So I woke up one morning way too fucking early, with a dream dying in my head…
I’m at a huge theater with my girlfriend and my son, waiting to see the first showing of the new Avengers movie, and a nasty racial brawl is about to break out over a stupid misunderstanding. Something annoying was said, someone replied with annoyance, and several others took that as deliberate insult. A spark of irritation falls toward a volatile pool of abiding resentment. Huge violence is about to happen.
I just want to watch the movie, but am also naturally concerned about the fact that we’re smack in the middle of a crowd about to run riot. So I foolishly interject, redirecting the ringleader’s anger my way, focusing the conflict down to me and him rather than everybody. He rushes me and I back away, drawing him from the group. I don’t fight him, I don’t submit to his violence, I try to placate him, to calm him, to help him see that I was just trying to get his attention and there’s no reason to fight. This being a dream, it works. We laugh awkwardly and return to our seats. Everybody gets to see the movie, nobody’s going to bleed or die.
And I awoke. It was still dark, and I’d gotten maybe four or five hours sleep, but I was wide awake. I found myself ruminating about a recent blog post I wrote, and about the reaction it got (and didn’t get). Only after I gave in to the inevitable and got up, while I steeped some hot tea, did I make the connection between that rumination and the dream which preceded it.
The blog post, “Super Girls, Chocolate Men, and My Very Own Misogyny,” was a sincere attempt to wrestle with issues of misogyny and objectification. Such topics are fraught with danger because a lot of people have a lot of very strong opinions about them, and sometimes disagreements on these topics lead to personal attacks and bullying that can be very damaging to the actual human being targeted.
Recently, a writer named Andrew Smith was asked about the lack of strong female characters in his work and he basically replied that, due to his upbringing (mostly among males, with his primary female influence a mother who abused him), he felt uncomfortable trying to present a female viewpoint, but he was trying to do better. So Smith, who is known for very human tales that are progressive in outlook and very LGBT friendly, was, of course, immediately attacked as a misogynist by such a mass of attackers that it drove him offline. For admitting to a personal limitation that he’s actively trying to outgrow. But that was enough to hit someone’s political tripwire and it snowballed.
At the time, I was watching various discussions about Smith. In some, of course, actual sexist assholes said actual sexist asshole things and traded invective with folks who were convinced Smith was a terrible guy. In others, though, I saw men respectfully disagree with the attacks on Smith and be met with comments like “OMG, look at all the white guys coming in here to mansplain!”
Okay, I get it. “Mansplaining” is a thing. It’s also kind of a funny word, and it’s fun to say. But don’t let it be an all-purpose shield you use any time a man disagrees with you, or even just questions your position. Calling someone a mansplainer may feel empowering but it doesn’t actually win a debate.
And just because people disagree about something doesn’t mean they have to fight. This is especially true if the people disagreeing are essentially on the same side.
Which brings me back to my blog post. In it, I argue against the common precept that objectification of people in art is innately wrong. I argue that objectification — and fantasy, and idealization — are natural human impulses. They are, at heart, an expression of, and celebration of, human desire. That’s not changed by the fact that sometimes that impulse is taken too far, or is institutionalized to an unhealthy degree. Nor is it changed by the fact that some people — either by personal reaction or by ideological enculturation — are offended.
Now, let me be clear that I’m not arguing that women, or any group, should not be depicted in a respectful way, or that all objectification is healthy. Nor am I arguing that people can’t express their feelings of offense if they’re offended. I’m simply stating my view in the hopes that it will be considered with an open mind.
That blog post — like this one — wasn’t just a statement of my opinion, it was an invitation to discussion. I was actually disappointed when no one who disagreed with me said anything. That’s better than being called a misogynist and raked over the coals, of course, but I’d hoped for some sort of intelligent, reasoned reply because I do have an open mind, and if someone thinks they see holes in my arguments, I want them to show them to me.
As it turns out, though, there was a response, but it was a response of avoidance. I don’t know how many people read the post and disagreed with it, but I do know how two of them reacted to it. One, a woman whose whole family has been very supportive of me and my writing, later told me that she’d disagreed with me, and had written a lengthy comment only to delete it, deciding she didn’t want to argue with me. I found the assumption that it would be an argument and not a discussion troubling, and worse, she took from me the chance to explore my viewpoint through the lens of hers. But, to be fair, we all have the right to decide what conversations we’re going to have, and sometimes you just don’t want to bother.
The other, a woman with whom I’ve had a slight-yet-warm-and-respectful history on Facebook, also didn’t comment, she simply unsubscribed from my blog. I asked her if it was because of the post, and she confirmed it. She also, privately, told me why at some length, and her comments were thoughtful and exactly the sort of input I’d been looking for. But she didn’t want to engage publicly, and when I asked if I could share her thoughts anonymously, as a counterpoint to my post for everyone to consider, she refused.
