly during the primary. The nauseating hypocrisy of looking to Julian Assange for “transparency” during Clinton’s 2016 campaign goes without saying – in large part because the allegations of rape leveled against Assange have been common knowledge for some time but we took his constant targeting of Clinton at face value anyway.
The sum total of this pervasive culture of harassment, assault, and dehumanization of women by those the country trusted implicitly to evaluate the fitness of the first female major party presidential nominee in its history is ludicrous. I had to stop myself several times during the previous paragraph, however, from referring to any of it as “astonishing.” Because it’s not astonishing. It’s a fairly predictable result of a culture we built to value men as individuals worthy of trust, deference, and a generous benefit of every doubt and to value women only as an interest group or collection of objects to be utilized in service of others and shoved aside when convenient. What else should we have expected?
My concern, however, is that focusing on the obvious and extreme cases of overt misogyny or unbridled hypocrisy – or even on the penumbra of their most willing and gleefully oblivious enablers – provides too clean a picture of sexism and focuses her criticism in a way that lets men off the hook who should probably be wriggling there for a good long while.
There is an incongruity between Monjula’s utilization of “#yesallmen” with her then pointed accusations of specific and extreme misogyny. Sexism is more broad and messy and shaded than her reader might thereby gather.
In his book Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi outlines a history racist ideas so that his readers can better combat racism. To apply this idea more broadly, he argues that bigotry and theories and justifications of prejudice do not cause discriminatory policies which in turn do not cause material and social inequality. He argues that it’s the opposite. Those with advantage and privilege tend to legally and culturally enshrine protections for that privilege, dole out certain privileges to motivate others to protect it, and set up barriers to those who may encroach on it. Overt discrimination and inequality are noticeable so they propagate ideas to justify the disparities. In other words, it starts with the disparities. Beneficiaries of inequality discriminate to protect their advantage and rationalize and obscure their self-interest with ideas.
Kendi’s argument is complex and probably unique in some ways to racism, but in broad strokes perhaps it applies – at least approximately – to other forms of prejudice as well. He argues that “racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce or consume them.” He argues that anyone can harbor both prejudiced and egalitarian ideas about any group of people at any time. (I think the most fascinating section of his book is his second to last, about W.E.B. DuBois’s conflicted class-based racial bias and his evolution toward equitable anti-racism).
Kendi claims that this nuanced conception of bigotry doesn’t just better represent the complexity of structural discrimination – it is essential to understanding bigotry’s persistence. Rich powerful white men can have close black friends that they treat as personal equals while advocating policies that are radically discriminatory out of naked self-interest. Poor white men may protect what privilege they have not because they believe themselves better than women and people of color but because they feel threatened by women people of color. Some men are misogynistic and loathe women while others are patronizing and paternalistic but no less sexist. White women may not see the residue of racism in their conception of egalitarianism and progressive men may be dismissive of their female peers or counterparts of color. These bigotries are no less unjust because we apply effort to distinguish them from one another.
The distinctions are important not because we should concern ourselves with excusing or rationalizing or ignoring bigotry and prejudice, and certainly not with comforting those who espouse it, but rather because those prejudices manifest in radically different ways for radically different reasons in radically diverse groups of people. Making distinctions is important because they may require different solutions to different ends. We ameliorate different prejudices by different means.
I really believe that Monjula is correct in saying that literally all men benefit from a culture that is oppressive to women (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes that “gender and class are different;” for example, “poor men have the privileges of being men, even if they do not have the privileges of being wealthy), but parsing differences in how they (we) contribute to it widens her net. In allowing for varying kinds and patterns of bigotry and variable motivations she can sharpen the hook. She can keep even those whose sexism is buried under a layer or two of egalitarianism and whose motivations are paternalistic and who didn’t retweet Podesta’s emails, ignore the pervasive sexism on the far left, lose their minds over James Comey, or ridicule Hillary Clinton’s book from wriggling off its point.
I doubt the utility of Monjula’s focus on personal and individual instances of misogyny but I also doubt it was written to pass my assessment that utility. I also sympathize with Monjula’s anger. But that word is important. I sympathize; I feel for her and am incensed on her behalf. I can't empathize or understand. I can’t feel her anger. I am a white man who has learned to expect his opinions to be taken seriously; whose expertise is generally taken for granted; and whose good faith is rarely in question. I’ve never felt the specific anger of marginalization or dismissal, nor am I likely to in the future. I can never quite fully identify with the anger that she might feel, but I can see her writing as an argument and my goal is to strengthen it. In focusing on extreme instances of hypocrisy and misogyny in her effort to make this case, I think she weakens it and not only allows those she doesn’t specifically describe “off the hook,” but even provides them with a false sense of moral superiority.
I, for example, did none of the things she outlines in her piece. But by this juncture, it might be obvious that, in arguing my point, I cited a man. A man who spoke not about feminism but about a (fascinating and applicable) conception of racism. I’m a liberal guy and think of myself (probably rightly) as a feminist but my shelf is completely bare of bell hooks and embarrassingly thin on Angela Davis and Margaret Atwood so I didn’t have their ideas immediately at my disposal. I contribute to this culture in my own corner and in my own way with the voices I elevate and the ideas I assimilate. The consequences of that magnified over an entire swath of progressive society are serious.
So I guess it comes back not to a correction, but to an expansion. I still think it’s an important one:
#yesallmen of #allstripesandpersuasions #eachandeveryday #inathousanddifferentways and #forathousanddifferentreasons