We should all tell our stories and listen to others, Tom Matlack writes, as it’s the only way to move forward.
“I value The Good Men Project for many reasons, not least of which is its willingness to try to meet men where they are and encourage us to ask questions and work out the answers provisionally in our lives.”
December 31, 2011 at 10:10 pm • Edit
“None of this is easy, but it seems more important than ever. If not us, who?”
Only you. You may get criticized a lot but the truth is both you, Tom, Lori and Julie are quite remarkable and you’re really the only ones who can keep this going. I understand the difficulty for you…you get criticized endlessly and never get appreciated. You have to control yourself while others exercise no control and nobody seems to appreciate what you’re doing. Instead everyone gets increasingly angry that you are not taking their side. You can’t win. But you’re not supposed to. The only way to really win is let go of your ego which is really really hard.
Its a mostly thankless job you have. Maybe you think no one notices what you’re doing but some of us do even if we don’t say it. We notice it even when we are arguing with you.
I think you’re doing a great job. I am actually genuinely impressed.
It’s truly odd to me that all my attempts to write personal narratives, and encourage others to do the same, seem to have fallen well short in popularity to the sport of watching the blood-letting over gender and feminism. It makes me profoundly sad, to be honest, since to me the purest form of discussion is one in which each participant uses the first person in the telling. “This is the truest version of my own story I can muster right here, right now.” Then others can respond not by passing judgment on that story but attempting to relate, and ultimately by telling their own story.
In this form of communication, one person talking about another’s story explicitly is called “cross-talk” and is out of bounds.
So, when we presented 31 men’s stories in our anthology and 10 in our documentary, none so much as mentions another. Each is a self-contained, first-person story centered on a turning point that defined each storyteller’s manhood.
But our book didn’t sell all that well, and we’ve discovered that purely first-person storytelling is important but can’t carry the goal of becoming a broad and widely discussed platform about manhood. People want to read and talk about more than one life. It turns out my interest in being inspired by normal men doing extraordinary things doesn’t scale the way I wished it would.
Perhaps the most important thing that I learned in the process of “twittergate,” or my now somewhat infamous exchange with Hugo Schwyzer, Amanda Marcotte, and what felt like a cast of thousands of like-minded feminists both male and female, is the extent to which gender is still an amazingly hot potato in our culture.
I had always known that the relative opportunity set for each gender a crucial issue. As I have written elsewhere, it was drilled into my head at a young age. But I assumed, wrongly, that my own experience of going through a divorce where I got the short end of the stick legally, feeling personally misrepresented by popular culture, and the growing economic and educational power of women vs. men at least leveled the playing field somewhat and turned traditional feminism on it’s head and maybe, just maybe, took a bit of the venom out of the conversation.
I was dead wrong. My bad.
As the Good Men Project moved to more than just personal narrative and tried to grapple with the broad issues that readers seemed to be clamoring for, I naïvely thought I could write a piece that touched on what I had witnessed, first hand among a handful of married men, to ask some broader questions, admitting I don’t have the answers, like “Is a good man more like a woman or more truly masculine?”
The response was, depending on whom you talk to, intense-but-constructive criticism or a fucking shit storm.
I learned something very important in the response I got.
Don’t get me wrong, it sucked. The stream of men and women who tracked down my personal email address to write me to tell me things like this:
Hi Mr. Matlack,
My immediate reaction after reading your post about why it’s good to be a dude was to send my boyfriend an enraged email, and I admit I’m still feeling pretty roiled up, hence this effort to reach out to you directly. I don’t doubt your good faith, and I don’t doubt you’re the good man you are so interested in defining. Which is why I feel compelled to try and articulate why I, as a feminist and also a human being who cares about other human beings (including men), found the sentiments so hurtful.
But I had assumed that I could articulate my own observations, ask some slightly inflammatory questions, and get a response like the one I had gotten to the zillion other half-baked essays I have written over the years on stuff like pooping to Lady Gaga.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
People took my comments and questions personally to an extent that was beyond anything I could have imagined.
As I told the author of the letter above, and the many others I got either on email or social media, I am sorry if I somehow hurt people with my essay. That was never my intent. I just figured folks could choose to not read my thoughts, or ignore them if they didn’t agree. I never assumed they would be infused with so much power, particularly given my underlying premise in writing what I did.
