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.

 

The curious case of Grace and Aziz

Although I had decided earlier to start writing down my thoughts, what really prompted me to get going was the ongoing Grace and Aziz debate that is right now raging on opinion pages and facebook posts. The question seems to split between the fault lines of those who think Aziz committed a non-prosecutable offence toward a woman, and it’s part of the general contempt of men towards women, and those who believe he misread her signals, possibly committed the douchery of nagging, and generally should have been told to keep off or be left.

I don’t agree with publishing the account of the date that Grace and Aziz had. There was no crime, it did not take place in a public space and it was not in the line of Aziz’ work. It was a private meeting between two adults, and as especially as no crime had been committed, it should have been kept private.

Still, I do think this story is a perfect example of something that is plaguing this type of debate to the detriment of feminism. It’s a bit of a red thread in many of the coming and going questions regarding sexual abuse.

The issue I’m talking of is the wrongful analysis of the problems with sexual abuse, and the remedies following being incorrect and ineffectual.

When we discuss cases of abuse, either outright events of rape or other criminal offences, or more general sexual douchebaggery committed by men, what is often being said is that the focus and onus should not be put on women to protect themselves; this comes close enough to victim blaming. Rather, society’s problem is how to teach men, especially young men, not to abuse women. We need to instil from an early age on in men that women are to be respected just as any other man would be, and that sexual coercion in any form is abhorrent whoever commits it.

Despite the sense this may seem to make, I will try to explain why I see this approach as problematic. Essentially, I see there are reasonably two types, or categories, of physical, sexual abuse taking place.

First, there’s the occasion when there is malicious intent on part of the abuser, and he knows that his actions are not desired by his victim. I chose to call this act sexual coercion. In criminal cases this would be rape committed either by a known or unknown assailant.

Secondly, there’s the occasion when there is no malicious intent on the abusers part, and he does not understand that his actions are not desired by his victim. I chose to call this act sexual misconduct. These acts are not liable for prosecution, but are still misconduct that we need to work on how to get rid of.

One may argue over the ratio of how many of the abuses that occur fall within each category, but these are the two conceivable categories as I see it for physical abuse. In addition, I’m making the case that the names of these two categories should be different, hence coercion and misconduct, simply because they are different in their nature and our language needs to reflect this to avoid continuing arguing over what is essentially semantical misunderstandings.

To my knowledge, from what I’ve read, regarding the first category a small number of men commit a majority share of the sexual coercion committed by men. These men are generally less empathetic than the average person, and seem to overlap with the small population of men that also commit the majority of physical violence in general (against both women and men).

The second category concerns men who are not intent on hurting anybody, but through ignorance or tactlessness do not pick up on non-verbal cues that women send out. Should a woman express her desire not to partake in specific sexual act, verbally stating that she does not consent to his advance and yet he persists, he would per definition not fit into the second category, but rather the first.

There is however also a third phenomenon that occurs when we discuss sex between men and women. Nagging. Mainly, men who nag on women to commit sexual acts with them, so much that a woman eventually complies out of guilt/conviction/tiredness/apathy. This most definitely occur. It shouldn’t, but unfortunately it does. I know women who have been nagged into having sex with men they didn’t want to, and I have on occasions, though this far always within relationships, been nagged into sex myself. Worst case, I might even have committed this myself (exclusively within relationships). Still, stretching the term sexual abuse to this type of conduct is a disservice to all who are victims of physical abuse, as long as it’s not mixed up with coercion. If someone nags on you, they’re a douche, but complying with their nagging does not mean they’re guilty of anything else than, still, just nagging. Of course, nagging can as well, and very often probably is, be part of one of the two categories of actual sexual abuse, coercion and misconduct. But just as coercion or misconduct can be perpetrated without nagging, so can nagging be done without coercion or misconduct.

The Aziz case shows that the second category of abuse does indeed take place, and it also shows how difficult it is to solve the problem of sexual misconduct and what has been called “bad sex”. It gets especially difficult when our response to this episode is to maintain that the solution to these types of sexual abuse is to “teach men not to abuse or rape”. Nobody can claim that Aziz, also mentioned as a poster boy for the woke young man, did not know not to abuse women. Nobody can say that had he just been told to treat women better, had society interrupted his privileged assumptions, he would not have committed the actions he’s now been ascribed.

Yet still he did, and even if we take Graces description of the evening at face value, without any regards to that a version from Aziz’ might sound different, if not in content then at least in tone, we are still left with the situation that a man made a woman do things she did not want to do. How could this happen, if the problem clearly isn’t that he wasn’t told “not to abuse women”?

The problem does not lie in that some men still think they can treat women shitty based on their gender (some do, I personally know examples of them), but that when it comes to sexual activity, verbal communication very suddenly takes a large punch to the face and we start using our body language to an extent and manner that we never otherwise do. From Graces own account, nothing implies that Aziz wanted her to feel uncomfortable, abused, or that he didn’t care for these things. Yes, he was being pushy, he certainly seemed to be nagging in his behaviour if not in words, but being pushy or nagging is as said not the same as not caring for the others emotional state. We’ve all had people being pushy towards us, but in few circumstances would they want you to feel uncomfortable; on many if not most occasions they don’t even realise they come off as it.

If Aziz indeed had intentionally been coercing her into having sex with him, would he have bothered to do anything different if he would have previously been told not to? Do people committing sexual coercion, per definition with malicious intent, change their behaviour because they’ve been told to do so? I claim no, they do not. They apply coercion precisely because they don’t care for the feelings of others, and telling them to stop is as effective as telling people not to steal or not to commit murder.

