Imagine there’s an issue you really, really care about. It’s a serious one, one which causes harm to billions of people the world over. In some cases it leads to death. You attend conferences about it, write articles on it, try desperately hard to raise awareness. And then someone asks you what this issue really is – what are its causes, how does it operate – and you tell them “personally, I don’t really care”. Wouldn’t you find that just a little bit odd?
This is the problem I’m having with Ally Fogg’s Guardian piece on International Men’s Day. As the mother of two boys – and, on a far more basic level, as a human being who at least tries not to be a total tosser – I have no objection to engaging with problems that are more likely to be faced by men than women. I don’t want to have rights that my sons couldn’t also enjoy nor for them to feel afraid of expressing views that hold no stigma when they are voiced by women and girls. All the same, I tend to think that in order to challenge what Fogg describes as the “spider’s web” of “specific social injustices that specifically or disproportionately affect men and boys”, the most obvious port of call would be feminist analyses of gender injustice. If something is happening to men and not to women, it says something about what we think of women as well as men.
Fogg argues that the problems men and boys face “are often the same one”:
What is it? Some would call it anti-male prejudice or misandry, some call it socialisation, some call it the workings of capitalism and some call it patriarchy. Personally I don’t really care, most of the time it all describes the same effects
I am surprised Fogg doesn’t care, not just because there’s a world of difference between the voice that cries “misandry” and that which cries “patriarchy”. I am surprised because it’s not enough to “describe the same effects” without examining root causes and underlying ideologies. I don’t see how we can treat others fairly unless we genuinely understand why we’re being unfair – and why we’ve developed these unjust beliefs about others – in the first place. Simply hating men and positioning men within a power structure in which roles and attributes are not permitted to cross arbitrary gender boundaries strike me as two different things. Before we start shouting it’s important to know what or whom we’re shouting at. We can’t shift our judgments if we haven’t shifted our expectations first.
Despite his own professed lack of curiosity on the matter, Fogg goes on to have a pop at feminists and their silly, simplistic solutions:
The old refrain “patriarchy hurts men too” is undoubtedly true but it is not a solution. It implies that all we need to do is achieve full social justice for women and male-specific problems will simply wither away. That’s not only a bit daft in theory, it is patently not working in practise.
But “patriarchy hurts men too” does not simply imply this. It reiterates that men and women are not defined in isolation, but in relation to one another. The perceived deficiencies of one poorly-defined group become the perceived qualities of another. Male-specific problems aren’t just male-specific. You are not allowed to be weak; I am not expected to be anything more. A shift in women’s position necessarily involves a shift in men’s. One of the greatest barriers to “full social justice for women” – which, incidentally, has not yet arrived and hence offers no measure against which to see what would happen to men – is the failure to acknowledge that this would change how everyone is perceived and valued. If it is important to “support boys through early life through good fathering” (and I don’t necessarily think it is – good parenting, not gender essentialism, is surely the key), then this will ultimately mean men taking on a greater proportion of unpaid work. This isn’t about problems “withering away”, it’s about tackling them with honestly and a willingness to share.
Of course, I could be dismissed as one of those feminists who, for no apparent reason, finds men’s rights “threatening”. Luckily Fogg sees my fear as “misplaced”: “I believe a unified men’s sector can not only peacefully co-exist with the women’s movement, but actually complement it”. Yet what is being described is not a movement which “complements” feminism, it’s one which undermines it by dismissing broader understandings of gender inequality in order to focus on specific examples taken out of context. And yes, it may sound like feminists are saying “you should do it our way” – but what is wrong with a feminist reading of gender inequality? If you see that as a straightforward portrayal of women as victims, then you’ve misunderstood feminism. And if you think something else is wrong with feminism but are choosing not to say what that is, then you’re not “complementing” anyone. Unless you engage with the debate, taking an interest not just in cis, heterosexual boys and men but in gender stereotyping, sex and sexuality, you’re forging your own path, alone.
Men’s rights activists who refuse to engage with feminism – dismissing “those nod-along male feminist academics and activists who are less concerned with problems facing men than those caused by men” – remind me of privileged feminists who refuse to engage in discussions about intersectionality. What’s often said of them is that they can’t really care about equality as whole but simply want to exploit the notion of fairness in order to have a self-serving moan. Feminists can do better than this, and so too can men’s rights activists. We can all do better, but it depends on whether “personally” we really care.