Ever wonder why MRAs promote hatred or hostility toward women when they actually could be doing at least something worthwhile instead? I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this in the last few days (perhaps because of speculations that MRA affiliation had something to do with Justin Vacula being asked to resign from SkepticInc, but that’s not my network so I can’t speak to that).
I’ve said before that MRA groups could have chosen to work as allies with feminists, respectful of women and women’s issues side by side with their own, even sharing contacts, resources, and models for action, just as many other special interest groups do. But that’s not the road they took.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, MRAs are Men’s Rights Activists. MRA can also mean Men’s Rights Activism collectively, but that is more commonly known as the MRM or Men’s Rights Movement. I shall be distinguishing that category (of those who specifically identify as or with men’s “rights” activists) from another, that of men’s issues advocates. There are many of the latter who are exactly what MRAs should be but aren’t: respectful and sensible campaigners for interests unique to men or affecting men in gender-distinct ways. They just don’t pompously describe what they do as advocating for men’s “rights.”
So what went wrong with the MRAs? Instead of acting like other special interest groups of merit, by and large (there may be exceptions; I rarely see them) the MRM has historically developed as a de facto hate movement, specifically in opposition to feminism (MRAs are often explicitly anti-feminist, and almost always at least implicitly so). In every organized instance I know, self-described MRAs endorse or promote sexism or misogyny in some form, and (of interest to skeptics) promote pseudoscience and conspiracy-theory-style claims about the world that are demonstrably false or dubious, but believed because they support a desired narrative or worldview.
And yet, there are those men’s issues organizations that do not identify with the MRM and are not hate groups, but actually do it right. So today I’m going to talk a little about both sides of this divide, to illustrate what “doing men’s rights rightly” would actually have looked like, if the MRM took its cue from those meritorious men’s issues organizations (and other special interest movements altogether), rather than from a baseline hate-filled worldview of delusional anti-feminism.
Getting Up to Speed
Wikipedia has a decent article about the MRM (Wikipedia on the Men’s Rights Movement), which is very well supplemented by another article at RationalWiki, which will be of particular interest to organized atheists and skeptics (RationalWiki on the Men’s Rights Movement). The Southern Poverty Law Center has articles on the MRM documenting examples of their affiliated sexism, misogyny and pseudoscience (see Misogyny: The Sites, and Intelligence Report Article Provokes Fury Among Men’s Rights Activists, and Men’s Rights Movement Spreads False Claims about Women). Several blogs are also devoted to monitoring and exposing the agenda, bile and delusion plaguing much of the MRM (see, for example, the sarcastically named Men’s Rights Activism and We Hunted the Mammoth, which has a convenient Glossary).
But beginners (and anyone who likes a laugh) might prefer to start with an amusing semi-serious comedy piece at Cracked surveying the history, content, merits, and flaws of the MRM (see: Men’s Rights). That also discusses what happens when you write articles like I am now, so I will likely be directing a lot of my (inevitable) MRA commenters back to it (and the other links above and below) in lieu of wasting my time with them. But for a particularly apt perspective, there are study papers on the MRM housed at A Men’s Project (a men’s issues organization that actually isn’t evil, a point I’ll be coming to in a moment) under the category Men’s/Father’s Rights. [Edit: There has since been a 20/20 segment and an article in The Daily Beast, which was also covered by We Hunted the Mammoth, and an article at The American Prospect. Some demographic data then also emerged. And of course, as of 2014, MRAs now have their own mass murderer to claim for history: see commentaries here, here, and here.]
For some of my own encounters with the “false narrative” brigade in the MRM see here and here, instances where I found MRAs not actually checking their own claims or trying to understand the actual facts, but just selling their “us vs. them” persecution narrative with a ginned-up mythology. I have caught feminists doing the same, of course, but only occasionally and not as egregiously or unrepentantly. Reliance on myths and false narratives and inaccurate facts is a tactic found in many other special interest groups, from environmentalists to radical vegans, too. But it doesn’t typify them, as they appear to typify the MRM. There are always sensible and accurate activists to be found in other movements, and indeed they often dominate. But so far, not in the MRM, not in my experience.
