Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Time to Listen

Last week some guy went on a murder rampage/suicide after posting a bunch of videos and a very long written diatribe about how unfair the world is and how he never got the women that he deserved.  These kinds of stories never interest me.  The specifics of particular crazy and/or evil people just don’t grab my imagination, shock me, or make me go through the processes that normal people do.  However, something that HAS interested me is the ripple this sent through the social media world.  His misogynist views sparked a giant ruckus amongst the feminist community, causing a lot of usually-closet feminists to come out loud. The interesting thing to me was the tenor of the messages I was seeing.  It seemed almost like a backlash against men qua man.  It seemed that way to others as well, which lead a lot of men to be become defensive.  No one likes to be painted with a broad brush or accused of aiding and abetting terrible things.

This is where things get tricky.  Because if I understand the version of feminism being displayed here, there are one or more premises that do indeed accuse all (virtually) men of aiding and abetting terrible things.  (I actually agree with this to an extent.)  There are all these new (to most people) terms getting a lot of play all of a sudden.  “Rape culture” “Mansplaining” “triggers”.  and plenty of old words that most people don’t really remember what they mean because the last time they read them was in college, like hegemony and misogyny. These unfamiliar words and phrases are suddenly raining down on us men like hot coals from very agitated women.  I’ve participated in several threads on Facebook and gone through a wide range of emotions and thoughts over the past couple days.  

I will chart them now.  At first I was worried that I was seeing the end of free thought and civil exchange of ideas.  I said:

Good OP, Even more interesting discussion. I FEEL (note I'm talking about my personal feelings here.) that as a man I'm not really able to provide any kind of critique though. Which is interesting. I don't think any of the women on here hold the presupposition that their views are sacrosanct and must not be questioned, but that is the atmosphere they (and by extension, you) have created on this thread. I've seen it elsewhere as well. The way Lew was shamed over and over for presenting calm, non-name-calling counter-points is pretty appalling if one sees rational discourse as a primary value to a society.”

It seemed like rational discussion was at stake.  Like a new form of one-way communication had been established.  Most of the guys on the thread thought that it was all about man-bashing.  I was more concerned that it was about establishing a new paradigm where the one with the most victim points automatically wins every argument. I said:

As far as I can tell (which probably isn't very far) the basic argument hinged on Lew's point being that there is SOME amount of onus on womankind to systematically reject misogynists as sexual partners, thereby weeding those tendencies out over the very long term. And the other side implying that he is saying the onus is EQUAL among men and women. Something I don't believe he ever said or implied. It seems clear to me that men own the vast majority of the cleanup responsibility.

But regardless of my take on this debate, it's the way it was carried out that interests me the most. And the way it impacts the future of rational discourse”

From my perspective you did not address many of his points well at all. Instead you shamed him for not being in lock step with you. Again, my perspective may be because I'm a man. But that possibility has some chilling ramifications. If X% of the male population literally cannot think the way you do despite an honest effort, than the feminist movement is left with few options. And I hope that is not the case. I think feminism is a tremendously valuable lens through which to analyse a great many things.”

“As far as I can tell he is on your side, but simply pointing at part that you seem to want to sweep under the carpet. And I'm not sure why.

I'm guessing because in the modern political game of rhetoric, those with the largest claim to victimization win. Perhaps admitting that women have a role to play in the prevailing patriarchy cedes too much rhetorical power. I don't know, just thinking out loud.”


Fortunately there were several patient voices of reason articulating a feminist view in the midst of the cacophony.  Which is good.  because there were many others that simply shamed, said things like “It’s not about you!” rather than addressing statements, kept bringing up anecdotes about terrible repression, etc.

Here was a good summation of one of these helpful feminists:

I'm trying to say that we need men on our side. And instead of bucking up and participating and beginning to change things, these men have just turned it around on me and other women in this thread. Instead of tackling the larger issue which is the culture men have created inside their circles, which we women can't penetrate, they have said we should take some responsibility. Okay, we've taken it. Now what?”

