07 November 2014

Why I am Not a Feminist.

Entertainer Bill Bailey
is a feminist, apparently. 
I don't like our Prime Minister David Cameron. I don't like him personally. I can't stand his puffy face, his mannered voice, or his inflated moralising tone. I certainly don't like his politics (to the extent they are visible over and above his pandering to various right-wing interest groups). I usually refer to him as David Camoron. As hateful a public figure as I've ever known.

Last week he fell foul of the media for not capitulating to pressure from women's fashion magazine, Elle, to be photographed wearing a tee-shirt with the legend "This is what a feminist looks like". This was after Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, and coalition partner and Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, were pictured in the media wearing a version of the tee-shirt. Leaving aside that Ed and Nick are rating very badly in the polls in the lead up to a general election and are apt to do anything that might win a vote, and leaving aside the detrimental effects on women from reading magazines like Elle, a lot of men have been donning the tee-shirt and/or declaring that they are feminists. Looking at the men (mostly entertainers and politicians) wearing these tee-shirts they all seem to be famous for two things: craving attention and craving approval. Neither profession is the acme of moral rectitude or (self) respect.

The attitude seems to be that if you are for gender equality then you are a feminist. I find this peculiar. I suppose these men who declare themselves to be feminists are trying to express solidarity with women's struggle for equality and against oppression. While I also feel a sense of solidarity for women's struggles, I don't imagine that this makes me a feminist any more than loving women makes me a lesbian. This tee-shirt incident and some other cues got me thinking about my relationship to feminism.

Feminism as I Understand it.

My education in Feminism was ad hoc and informal. My mother self-identified as a feminist from my earliest memories of her (at least from the early 1970s) though I couldn't really give a coherent account of that that entailed (mostly it seemed to be about hating my father and various other men). When I moved to Auckland and started attending high-school many of my friends were women and this has continued to be true my whole life. I've always respected intelligence wherever I've found it. One of my close friends at high-school, Mary, was a much more thoughtful feminist, who became an academic and does research in Women's Studies and Sociology. We had many discussions in the 1980s and 1990s about some of the basic ideas of Sociology and Feminism. I wasn't always convinced (particularly on the subject of the gender identity nurture/nature argument), but I could see that women had been oppressed historically and that despite some gains there was still some way to go. 

Some of my women friends at university in the mid-1980s were ideological Feminists who were entranced by Dale Spender and similar authors. It was from these friends ca. 1985 that I first heard the idea that "all men are rapists and that's all they are" (a quote from a character in Marilyn French's 1977 novel The Women's Room). My friends tried to argue that this was in fact true and worked through the logic with me. At the time this left me speechless. Did my friends really think of me as a rapist and only a rapist? Rape being such a heinous crime, to be lumped in with rapists because I was born male was a bit of a shock. This remains one of my strongest impressions of feminism. 

After graduation and a period of drifting, I began a 15 year career as a Librarian. 90% of librarians are women. All of my bosses were women during this period. Most of the professional women I knew in that phase of my life were self-described feminists and were also reading French, Spender and other Feminists. I never had a problem working for and with women in general. I admired many of the women I worked for and with.

Some of the key figures in my intellectual development since have also been women. My first meditation teacher was a woman called Guhyaprabhā. Sue Hamilton transformed my understanding of Buddhism to the point where I am effectively a Hamiltonian. Jan Nattier is my idol as a researcher and writer. Collett Cox helped me to understand the Sarvāstivāda and the larger problems in Buddhist Doctrine. My views on evolution were profoundly influenced by reading Lynn Margulis, who was also a vocal feminist (I'm persuaded by her views on Darwinism and Victorianism). I also trained with some formidable women martial artists back in the day. The country I grew up in gave women the vote in 1896, I believe we were the first country in the world to do so. New Zealand prides itself on egalitarianism and also led the world in equality and anti-discrimination measures for women.

