The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

As I wrote recently, an inevitable consequence of certain communities or movements becoming more accepted and popular is that people will join them in order to feel accepted and popular. Having a sense of belonging is probably a primary motivation for joining all sorts of groups, and it makes sense that whenever someone is feeling lonely, we often advise them to join some sort of group that fits their interests.

Of course, most groups have goals other than “make people feel a sense of belonging.” Those goals may be “discuss books,” “put on a play,” “practice dance,” “critique each other’s writing,” “organize board game nights,” and so on. Even if someone is very invested in that explicit goal, their main motivation to join may still be that implicit goal of having a community.

Feminism–both as “a movement” and as individual organizations and friend groups–is no different. It has certain political goals (which vary from group to group) and it can also be a source of social/emotional support for its members. It can be a source of pride, too.

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself. Sometimes that means that others will be looking at us critically, too.

Self-criticism is never easy or pleasant, but what complicates matters is that people are not always aware of their motivations for doing things. I do believe that the vast majority of people involved somehow in [insert progressive movement here] are involved primarily because they believe in the cause and want to help make it happen. But for many of them, there’s a secondary motivation lurking in the background–they want to have friends. They want to feel liked and respected. They want a sense of purpose. They want community.

These are all normal and okay things to want; most of us want them. I wouldn’t even say that it’s wrong to seek those things from political groups and movements.

But you have to be aware that you’re doing that. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you won’t be able to accurately interpret the negative emotions you might experience as an unavoidable part of this sort of work.

And that, I believe, is a big part of the difficulties we often have with male feminists and other types of “allies.”

I came across a piece by Mychal Denzel Smith about male feminists recently. In it, he wrote:

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

This resonates a lot with my experiences with men in feminism. While I doubt that most straight cis men join feminist communities primarily to find sex partners, I do think that most of them are hoping for some sort of approval and acceptance. Their opinions and values may make it difficult to fit in not only with other men, but with women who have more traditional views on gender. They may also be facing a lot of cultural pressure telling them that they’re not “real men” and nobody will ever want them. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to compare this with the isolation felt by women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming people. It exists.

When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere because you’re too progressive, and you finally find a social group that shares your values, and suddenly they’re telling you that you’re still not Progressive Enough, it can be very painful. It can feel like rejection. And if you don’t have a conscious awareness of your motivations–of the fact that you feel rejected because you were really searching for belonging–you may interpret these negative feelings as resulting from other people’s behavior, not from your own (legitimate) unmet needs. You may be tempted, then, to lash out and accuse the person of being “mean” or “angry,” to warn them that they’re “just pushing loyal allies away,” to assert to them that you’re “a feminist” and couldn’t possibly have done what they said you’ve done or meant what they feel you meant, and so on.

Meanwhile, the person who called you out gets really confused. They thought you were here because you wanted to learn, to improve as a person, and to get shit done. And here you’re telling them that merely being asked to reconsider your opinions or behavior is enough for you to want to quit the whole thing. It would be like showing up at the hair salon and then getting furious when the stylist assumes you’d like to change your hairstyle.

No wonder many of us assume that many male feminists aren’t really that interested in feminism.

(While this dynamic seems much more pronounced for male feminists for a number of reasons I won’t derail with here, it definitely happens around issues like race, ability, etc as well.)

This isn’t even touching on blatantly abusive behavior, which men sometimes deny or excuse with claims of being feminists. Some male feminists do seem to hope that merely self-identifying that way, or make the cursory pro-equality gestures, will be enough to earn them the social acceptance they’re looking for. Sometimes it is.

But just like feminists are not obligated (and, in fact, are not qualified) to serve as therapists to men with serious issues pertaining to women, feminist spaces are not obligated to prioritize making everyone feel comfortable and included over doing the work that they were set up to do. Activist communities do have many overlapping (and, at times, conflicting) goals, but it’s not unreasonable for groups that were not set up to help men to prioritize people other than men.

(I would love for there to be more male-oriented feminist groups, but from what I have seen, they tend to dissolve into lots of mutual back-patting and not much personal change or action.)

I would like to see more male feminists move away from using the feminist label as a way to seek social acceptance and towards creating some separation between their politics and their search for belonging. It’s not that political affiliations can’t provide that–it’s that it’s dangerous to rely on them for it. It means you can never really question yourself and your beliefs, and you’ll have a lot of trouble accepting criticism (no matter how constructive) from others.

More broadly, I would like for male feminists to get more comfortable with becoming aware of their motivations, needs, and feelings. I would like for them to consciously notice that pleasant rush they feel when women “like” their Facebook posts about feminism, and to appreciate that feeling for what it is without prioritizing that feeling over everything else. I would like for them to recognize the unmet needs for community and acceptance that they have, and to be cognizant of the extent to which they ask (or simply expect) others to satisfy those needs for them. I would like for them to learn to notice these things without immediately rushing to judge them and shame themselves for them, because that’s not the way forward.

As for me personally, I no longer feel any increased trust or warmth towards men who declare themselves feminists. It does almost nothing for me. I need to see actual evidence that they are able to respect my boundaries, accept feedback from me, and generally act in accordance with their stated values. Many of the men I’m closest to have never explicitly identified themselves as feminists to me, but their every interaction with me exemplifies the traits that I look for in people.

