When I first began to frequent Feminist gatherings, I was eager to help and proud to be a newly minted male ally. However, I also had to start at the very beginning, much as everyone else does. My own personal women’s/gender studies 101 class was in large part an organic process of self-reflection, listening, and observation more than an academic exercise. So, in my ignorance, I made statements at times that were not especially feminist and to be sure, I was certainly swiftly corrected by many.
“Check your privilege, check your privilege, check your privilege.” It was like a mantra, and a particularly infuriating one for me at the time. Back then, I didn’t really understand what that statement meant in totality. Whether by intent or design, it felt like an admonishment, which was especially perplexing because I certainly hadn’t intended to be mean or divisive. After all, it takes just as much effort for a well-meaning male to deconstruct Patriarchal inequality within himself as is does for a woman to do so within herself in a different way. That what I say begins from a position of unequal power is important, certainly, and so are the ways I profit from it, but it doesn’t detract from the process I had to undergo to really “get” why what I said was so problematic.
As a fellow feminist Quaker pointed out to me the other day, we might ought to consider that, not forsaking our zeal, when calling out offending viewpoints, we would be sure to add the crucial caveat, “privilege is not your fault.” This should not and does not absolve any person automatically granted a degree of autonomy over another from their complicity in the matter, whether actively or passively, but it might go miles towards eliminating hostility and bruised feelings. I’ve always felt male guilt or white guilt or heterosexual guilt is counterproductive past a certain point. If it encourages people to look inside themselves and reform their conduct, then well and good.
Regarding what our response might be, I will say that no one needs to be babied or placated, but it has been my experience that such attitudes repel male allies and even some women from taking a more active role in the greater movement. Indeed, had I not been so stubbornly compelled to stay with it, no matter what criticism I received, I may very well have been the latest to leave and never return.
It seems to me as though we don’t want to concede even an inch in this area. Acknowledging that discussions of privilege might contain grey areas might not be so comforting, but neither is it comforting to realize how maddeningly inexact is our conception of gender. Furthermore, we certainly reject those who claim we‘re all just a bunch of miserable man-haters, and yet we harshly condemn in our own way those among us who espouse our own particularly forbidden heretical notions. The hard-liners among us draw razor-sharp distinctions, fearful that Patriarchal attitudes will never change if anyone sees the fight as anything more than a struggle between absolute good and absolute, entirely corrupting, shape-shifting evil.
But when we do this, we forget that sympathy isn’t a weakness. Indeed, it is the means by which we share our common humanity and our common imperfections. As a person of faith, I myself try to hate the sin and love the sinner. I recognize this to be a challenging undertaking, but coming from a Feminist standpoint, it might do us well to be less reactive and more understanding. To be sure, there will always be trolls, both in real life and online, who will spew hateful points of view purely to try to make us upset. That they can and will do it so easily should give us all reason to take pause. If we remain reactive then we take the bait, stirring ourselves into a frenzy over and over again. Speaking about myself, anger has never taken me anywhere especially helpful, but I do know that the best way to combat a contentious person is to not respond, nor engage, no matter how much he or she tries to provoke. I find this to be true in Progressive political groups as much as Progressive religious/spiritual gatherings, and the adage “don’t feed the troll” might be the best advice we could ever possibly take to heart.
And just as it is a process of introspection to take our own privilege into account, so too is being self-aware enough to recognize from whence our own reactivity stems. We know that a certain amount of anger drives us and keeps us fighting, but there is a difference between instructive anger and destructive anger. Open hostility, once stoked, has a tendency to spiral out of control into very unhelpful, unhealthy directions. Unprogrammed Quaker worship encourages all Friends gathered to minister, and thus the floor is open to those who feel the leading of the Light. At times, Friends will give messages in active worship which are offensive on all sorts of levels. If I were to rise and speak immediately, in direct response, my messages would not be Spirit-led. They would instead speak from myself and likely arrive from annoyance, disgust, or even rage. If, however, I chose to wait a bit longer in expectant silence, my initial anger will often guide me towards a message that is clearly inspired by the Divine. If I choose to stand and speak, I know that based on cautious, careful discernment what I say will not inflame the situation further.
Being tough, independent, self-reliant, and Feminist does not necessarily require one to shout the loudest, shame the enemy with the best putdown, or constantly correct the misinformed. It may run contrary to how we think of ourselves and our opposition, but I my own hope is that we might get to a point someday where we might seek to enlighten first, not to return fire towards those who call us names or even co-opt our positions and our very name itself for their own ends. I am a believer in free will, and I know that so long as we assume that Patriarchy is a wack-a-mole enemy that will always morph into something different and just as virulent as that which came before it, then we’ll never believe that people might make a conscious decision to reject that ultimately destructive attitude wholesale. People can change, certainly, and I think sometimes we give Patriarchy too much credit. I don’t think it’s nearly as powerful as we think it is. We may project our own fears onto it, believing that our struggle is arduous and close to impossible, but so long as we don’t entertain the possibility that what we seek is within our grasp, then we have already set ourselves up for failure. When I grabbed my sword to fight for Feminism, I did so with the expectation that I might someday set it down for good.