Joanna Schroeder and David Byron thought they’d never get past their differences as commenters. Now, as friendly allies, they discuss how they got there.
JS: So, David, you and I have a pretty interesting history, don’t we?
DB: I have talked with feminists on-line for years, and been thrown off hundreds of feminist sites. I am always looking for someone I can talk to, but I didn’t think you were a good prospect at first.
JS: Yeah, maybe I wasn’t at first. I have always been open-minded, but I started off pretty righteous.
As far as I remember it, you and I first met online at The Good Men Project in the comments section of a piece I wrote called The (Quiet) FeministRevolution. I was pretty sure I had written something so deeply based in common sense, that the whole world would read it and say, “Oh wow, now I get it!”. I was truly flabbergasted at the reaction I received.
It was very naive and short-sighted of me.
My basic assertions in the piece were that people do acts of feminism which counter Rape Culture every day, probably without knowing it. I used two examples, one which was of my father explaining to me why he would’ve been cautious asking the woman whom we’d just seen on the side of the road in a snowstorm if she needed help, had I not been with him. And he told me not to get into cars with men I didn’t know.
DB: The article continued a discussion about women’s fear of men that had been going on at the Good Men Project for a little while and perhaps dating back to a flap in the atheist community on-line over “Elevatorgate”. Elevatorgate was a discussion about an incident where a woman was approached by a man in an elevator at an atheist conference.
It became a discussion about whether it is legitimate for women to treat the strange men they meet as if they were “potential rapists.” Although the Men’s Rights Movement usually talks about legal rights and not emotional issues, I have always seen the fear and suspicion levelled at men as a huge burden. Even if it is private feelings, it is profiling to think, “I know who the dangerous people are — they are the men”.
JS: At first you leveled some pretty strong opinions toward me and my piece, including “This piece should come with a warning: Not all women are like this!” And I basically totally ignored you and every other commenter who was saying anything negative. I wasn’t in a place yet in my development to hear past the anger to your issues.
Finally, you said something that truly shocked me. At first I laughed, and even posted it on my Facebook wall. Then I was confused and offended, and wondered, Even if you disagree, why would you throw so much hate at me?
This was it:
DavidByron: “…I come away from reading this very angry indeed at women. And it isn’t their fault. It’s not all women who are this disgusting and sexist. You know what? If it was me in the car and Joanna was the one stuck in the snow going to freeze to death I think I’d tell her. “Oh what? There’s no nice woman to save you today? You want to get rescued by the potential rapist do you? Oh I am sorry but I couldn’t possibly put you through that risk. No, no, you can stay out here waiting for a woman. I wouldn’t want to contribute to the rape culture.”
And then drive off.”
JS: So, tell us what happened there, David?
DB: I got angry with someone on the Internet. I didn’t know you and I didn’t respect you. Just another feminist attacking men. When trust falls below a bare minimum, there’s no give in the conversation. There’s no more energy to be patient. I don’t mean trust you with my bank account. I mean trust you to be a genuine participant in the conversation.
You replied asking, “Don’t you realize that you are talking to a human being?” But that was just what I had been trying to say to you. Just as you disliked being on the receiving end of anger, men don’t like being on the receiving end of fear. Even when you know it’s completely unwarranted, it can still stab at you.
JS: I think I understand that now, but your anger (and very loud distaste for me) overwhelmed my ability to take you seriously, which now I really regret.
And then something interesting happened in those comments… I was asked by my editor, Lisa Hickey, to pay attention to one man’s statement, a guy named Archy who was also royally peeved with me.
DB: I do recall thinking about Archy’s piece, “Well at least my explosion made everyone ELSE look moderate and sane. Maybe people will be able to get it from what he says.”
JS: Yeah, and it was when you said this that I started to pay attention:
DavidByron: “You think I LIKE beating up on people? It makes me feel like shit actually. But I know if I don’t do it nobody will. You could have said all that same stuff and you could have done it much nicer because it would have been from you. Instead it was left to me so I had to be the “asshole” (which is also in part because a man “attacking” a woman always looks like an asshole).
You think it’s easy to go around telling people they SUCK all the time?”
