In the aftermath of the weekend’s ghastly events at UC Santa Barbara, there’s been plenty of discussion about our pervasive culture of misogyny, and the myriad destructive ways in which it manifests. A large part of the narrative has been that men need to shut up and listen to women’s voices on this topic, which is certainly true. But men also need to talk, honestly and amongst ourselves, about the nature of masculinity, and acknowledge our own destructive impulses. This is a problem that men need to be discussing precisely because it’s a problem with men. And it’s only men who are going to fix it.
The most important thing we need to realize is that potential to be the problem lies within all of us — and because only by acknowledging this can we start to look to a solution. I’m not saying we all have the potential to be killers, but we all have the capacity to to be unthinkingly misogynistic, to refuse to examine our behavior and our assumptions, to subscribe to the sentiments that fuel the “men’s rights” movement and its ilk.
We’re brought up that way — not always by our parents, but by the world we live in. (In general, when I say “taught” in this piece, I don’t mean that someone actively sits you down and says, “Now listen, son, this is how to objectify women.” It’s more a case of cultural osmosis than anything else.) No one — least of all kids in their late teens and early 20s, a demographic that accounts for the overwhelming majority of Reddit MRA types — exists independently of the environment that shaped them.
And many of them can relate to the misogyny that drove Elliot Rodger — if not in degree, then at least in principle. The Atlantic‘s Noah Berlatsky wrote an excellent piece yesterday about how he could recognize the sentiment that underpinned Rodger’s video:
Like Elliott Rodger, who killed at least six people in Santa Barbara last week, when I was 22, I had never had a girlfriend. Like him, I had never kissed a girl. Those facts weighed on me, just as they seemed to have weighed on Rodger. Being a virgin, as I’ve written before, made me feel broken and wrong and failed… Rodger’s horrifying violence, the videos he posted, and the way he saw himself are all extreme. But they’re also a reflection of the way poisonous ideals of masculinity affect men. To some extent, I’ve felt the frustration Rodger felt, and I think other men may feel it as well. This is not an excuse for Rodger’s actions, but something more painful: a confrontation of the ways in which he’s not deviant, but typical. Acknowledging that seems like an important part of making sure this kind of thinking doesn’t remain typical any longer.
I think Berlatsky is dead right. I’ve certainly felt those things. Longing is a default state of mind for adolescents of all genders, of course, but in men that longing manifests a sense of frustrated entitlement, although you don’t recognize it as such at the time — you just feel that you’re getting a raw deal. You see girls and love as things that other people have and you don’t. The idea of having is important here, because you’re taught that women are a thing to be “gotten,” rooted in a sort of faith that one is owed existential reward for Doing It Right.
Look, for instance, at Seth Rogen’s phrasing on Twitter earlier this week:
This came in response to Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s argument that men “raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl… find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair.’” And whatever you think of the merits of using Apatow’s films as an example, the way Rogen spoke of “getting girls” is striking. (As Jessica Goldstein writes for ThinkProgress, “Girls are not a thing you get. They’re not a goody bag at the end of the frat party… Neighbors is… the latest in a long, long line of movies in which men are granted what they desire, always and without question, even if what they desire is not a what, but a who.”)
Clearly, these are ideas that don’t stand up to any sort of serious interrogation, but the point is that you’re never taught to interrogate them. Like many unspoken convictions, they’re just present in our cultural unconscious — or at least they are until someone questions them. And when someone does question them, it’s not a pleasant experience. This is at least part of the answer to the question that my former Flavorwire colleague, the excellent commentator Michelle Dean, asked at Gawker on Tuesday: “Why is it so hard for people to get that Elliot Rodger hated women?” Why? Because for many people — mostly men — acknowledging that requires questioning your entire belief system.