This made me realize it was an interpretation problem.  What some of the feminists saw as “turning the argument around on them” I saw as exploring the issue more fully.  And most of the men saw as defending themselves from unwarranted attacks. I said:

I think we are both talking about a system that is largely invisible to all but those who work hard to analyse it. Those who don't (most of society: male and female) perpetuate it by default. Clearly, in the case of abuse, the abuser is the one who should be blamed and remedied. The point that most of the males here is making is that this invisible force that is the dominant patriarchy has female contributors as well. Specifically the women who consensually reward patriarchal behavior with offspring. This obviously excludes victims of rape, abuse, manipulation, etc. The fact that those terrible things happen under patriarchy does not mean that NO women contribute to it. I think we all agree that men need to make that kind of behavior unacceptable, actively discourage it, and promote equality as per the OP.

Also, I want to thank you for the hard work you do to engage us cis-males on complex and difficult topics like this one.”

To which she replied:


I think maybe you're projecting a higher point, Josh. Your interpretation is one I can agree with, but in my opinion we're on a topic of what men like Matt can do, and talking behind closed doors with his male friends is something he can do. If the original topic were about what women could do it might look different. All I saw were men being defensive and being unwilling to concede even this small point, and pointing the fingers back at women. And for what.”

I made sure to read all the linked blogs and articles and that helped me to understand what was happening better.


Men will often try to protect themselves from women’s anger by trying to minimize it or make it go away. We do that because we’re scared of it, because it triggers us, because it brings up our fear and our shame. But it almost always sends the message that we don’t think that women’s anger is valid or reasonable. For most men, it takes a lot of practice to be able to hold space for women’s anger without getting lost in our reactions, especially since many of us were never taught the skills of emotional self-regulation and shame resilience. But when we try to make women’s feelings disappear, we make things worse. When we learn how to listen to them with fierce compassion instead of defensiveness, we make things better. As a relationship coach, I’ve seen this over and over. (And no, that’s not limited to women’s emotions, but that’s the focus of this post.)”

1.  LISTEN.  Listen to people when they’re talking about their own lived experiences. You might feel like you’re being told “just shut up.” What you’re really being told, asked, begged to do is “shut up and listen.”
2. Don’t get defensive.  So many men interrupt women’s conversations about their own experiences with “but NOT ALL MEN…!”  So many white people interrupt POC conversations about their own experiences with “but NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE…!”
3.  WITHHOLD YOUR APPROVAL OF HARMFUL BEHAVIORS.  So the first two things didn’t feel very active, did they? Here’s some ACTION you can take!
Men: if you’re in a group of other men, and one of them makes a sexist remark-- rape joke, sexist joke, catcalling women on the street, the kind of thing that as a good guy you’d never do-- don’t give your approval. This means don’t laugh, don’t smile, and also don’t be silent. Say something. “Hey man, that’s not cool.” “That’s not funny.” Something to explicitly show that it’s not okay.
4.  Use your privilege for good.
Look, women have been speaking out about these things for decades, and the men who need to hear it aren’t listening. Sad but true: men are more likely to listen to other men.  White people, cis people, straight people, able-bodied people, the same applies. You have pull here. Talk about these things.”
"Defensiveness is a common knee-jerk reaction to avoid feeling that discomfort. But that discomfort is important. Stop a minute and let it do its job."


Why is it not helpful to say “not all men are like that”? For lots of reasons. For one,women know this. They already know not every man is a rapist, or a murderer, or violent. They don’t need you to tell them.
Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. I watched this happen on Twitter, over and again.
Third, the people saying it aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it.The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem. (Though, I’ll note, it can be. I’ll get back to that.) Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.
Fourth—and this is important, so listen carefully—when a woman is walking down the street, or on a blind date, or, yes, in an elevator alone, she doesn’t know which group you’re in. You might be the potential best guy ever in the history of history, but there’s no way for her to know that. A fraction of men out there are most definitely not in that group. Which are you? Inside your head you know, but outside your head it’s impossible to.
This is the reality women deal with all the time.”