But merely having the facts wrong would just be amusing. It’s the hate that is most disturbing. Though the MRM could have developed as a special interest movement that cooperates with other movements with similar goals for their own constituencies, as nearly all other special interest movements have done, it just didn’t. Compare, for example, the behavior and inter-group cooperation and mutual respect often witnessed among many gay rights organizations; racial, ethnic, and religious minority rights organizations; organizations lobbying for the rights of the poor, disabled, or mentally ill; and, of course, women’s rights organizations, like NOW, the National Organization for Women, whose statement of purpose is “to take action to bring women into full participation in society—sharing equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities with men, while living free from discrimination.”
Legitimate Issues, Illegitimate Solutions
Now, I often get weird reactions when I mention there is such a thing as a Men’s Rights Movement (“Wait, what? What rights don’t men have?”), but as many of the above links openly discuss, there are several legitimate issues raised within the MRM, where men are in fact discriminated against in one fashion or another or otherwise become the victims of social injustice merely or predominately because they are men, or where men have special needs not met by other groups. The first category ranges from disparities in prison sentencing and child custody decisions to such overlooked problems as federal insurance not covering a man who suffers breast cancer because the law, perversely and contrary to scientific fact, only specifies women can get it. The second category includes such facts as that men suffer from particular cancers women don’t, and have other male-specific health issues, and men face unique pressures culturally and socially, often in result of outmoded expectations regarding masculinity or gender roles.
In actual fact, pretty much all of these problems are the result of patriarchal cultural assumptions. In other words, they predominately originate with and are sustained by men and are usually based on men’s assumptions about gender roles and masculinity. And thus the primary solution to them is changing the behavior and attitudes of men, more than of women. The MRM, instead, typically blames everything on women and feminism, which is perverse, since their own sexism in doing so is only further sustaining the real evils they claim they are fighting against.
Case in point. Women have done a superb job lobbying and rallying in support of campaigns to cure breast cancer. But men have (until recently) done a lousy job rallying in support of campaigns to cure prostate cancer. MRMs blame women for this. You know, because clearly women looking after their own welfare means they are shitting on men’s welfare. Only that isn’t how it works (gay rights lobbyists aren’t against straight rights, black rights lobbyists aren’t against white rights, they are just focused on their own constituencies).
So the MRM complaint here makes no sense, except insofar as women won’t work with them the way men work with breast cancer campaigns, but that’s entirely because the MRM is so openly sexist, misogynist, or anti-feminist. If they weren’t pissing on women, but actually cooperatively and respectfully working with them, they could make progress on this issue. If, that is, MRAs actually did things like develop campaigns to fight prostate cancer. As far as I’ve seen, most of them hardly do anything substantive beyond complain. (The exceptions are few or feeble.)
If men won’t rally to the cause of fighting prostate cancer the way women have rallied to fight breast cancer, you can’t expect women to pick up the slack. Men have to take the lead, or carry at least an equal share of the load (in volunteering, funding, activism), just as women did. But if the men who care enough about prostate cancer to get angry about it are going to patriarchally blame and denigrate women and frame the whole issue as taking men’s power back and being dominant again, they are shooting their own foot, making themselves so loathesome no one wants to work with them, and many won’t even want to listen to them, and thus any valid complaint they may have had will be drowned in the bathwater of their own bile. Thus by sustaining and embodying patriarchal assumptions, the MRM actually becomes the problem rather than solving it. [Edit: whereas by contrast, to illustrate my point, the Movember campaign against prostate cancer is exactly what doing it right looks like.]
The same analysis follows for every issue the MRM takes up that has any actual validity: they blame the wrong people, failing to see the flaw in themselves, and thus turn their complaints into grist for their hatred for women and anyone who advocates for women’s welfare. And all of it because the MRM still clings to patriarchal assumptions about gender and power and dominance. Read almost any website in the MRM and you’ll see it’s often about sticking it to women, or attacking women, or getting back at women, or putting women back in their place, or how women’s equality has produced male subjugation. All patriarchal attitudes, across the board. (Peruse the leading MRM website, A Voice for Men, long enough and you can’t fail to find examples. Particularly amusing is this take on modern marriage, whose author doesn’t even notice how patriarchal his own assumptions are, even as he thinks he is arguing against them.)