It’s not all clear-cut misogyny, either. Even the ways in which men are often taught (consciously, in this case) to respect women are shot through with harmful assumptions: casting women as exotic creatures who should be loved and revered, fragile beings to be treated like princesses, and all that stuff. Clearly, seeing women as sacred beings instead of objects that exist for your satisfaction is less destructive, and the tradition of educating boys this way is largely rooted in good intentions — the idea of actively teaching your kid not to be an asshole.
But it still involves casting women as “the other.” And there’s still the implication that if you treat them the right way, girls will like you, and thus you will Get Girls. Men would never think of their interactions with other men this way — that if you treat boys right, they will like you, and thus you will Get Friends. We just, y’know, make friends. What we should teach kids is that gender is a social construct that imposes arbitrary expectations on people who are individual humans, just like you. Sadly, as a society we’re still an awful way from seeing gender this way.
The obvious problem with these apparently benign ideas is that if, as a boy, you feel that you’ve done everything right, and you haven’t gotten what you deserve for your good behavior, you become resentful. And the way that men express negative emotions in our society isn’t through talking about it, because that’s not considered manly. Instead, there’s a propensity to lash out at whatever you feel is hurting you, to respond to whatever is causing you pain by causing it pain.
The worst I’ve ever done is throw a half-eaten kebab at my ex after a fight that constituted the nadir of a festival where it rained for three days solid and our tent collapsed. It missed. But I remember clearly the split second of wanting to lash out, to strike at this person who at that moment was causing me pain and anguish. And I also remember how I felt as soon as I’d thrown it — watching this ridiculous kebab fly through the air, as if in slow motion, as I prayed that it didn’t hit her. She was walking away from me. It fell short and landed in a puddle. She never knew I threw it. But I remember.
I’m not telling you this as some sort of confession. I’ve been in three physical fights in my life, all with other men. I’ve never hurt a woman physically. I don’t consider myself good. I consider myself lucky. I never did any real damage before I was old enough or well-read enough to evaluate my behavior and understand where it was coming from. This has, mostly, come through reading feminist writers and discussing gender politics with friends who are smart and willing to teach. And it’s also through a process of coming to know myself.
I’ve already discussed most of this on Twitter, and among the responses has been, predictably enough, a range of variations on “not all men.” Which, look, I understand. After all, if you grew up in a reasonably positive environment, you were taught to treat everyone as equals. You were taught about suffrage and women’s lib, and maybe if your high school English teacher was particularly enlightened, you studied Simone de Beauvoir or Margaret Atwood or Adrienne Rich or Sylvia Plath along with Shakespeare and the rest of the Y Chromosome Canon. Men, as a rule, are better than we used to be. We’re civilized.
The problems with “not all men” have been reasonably well articulated — to start, it’s a strawman, because clearly no one beyond the most radical vanguard of feminism is really suggesting that within every man lurks a rabid misogynist killer, just waiting to get out. And it’s a way of derailing conversations about the role of men in female oppression, because it immediately swings the spotlight back onto you: hey, I’m not like that, thus your entire argument is invalid, see?
But no, actually, it’s the “not all men” argument that’s invalid — or, at least, disingenuous. Maybe it’s not all men — but it is men and only men, and it’s that’s something that we as men need to accept.
And maybe, just maybe, it is all men. Or, at least, it could just as easily be. Because who’s to say that if you weren’t raised in an entirely different environment, you mightn’t be violent too? Not Elliot Rodger — or, shit, at least I hope not — but it’s a propensity that is in all of us. Whether this is biological or cultural is the subject of some debate, but ultimately, that’s kinda beside the point — the fact remains that by pretty much every metric you can think of, men commit more acts of violence than women.
No one wants to think about the fact that underneath all that culture and refinement, men retain within them a possibility for violence, or a possibility for mistreating our fellow humans. Civilization is a comforting concept — it allows us to put some distance between us and our genes, a way of viewing ourselves as somehow better than those who are violent and aggressive, to rise above our baser instincts. To some extent, it’s true — but it’s important to remember that the idea of civilization wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that we have baser instincts that we need to rise above.