JS: And suddenly I was able to see the man behind what I saw as senseless rage. It took me a while, I had to read it through a few times and maybe I still thought you were a little overwhelming, but most importantly, what you were saying was no longer senseless. When you softened, I became able to hear you. Even though I still disagreed. It seemed very sad that you felt you had to revert to that.
DB: THAT was the comment you liked? That was awful. If there had been a delete button that would have gone. I guess it can help to take a step back sometimes and say who you are… that’s not always worked well for me. In the past that has got me called creepy.
JS: I didn’t think it was creepy. I thought it was very real. Yeah, it was intense, and sorta sad, but I guess it showed me that you weren’t a jerk, you were a guy who just wanted to be heard.
So, the thing I’ve been really curious about lately, and what I hope you can help me with, is looking the nature of human beings and our need to get others to agree with us, even when we intellectually may recognize that the ideological chasm is probably too large to bridge. Have you felt that?
DB: Of course. I spent years and years talking to feminists! At some point you start thinking about what’s going on underneath it all. You start trying to see patterns.
JS: How do you now combat the fatigue that comes from engaging in a conversation with someone whom you know may never agree, like me? Do you still hold out hope that I will denounce feminism and find a new label to call myself?
DB: It was never about that to begin with. It started with wanting to really know what the other side to the story was. I don’t think you can have an assurance of your own views without understanding your opponents. But the conversations are gladiatorial. Everyone wants to “win.” I know a lot of people shrink from that but I think it is fun and a really good way to advance your knowledge.
For me it stops being fun when you lose respect for the other person. So sometimes I am hardest on the people I think the best of.
JS: Is there a part of you that still wants to leave me in the snow to freeze to death?
DB: There never was. My subconscious offers up some weird stuff. Hey boss, what about this idea? Normally that sort of idea gets sent back. On that day I thought, “maybe that could work”. Uh…as a rhetorical device. But yeah, I was pretty angry.
JS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t identify as a Men’s Rights Activist, right? Is there any label you’re more comfortable with?
DB: Anti-feminist. I studied the facts about feminism, and came to be a critic from the left after seeing sexism in the movement. MRAs have a more pragmatic angle. They often have specific issues affecting those near them. They see a common enemy in feminism.
JS: Do you see any way in which feminists can move forward with guys who are against feminism, like you?
DB: I think most feminists don’t want to move forward with their critics. It’s an odd experience for me to feel like most of the feminists here do. Maybe it is because the web site is about men.
JS: Yeah, so we are more likely to be Pro-man feminists at the Good Men Project because otherwise we’d be off with others who hold exactly the same beliefs and never question us. But I don’t think that’s how anything changes. Things change when your opponents start to hear your voice, and you hear theirs.
DB: Also, this feminist founded men’s site is ‘neutral territory’. When I talk to feminists on a regular feminist site they see me as an invading enemy. That’s not a good way to start a conversation.
JS: Definitely not. And I know that some men think feminists like myself are on GMP just to attack them, and sometimes no matter what I do, I feel I cannot bridge that chasm between me and them. Every once in a while that really bums me out, but most of the time I think of the greater good we’re doing and I’m reassured that even if my individual voice doesn’t make a difference, our project as a whole does.
For instance, I wish you guys could’ve heard the good stuff I was saying about men in my piece. I wished you could’ve heard me say that every day men respect me, and that combats Rape Culture, and teaches me to trust men. I used my new friend Jacob, who was once a stranger in a restaurant, as an example.
DB: See, you said “rape culture” and everyone went into fight mode. Well I know I did. You were writing a non-combative piece so you thought, but from the other point of view you were sneaking in a big argument about male guilt. If you’d actually had ten lines going on about male guilt in that article you’d have seen it and said “that bit feels wrong there”, but because it’s just a short phrase you don’t see it.
JS: Do you think that I’m totally off-base in wishing people were more able to hear the complexities of human discussion, even from their adversaries? Is it impossible?
DB: Feminists and MRAs often have two different goals in the same conversation. The feminists want to move forward with the “greater good” as you say. MRAs do too but there’s a problem. They don’t trust you. Now both sides have given a little to get here. Any feminist becoming a regular at a site about men has split away from the “whatabouttehmenz” and “mansplaining” attitude. Any MRA who comes here is taking a risk in supporting a feminist founded web site.
