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 any website administrator can tell you, people rarely like change. Redesign your front page or your comment section, or just change the colour scheme and you will spend weeks or even months fielding angry complaints that you have utterly RUINED everything that was great about the site. In other words people, generally, have a natural tendency towards conservatism.
The yang to this yin is that human beings also have an urge to tinker, to change, to reform, to revolutionize. It would be reasonable to summarise the whole of human history as a conflict between radicalism and conservatism. The tensions created are perhaps why we as a species have evolved far enough to be able to create a button that could destroy the world in a flash, and also evolved enough restraint to keep us (at time of writing) from pressing it to see what happens.
It’s tempting to see the angry exchanges between many modern men and feminism as largely a battle between radical progress and conservative resistance. The standard set-text on anti-feminism remains Susan Faludi’s Backlash. She was writing around 1990, after a decade in which the radicalism had come overwhelmingly from the political right – the economic radicals of neoliberalism, Thatcherism and Reagonomics and the Christian fundamentalism of the New Right. Back then, the forces of conservatism were those clinging to the postwar social democratic consensus. As Faludi wrote:
“In times when feminism is at a low ebb, women assume the reactive role – privately and most often covertly struggling to assert themselves against the dominant cultural tide. But when feminism itself becomes the tide, the opposition doesn’t simply go along with the reversal, it digs in its heels, brandishes its fists, builds walls and dams. And its resistance creates countercurrents and treacherous undertows.”
Does the anger we now see expressed against feminism fit this pattern? To an extent, it probably does. I’d guess men’s rights activists would be quick to agree with Faludi that feminism has ‘become the tide’ and would probably be quite flattered to think they are digging heels, brandishing fists, building walls and dams against the tide and indeed creating countercurrents and treacherous undertows. To adapt the awful cliché about Orwell’s 1984, MRAs should perhaps realise that Backlash was meant to be a warning and not an instruction manual.
It is also easy to characterise male anger online as a reaction to threatened loss of entitlement, which is of course the top marker of conservatism. “You’ll take it from my cold, dead hands” – whether ‘it’ is a pair of boobs on Page 3, the right to sexually proposition or harass women at any time of one’s choosing or even property rights over one’s own children. In more general terms, there may be reactive anger to a perceived loss of status – witness the reaction of one ‘social conservative’ on Twitter to my suggestion that men and women take equal roles at home and work.
So I don’t doubt there is a lot of truth to the theories above, but I don’t think it is the whole story. One thing many people fail to notice about the so-called manosphere is its political diversity. Casual observers might see little distinction between Men’s Rights Activists, the extreme traditionalists at sites like The Spearhead, the disciples of pick-up artistry or the separatists of the Men Going Their Own Way boards. Dig a little deeper and you soon find they despise each other almost as much as they despise feminists.
A little while ago I had a diverting exchange with the editor of the conservative magazine The Spectator, Fraser Nelson. He’d written a piece in the Telegraph making a rather by-the-numbers rehash of the End Of Men narrative. I argued in the Guardian that conservatism of the type offered up by Nelson or his pal Boris Johnson offers no solutions to the problems faced by men today. I expected that to be the end of it, but Nelson responded to my piece in his own Spectator blog.
It was a fairly polite ding dong overall, fairly accurately characterised by one CIF commenter as a ‘prat spat.’ What I found fascinating though, is that Nelson went to great length to address our more minor disagreements. However my point in the piece, as usual, was that men’s problems are rooted in archaic gender roles and our assumptions about, and expectations of masculinity. Nelson’s only response to this was:
“I shall not comment on his plans for a “a social project to reinvent masculinity and gender roles in keeping with the world we have built” – although I do love the idea of Ed Balls ended up as the Minister for Redefining Masculinity. Lasagne for everyone!” .
In other words, I proposed one realistic (if challenging) path out of the current sticky bog in which men now appear to be stuck, and the Spectator editor did not even attempt to address it, preferring to chuck it aside with a (slightly bizarre) joke. In that one line he proved my point absolutely perfectly: conservatism has no solution to men’s problems.
If there’s one point upon which feminists, MRAs and myself all agree, it is that society needs to change the nature of its gender dynamics. We are, all of us, gender radicals of one sort or another. Witness MRA hostility to notions of chivalry, for example, which are pretty much the ultimate in traditional patriarchal values.
There is, I think, a contradiction at the very heart of the anti-feminist men’s movement. On the one hand there are those such as Mike Buchanan of Justice for Men and Boys who yearns for a return to traditional values and the nuclear family. He sits amongst those such as Dean Esmay of A Voice For Men, who writes: “Most men’s human rights advocates love seeing strong, capable, and independent women as part of society. But they are disappointed to see the rise of idealized, infantilized, sheltered, and fearful women.” The principle feminist objection to patriarchal marriage and traditional values has always been precisely that they infantilise and shelter women, preventing them from being strong, capable and independent.
You can’t have it both ways, so which is it?