Brief Digression on Patriarchy Theory
I get the occasional pseudoscientific bigot in comments claiming there is no such thing as “patriarchy” anymore, that women and feminists just made that all up, that it’s an untestable theory, and whatnot (indeed, ironically, the MRM champions this point of view, despite itself being one of the most glaring manifestations of patriarchal belief-structures in modern society). In fact, the concept of patriarchy is an empirically testable theory of social attitudes and organization, and the evidence more than bears it out.
For a quick intro to the concept see A Basic Definition of Patriarchy. But the very best, and my very favorite, intro to the subject (showing very well how pretty much all the valid issues the MRM takes up are caused by patriarchalism and not feminism) is Christina Rad’s video Gender Roles, Trolls, and Sexual Harassment Policies (and importantly supplementing that is her video About My Feminism Video). One key fact to understand is that patriarchy is not all-or-nothing: some societies can be more patriarchal or less patriarchal than others, even a lot less and even actively becoming less, and yet still be patriarchal. Thus it does no good to pick some extremely patriarchal society and say our society is nothing like that, therefore our society is not patriarchal, or not suffering from any patriarchal assumptions and behaviors at all. I’ll leave you to explore the above-cited resources for more on that matter. If you haven’t read and viewed those, all the way through, you aren’t qualified to dispute the concept.
Doing It Right
Admitting that women face discrimination and gendered social expectations and unique problems is the first step to recovery. And if you want to see what that looks like, check out what men’s issues groups do.
The only major example based in the US I have found so far is The Good Men Project. That is a website sponsoring articles covering men’s issues from many angles, without any significant sexism or misogyny, but in fact with a lot of respect for women and women’s problems and concerns (needless to say, wannabe MRAs have denounced one of its founders, Tom Matlack, as a mangina…to which he composed a very amusing and educational response). They are also an IRS-recognized charity that provides funding “dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.”
This is an example of doing it right. That does not mean I agree with everything they say or every position they take, only that I agree with the way they approach men’s issues and the problems men face. And I am certain, overall, they are doing a lot of good. The world is a better place with that organization in it.
Largely thanks to Ally Fogg (one of our new bloggers here at FtB) I have also discovered and become acquainted with several men’s issues organizations abroad. In the UK, these include The Fatherhood Institute, which specializes in helping fathers and dealing with problems unique to fatherhood (including maladaptive cultural assumptions about fatherhood and gender roles); CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), which focuses on combating male suicide (because the rate of suicide among men is two to three times higher than among women, pointing to a real disparity caused by sex or gender, whether biological or cultural or both, demonstrating need for a specialized approach in preventing male victims); and such groups as AMIS (Abused Men in Scotland) and the ManKind Initiative, which deal with male victims of domestic abuse. An umbrella organization addressing many of these issues together in the Americas is AMP (A Men’s Project).
Explore all of these and you’ll see they are free of hate, anti-feminism, sexism, misogyny, and pretty much free of pseudoscience, fallacies, false narratives, and all that whatnot. They seriously fight and advocate for men’s causes without pompously claiming to be taking back men’s “rights.” Many of them actually do stuff (like lobby or fund community resources for men and men’s issues). And they don’t blame “women” or “feminism” for any of the ills they combat.
(If anyone is aware of comparable organizations in the US, please let me know.)
In fact, these organizations often have mission statements or guidelines that spell out exactly what “doing it right” looks like. Even in general, as Ally Fogg reports, AMIS and the Mankind Initiative “always emphasise that providing services and policies to meet the needs of men should only ever happen in addition to services provided for women, never at the expense of women in need.”
Now look specifically at the mission statement of The Fatherhood Institute (Our Work), which is inclusive and supportive of women, not denigrating or disdainful of them. It even declares a commitment to continuing research and accuracy (something you don’t get from MRAs). One of their goals is (with emphasis now added):
To change education so that boys are prepared for future caring roles and boys and girls are prepared for the future sharing of these roles. We want to see children and young people discussing gender inequalities and understanding that mothers and fathers experience pressure to specialise in caring and earning roles, and that mothers and fathers should have a similar range of choices over their caring roles, not limited by gender. We want to see more encouragement of boys into childcare careers.
