“Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term “gaslighting” comes from the play Gas Light and its film adaptations. The term is now also used in clinical and research literature.”
“Tom could publish the Matlack family grocery list and provoke a Twitter carpet-bombing based on his sexist breakfast choices.”
–Michael Rowe, on my Facebook Page
Yesterday was yet another interesting day in the ongoing conversation about gender politics, The Good Men Project, and my attempt to spark a national conversation about what it means to be a good man. My 300-word blog in the NYT about how much I love my wife, make-up, body ink, and plastic surgery spawned another attack by a feminist.
Megan Murphy, writing in rabble.ca, leads in by identifying me as “The Good Douche Project’s Tom Matlack” in her piece At long last: Tom Matlack’s opinion on your face. She later qualifies that further by calling me, “Tom Matlack, of the MRA infested, porn-loving, rape apologist Good Men Project.”
At this point personal attacks on me bounce right off. It’s not that I don’t take the topics I write about personally. I am incredibly passionate about the men’s stories that serve as the basis of what we are doing and the issues that go to the heart of what it means to be a good father and good husband and good man in 21st century America and around the globe.
But the attacks on The Good Men Project as a whole are unfair and unjustified. We provide an open platform for men, and women, to talk about the most challenging topics from prison to divorce, poverty and unemployment, sex trafficking and porn, rape and sexual abuse, sexual identity and the search for intimacy. We’ve published fifteen thousand pieces since our founding. Our top ten most popular of all time include:
I certainly understand that in talking about very sensitive topics we stir up plenty of controversy. We attempt to publish provocative pieces from all sides of an issue in order to allow a nuanced and deep conversation to occur, one that has been lacking among and about men and manhood. That’s the mission and the vision.
No doubt individual pieces may be challenging for some. They may be upsetting or downright painful. Strong reactions are natural when dealing with addiction, abuse, divorce, race, sexuality and gender. It’s totally fair, and expected, to be critical of individual pieces and authors. But attacking the enterprise as a whole, given the breadth and depth of our content, doesn’t make any sense in my opinion.
Getting back to the narrower question of my NYT blog post, and Ms. Murphy’s critique of it, I want to talk about what I learned from the heated conversation that ensued inside the GMP tent on my Facebook page (because we don’t all agree, which is exactly the point). But first I want to share a different conversation that happened on my Facebook page to make a related point.
Thursday I wrote the follow status update:
I am struggling at the bench press and Konstantin Selivanov, my amazing trainer, starts talking about how silly it is that his dog needs to get special treatments for it’s teeth. “My dad had huskies. He went hunting one time and he shot a bird. He looked at the dog and told it to fetch the bird. The dog looked at him like he was crazy. My dad gave him one more chance. The dog still looked at him like he was crazy. So he shot the dog instead…” Now I am laughing so hard I have to drop the weights.
Several of my friends who know Konstantin found my post humorous. And then friends and relatives who are dog lovers started making clear how unfunny they thought the story was. “Wonderin’ where rollin’ like this would fall, say, on a Good Man behavioral spectrum…” wrote a friend with two rescued greyhounds.
I explained that what was funny was that Konstantin grew up in Russia. While Konstantin is still one of the toughest SOB’s I have ever met, he is also one of the kindest, sensitive guys I know who believes in meditation and a carefully regimented holistic diet. It was the distance he has travelled from a dad who shot his dog to a son who pays for his teeth to get his teeth brushed that was funny. The journey we all are on to find a masculinity that works for us.
Konstantin himself came on the thread and explained:
As Tom said, it was over 30 years ago in Russia North of Siberia, place called Yakutia. Different culture it is. In wintertime my mom gave too much food to our poor dog so he got fat and lazy, not a good combination for a hunting dog, as my friend say – Fat wolf can’t hunt. So laziness and too much food got him killed.
In the last comment on the thread Konstantin talked about how heartbreaking it was to watch his mom weep over her lost dog.
My point is that sure, my post could have been viewed as offensive to animal lovers and advocates. Michael Vick went to prison for animal cruelty. But there was actually a lot more to the story. It happened in a different time and place. And it wasn’t about the dead dog at all. It was about a boy watching his mom cry and a man struggling to get to the place where he is not his father but a father and husband who takes the family dog for professional cleanings. And it was about a really macho guy laughing at the sensitivity he had developed, unlike his dad, for dogs and people. Seeing all that flash across his face made me laugh because it touched my heart. My first post explained it very poorly for anyone except the people who already knew Konstantin’s story. But he explained it himself perfectly so not only did the animals lovers come running to his defense, but all were moved by his honesty.
I did post a link to Ms. Murphy’s piece with the phrase, “a piece of beauty…” on my homepage. Then all hell broke out. Friends, GMP contributors, family all had something to say.