As a result it seems straightforward and indisputable to me that, for example, woman ought to receive equal pay for equal work; or that women ought not to be discriminated against simply for being female. I actually find the segregation of women in sports odd. Except perhaps for contact sports, where physical size is an issue, I see no reason to have separate women's leagues in most sports. It shocks me that the UK is so backward in the area of equal pay and slow (even resistant) to change. I am dismayed by the backward attitudes in places like Saudi Arabia (and their sphere of influence). In my writing, I long ago adopted the neutral third person pronoun (they, them, their) instead of the masculine pronoun when referring to people generally. None of which makes me a feminist.

My understanding of feminism is, as I say, rather ad hoc. The key feminist idea seems to be a particular reading of history. Rather like Marxists do, feminists see history as a history of struggle of one group against another. But instead of class against class, feminists see history in terms of the systematic oppression of women by men, and women's struggle for emancipation from this oppression. This has stronger aspects (e.g. all sex is rape; women have been enslaved by men) and weaker aspects (e.g. gender roles are imposed on children by society). The goals of feminists on this reading include over-throwing patriarchy and deprecating all gender specificity in society since it is inevitably used as a tool of oppression. 

Men and Feminism

Clearly feminism is a big subject and there are a range of attitudes. Some feminists are quite fond of men generally and some are quite hostile. I'm sometimes shocked at how open women are in their hostility towards men in general. I grew up understanding that sexist jokes and generalisations about women were unwelcome and unhelpful. But I now regularly hear sexist jokes about men, and I myself regularly seem to be stereotyped as "stupid", "inarticulate" or "unemotional". I've lost count of the times that women have said to my face "I hate men". According to some feminists men are responsible for "raping" the planet too. When I speak up, as I usually do these days, the accusation is usually hastily qualified "of course I don't mean you". I am a man.  If you hate men, you hate me. And discrimination on the basis of sex is just sexism. I was briefly trolled by some women on Twitter this year for a comment I made on entitlement, and told that my hat (a black felt trilby) indicated hatred towards women.

As I understand it, the feminist position is that I am, as a man, by nature of my birth, complicit in the systematic oppression of women through all time. This outlook has a number of corollaries. As a man of English descent (in Britain I'm referred to as "white") I am complicit in historic and present-day slavery and all the oppression due to Imperialism and Colonialism through the ages (I should say that I abhor the use of "white" and "black" as racial or ethnic terms, but in the UK they are standard and it's hard to avoid them here). As an educated man, and despite my solidly working class roots, I am complicit in the oppression of poor, uneducated people. I am supposed to have had all the advantages denied to women and to live a privileged life. I wish. My chief blessing in life seems to be having a good memory and curiosity, but I grew up in the cultural and intellectual desert of a working class family, on the edge of a small town in New Zealand, amidst a community deeply affected by alcohol & drug addiction, violence, and the worst downsides of colonialism. My life history includes far too many instances of being abused, assaulted, and bullied by both males and females. I've been left with life-long mental health problems and now chronic physical health problems. But apparently all that matters is that I am "white" and male. A "stupid fucking white man."

It seems to me that men who declare "I am a Feminist" are confessing that they feel complicit in the oppression of women. I never have felt complicit in that oppression, nor felt any sense of commonality with oppressors. To the best of my ability I have never been complicit in oppressing anyone (though I'm not perfect by any means). Indeed I have been oppressed and continue to feel oppressed by society.

The very labels are divisive. As though all women have more in common with each other than they do with any man and vice versa and are united in this opposition. Or that all white people are the same. I just don't get this level of pigeon-holing. For example I feel I have far more in common with women friends and family than with male strangers. Or with women who suffer mental health problems than with neuro-typical men. Or with women members of the Triratna Order compared with men who are not members of the Order. Or with just about anyone in the street compared with politicians in Westminster or the CEO of a major bank.