Gregory David Roberts, of Shantaram fame (and as masculine a man as you’ll ever meet), likes to talk about the difference between what he calls our “animal nature” and “human nature.” I’m going to quote him at length here, because he’s one of the most thoughtful voices on the nature of masculinity I’ve encountered:
We have two natures. An animal nature and a human nature. Our animal nature is derived from 40 million years of ape history. We are 98.9 per cent chimp DNA. Chimpanzees are territorial, hierarchical, patriarchal and they are competitive-aggressive. We, as social beings, are territorial, hierarchical, patriarchal and competitive-aggressive. But we have something else. The chimps can’t break out of that… [but] human nature breaks boundaries. Our human nature says, You know what, I am going to be free… We are constantly pulled between our animal nature and human nature. We are torn between the two. And it is not resolved in anyone’s lifetime.
Indeed it isn’t, but the first step toward some sort of resolution is acknowledging the conflict. Clearly, this isn’t something exclusive to men, but this is most definitely a gendered problem, and trying to pretend that it isn’t means that you absolve yourself of any responsibility for being part of the solution to it.
One final point here: perhaps the most frustrating thing about the hijacking of the MRA movement by extremists is that there are some valid points that get lost in the noise. There is definitely a discussion to be had about the way family courts handle paternal access to children after divorce, and the distribution of settlements and alimony, and the cultural invisibility of rape and abuse perpetrated against men, and etc.
But here’s something to think about: these are also manifestations of patriarchy. Men don’t talk about violence against them because our culture, shaped by millennia of male dominance, tells them not to, because to do so is unmanly. Men are denied access to children because of gender roles imposed by patriarchy — that the man is the provider, and the woman the carer. And so on.
In other words, if MRA types really want to address the issues that bother them, they should be enthusiastic feminists. This may sound counter-intuitive, and on the off chance that you’re an MRA who’s actually read this far, you’re probably about to leave an excoriating comment. Don’t. Think about this: gender roles are destructive to everyone. And think about how they affect you.
As Socrates, or Thalon, or whoever else it was, said millennia ago: know thyself. Understand how your actions reflect the centuries of patriarchy that have shaped the society in which you live. I read this story on Tumblr yesterday, one of a bazillion #YesAllWomen stories to emerge over the last few days. It’s called “My First Customer of the Morning Just Called Me a Cunt,” and it relates how a man asked the author, who works in a coffee shop, whether the first customer of the day “gets a hug or squeeze or something.” When she told him, “It isn’t such a good idea to tell women you’ve never met to hug or squeeze you when you’re a customer at their place of work,” he sat and stewed for five minutes, and then he started yelling at her.
Put yourself in his position, in isolation, and you might see how he felt the way he did — to his own eyes, he was no doubt making mildly flirtatious small talk with a girl who, to his eyes, shut him down with unnecessary emotional force. And now he feels like a victim. He didn’t deserve that, he thinks to himself. What’s up her ass, anyway? Why didn’t she enjoy the attention? If you’re a woman reading this, you’re probably shaking your head and saying, “Fuck that guy.” And of course, you’re right. If you’re a guy and reading this, don’t be that guy.
Understand that your actions don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a society where literally every woman you will ever meet has a similar story to tell, if she feels safe enough to do so. Understand that society is a large-scale representation of this. Understand that you are owed nothing. You don’t get a gold star for being a good person. It’s the minimum standard of human decency that anyone should be able to expect.
You don’t get taught this stuff. But you can work it out for yourself. Pay attention. Recognize misogyny when you see it. Don’t be an asshole. Listen to women. Believe them. And most of all, understand that they are your fellow humans and deserve to be treated as exactly that: people who share this planet with you. We’re not going to fix society’s ingrained misogyny overnight. It will take generations. But we won’t make any progress until we acknowledge that it exists.