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The role of the Gentlemen’s Auxiliary

Posted by A birch tree on May 24, 2008

A few thoughts on the role of men with relation to the feminist movement

So one thing I’ve had plenty of time to think about is what, exactly, should men be doing in feminism?

Shortly before my broadband went kaput, I found myself violating one of my own rules and arguing with a woman about feminism. Even at the time, it seemed grossly inappropriate, but in hindsight it just confuses me.

On the one hand, a self-identified feminist woman should not have to put up with a man telling her diddly squat, especially not in a confrontational manner. On the other hand, she was arguing that men should be able to just up and walk away from having to pay child support whenever they please if they don’t want to see their kids. That just seems like a recipe for more women to be shoved into poverty by irresponsible dudes more often and more easily than ever before, and how could I stand by and say that was feminist?

While I’m still conflicted on that issue, one thing she said did trouble me, that she was tired of men like me trying to protect women against their will, and that she and other women were not the defenseless, powerless, vulnerable people I was apparently making them out to be and were quite capable of self-determination and take-care-of-themselves-ism.

So now we’re back to me having multiple hands again (OMG A SPIDER!). On one of them, sure, any attempt that a man makes to portray women as lacking in self-determination is inherently unfeminist; women are autonomous human begins. On the other hand, the point of the Patriarchy is to take away that self-determination, and it’s been doing so craftily for a thousand-odd years (give or take). Men, who have been handed all the power and opportunity they could ever dream of as a class, should have a responsibility to use that power to protect the people whose oppression he’s benefitting from whether he likes it or not, from said opression. And letting a dude legally abandon women with a kid or two he helped create, with nothing but a handy “Sucks to be you!” tossed out the driver’s side window, seems a bit opressive.

And the line gets even fuzzier when you add in the fact that a lot of the time, a radical pro-feminist, despite his best intentions, will find himself speaking to women’s experiences, things he has no direct knowledge of. Is it out of bounds to say “Women don’t generally have orgasms from penetrative sex alone” or “Being pregnant and giving birth are highly dangerous for women*”? Even with the links? What if I link to other women who are currently expressing said sentiments? To add in yet more hands, one the left, we have a man saying, essentially, “I know female orgasm/female pregnancy!”, but on the right, he’s also saying things that are more or less objective facts.

So what are my responsibilities? What topics are in line for me? What topics are off-limits? My voice, being male, automatically carries with it a certain amount of power and credibility that a woman’s wouldn’t, all other things being equal, but at the same time, my voice in many areas is substantially less credible, not to mention rather unwelcome, because I don’t share a mutual oppression with women. At best, I’m speaking academically about subjects that are intensely personal to them.

I mean, for example: I have the opportunity to close my browser and play Crysis or Oblivion, then read The Lord of the Rings for a while, and maybe around midnight go out to a smoke a cigarette in the deserted, more-or-less-unlit smoke pit outside, without ever having to think about the sexism, mysogyny, and male priviledge that pretty much soaks each one of those activities if I don’t choose to. I can stop thinking about rape and the slandering of women in popular culture (when they appear in popular culture at all), because it doesn’t personally affect me. Too many men claim to be radical allies when it suits them, then choose to “turn off” that awareness when they’re done playing their internet D&D game where they Fight the Forces of the Evil Patriarchy and their Servants, the MRA for a few hours like some sort of perverted MMORPG. And don’t think I’m saying I haven’t done that myself!

The idea that male pro-feminists should be talking mostly to other men, using their increased credibility among males to try and sway them to a more whole view of the opposite gender assumes that such a thing is possible via enlightened reasoning (or at all). Do I believe that? Well, I’m here, aren’t I? Isn’t that some kind of evidence? Then again, while I am here rambling on incoherently about this topic, I’m also not exactly the best example of male pro-feminism. I have flaws I can’t blame on hereditary pre-determinism, and I do the wrong things at least as often as I do the right things without acting like I deserve a cookie. Does that make me evolving, or a hypocrite? I’ve done a lot of the things in my life that are on the Rapist Checklist that’s been floating around for a couple years now. I’ve used pornography in the past; and to be perfectly honest, “past” means “less than a year ago”. I argue with my wife in a way I would never argue with another male; hell, I get angry with my wife over things I’d never get angry at another male over! I don’t distance myself from racist or misogynist comments made by men in my general vicinity nearly often enough to make me feel clean about it. I can only blame so much of that on “Well, I am in the military, that that man significantly outranks me, and those men over there I have to deal with every single day, and what the hell am I supposed to say or do??” I am changing, have changed, and will continue to change in the future, but is it enough? And if it is, is it fast enough, or complete enough? Or will I always be a dickhead, just less and less of a dickhead asymptotically approaching 0 as time approaches infinity?

Are my hands clean enough to be talking about feminism at all, much less to another woman, regardless of how wrong her ideas feel to me? Or should I just stick to environmentalism, while linking to brilliant women on the sidebar and letting them speak about feminism? Or does that put feminism on the sidebar while I focus my energies, not on trying to raise awareness of and help end the oppression I have been a part of perpetuating against women, but instead on ending a similar oppression against those with whom I fail to share not only a mutual oppression, but even a mutual species?

Well maybe that helped out a bit. Is being a man advocating radical feminist goals and ideals in any way anagolous to being a human and advocating radical environmentalist goals and ideals? Or is such a comparison just offensive? I could see how it might be offensive to feminism to be likend to the animal rights movement, but since I’m just looney enough to see animals as sentient and autonomous beings too, does that help? Or does my individual context have no bearing on the more generalized issue?

I could go on, and when I do, I come out with a ton of questions, no answers, and more hands than a mutated centipede. I suppose, in the end, when you’ve got all those hands holding all those scales with a thousand different ways they could balance out, you just have to throw away all the scales and complexities and do whatever makes you feel less dirty in the morning.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what that entails. Like I said, these aren’t questions I have answers to. I suppose that at the end of the day, I’m going to be trudging on in roughly the same direction I’m currently trudging, with an open mind to correction and criticism, and while reading everything I can get my hands on, and inspecting my actions, both present, past, and future planned, for hurtful flaws born of priviledge and sexism. When it doubt, I greatly prefer to do something with common sense and good intententions and a balanced spirit, rather than nothing at all out of not knowing what the right thing is to do. Mostly I just assume that whatever I’m going to do will be wrong in spite of myself, but whoever tears me a new one for doing it might also reveal to me what I’m actually supposed to be doing. And plus, if I’m right, than I’ve done something good. If I just stand around doing nothing, however, nobody will notice one more guy standing around doing nothing in a whole world of guys standing around doing nothing, and there’s absolutely no chance of doing anything right or good.

-a birch tree

(*US Maternal Mortality rate: 12 per 100,000, compared to: Average US Firearm Death Rate: 10 per 100,000 and Average US Occupation-Related Fatality Rate: 4 per 100,000. Also, homicide is the number one cause of death in the US for pregnant women. That’s not figured into maternal mortality rates, but it certainly figures into objective calculations for how dangerous childbirth actually is in the US!)

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