Friday, January 25, 2013

Treating men as people is also good

As a feminist, who aso has plenty of feminist friends, over time you start noticing the kind of accusations that get thrown feminists' way. We're too extremist being a common one, even among my friends who do not identify as feminists, and another that often gets leveled by the internet hate-o-sphere and other more dedicated opponents to feminism is that we hate men. In this post I want to write a bit about the latter. Being a white cisgendered man myself and having attended several gender classes and observing the world around us, I've certainly had very strong feelings, such as disgust, for being part of a system that privileges me and works against women, queer people, and people of colour. However, being disgusted at the system is not the same thing as hatred of men. Indeed, my disgust is, apart from the fact that it's a system that does harm to large groups of people, also grounded in my belief that people have a great potential for good, and as I wrote in my response to Kaplinski a couple of weeks ago, systemic inequalities and power imbalances make for a worse society and worse people. Among the feminists I read and the feminists I know, there is generally more of a focus on systemic and social issues that give rise or reinforce to the behaviours we are opposed to, so while the tone can be harsh against men as a group to act in a way to be part of the change we want to see in the world, hatred against men does not really make sense. We are all people, and people who are privileged need to see how that privilege can make them blind to systemic issues and need to participate in changing the system that harms others and blinds them.

On the whole, I find a lot of non-feminist thought that exists in the mainstream to be far more man-hating than feminist opinion. For example, the idea that men can't control themselves, which is often brought up when talking about rape. This is the excuse used by Mr. Kaplinski, and a common trope of rape apologia, often expressed as "what did she expect when doing x". I, and I think many with me, expect people to act like decent human beings, and that it is the behaviour of the perpetrators that is what should be questioned and not the victim's. Indeed, that is the expectation most people have in most standard interactions in places where there exists an ok level of law and order. But with rape, suddenly there is the idea that men are barely constrained rapists waiting to happen. I hardly need to point out how insulting and what a low opinion of men that is, and to repeat a link made in a previous blog post, there is very little reason to believe that a large category of men are intrinsically prone to think that way. And the feminists I know don't think that way. Instead, we generally believe that social norms, how we raise boys and girls, and our expectations on men and women play a large part in how we act, both when we are alone and especially when we act in a social context. And that includes when someone makes the decision to rape (it is important to remember that rape does not just "happen", someone makes a conscious decision to sexually assault someone who has not given consent, sometimes that decision is reached as a result of peer pressure or even under threat, but it is made). As this article from Stassa Edwards at Ms. Magazine on the Steubenville rape case points out, the way we raise boys in regards to rape, and indeed girls and women in general, can be a problem:

At one point, former Steubenville baseball player Michael Nodianos says, “It isn’t really rape because you don’t know if she wanted to or not.” At another point an unidentified boy asks “What if that was your daughter?” Nodianos responds, “But she isn’t.”

Nodianos’s words are telling, because for too long we’ve been teaching our sons to think of the consequences of rape within a familial context (i.e. “Imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother”) and it’s clear that this method of education is a complete and total failure.
A still all-too-common approach when confronted with stories about rape is to look at the victim and ask questions about her: what was she doing? why was she in that place with those people in whatever state of sobriety? who is she?, and that's reflected in the idea that specific women are worthy of protection (your family, for instance), rather than having the expectation on men to act in an empathetic way towards all women as well as everyone else. What is needed to change a culture where so many rapists get away with their crimes and a lot of people reflexively cover up or ignore the crimes of their peers or write articles about how rape and consent are "complicated" concepts is partly to speak out against the reflexive defense of men who rape, and to raise boys in a way that empathy is valued. Of course, there is a problem in that children are rather clever and pick up on a lot of cues from society around them, which means that we also need to constantly reinforce (warning: links on this page can lead to content that is not safe for work) that disparaging, objectifying or discriminating against women is unacceptable.

Some people would appeal to nature here and say that men have a lower capacity for empathy (I seem to have argued against that very point very recently). However, there is research saying that that is not necessarily the point. For instance, take a look at this abstract linked from an article at Feministing (translation for people who haven't spent way too much time reading abstracts to follow):

[...]Graham and Ickes (1997) speculated that reliable gender-of-perceiver differences in empathic accuracy (a) were limited to studies in which the empathic inference form made empathic accuracy salient as the dimension of interest, and (b) therefore reflected the differential motivation, rather than the differential ability, of female versus male perceivers. These speculations were tested more rigorously in the present study[...] The hypothesis was strongly supported, consistent with a motivational interpretation previously proposed by Berman (1980) and by Eisenberg and Lemon (1983), which argues that reliable gender differences in empathy-related measures are found only in situations in which (a) subjects are aware that they are being evaluated on an empathy-relevant dimension, and/or (b) empathy-relevant gender-role expectations or obligations are made salient.
The most important line here is the one that states that differences in empathy "reflected the differential motivation, rather than the differential ability, of female versus male perceivers". In other words, we have more empathy when we are motivated to be empathetic. If society around us treats a group of people (slaves, immigrants, women, homosexuals) as less worth, there will be less motivation to feel empathetic. If we tell boys and men that women's opinions don't matter or that only certain women are worthy of protection according to some kind of social hierarchy, then that is not any better than the laws of old that stated that a woman being raped was an economic loss for her family, rather than a crime against her, and leads to the kind of callous disregard (and acceptance from others of that callous disregard) for another person exemplified by the quote above.

As in so many issues, this is not something that can be solved easily. It is the kind of structural messages that can exist to a certain extent in pretty much all walks of life, like the idea that boys teasing "girls they like" against those girls' will is adorable until they reach a certain age where we try to reverse it and say it's sexual harassment (it was never ok), or the common devaluing of women's opinions in discussions, or not speaking out against sexual harassment, or promoting different ideals of empathy for boys and girls, or slut-shaming, or victim-blaming, or a society where men hold a clear majority of powerful positions. The list goes on and on, and a lot of the problems are difficult to know what to do about. But what I will try to do is to speak out against harassment in public transport, streets, and my workplace (I'm not a very confrontational person, so that can be difficult, but where would we be if we didn't challenge ourselves?), set a good example for my nephew and speak out against bad behaviours, vote for political parties that support my vision of society, and, apparently, write blog posts and argue against those who would dehumanise men and rob them of responsibility.

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