I think the main take-aways are 1. listen without being defensive.  2. make it not-alright for those around you to perpetuate misogynist views.
At some point in the bickering between 3 or 4 interlocutors the woman I most respected said:

Maybe conversations just really won't help.”
Which struck me.  In fact it was a bit of an epiphany.  

"Maybe conversations just really won't help."

“My experience with many many many theological/philosophical debates/conversations is that there is a certain threshold at which meaningful exchange of ideas can occur. And that threshold is determined by the number of, or power of shared premises. The real art of meaningful dialog is drilling down, past the surface disagreements to those shared premises. In some cases there simply ARE no shared premises. But with this issue I believe there are a LOT of them. For instance, I know that the men here and I and you agree that expecting sex in exchange for anything is wrong. We all agree that women are not objects, that they are fully human, autonomous beings. We also agree that men are not universally monsters. In fact we think MOST men are pretty decent human beings. Those shared premises are being clouded by emotions on both sides right now.

I think the particularly gross and tragic event/person that triggered this current round of the issue has heightened everyone's emotions. (Man and Woman alike) I'm not against emotions, in fact, I think they are often necessary to get to the root of many issues. But at some point the conversation needs to mature, the emotions will cool, and a more productive conversation will be had.”

“To make that more concise. I hate to admit it, but you may be right about that for now. I just hope that communication is not completely shut down on this issue. Men NEED to understand your side of this for our society to evolve. At some point there will need to be room for compromise since no two people will ever agree 100% on any topic. Right now that seems to not be available.”
This was important for me to realize.  What I was witnessing was something I’ve seen before:

Something your last post reminded me of... Coming from an evangelical Christian background one area of study that I learned a lot about was tactics for influencing culture. Some try with fire and brimstone, turn-or-burn street preaching. And those are usually the least successful at reaching hearts and minds. There's an influential Christian thinker named Francis Schaeffer who kinda ran a little hippy/intelligentsia mountain home in the Alps during the 70s and he made a very strong case for art as the primary means of changing worldviews. (I believe he also coined the phrase "worldview") Now propaganda art has been around forever, that's not really his innovation. Rather it was focusing on making good, true art as an end in itself, and simply understanding that the worldview of the artist would inhabit that art and influence in that way. Ironically, I think the movement that utilized this method to the very fullest was the Hollywood push to legitimize homosexuality. They did an AMAZING job of humanizing gays, turning them from the "dark underbelly of bath houses and AIDS" as they were primarily seen in the 80s to the pristine, funny, next door neighbors with impeccable taste and moral virtue. They did this simply by telling stories with them. Making them common in the cultural lexicon in a different context.

This is how I hope this issue we are discussing now can be brought to bear on the general public. I've seen little examples of it popping up in the last couple days. Here's a great example. Just a little spark to get the mind thinking about this in a different way. It's not preaching, sermonizing or shaming. But it very simply and eloquently reframes a common situation.”



Someone brought up the context of these discussions as paramount to comprehending how different parties could be interpreting each other’s words so differently.  I said:

“I think you're right that the power dynamics create a context that most entitled people don't recognize. (Including myself) When I engage on deep topics like this I tend to dehumanize the issue and switch into logic-chopping mode. I get a little aspergers. I have to constantly remind myself to simultaneously engage a person's feelings as well, and when I don't I almost always end up hurting people's feelings. So the reminder is appreciated.

You said "A lot of guys do not seem to understand Privilege or power dynamics or the dangers of tribalism at all"

And I agree with that. That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about when I was saying that most of the good-hearted men I've seen being chastised are bewildered because suddenly there's all this new terminology and concepts they've just never heard before. And even though I've read countless articles, (including a couple on "mansplaining") I can see the terminology/concepts are so new that there is still no firm consensus, so you can't really blame your average guy for not recognizing the landmines he's stepping on when the terrain is completely foreign to him.

