The Good Men Project started with the goal of empathy. Empathy for other men. Tom Matlack hopes that today’s feminists can understand that.
So if you happened onto my blog, twitter stream, or anywhere near my person over the last few days you will know I experienced a lot of “Feminists Responding With Reasonable Arguments and Insights.” That’s what Amanda Marcotte so helpfully described the cascade of criticism I took for objecting to Hugo’s piece about women being justified in seeing all men as rapists, until proven otherwise, and my blog about how being a dude is a good thing.
Truly, I haven’t felt this popular since criticizing Esquire for objectifying women in their Women We Love Section — a post (“Cleavage or Soul?”) which for a time won me the honor of being the “Mangina of the Month” among Men’s Rights Activists (MRA for the un-initiated, who wrote about me here). That time, I took my clothes off and put a picture up of myself with make-up (“Have You Seen My Mangina?”) to admit to my obvious deficiencies.
Having experienced the pain of attack from both the most active men’s and now women’s groups, I have to admit to seeing both sides of this gender divide as fundamentally wrong in their view of manhood in all it’s many shapes and colors.
My original goal in founding The Good Men Project with my business partner James Houghton was to give voice to first-person stories by men about their attempt to be good fathers, husbands, sons, workers and men. And we did just that — publishing stories from men inside Sing Sing to men on the battlegrounds of the war in Iraq, stories that range from a dad who lost his child to men going through sex change, men dealing with divorce and men dealing with unemployment.
I, personally, have been moved and inspired.
We’ve also tried to “spark a national conversation about what it means to be a good man.” That’s worked really well in the boys’ schools I’ve visited, in the inner city and on leafy campuses in the suburbs. It’s worked in prisons. It’s worked in churches and synagogues. It’s even worked in open readings where we had as many women as men, if not more.
But somehow my attempt to look at how manhood has played out in those people and places I know–particularly as related to our relationship to women–has caused those who call themselves modern feminists great discomfort as they see my points as somehow trying to identify a binary or “essential” gender structure. That’s not what I believe or aspire to. Quite the opposite. The variety of first person stories on our site shows, if nothing else, that I value the unique experience that every man has in negotiating his own maleness. And when asked to pin down what it means to be a “good” man I have said over and over again that it is not an abstract concept. It has to be lived and self-defined. Our only goal has been to provide a platform to tell stories of men grappling with that aspiration and to allow open discussion about what it means to be a man.
So I come back to this basic disconnect that is filling my inbox and causing random men and women identifying themselves as “feminists” to contact me just to let me know:
To me, a key question in unpacking how and why this has happened goes to the meaning of the word “feminism.”
I was raised in a family where social justice was (and continues to be) the highest and most important calling in life. My parents were in Mississippi the summer of 1964, they marched for Civil Rights, my dad was imprisoned for protesting the Vietnam War on many occasions. When I was eight, I went to prison with him.
From the first grade on, I grew up in what my parents prefer I call a “communal living situation,” as opposed to an all-out commune. I was in first grade in 1970. My parent’s focus had shifted — from Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement, to women’s liberation. My mom went back to school to get her PhD. Our communal living situation included a lot of graduate students, many of whom happened to be lesbians.
My grade school dinner table was a place where we talked about women’s rights, about the ERA, about what feminism meant.
I say all this not to somehow set myself up as an expert or morally pure. I am neither. I am capable of racism, war mongering, and sexism. No doubt. But I am not uneducated on what the feminist movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s was all about when many women in this country changed the 1950s stereotype of being a “good wife” into something profoundly different and better for women, and for men.
I recall my mom defending her dissertation and starting to work. And the profound pride she felt and shared with me at being able to pay back her school loans and, when my dad experienced a professional setback, her ability to be the primary earner in our household.
No, I say this because the feminists I am interacting with today seem to have so little in common with the feminists with whom I sat at the dining room table as a kid.
What’s really strange to me is that female authors are proclaiming the End of Men (meaning in terms of careers, not ironically in terms of their capacity to be good fathers and husbands) at the very same time when the most ardent feminist voices are attacking me, and others men, for our inability to see the continued patriarchy. I don’t agree with either, but you can see my confusion.