But the trust isn’t a symmetrical problem. The feminists seem to think, “Well we’re talking about men’s issues here not women’s — doesn’t that show I’m one of the good guys? Why can’t the MRAs quit being so contentious and, well, … can’t we all just get along?”
JS: Yeah, why are they so quick to hate us?
DB: The MRAs have to move more slowly because they see that the feminists have a lot of baggage. Wait a second, they say, we need to talk about that baggage first. You want to talk about helping men? That’s fine but from our point of view the biggest single problem facing men is feminism itself. Now here you are saying you want to help, but also saying you’re a feminist. So how are we supposed to react to that?
JS: Why can’t we be both?
DB: This is where the disconnect happens. The feminists don’t recognise themselves in that image. As you say they don’t see any contradiction between helping men and their feminism. They either deny there is a bad feminism or say it is not important. “Oh no! You’re just wrong! Feminism means equality!”
Dismissing concerns doesn’t build trust. The concerns are still there but now you’ve shown that you won’t take them seriously. The MRAs are trying to figure out if you really are different so they are looking for the usual signs. And you are giving off those signs because there’s a lot of jargon within the feminist movement. Words like “patriarchy” and “male privilege” that trigger responses.
JS: But those are just words, and you can say they trigger the MRAs into thinking we are all the same, but as far as I can tell, there isn’t another good way to convey the idea of privilege without using the term. If I made up a word for it… Say… Shit that’s hard to do… Say, we call it Natural Havey-ness (one of the dumber things I have ever said and it took me ten minutes to think of, good lord), it still means the same thing. But maybe not the “jargon” that sets people off?
Why can’t so many people discuss their Havey-ness? Do they really think there is no way, in any way, that society favors them? Isn’t everyone favored by some group in some way? If we take out the term, does it make it easier to discuss it?
DB: Well if you want to talk “politics” and have an argument about the merits of feminism then go for it. You’ll be sure to find people willing to debate. I’d say it is still a good idea to get rid of jargon, because it helps to clear your thoughts if you have to explain what you mean.
But for the discussions that you don’t want turned into a fight, using a piece of jargon or a feminist slogan like “women earn less than men”, is like a debate argument compacted into a couple of words. It might be only a couple of words to you, but you are making very specific claims and shouldn’t be surprised if the other side says, well we get to argue back now, right? You started it.
JS: So what you’re saying is that when we make statements that we think reflect given “truths” like “white male privilege” or “rape culture”, we’re actually raising entire arguments with just a couple words?
I never thought of it that way. I can see now why it triggers whole attacks. To others, these aren’t simple truths.
DB: The feminists feel under attack by a lot of angry sounding people. They think, this is exhausting. I am really trying here, and I never get any credit. This is hopeless. The MRAs react with, See? We were right to be suspicious. You say you are different but you sound just the same to us.
JS: And this is because of that jargon? I hate to say “trigger words” but they do seem to function like that.
DB: I think they are a big part of the problem. More than compact arguments, they are familiar patterns in our brains. The brain says, I recognize this situation. Seen it before many times. This is an argument about X. I should say Y. People can get extremely good about seeing one side of the story. I think that’s fine in a debate. I want to hear the best argument from the other side. I want you to be an expert on your point of view. But if you don’t want to argue politics that triggering gets in the way.
JS: And anti-feminists need to stay away from saying things about “all feminists” because that frustrates us just the same way.
DB: Fair enough.
There’s a flip side to the MRAs caution about trust. They need to give credit when it is due. It is really tough to be accused all the time. To constantly have to prove you’re not one of the bad feminists. At some point you have to say, OK well we still disagree on a LOT. But I respect you. I trust you. And yes, that goes both ways but it’s much more important for the MRAs to say it. They are the ones starting from, I don’t trust you. You have to prove yourself to me before we can really talk.
You and I managed to get to that point (although I wouldn’t recommend the path we took).
JS: So what does this all come down to? I mean, is it really as simple as respecting one another and being willing to be challenged?
DB: What? You think I know the answers?
photo: mikemol / flickr