I appreciate your heart to protect the disempowered, and can't fault your judgement to use the rhetorical style you do, other than to say that while you're "building a safe and supportive space", you're also turning a lot of would-be allies cold to the issue. I don't know if there's a way to accomplish both safe-space-building AND feminist evangelism, or if there's a better balance. But I think in the LONG RUN, it's very important to educate the male population on the above-mentioned concepts, and chastising or castigating them for ignorance is not a very effective means of accomplishing that in my opinion. “

Another friend brought up idioms that perpetuate misogyny and the like.  I replied:

Great points, I grew up with "that's so gay" and "you ___ like a girl" and "that's retarded" and it's taken years to retrain my brain to stop using those terms. (And I'm still not totally there.)

On the joke side of things, I've never joked about rape or used it as a general descriptor of defeat (that I can recall) but I DO joke as IF I'm a racist or sexist person. Because it was always funny to me and my circle of friends growing up to pretend to be 'backward hicks". (The last group we're allowed to slander?) Or really any other subculture that we are clearly not a part of. It's simple juxtaposition humor. Claiming to be the biggest fan of One Direction when we are clearly not in the demographic, or making an exaggeratedly stupid racist or sexist remark when we "clearly" don't believe those things. The obvious problem with this is that 1. It's only "clear" to me and my friends that I'm not a One Direction fan or a racist, and 2. it gives "air time" to ideas that we all agree are destructive.

A problem that I've always had is that I'm inclined to sacrifice too much in order to make a joke or feel clever. It can be pointed inward, to where I'm self-deprecating, making myself seem or look foolish; but unfortunately it swings the other way, where I'll make others uncomfortable or feel foolish. The rare times I'm not so caught up in how much I'm amusing myself with how clever I'm being, I realize I'm being an ass and that in retrospect, I would never subject someone to discomfort for my own (and those who are in on the joke) amusement. But thought patterns are so hard to re-wire.

It's also very hard to be the party-pooper-stick-in-the-mud when people are all having a laugh. Fortunately I don't have any friends or coworkers who are actually actively racist or homophobic or sexist. (that I know of) so I've never heard the kinds of comments in real life that we see on the internet. But I'm often both the perpetrator and the appreciater of the kind of humor outlined above. And I can't image how annoying I'd be if every time that happened I was all like: "Hey guys, we shouldn't joke like that!" Perhaps I'm just a coward. I have no problem ripping myself a new one for being naughty, but when it comes to applying social pressure to others for their errors... I'm just not built that way. Must be the natural libertarian in me. I don't know.”

That brings me to a much larger issue I’ve been contemplating lately.  Given that we are evolved animals, and our animal nature never evolved with concepts like equality -in fact, seems to actively reject it- how far can we push the attitude/behavior of the human race?  Is there a limit?  We went from killing and eating each other, to killing and raping the neighboring tribe, to enslaving the neighboring civilization, to economically dominating weaker states, and now we are at a point where many are attempting to get us to erase all inequity, real or imagined.  Personally, I LOVE the humanist mythos.  The idea that we will continue this trajectory of ever-expanding empathy and compassion, eradicate poverty, disease, envy, and evolve into beings of pure energy or whatever.  But the older I get the more I have my doubts about the hardware we’re working with.  When I consider concepts like rape culture, mansplaining, power dynamics, etc. I just can’t fathom the general public doing all that deep introspective thinking necessary to recognize and address those things in any meaningful way.  I’ve got lots of smart, kind, loving male friends who I think could never come to my understanding of power dynamics.  Could never agree that passively living as they are is actively building mechanisms of repression for those lower on the social totem pole.

But maybe I’m just being pessimistic here.  Maybe back when slavery was acceptable and women couldn’t vote, my great great great grandmother was wondering if humans could ever possibly change their basic moral presumptions about those things.  Time will tell.