The idea of men as no more than beasts is expressed in the myth of Beauty and the Beast. Marie-Louise von Franz (The Interpretation of Fairy Tales) has referred to this story in particular (along with Cinderella) as representative of female individuation myths. In von Franz's Jungian perspective, the story tells us that a woman relates to her inner masculine sub-personality (animus) as a beast to be tamed. This process of taming and transforming the energy associated with the experience of animus is what the Beauty and the Beast story illustrates. It is also the plot of every single Mills & Boon romance. However most flesh and blood men are not beasts, nor can we be turned into Prince Charming through domestication. We are a mix. Some of us can be beastly (often because we have been brutalised in growing up), but some of us are angelic, and most of us are somewhere in between. War and art seem to define our edges: Hitler and Bach. None of us are helped by projected psychological dramas. Taming one's inner masculine is a very different thing from relating to a man. The same is absolutely true in reverse. Men are sometimes helplessly caught up in projections of their own inner feminine onto women. With disastrous effect on their relationships with women. 

Raising Men.

As for virtually all mammals, evolution has left human males (on average) with a larger body size, physically stronger than most females, and more aggressive. This is only because female mammals typically select larger more aggressive mates. Larger more aggressive mates are more effective protectors of foraging territory and the community. Though there are always trade-offs for this form of specialisation. A community must work hard to integrate, larger more aggressive members (primates mainly do this by grooming). Our communities are less and less willing to work in this way and more likely to demonize aggression ("all men are rapists"). With no external focus aggression can turn inwards on the community. We see this and/or pointless wars everywhere. But humans add an extra twist. Often the most powerful people are not the largest or most aggressive, but the most persuasive. Those who can persuade others to do their bidding, can and dominate societies. After all Julius Caesar & Napoleon were notoriously short of stature. Politicians are professional persuaders these days and not much else. If this is domination by persuaders is oppressive, it is almost always oppressive for the majority of men as well as women. This is the 1% lording it over the 99%. In my view this is a far more productive critique of history than one which posits the mere domination of women by men. Women have been (and still are) oppressed by men, but this occurs within a larger context. The emancipation of women stands alongside the need for the emancipation of people of colour, for example. Discrimination per se is a much larger topic than discrimination against women. Special interest groups are always needed in these circumstances to highlight particular issues, but special interest groups cannot be allowed to define the issues. 

Though the media often focus on crimes against women as a group, men are far more likely to be murdered or to be victims of violent crime. (ONS) We rightly feel a sense of repugnance for sex crimes, but for example in the UK 68% of murder victims were male, which means that men are more than twice as likely to be murdered as women are. We need to ask why the media don't play on this statistic the way they currently play on crimes against women or children. Men of colour are, almost everywhere in the Western world, the victims of institutionalised racism from the police. They are stopped, searched, and arrested far more often, and given harsher sentences than pale skinned men. Men make up the bulk of the spiralling prison population and a majority of the men in prison have mental health and/or drug problems, and/or come from backgrounds of abuse and homelessness (US Justice Dept). A disproportionate number are men of colour. Men in prison are typically already brutalised when they get there, but certainly brutalised by the time they get out. When we look at the situation with regards crime and say "men are beasts" we are ignoring the degradation that is required to bring men down to that level and blaming the victims.

Like most men of my generation, I was largely raised by my mother and educated by female primary school teachers. I was raised to moderate how I used my strength with women even when it seemed unfair, as it often did in my neighbourhood where girls were just as likely to be the aggressors in conflict. One was not supposed to win fights with girls even when they started the fight; but one was not supposed to lose fights with other boys either. The line between bully and sissy was thin when I was a boy.

Positive male role models were few and far between. Most of the men I have known in my life have been floundering around wondering what the point of their life is. Many of the men in my family have had addiction and mental health problems. While we can all applaud the strides made by Feminists towards securing equal status in society for women, unfortunately in parallel there has been a devaluing or even a demonisation of men and a destruction of male social contexts. Male stereotypes are relentlessly negative or unobtainable, just like female stereotypes. Except, where female stereotypes are frowned on by liberals, male stereotypes are still being actively promoted.

