There are two kinds of people in this world, people who divide the world into two kinds of people, and people who don’t. I’m generally the latter, and generally suspicious of binary frames as anything other than analytical tools to be picked up and put aside as they are useful, because in the world of lived actuality things are always more complicated than that. You have to be careful with them, because like many tools they convert easily to weapons. But when handled properly they can be used to adjust one’s perspective in way not dissimilar to the way a wrench adjusts the torque on a bolt.
One pair in tension that has much occupied me in recent months is that between being and doing. One takes as its basis a sort of existential status, the other actions and their result. Both are widely applicable as conceptual frames, and I think their deployment in the #YesAllWomen conversation speaks very clearly to the underlying problem, the thing so many men just don’t seem to get (John Scalzi did this better than I’m likely to, but bear with me).
One needn’t look hard to find the protestations of men aggrieved to be lumped in with the Eliot Rodgers, the Pick Up Artists and their seamy underbelly, or the endless ticker of women in America assaulted, raped, and killed by men over their sexual availability and, more importantly, their exercise of agency over it. Not all men are like that, they say. I am not like that, they say, sometimes explicitly. Indeed, the very existence of the above is the proof of their virtue, because they are not like the bad ones, the ones who hate women and speak and act on that hatred in obvious ways. They are not misogynists. Because they are not misogynists, their actions cannot be misogynistic. So stop judging them. Some of these men even have the gumption to claim some victimhood for themselves.
Either way, by this point we’ve been completely diverted from the discussion of misogyny, rape culture, and the culture of masculine entitlement that makes life for women everywhere so much more difficult and dangerous than it is for men. One suspects this was the unconscious intent of the speaker in the first place. It’s an uncomfortable conversation, and if he’s forced to sit through it long enough without interrupting he might have to come to terms with the fact that whatever his self-judgement, his righteousness is stained with inescapable complicity. Because misogyny, rape culture, and the culture of masculine entitlement go bone deep in our society, and we are all of us complicit. But especially men. Even if you consider yourself one of the good ones, the fact that there can be little or no discernible difference between you and one of the bad ones to a woman who doesn’t know you ought to be enough to get you to start listening. It may hurt to hear it, but it hurt when your body grew from a child to a man, too, didn’t it?
Lots of people are invested in the idea of being good people, of self-identifying as such and deriving moral standing and personal satisfaction from the meeting of criteria they’ve decided on or agreed to. Me, I don’t believe in it, at least not for myself. I’ve done too much wrong in my life, especially by women, to think my personal moral slate could ever be clean again. If ever I existed in a state of grace, it’s long gone and will not be retrieved or redeemed. Others’ mileage may vary, and good for them, I guess. But the results of my own moral inventory are clear enough.
If there’s an upside to my compromised state it is this: I am freed, insofar as I accept it, from the burden of maintaining a self-image of righteousness. I know I am part of the problem. Which frees me to be part of the solution. Those who claim the mantle of personal righteousness, who see themselves in terms of what they are, have difficulty even admitting the problem exists, because doing so undermines the foundations of their perceived self-righteousness. They really are lumped in with the bad ones, whom they define themselves against. I’d be upset, too.
Thing is, the conversation about misogyny, rape culture, and masculine entitlement is a conversation where we men need to do a lot more listening than talking. More important than that, we need to acknowledge the validity of what women are saying, and adjust our worldviews and actions accordingly. It’s a lifetime’s work, a journey-is-the-destination kind of thing, and the discomfort and difficulty we encounter along the way will require all the character and grit we can muster. But it’s necessary pain, and pales in comparison to what women are already going through.
Instead of asking ‘Am I misogynist?’ ask yourself, rather, “Is this thought/action/speech act misogynistic?’ The answer to the first question is yes (a better question is ‘How misogynistic am I?’ The best question, to my mind, is ‘How can I be less misogynistic?’), whoever you are, because like I said, misogyny runs bone deep, and is a part of all our inheritance in this moment in history. But the second question, applied systematically, is a much more useful question to ask, both in terms of personal growth and in terms of social outcomes and the lived reality of women everywhere.
Should the urge to defend your own virtue strike, ask yourself ‘Is it misogynistic to derail this important and necessary conversation about a longstanding, widespread problem affecting more than half of everyone alive with an assertion of personal non-complicity?’ Painful though it may be, if you’re honest, I think you’ll find that that the answer is yes. With luck it will help you not do it, and your journey will be begun.