She told me, “I don’t think you’re a misogynist. I’ve always thought you were pretty cool. Your blog was really important to me during a tough time in my life.” And yet, she disagreed with me so strongly on this topic that she decided nothing else I might say on my blog was worth bothering with. The irony was that, while she disagreed so harshly with what I said, I didn’t find much of what she said objectionable at all. In fact, I agreed with a good bit of it.
In my dream, a black man takes offense over something said by a white man, and he projects his own racial resentments onto the white man and acts with the certainty that the white man is speaking from a racist point of view. But nothing the white man says indicates a racist attitude; he is simply piqued at someone who was obstructing the viewing of the movie.
Now, the black guy is very much justified in his resentment and anger in general because there is no question that black people, and perhaps black men especially, are not only oppressed but actively (and often violently) victimized in our culture. He has good reason to be watchful for acts of racism against him and others like him. But such watchfulness, however justified, brings with it the dangers of hypervigilance and hypersensitivity, and a tendency to paint perceived oppressors with a very broad brush. He is only human, after all. And, as a human, he is capable of being wrong about his assumptions, wrong in the way he interprets the words and actions of the other guy, and he can create a racist situation where there actually isn’t one.
Perhaps the white man is racist. I don’t know, even though he was in my dream. But perhaps he isn’t…and the compassionate thing to do is to give him the benefit of a doubt until he proves otherwise.
Such compassion is in very short supply these days.
Yesterday, on Facebook, I saw a friend post this comment to a discussion:
“This begs a question that’s been plaguing me for a while. If I do not agree with a certain criticism that’s immersed in the feminist debate, is it better for me to just shut up and keep it to myself or is it OK for me to disagree, even if I don’t have the same foundation from which to debate? For example, I greatly agree with Genevieve on this, but I wonder if I am ‘allowed’ to agree with her, or does being male automatically negate my perspective?”
A short time later, a different friend posted this in a status on his own wall:
“My last six months of watching social media have been overwhelmingly composed of evidence that more and more of the people I tend to agree with on political and social issues are adopting the toxicity, tactics, lack of nuance, and tendency toward snap judgment that I find so abhorrent in the people I tend to disagree with. I’m afraid that if I speak against that, I’ll be demonized by many of those people, some of whom I consider friends and allies.”
Both these guys want to do the right thing. They want to be allies. But they have been made uncertain about their freedom to engage in discussions with people ostensibly on their own side. The unfortunate answer to the first friend’s question is, all too often, that his perspective will always be very, very welcome if he agrees with the person speaking. But if he starts to argue, or to even question, then he’s out of line and needs to shut up and listen to those who are allowed to have an opinion.
That is the way of the “right kind of ally.” To many, an ally is someone who agrees with them, who simply accepts that, because they belong to an oppressed group, their perspective on issues relating to their group automatically trumps the perspective of someone outside the group. There is an assumption that the opinions of someone inside that group are automatically valid, automatically correct, and therefore not to be questioned.
Therefore, to some, as a straight man, my input on gay issues is only valid if I agree with what gay people say. As a white man, my input on issues involving people of color is only valid if I agree with what people of color say. As a man, my input on issues affecting women is only valid if I agree with what women say.
At the same time, these groups demand that I care about their issues. And I do, very much. But when I give my support, I’m expected to sacrifice my agency as a thinking human being, and I’m supposed to blindly toe the party line, to ignore the fact that, whatever group they’re a part of, the people speaking are themselves fallibly human and just as capable of being wrong as anyone else. In fact, just as I may be limited in my ability to fully grok their experiences from my viewpoint of privilege, they are often limited by the assumptions they’ve built up within their community and unable to look honestly and directly at anything that doesn’t reinforce those assumptions. So if I say something that questions those assumptions, they tell me to check my privilege. They tell me to shut up and listen. They tell me to stop mansplaining. They unfriend me on Facebook, or unsubscribe from my blog. Or they just ignore me and don’t say anything at all.
And all the while, what I am saying is, I care. I want to help. This is what I think, tell me what you think. And you know what? I’m a pretty smart guy. I might be able to contribute something valuable rather than just being your ideological ventriloquist’s dummy.
I’m not your dummy. I don’t expect you to kowtow to me, so please don’t expect me to kowtow to you.
The same people who damned Andrew Smith for his lack of confidence in writing from a female perspective will also insist he’s not qualified to debate women’s issues because he’s innately incapable of understanding their experience.
If you want allies, don’t beat them up. Should people listen to you, honor your experience? Yes. But you should also listen to them, honor their experience. Everybody has a voice, goddamnit. Everybody gets to speak. And, in the names of any- and everything that might be holy, don’t be an obstinate dumbass and decide that just because someone doesn’t agree with you completely, or always act exactly the way you want them to, they’re your enemy.
Which brings me to Joss Whedon.