This is part of a series asking why (some) men are so angry. For the introduction and links to other posts in the series as they appear, go here
As I’ve said before, anger is not the enemy of empathy and compassion, it is often their offspring. Anyone who can survey the global landscape of injustice, suffering, oppression and environmental vandalism and not feel a surge of anger is, in my view, somehow lacking. It is essential to be angry. It is also essential to ensure that the anger is not cut adrift from its parents. Anger is an unruly child and like any child it is prone to stupidity and self-destructive tendencies. It needs the guiding hands of compassion and empathy to keep it in check and occasionally banish it to the naughty step to calm down.
In beginning this series on men’s anger, it was important to me to stress from the outset that there are good reasons to be angry at some of the issues that specifically affect men. Not only to be angry at those issues, but to include them in a very heavy bundle of things in the world one could be legitimately angry about.
Society treats men and boys in many ways that are unfair, unjust and harmful. Some of these are institutionalised and formal: the workings of the family courts (especially their inability to enforce contact arrangements for fathers); male-only military conscription in 40% of countries on earth; or the legality of male genital mutilation. Others are consequential – the (usually unintended) results of broader policy decisions which impact negatively and disproportionately upon men and boys – educational underachievement; provision of physical and mental health services; vastly disproportionate workplace deaths and so on. Yet more are cultural – formally unwritten but woven through our beliefs, assumptions, prejudices and the way we socialise each generation: the belief that male victims of violence and abuse are less deserving of sympathy; the ‘man-up’ policing of emotional expression; enforced conformity of gender performance; the oppressive imposition of violence and aggression and so much more.
All of these problems disproportionately (or even exclusively) affect men and boys. That’s not to say they all affect all of us of course, but only a lucky few will dodge every one. These are not the only problems in the world, and I am certainly not arguing that they are more significant or urgent than the problems created by racism, class or homophobia or the problems created by our society for women. However I do acknowledge that the problems are real and I respect and salute those who are angry enough about them to try to make them better – providing they don’t trample over the rights to justice, welfare and wellbeing of others in the process.
Anger needs to be tempered and focused by empathy and compassion, because without them, the monstrous child will smash the nearest object to hand. This is when the angry dispossessed will grab for easy answers in fascism or religious fundamentalism, and where gender warriors often reach for the claw hammers of abuse and disdain.
Whenever I write about male gender issues such as men’s mental health or educational underachievement, I can guarantee a smattering of emails, comments and messages from a few feminists saying something like “Oh cry me a river” or simply “LOL”. I have nothing but contempt for such attitudes, just as I have nothing for contempt for those men’s activists who become so wrapped up in their own concerns around male victims of false accusations that they will dismiss, downplay or mock the extent and profound trauma of rape. Oppression and suffering are not zero sum games, and compassion is not a finite resource. If your anger is obscuring your humanity, you are doing it wrong.
I’m not one who argues that just because a men’s rights activist says something, it must be wrong. That is a logical fallacy of the first degree. I try to be open to ideas whatever their origin, and when I disagree with MRAs (which is often) I’ll still look for strands of common ground that we can build upon. However there is one fundamental tenet of the movement which is so grotesquely, monumentally wrong that I can barely even begin to express it. It holds that those who are angry about the injustices and problems facing men should target their anger upon feminism.
This idea is so mind-shrivelingly stupid I rarely bother to engage with it, but this seems an appropriate opportunity. Not a single one of the real male problems I identify above originates with feminism, is supported by feminism or even significantly added to by feminism. There. I said it.
Family courts are one of the most patriarchal institutions in the UK (and I suspect the same applies in most other countries). They routinely presume that women are more natural and competent carers and men, not women, should be in full time work. Those are not feminist ideas. The laws, procedures and precedents they follow have been laid down not by feminists, but by generation upon generation of (primarily) crusty old men with sexist attitudes.
Feminists did not invent male-only conscription or circumcision. Feminists didn’t mould the hegemonic cultures of violent masculinity and male disposability. It wasn’t feminists ordering women and children first onto the lifeboats (if that did indeed ever happen.) It isn’t feminists who decide that teachers and child carers should be predominantly women, and it wasn’t feminists who designed the national curriculum. It certainly isn’t feminists running the banks, the IMF and the policies of globalisation that devastated the industries upon which working class men once depended.
Most controversially of all, it is not primarily feminists who mock, revile and dismiss male victims of violence and abuse. There certainly have been occasions when some, even most feminists have made it much harder to address the issue (something I will return to in my next post in this series) – but it is simple fact that it was very largely feminism that identified and popularised the issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse as a problem in the first place. It was feminism that created the language and the concepts, the support systems and the resources for victims that have since been adopted and replicated by supporters of male victims since. It was feminist analysis of sexual violence that began to show up the barbarity of our (lingering) attitudes towards prison rape, and it is not feminists that I see making the ubiquitous jokes on that topic. There were just as many male victims of domestic violence before feminism, but they were mocked as henpecked husbands, the pathetic butts of jokes that decorated greetings cards, cowering in fear beneath a raised rolling pin. It wasn’t feminists drawing those cartoons, but they may have helped to kill them off.
I applaud those who are angry that so many men sleep rough, so many men take their own lives, so many men have to face unnecessary physical harm, so many men and boys suffer in one way or another. I see many men who are angry for the right reasons, but at the wrong targets. When the anger such issues generate is aimed at feminism, it is misdirected and therefore wasted. Every hour spent angrily obsessing over the words and deeds of feminism, past or present, is an hour that could be spent making a positive difference. That so many men waste so much anger is, I believe, something to get angry about.