Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Not All Men Are...

Because so few men have actively been involved in issues of women’s rights, each intrepid soul led to participate can feel isolated. Returning to the first-wave of feminism, Aaron Burr, despite the duel he fought with Alexander Hamilton and his sordid reputation, lobbied hard to give women the right to vote. Burr was one of the first men to publicly adopt the cause of women’s suffrage.
Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men, and hung a portrait of the writer and intellectual Mary Wollstonecraft over his mantel. The Burrs' daughter, Theodosia, was taught dance, music, several languages, and learned to shoot from horseback. Until her death at sea in 1813, she remained devoted to her father. Not only did Burr advocate education for women, upon his election to the New York State Legislature, he submitted a bill to allow women to vote.
Impressive an accomplishment as that was, it took place two hundred years ago. Since then, the paths to enlightenment have never been sufficiently cleared and few know how to be an effective male ally. A guidebook for men would be helpful, but few blueprints exist. By contrast, women often come to feminism through a pipeline of college women’s studies programs. As I survey the landscape, sometimes I feel as rare as the dodo bird. The exception to the rule, in my own life, was a male classmate back in undergrad. He took women’s studies classes as electives, specifically to get better grades than women did. He succeeded.

Speaking for myself, I took a human sexuality class my final semester in undergrad and found I could label parts of the female genitalia more accurately than my female classmates. I wasn’t sure whether my female classmates were somewhat mortified at the mere thought of their lady bits, or had never felt any reason to know what they were and where they were located. Unlike the man I have earlier described, my intentions were never to show up the women in my class. A recent article talks about the “not all men” defense. Years into my own self-study, I can see the argument for what it is.

For some men, stating that not all men are guilty or complicit means that they will always defend and cover for men who are guilty of some offense. For others, it’s a very natural argument meant to separate the guilty (themselves) from the innocent (other men). The first step in forming a consciousness is recognizing who one is and who one is not. Earlier in my life I resorted to the same language, defensively. Writer Jess Zimmerman discussed this topic in Time.
“Not all men” also differs from “what about the men?” and other classic derails because it acknowledges that rape, sexism, and misogyny are real issues — just not, you know, real issues that the speaker is involved with in any way. The “not all men” man, at least in some cases, agrees with you and is perfectly willing to talk about how terrible those other guys are, just as soon as we get done establishing that he himself would never be such a cad. It’s infuriating and unhelpful, but in a way it represents a weird kind of progress.
Other variations on a theme are “Not all white people are racist,” or “Not all men are sexist,” or “Not all straight people are homophobic.” I can understand why a person would want to clear their name before proceeding further, because such accusations are highly combustible. While I have learned to place myself into the shoes of a gender not my own, most often I don’t see this as infuriating or unhelpful. It’s the first step towards self-actualization. As much as feminists might wish to see sweeping progress, we don’t set the pace of internal education and realization. Zimmerman concedes my point in a roundabout way at the end of the article. Many male allies slowly reach stage after stage, moving down the list.
  1. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  2. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  3. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  4. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

The toughest notion to swallow is that of complicity in sexism. Sexism is a cultural problem and men live in fear of that accusation, much as they do rape or sexual assault. It takes a particularly strong, humble man to concede that he has benefited from an unfair standard. Feminism has been chiseling away at notions like these for years and years, out of constructive, persistent criticism. It has been my observation that the resistance faced is not because men aren’t listening, but rather they have lots of inner work to do before they are ready.

Quaker process involves deliberate delay when considering issues. Though I sometimes find it exasperating, I have to concede that waiting for a concern to season does provide additional insight. Any business brought before the Meeting is held over for a month, in the hopes that introspection will improve the flaws and
produce the fairest resolution. Internet interactions are in real time, and we do not self-censor as we should.

A story is told about Abraham Lincoln. If he ever wrote a letter in anger, he set it aside and did not immediately send it. Returning to it the next day, most of the time, he declined to send it to the intended party and filed it away, unopened.

 If we are to use the internet to convey our message, it might be better if we restrain our impulses. Regardless of who is technically right, the effect reflects poorly on everyone. I was not socialized a woman, and though I still have much to learn, I know I’ll never completely get it. I know the progress I have made and those that leaders have made, but I do wonder what message the peanut-crunching masses have absorbed.

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