My Dad was dyslexic. At school, he would go up to the blackboard to spell a word, get it wrong every time, and be beaten by the teacher in front of the class every time. Years of daily public beatings and humiliation, plus the tragic accidental death of his older brother in WWII, the early death of his Mum from cancer and his Dad's subsequent slide into alcoholism, the violent breakdown and breakup of his marriage, and yeah, Dad was a bit tongue tied at times, a bit emotionally repressed. He found it hard to express himself in words. Words only ever betrayed him. Though if one only paid attention to what he did with his hands he was a marvel (he kept his vintage 1928 Austin 12/4  in working order and did the most beautiful brick-work I've ever seen). There was little or no understanding or help available to my Dad. He was just expected to man-up and soldier on from an early age (to "harden up" as my older brother and his wife say to their son). And that, as much as anything, destroyed my Dad.

When I think about the ways in which feminists I know characterise men, and the relations of men and women, they simply don't seem to apply to my own life. They are too simplistic and blunt to be useful to me as a way of understanding myself better.

The Problem

If anything I think men and women need to work together to create a better world. If any part of our society has a problem we all have a problem. At present its clear that the main problem in the world is that we are dominated by a hegemonic group of hyper-persuasive men and women, the 1%, who are parasitising the rest of society: the new, neolibertarian aristocracy. They have more or less captured government and public opinion in most countries, if not directly, then through powerful lobby groups with huge resources and through ownership of the mass media. They take far more than they need, offer as little as possible in return, and use their wealth to try to insulate themselves from the day-to-day realities of human life as far as possible. Nothing much new about the set up, except the mechanisms they currently use, especially their ability to persuade followers, are far more efficient than ever before. They resist liberalism, resist moves towards equality, and resist anything which threatens their hegemony. Step over the threshold of any major corporation and you leave liberalism and democracy behind. Corporations are feudal fiefdoms, where the only stakeholders who count are shareholders looking for short-term profits. If it is 1% who are promoting inequality and oppression, then a polarised, gender based approach to the problem, which blames all men, simply cannot help. The average man (as ever) is just a pawn in a much larger game.

Oppression is evil, but it is something that affects us all. There is an active force oppressing us all and we need to stand together against it. I don't see feminism as a unifying force or a rallying cry. It doesn't even appeal to all women, and it offers little for men, except a limited popularity with some women. When the voice of feminism appears to be a women's fashion magazine you know that something is deeply wrong. Feminism has certainly benefited women in the West and I do not mean to denigrate or dismiss feminism or feminists. But I don't think feminism is broad enough in its outlook to tackle the problems we face today or that the feminist view of history is productive of solutions for the broader problems of inequality and the capture of wealth and power by the modern day aristocrats. For example, what is the feminist response to climate change? Even if you removed all men from the equation, the women of the 1% would carry on regardless, because their values are not shared with feminists. We need to claw power back through laws that ensure good citizenship on the part of business. That power ought to go equally to men and women.

So for all these reasons (and others) I'm not a feminist. No one's asking, but I wouldn't wear the Elle tee-shirt (I would not want to be associated with a fashion magazine for any reason). I might wear a tee-shirt that said "this is what the 99% look like", but on the whole I try not to use my clothing as an ideological platform. The statement I prefer to make is that nobody owns me or can buy my opinion. If anything my cause is the cause of sober reflection on what is really happening and a refusal to just go along with the crowd.


Update (8-11-14): I didn't go looking for this, it was retweeted by William Gibson: Myla Dalbesio on Her New Calvin Klein Campaign and the 'Trend' of Plus Size Modeling. In this interview in Elle magazine, model Dalbesio, who is a very skinny young woman says:
“It’s kind of confusing because I’m a bigger girl,” Dalbesio says. “I’m not the biggest girl on the market but I’m definitely bigger than all the girls [Calvin Klein] has ever worked with, so that is really intimidating.”
It's views like this, and the accompanying photographs that lead to Body Dismorphic Disorder in young women. Elle's connection with feminism would seem to be rather tenuous, more so that of male politicians and entertainers. 
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