Notice how different their goals and whole manner of discourse are from MRAs.
In a similar fashion, About CALM explicitly talks about the need and goal of building cooperative enterprises with other groups and popular culture and media generally (something you don’t see from MRAs, who generally take a bunkered and accusatory “us vs. them” attitude that is repulsive to the wider culture and media), and states their inspiration plainly and sensibly–and inclusively (again emphasis added):
We believe that there is a cultural barrier preventing men from seeking help as they are expected to be in control at all times, and failure to be seen as such equates to weakness and a loss of masculinity. We believe that suicide is neither inevitable nor an indication that the individual was a failure in any respect. We’re a campaign for all men…and start with the belief that all of us, at one time or another regardless of gender, will hit a crisis.
Notice how they identify the actual problem: patriarchal assumptions about manhood and masculinity. Not women. Not feminism. Notice, too, how they don’t imagine themselves as in competition with women or resources for women.
A Men’s Project in Particular
The best declaration yet of how to do it right is made explicitly by one of the leaders of A Men’s Project, Michael Flood, who has composed an article on Responding to Men’s Rights Groups. That he, even he, had to write such an article tells you almost all you need to know about the pervasive rot that is afflicting the “Men’s Rights” movement as a label and a brand. Flood’s article is a good survey of the problems characterizing the MRM. It also contains a great manifesto on how men’s issues activism should actually be conducted, which he outlines with four general goals: (1) assert a feminist-supportive and male-positive perspective; (2) take up men’s rights issues, but differently; (3) show that men’s rights strategies are in fact harmful to men themselves; and (4) actually set up services (in other words, stop complaining and actually do something).
I am most impressed by how comprehensive AMP’s official statement of values is, since it’s something the atheist community could take a cue from:
A Men’s Project (AMP) attempts to be inclusive of varying perspectives on issues of concern to men. Being inclusive is not license for ideologies in clear opposition to AMP’s basic core beliefs.
We believe in seeking a world where men and boys:
1.) No longer are hurting women and girls, as well as other men and boys,
2.) Support and nurture children as parents, grandparents, allies and friends,
3.) Try to take better care of our own physical and mental health, and
4.) Help and encourage others who may be or feel “different” including by: race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity as well as in other areas.
We are not supportive of perspectives which seek to blame others based upon who they are, rather than what they do.
We are strongly opposed to bullying.
While we believe that individual women and girls may hurt individual men and boys, we strongly do not believe that:
“women”, “girls” or “feminism” are “the problem” related to many issues facing men and boys.
We also do not believe that: “men” or “boys” are “the problem”.
We wish to distinguish between: “men and boys” and “masculinity” – how we are socialized to “be a man”.
Being a man is important. How we are socialized as boys and men is also important. Fighting to be “on top” at the expense of others and in other ways not respecting and supporting others (as well as ourselves) is simply not acceptable to us.
Men’s Rights and Father’s Rights advocates are highly visible nationally and locally in much of North America. They clearly represent the perspectives of many men. A lot of these men live with a lot of pain as a result of difficult life experiences.
[But] we have serious problems with much of the general focus of Men’s and Father’s Rights Groups.
Men’s and Father’s Rights groups may do some good with some of those they work with. Their basic approach most commonly blames: women, girls and feminism for much, if not most, of the pain that men feel. We do not see such groups working towards the positive changes that we seek. We do not see such groups building a positive masculinity in their work. We do not see such groups respecting women and girls, except in limited ways.
We believe that “feminism” and “feminists” commonly has/have core beliefs supporting the end of gender based discrimination helping girls and women. Our support of “feminism” is not a simple acceptance of all who self-identify as feminists. We do not support those who do not support the positive growth of boys and men. We do not support the blaming of men and boys by our gender, rather than our specific actions and behaviors.
We want to encourage positive masculinity where men and boys lovingly support each other as well as women and girls.