I realize that there are issues that impact women much more heavily than men. Issues like sex trafficking, porn, and the glass ceiling, I am 100% on board with speaking up and taking actions to create change. I am fully in support of working hard to prevent rape and pedophilia.
What I don’t understand is the rage directed at me when I try to talk about one man’s perspective, albeit partial and deeply flawed for sure, of male emotion. Even the idea that women, or some women, would prefer men to be more like them than more manly sends the twitter-sphere into orbit. The idea that it’s not okay to treat all men as rapists, despite the preponderance of rape committed by individual men, is wrong. And, when I say that I believe treating every black man as a criminal just because there are one million of them behind bars is just as abhorrent as treating all men as rapists – it brings strangers to my door to call me not only a sexist but racist and deeply offensive.
This isn’t the feminism that I used to know. The feminism around our kitchen table was about equal rights. I agree whole-heartily with men and women having equal access to everything. I don’t agree that men and women are the same. Far from it. And maybe that is the sticking point here.
In my work life I have worked for lots of women. And I have hired lots of women in a field, venture capital, where there are less than they should be. One of my partners was a woman. The person who I work most closely with—who I frankly trust in business now more than anyone else, having started over 30 companies together—is a woman. The CEO of The Good Men Project is a woman.
I wish we had a woman for President (see Germany). I tend to think Hilary would have done a better job than Obama has, though I am still going to vote for him over whatever the Republican circus produces.
My point is that men and women are different, thankfully. And the world would be a better place, in my view, if women had more power rather than less.
That doesn’t mean that I believe in a binary/essential view of gender. I understand that there are as many different kinds of men (and women) as there are men (and women). I am only speaking about my own experience. But I don’t think it’s helpful in a gender discussion to blow up the concept of gender altogether or see it simply as a matter of sexual attraction (whatever your orientation) without being able to at least talk about the emotions, reactions, thought processes that are tied to gender, whatever that means to you.
Maybe I’m the only one who takes this view, that a discussion of manhood is a worthy topic despite its many nuances and my vastly limited view. I could be totally wrong to even bring it up. But does that view deserve the “wrath of the feminists” as I said on twitter? Even then, I was quickly attacked for using such sexist language (they were pretty darn mad at me and they did say they were feminists).
At the core of the idea that became The Good Men Project was the goal of empathy. It had saved my life to hear other men’s stories and develop empathy for them, to be inspired by them, to love them fully. It’s how I came back from a horrific bottom and slowly rebuilt a life that had been blown to bits.
James and I believed at the start that we, as men, don’t have enough empathy for each other, for our kids and for the women in our lives. We don’t share our stories as readily as we might. And so we thought that the male sharing of experience could be a powerful force for change and good in the world.
We also believed that our very differences as men are what can be the most powerful in this context. We set out to find men who were as different as possible from the two middle-aged white straight finance guys we were. And in our original book and film, that turned out to be the case. It was in our differences as men that the common elements came through the most profoundly. When we saw ourselves not in skin color or wealth or sexual orientation but in heart and soul that we knew we had hit the jackpot.
I consider myself a feminist. Perhaps it’s a club that doesn’t really want me at this point but the fact remains. One comment on twitter noted that “feminism isn’t static, it’s constantly changing.” Which I suppose is a good thing. And perhaps it’s like “God” in that it is a concept both so broad and so personal that it almost escape a single definition. But I’d like to believe that at the core of feminism is a commitment to empathy—to empathy for women and for human beings in general.
I can understand being angry. Angry about the lack of women in positions of power, angry about women who have been raped, angry about sex trafficking. I’m angry about those things too. But I don’t understand being angry at men at-large, or to criticize those of us who are trying to get really honest in hopes of building a stronger foundation for intimacy and relationships and goodness in the realm of fatherhood and husbandhood.
I am reminded of a particular story that showed up in our film by James’s brother-in-law Kent George. I love what he was willing to share with us, and with our viewers, because it says in a few short minutes more than I ever could about the fact that sometimes being a man is about surviving. And even a white man deserves our profound empathy no matter what our gender, orientation or color.