Earlier this year, there was something of a blow-up involving Hugo Schwyzer, a well known male feminist writer and professor. Essentially, he did a lot of really nasty stuff in his past. He directly covered up some of it and chose to cast other parts of it in edifying terms. This information was revealed late in 2011.
Apparently, many a writer and thinker in the feminist and gender community have had mixed feelings on Schwyzer for some time, and for them, this was the straw that broke the feminist's back. Websites that had previously been running his work pulled it, and he was largely cut out from the larger feminist conversation.
I don't want to talk too much about Schwyzer here. In fact, while I've felt that his voice wasn't necessarily a bad voice, his strong religiousness hinted at deeper personality layers that I suspected I would find distasteful if found out. Indeed, I have no idea how someone can call themselves a feminist and a Christian.
Instead, the point that came out of this that I found most interesting, and the one that I want to discuss, was the question of how men can be involved with feminism. There is a boat-load of complex variables hidden in this question, each one of which would take an entire book to adumbrate, and all of them have bearing. Obviously, I could never do them all justice in a blog post.
I shall thus put it in its coarsest formulation: can the person who is the beneficiary of an unequal society be a voice for those oppressed within that society? Can a straight, white, well-bred male talk with any meaningfulness about feminism (or any 'ism for that matter)? There were many women, and some men, who said "no." For them, the ideal scenario is a feminist movement essentially devoid of men. Most of them didn't frame this in misandristic terminology. They basically said that the purpose of feminism is to give a voice to the oppressed, not to give yet another stage for those who are not oppressed. This is the more extreme of the arguments.
The milder, and I think better, argument in favor of "excluding" men was to say that men should not be wholly excluded, but instead just not be given the spotlight. Men should never be the focus of feminism, and the superstars should always be women, since only women can fully understand other women.1
I think that both of these arguments are incorrect. That doesn't mean that I cannot appreciate the perspective, though. I am a straight, tall, white, man living in America. I live a life of, sometimes, invisible privilege. I truly have little idea of what it is like to be oppressed and victimized by prejudice and bigotry. But I can grow to understand it, and it is important to recognize this ability and not denigrate the human potential to understand a great deal without needing direct experience. As a man, I can grow to understand things by reading accounts of women and the sexism they must endure. I can learn to identify it. I can experience it empathetically. That is real, profound, and useful.
Moreover, even if we were more limited in this regard, even if I didn't have mirror neurons churning away to help me feel other people's pain, it would be important to have men in the discussion (sympathetic, well-meaning men, of course. Not trolls.). I have never been oppressed, but I have fallen victim2 to gender normative behavior and felt the drive of bias and sexism. I've been in groups of men expressing all kinds of sexist ideas and been made to feel profoundly uncomfortable about my behavior and thoughts. If I and others like me are not given the stage now and then, these valuable experiences will go unspoken. That would be a terrible thing.
The argument for male exclusion may have held more water if we were talking exclusively about sexism against women, but it's much more than that. The problem is not just female oppression, it's sexism and gender norms in general. All men are not the beneficiary of an unfair society. The patriarchy sucks for everyone except those on top. Being a white male may be easier than a black female, but that doesn't mean that my life can't suck in unique ways, and these are issues that need discussing.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a large complex of psychosocial variables hidden in this noise. If we focus on one thing, we miss the various ways these other variables can manifest. For example, homophobia is essentially misogyny in a different guise. Men are never penetrated. Men are the penetrator. To be penetrated is to be a woman, which as we all know is the worst thing ever. And any man who is willing to be penetrated is not only broken and corrupt, but also dangerous since he may, like some kind of zombie, try to turn others into women.
The whitest, straightest, most cis-gendered man in the world can fall victim to this prejudice. He can be suddenly declared a persona non grata by his peers and ostracized. Or if the man is gay, and is afraid of this reprisal, he must remain hidden and fearful. Or a family that is "shamed" by the "abnormal" behavior of a child or parent that feels trapped in their neighborhood. All of this has its root in sexism and misogyny. All of this needs to be analyzed within the larger discussion.
To try and categorize that as gender studies and not feminism is to, I think, understate the breadth of feminism. We discuss racism through the lens of minority groups. We should discuss sexism through the lens of those most oppressed and analyze all of the ways that this prejudice infects other areas of life. I don't think we should look at this as a zero-sum game of superstars and celebrities. We should look at it as a network of people, all of whom have had different experiences, colored and affected by the same thing. These people all deserve an equal voice. To say that feminism is only about women is to deny this complexity.
I am a feminist. I seek no stage. My voice is only one of many, and many have suffered far worse than myself. But I am still a feminist, and I want to be a part of the discussion.
1: That latter assertion may seem a bit sweeping of a statement, but I completely agree. When the lives of men and women are so demonstrably different, unless a man pretends to be a woman for a couple of years, or is transgender, he will never be able to fully understand the gestalt of being female. It requires a woman. Although even then, not every woman gets it. We only need look at Michelle Bachman or other such wackados for examples.
2: I don't think that victim is too strong a word. I feel like a victim because I feel that society essentially poisoned me with deeply emotional programming that has taken years to untangle. It undoubtedly colored my interactions with people from a very young age, and lord knows what kind of damage it caused in friendships and family relationships. That said, I don't mean to take away from the significance that the word implies in many areas of sexism. I do not feel victimized in the same way that someone who has ever been assaulted, raped, or vilified would feel victimized.