We have responsibilities as men to:
a. Be nurturing, loving, caring people,
b. Be supportive of the women and girls in our lives as well as the men and boys,
c. Confront abusive behaviors and help others become nurturing, loving people,
d. Work proactively to change society in positive ways
To the degree that Men’s and Father’s Rights advocates may oppose abuse, we wish to support such actions. [But] we do not list their websites within A Men’s Project because we believe that their blaming of women in general is primary to their focus. This is not acceptable to us.
That’s doing it right.
Summing It Up
As with many institutions and organizations, I do not agree with every position or argument articulated by AMP. I hold it up as a model only in the particular aspects I’ve mentioned.
For example, they are predominately anti-porn and anti-sex-work, whereas I am a sex positive feminist who has actively promoted expanding the rights of sex workers and improving the standards of the sex industry. Ironically, one of the many gripes MRAs have against “feminists” is that “feminists” are anti-porn and anti-sex-work. I say ironically not only because that’s false–I am living evidence to the contrary, as are several of our fellow bloggers here at FtB, including Greta Christina (a former sex worker) and Yemmy Ilesanmi (a lawyer and unionist actively engaged in international efforts to expand the rights of sex workers) and literally countless other feminists–but also because even those whom by their own standards MRAs would have to concede are men’s rights advocates can be anti-porn and anti-sex-work. So much for their favorite narrative. And their love of the false generalization fallacy.
But I don’t think AMP is evil or a danger or to be opposed simply because it’s wrong about some things. Nor do I denigrate its laudable goals and values because of that. I think it’s a good, if imperfect, example of an organization doing good and making the world a better place. MRAs tar all feminism with the brush of the most radical (“radfem”) feminist nonsense they can find (often decades out of date). Which is a huge fallacy of false generalization, and thus intrinsically illogical. And to stalwartly stick to illogical arguments is irrational. Likewise to attack and deride whole organizations that otherwise do a lot of good, merely for being wrong about a few debatable things.
Yet I have found that it is not the same fallacy to consider the whole self-described MRA movement as mired in sexism and misogyny and ant-feminism, because unlike feminism, the whole self-described MRA movement is mired in sexism and misogyny and ant-feminism (just compare NOW with AVfM). There may be exceptions, but they are very hard to find (or confirm). And thus they would indeed be exceptions. Feminist groups and sites as a whole (or by any reasonable standard of what’s typical) simply do not act like MRAs. There are some, but those are the exceptions. It’s thus night and day.
It has bothered me that the MRA movement can be so pervasively vile and yet rally themselves around a body of legitimate issues, claiming to be their champions. Because this is the very worst thing for alleviating those problems. To have their advocates surround them with such repulsive attitudes and behavior that the taint stains even their legitimate causes, is actually a great harm to men, because it makes it very hard to talk about or act on those legitimate concerns without being dragged into the pit of offal the MRAs themselves have created. (Especially since MRAs so often use that as an actual tactic to derail or disrupt discussions of women’s issues.)
It thus reassures me that those legitimate issues have been taken up by respectable groups, who do not call themselves men’s “rights” groups. We can now cut loose the MRAs and focus on the legitimate organizations and causes wholly separate from them, such as those I’ve described here. Indeed, even feminists are doing more in the real world to end discrimination against men than MRAs appear to have done (it certainly wasn’t MRAs pushing to end the ban on women taking combat roles in the military, for example; likewise, it has mainly been feminists, much more than MRAs, who have been calling attention to aspects of “the masculine ideal” and other outdated assumptions about gender that are hurting men).
Persistently advocating or endorsing hate speech, bigotry, or the harming of innocent people is reprehensible, yet MRA sites have done all of these things (as the resources I linked earlier document). MRM’s live in a fantasy world where all feminists and feminist organizations are the ones doing those things, when in the real world (where the rest of us live) almost none of them do (certainly by relative measure). And that means if someone takes money from and writes for an MRA site or source instead of these other legitimate organizations, they are choosing sides, consciously selecting hostility to women and feminism over genuinely working to better the lives of men in an inclusive and friendly (and actually productive) way.
To borrow AMP’s statement on the matter, “Being inclusive is not license for ideologies in clear opposition to our basic core beliefs,” which for the godless ought to be evidence-based skepticism and rationality, humanist compassion and integrity, and freedom from myths, legends and superstitions. So atheists should all get on board. Most of us are already there.