By all means, call yourselves feminists to other men–it can open up useful conversations and upend established norms–or in order to filter people out of your life that you know you don’t want in it. But don’t expect a word to speak louder than your actions.

~~~

Caveats:

1. A lot of what I wrote here applies quite a lot to just about everyone, including feminist women. I know this. I focused on feminist men because this issue is particularly pronounced with them.

2. #NotAllFeministMen have such legitimate and good intentions as the ones I’m writing about. But I specifically wanted to write about the ones with the legitimate and good intentions.

For another example of how being aware of your own needs and motivations can make you a better, more effective person, see my previous post.

I’m Going To Rant About Those Little Equal Sign Facebook Profile Pics Now

profilepics

Sources: here and here.

I get it. The cute little red equal signs all over Facebook today are an easy target. It’s not Real Activism. It doesn’t actually help anyone. Get off your ass and Actually Do Something for the cause. Right?

Yes, nobody should fool themselves that changing their profile picture will convince the Supreme Court to disregard Charles Cooper’s embarrassing performance today, and nor will it bequeath to Justice Antonin Scalia the empathy for his fellow human beings that he is sorely lacking. (By the way, Scalia, there is a scientific answer to the question of same-sex couples raising kids, and the answer is that you’re probably full of poop.) It will not magically make religious conservatives support queer rights. It will certainly not solve the serious, life-threatening issues that the queer community faces–issues more urgent than marriage rights, issues nevertheless ignored by many mainstream LGBT organizations.

I am also, needless to say, completely sympathetic to the arguments of people who chose not to use the profile pic because it’s the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, which is an organization I no longer support, either, and have recently stopped donating to.

But I’m not so sympathetic to the argument that posting the pic “does nothing.” First of all, you don’t know that a given person who’s posted it is literally doing nothing else to promote queer rights. And second, yes, it does do something.

It’s pretty damn cynical (and not exactly kind to one’s friends) to just assume that not a single one of the people who changed their profile pictures today has done anything else to support queer rights. None of them have voted. None of them have donated any money to any organizations. None of them have contacted any representatives. None of them have ever supported a queer friend who was coming out or facing bigotry. None of them have argued with anyone about queer rights.

Does changing one’s profile picture to reflect a cause they believe in negate everything else they might have done to support that cause?

It’s as though some people see others doing something small–changing a profile picture, posting a status–and then assume that that’s all they do about that particular issue. Probably not.

On Facebook, a bunch of friends shared this status:

Lots of comments about slacktivism tossed around today. I see on my feed people who contribute financially to the cause of equality; people who bear the brunt of homophobic bigotry; people who speak out in blogs, videos, social networking, newspaper editorials, and essays; people who encourage and motivate their gay friends when the crap gets to them; people who stay in contact with their representatives in government; and those who work for their candidates, attend meetings, and keep like minded thinkers informed. But I don’t see any slacktivism, not on this feed.

On that note, it seems that the people complaining about “slacktivism” today don’t necessarily realize that many of the people posting the profile pic are themselves queer. While it’d certainly be nice if all queer people “actually did something” about homophobia, many of them don’t have that option. For many of them, simply getting through the day is resistance.

Which brings me to my second point: that posting the profile pic does do tangible good. How do I know? Because people said so. I saw tons of posts today from queer friends talking about how good it feels to see all the red profile pictures, because it tells them that there are so many people who want to support them–who aren’t perfect allies, maybe (but then, who is?), but who care how the Supreme Court rules. For one gay woman who wrote to Andrew Sullivan, it made a huge difference.

Helping a queer person feel loved and accepted matters. It matters just as much as donating to a queer rights organization or marching in a protest. Perhaps it even matters more.

And also? If you’re queer and you don’t feel this way about the profile pics at all, that’s okay too. It doesn’t have to matter to you. But it matters to many of us.

I don’t care if you’ve chosen not to change your profile picture. Seriously. I don’t care what your reasons for it were. I’m not judging you. I’m not going to look through my friends list and convince myself that everyone who didn’t change their profile picture hates gay people or whatever.

But it unquestionably felt nice to see so many red squares on my screen every time I checked Facebook today. Probably not for any “rational” reason. It just felt nice to know that all these people are paying attention to what’s going on, that they care about what the Supreme Court decides and they care in the direction of equality.

Maybe most of these people really haven’t “done anything” for queer rights other than change their profile picture. That’s actually fine with me, because not everybody needs to be an activist, and it’s enough to know that all these people are part of the majority of Americans who now support same-sex marriage.

And if you’re not part of that majority, you probably went on Facebook today and saw all the people who disagree with you and who aren’t going to take your shit anymore. Maybe you argued with someone who had changed their profile picture. Maybe we even started to convince you.

I think it’s vital to embrace all kinds of activism, from the easiest and least risky to the most difficult and dangerous. It’s important not to lose sight of the concrete goals that still need to be accomplished, and especially to discuss how the conversation about marriage equality marginalizes certain people and ignores certain issues. But it’s also important to recognize symbolic gestures for what they’re worth.

Being part of a minority–and being an activist–can be lonely, stressful, and discouraging. But today I felt supported and cared for. That matters.