The problem with incendiary language

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them.

Women are afraid men will kill them.”

The above quote is taken from Harpers Bazaar, attributed to Margaret Atwood, the feminist and author of several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale which its namesake series is based upon.

Of course, in reality Margaret said something similar, something which sounds a few degrees less offensive;

“I don’t remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

Why would this be considered problematic, the accurate quote almost as much as the paraphrased one?

  1. Because most men are not afraid that women will laugh at them.
  2. Because most women are not afraid that men will kill them.
  3. Because it insults men with its supposition of our violent nature.
  4. Because it insults men with its supposition of the pettiness of our problems.
  5. Because it expresses a sentiment that the world is a worse, crueller, place for women than it is for men.
  6. Because believing this to be true, despite it demonstratively not being so, is a depressing prospect for anybody, indeed for men but especially for women.


The person who does not understand, who cannot feel, that this statement is highly offensive and incendiary, is lacking in empathy. Any statement directed the other direction, belittling womens problems and ballooning mens, should and would rightfully be met with indignation. So should this.

One of the things that makes it difficult for men to take feminism seriously, and I know what I’m talking about, is the incendiary language used by vocal feminist activists. If someone tells you that your category of humans oppress, abuse, murder and generally keep others down, it’s very difficult not to feel described as an evil person. You can’t avoid coming away with the sensation that you’re being told you’re evil, possibly not you as an individual, but the category of humans that you belong to.

My own road to feminism was long and rocky. It took me years of introspection and reflection on why something that was so fundamentally true, the plethora of disadvantages women are facing in their everyday lives, was so difficult to reconcile with my own aversion to the feminist project. The notions that men need to be taught not to rape, that women are and should be afraid of us murdering them, that with virtually any social structure in society we’re discussing, it is in place so that we can oppress women just a little more, are all awful accusations to be judged on. It’s indignifying, and someone who doesn’t understand that lacks in empathy.  However, after a few years of thinking on it, I realised that while some points of objections came from the narrow focus on only womens issues, my real objections were actually coming from this language used in so many feminist circles, but not really with the causes feminists wants to advance. It was the realisation that one could be a feminist, defining ones own version of feminism without the self-contempt the more common version brings with for men.

Together with this, I started thinking on how I could reconcile feminist theory with my own experiences living as a man. More and more of a personal feminism took shape, one that wouldn’t wave away shorter male lifespans due to suicide, homicide and workplace hazards with “Patriarchy hurts men too”. While I’ve always been for equality, it’s now possible to call myself a feminist without any of the previous reservations I used to have in the back of my head, but that I could not understand.

To women, I’d like to say that the language used by so many feminists really do create a barrier for men to get engaged. What’s more, a certain amount of men, often very young being brought up in this world not knowing the time before internet, turn against feminism, reacting with aversion to the language used. The discrepancy they experience when they hear the words and language, and compare it with their own experiences as men, leaves them unable agree with the tenets of feminism, and unable to resist other, more dangerous ideas. As long some feminist activists keep describing men and manhood as evil, these young men are going keep turning towards other ideas they find more appealing to their dignity, and the rise of the alt-right is the proof of that. I know, I was once myself attracted to some of these alternatives to feminism, before realising their one-sidedness with shallow theories and arguments they advance.

To men, I’d like to say that feminism is not what some radical feminists claim it to be. Yes, many of the original theorists can be described as radicals (see Dworkin), but it’s possible to see injustice against women for what it is, structural, without embracing the self-contempt that some of their language inevitably brings with, and to formulate your own feminism. You not only can, but you ought to; Feminism has a great history, it’s the first ideology that questions our cultural gender boundaries and allows us, if we want to, to go outside our narrow definitions of what it used to mean being a man or a woman. That in itself is only good.


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