The core issue quickly became one GMP contributor calling Ms. Murphy “effing crazy” for calling our organization “Douche” while another contributor felt this response to her was gaslighting her.
I waded in a couple of times to make clear how I felt my NYT piece was really non-controversial but pretty quickly realized that my actual 300 words really had little to do with the conversation.
In the end, the issues came down to two related points:
1) If a woman does something that in fact a man thinks is wrong/crazy/inappropriate, is calling her out on that controlling her language in a way that is sexist, gaslighting, mind control?
2) As a man with “privilege”, does saying you are not the enemy in fact, by definition, make you the enemy for your complicit participation in the oppression of women?
I am going to give you my thoughts on these two questions, for what that is worth, but before doing so I want to reiterate a core part of the GMP mission. We want to foster discussion from as many points of view as possible based on the belief that in the end we all have the right to our own experience and our own conclusions but until we each hear all sides we will not be fully informed. And more is gained in the discussion that sticking to some single-minded view of the world.
There is no GMP party line, no set position on anything. The only commitment is to ongoing discussion about the central issues of what it means to be a good man.
I fully support the idea that race and gender have been used to systematically oppress throughout history. And that analysis based on privilege and power dynamics is a legitimate and important way to think about our world and human interactions.
What I do not accept is the notion that privilege is the only way to think about humanity in general and manhood in particular. Said another way, there are many great places for a feminist perspective on daily life. The core reason I started The Good Men Project was because I felt men lacked a place to talk about the unique challenges of being a good guy in modern society.
We have certainly included a ton of feminist content throughout. All three of the leaders of the company, two women and a man, identify themselves as strong feminists. Our first editor-in-chief was a noted gay writer (and dog lover, just by the way). But the topic isn’t feminism. It’s manhood.
The chain of logic that frankly drives me nuts is that because I am a white man I have privilege. My privilege blinds me to what it is like to be oppressed. And as a result I cannot speak to my own experience of the world apart from the cage of ignorance that power analysis puts me in. This logic in essence obliterates the idea upon which The Good Men Project was founded, namely that men need to talk more about their experience in all its gory detail rather than less.
In part this may be just an inclination on my part toward the micro rather than macro analysis. I am not a sociologist, nor a PhD in gender theory. I’m just a guy who lived a colorful life in search of other men who have stories to tell that enlighten, inspire, and help us all figure out how to be better men. That, of course, includes our treatment of women.
On the gaslighting question I certainly understand that telling a woman she is crazy is a sensitive area for a variety of reasons. We have worked hard to highlight the fact that male victims of sexual abuse have a particular burden to bear. But I agree, and we have written about often, the prevalence of rape by men of women. No one is disputing that fact. And the core concept of gaslighting is one in which a perpetrator of physical or emotional abuse tries to convince his (or her) victim that they are too crazy to believe the truth of their experience.
Again, our goal is to allow a space where the truth of men’s experiences can be shared in a way that moves the ball forward in terms of male integrity, compassion, intimacy, and fulfillment.
So I don’t see the concept of gaslighting as a blank check by which a woman can say whatever she wants, wait for an angry response, and then whip out the gaslighting card. If you start a conversation about The Good Men Project by calling our 500 contributors all d-bags I think it’s okay to call you names back, even though I personally have and will continue to refrain from doing that. Somebody punches you in the nose, it’s probably not a great idea to punch them back. But you are justified in doing so since they started the fight.
This all boils down to how we handle differences of opinion. There have obviously been some individual pieces on GMP that upset those in the feminist community. And I don’t expect everyone to agree with what I just said about power dynamics even amongst the leadership group at GMP.
But does that mean that we have to resort to McCarthy-type black-balling of all members of the GMP community as pariahs?
When I sit down with Julio Medina, who spent a decade inside Sing Sing, or David Sanfacon, who is home with 6 month-old twins, I want to hear the story they have to tell from the deepest part of their soul. It may involve issues of race or gender or sexual orientation. Or it may not. It’s their life and their story. And I just don’t see why I have to accept feminist doctrine as the only way to try to understand manhood.
Sure shooting a dog in cold blood is horrific. But maybe, just maybe, there is a crying mother and a little boy that you are missing.
We all have a story to tell. Some come rushing out, some are pent-up and come out in bits and pieces, little gasps of truth. My hope is that GMP has been and will continue to be a place where men of all kinds, feminist and not, rich and poor, inmates and CEOs, all religions, all nationalities, all sexual orientations, all colors, all ages, and with a rainbow of interests and points of view can share their deepest truths in a way that makes clear that we as men are not alone. That we can do better in terms of how we treat women, as individuals and as a gender. And we can inspire each other to be great dads. And that goodness, whatever that means to you, isn’t a solitary goal. Being a man in the 21st century does not mean being silent. It means be speaking up and being one of the many.
image Steve Locke