The case of Grace and Aziz could have ended differently, very easily. And it would have done so, had both parties communicated more clearly with each other. Aziz should have been more up front with his intentions and desires, and Grace should have been more vocal about her intentions and concerns.

I believe there are two lessons for the rest of us to learn from this. Firstly, in that there is a distinction between sexual coercion and sexual misconduct, and that nagging falls within neither of these. Secondly that better communication by both parties can avoid this from happening again, if we all take courage and start talking with each other during sex, instead of believing that our bodies will do so for us. This way, a lot of misunderstandings can be avoided.

To reiterate; non-verbal communication is great, when it works. When it doesn’t work, verbal communication needs to take place. If silence is maintained, misunderstandings will happen, and if silence is broken and clear instructions or verbal non-consent given, any proceding act will be a clear violation of the others integrity, and count as sexual coercion. Here, the onus is on the one who realises they are being misunderstood to speak up and to state their intentions. Failure to do so will in all likelihood lead to a ruined evening, and possibly a ruined relationship.

I’d also like to add another lesson for us men. First off, much of this debate can scare us. Especially when good-hearted intentions are being labelled as abuse or coercion, which I know is what many of us fear, and why many of us get very defensive when these topics come up and a male perspective is not considered in any manner. And while most of us are not famous as Aziz and don’t risk that kind of ostracization due to misunderstood cues or body language, the fear of an accusation of sexual misconduct is genuinely scary. To avoid putting women in situations where they themselves are too shy or timid to speak up when they ought to, and to protect ourselves from doing things we will later be blamed for, we need to communicate more when we have sex. We shouldn’t always have to, and women have a responsibility to speak for themselves, we can’t be morally or legally expected to read their mind nor their body language, but we still need to talk more. While it may feel embarrassing to do, especially on the first occasion when you meet someone, do it for your own sake. In addition, sex do happen to get a lot better when communication is verbal and forthcoming, and many women appreciate a man who at least seems to know what he’s doing, so there’s nothing to lose but your shame.

Why is another perspective needed?

Why would another perspective be needed, when so many are already out there, debating equality?

Far too few men engage themselves in this topic, and many men, a very large share of them, only pay lip service to the tenets of equality, while even fewer genuinely believe in feminism.

In a way, this is not so strange. Feminism is an ideology created by women for women, and its mainly speaking to women, rarely directly addressing men. My thoughts are, if you don’t address them, it’s going to be difficult to have them pay the required attention. Men make up roughly 50% of the human population. Obviously this in itself warrants male participation in the struggle for equality, and their active partaking should be felt in any movement that strives to better the world.

I’d like to add my own points and concerns to feminism; thoughts and ideas I can’t expect women to advance for me, them being fully occupied with their own direct struggles and priorities. Not all of them will fit straight into the current orthodoxies, but these orthodoxies have looked different in the past and they certainly will do so again in the future.

Still, my purpose here is to raise points that by some would be seen as un-feministic, or at least controversial. My aim is not to raise controversy, but to address such facts and ideas that can also allow men to partake in the movement. The current debate climate is in all frankness quite toxic, and many men actively stay away from it, as it is nothing that they want should be a part of their lives. My goal is to change this, to speak as a man towards men in a language we understand, addressing our thoughts, questions and concerns in a way only another man from his perspective can. I would also like to encourage any potential female reader to indulge in this process; your perspective can only add to the discussion, and best results we get when we all chip in with our stories and thoughts. Still, all I ask of any reader is to judge my thoughts and arguments on the basis of their merit; their empirical accuracy and logical validity.

All my thoughts and reasoning take place within a feminist framework. My ultimate desire with my writing here is to contribute to the equality between genders in all aspects and all manners, be it sexuality, career-wise and economic opportunities, social attitudes, parenting, health and safety, in addition to any other area conceivable. Throughout my writing, none of this must ever be doubted.

Purpose and desire

Thanks for looking in!

Being interested in society and politics, and following the current debates about gender and equality, I’ve come to the realisation that I urgently need to express myself on these topics. Reading most articles leaving with a feeling of having my own opinion not represented, neither in the articles nor the following commentary, I feel it’s my own obligation to articulate my thinking; mostly for my own sake as a therapeutic method, but also to allow someone else, should they ever find their way over here, to read them as well.

A little bit about myself. I’m a white straight man in my early 30s’, coming from Northern Europe living as an expat in another country. I’m progressive, for what that means, and I’m genuinely interested in questions concerning, society, politics, language and philosophy. I do understand that my attributes of being white, male, straight and in my early 30s’ puts me at disadvantage with some people within my own political fold. Still, please judge what I say on its own merits.

English is most definitely not my native language, and for any spelling or grammar mistake I make, I ask you in advance for your forgiveness. If you spot any, do me a favour and let me know!

While I have no hopes of writing in front of an audience, this blog mainly serving a therapeutic purpose, should anyone find their way here I hope what I say can inspire them in their own thinking. I’m not saying I’m right in what I claim, but to everyone who disagrees with me, I’d like to ask them to express why and where I’m wrong. I strongly encourage comments and debating, and will try to answer any potential comment from any possible reader who would find it interesting enough to post something.

Still, I wish myself much enjoyment writing this, and for any potential reader some enjoyment in reading it as well.