I don’t regret the words. Even now when I reread the essay, or the many follow up exchanges, my view hasn’t changed. But what has changed is my realization that I walked into a landmine that I literally didn’t know existed. If I had known of the landmine ahead of time, I would have chosen my words a lot more carefully.
But then the exchange wouldn’t have gotten as heated as it did and drawn the level of attention to the topic that is has. Which, overall, I see as a good thing for those of us who care passionately about being good men and being unafraid to talk about any facet of what that might mean.
In his magnificent memoir The Night of the Gun, David Carr sets out to investigate his own life to try to determine the truth of what happened to him. His point is that memory is partial at best. Often it is flat wrong. And yet we all live our lives based on a worldview determined, consciously or unconsciously, by what we have personally experienced. We compile those experiences into a life story that we carry close to our hearts. I know, at least, that is true of me.
So when we write, think, and talk about difficult topics like gender or race or class or manhood it is very hard to remain objective. When Hugo said to me in the aftermath of twittergate that my hurt feelings were not relevant since “the personal is political,” I think that is what he meant. Your very personal response to a topic causes it to become political, to become not objective but highly subjective. And as Carr points out, that subjective response may in fact be based on a story about your own life that is faulty at best.
For years, I thought I was a heck of a guy because I made tons of money. But it turned out that I was a falling-down drunk. Denial kept me from seeing it for years. When I finally did, my worldview changed completely because my own understanding of my own life story changed.
My life story, and world view, continues to change through events like the powerful exchange with Hugo and others.
The concept that gender determines the rules of what is “civil discourse” was a fundamental point of the disagreement.
Just about any human being who experienced what I experienced after writing the original article would have reported feeling under attack. The fact that just as many men as women were moved to make clear their displeasure with me in highly personal terms means that I wasn’t calling out women in particular for their reaction. In fact, I wasn’t considering gender at all. When someone calls you names, you really don’t care much else about them other than that they are treating you poorly.
But an important point that was lost in the heat of exchanges that followed, and I now feel are crucial to a constructive conversation, is the idea that not only is there no one “essential” set of gender criterion (a main criticism I received, but is not what I believe as evidenced by my fascination with men who are as different from me as I can find) but there is also not one set of beliefs or one set of personal experiences that determine what it means to be a feminist or an MRA. There are feminists who really want to have a constructive conversation and those that really don’t. There are MRAs who are willing to look at issues without reverting to name calling and anger and those that simply won’t.
Lumping all feminists and all MRAs into two opposing camps like the Israelis and the Palestinians is wrong and just fuels more anger. I did that and I regret it. If you pull back the layers, I am sure each person on either side has a story to tell that informs their positions. And what we aspire to do is provide a safe place for that to happen. My responding to anger with anger didn’t help that cause. In fact, it hurt it quite a bit. And of all the things I did, that’s what I regret the most.
Telling an ardent feminist that he or she sounds like an MRA (because the attack is just as vicious) may be a true statement, but all it does is drive the feminist, and anyone associated with him or her, to become angrier. It also alienates the MRA who might otherwise be willing to engage in a constructive dialogue. The anger gets us all nowhere. It just blocks the chance for real discussion. By lumping people together, I increased the anger rather than defusing it.
I have learned my lesson.
My 20 year-old niece, who followed quite a bit of the twitter fight with equal parts amusement and shock, handed me a copy of Fast Company today. Read this, she said pointing to the article, “A Case for Girls” and specifically a quote that read:
A 2011 Gallup poll revealed that if American men between the ages of 18 and 49 could have only one child, 54% would want a boy; “no preference,” at 26%, beat out girls, who rated a measly 19%. According to the same poll, women don’t have a preference.
The article points out the historic preference in India and China for male babies, causing infanticide of 160 million baby girls in the past and now an epidemic of early sonograms and abortions of female babies. The author points out that the economic argument that underlies that belief in is flawed.
The treatment of women is highly correlated with the economic success of developing countries. The whole micro-finance industry is based on the ability of dirt-poor women to act as effective capitalists.
To bridge the perception gap the magazine asked leading ad firms to come up with campaign around the value of female babies (see it here) to insure that “for all the little girls to be born around the world, the creation of these ads is an effort to show how imagination can change the conversation around their lives.”
The author brought the preference for male babies back to America. I read and re-read that Gallup poll saying that men wanted male babies. As a father of a daughter and husband of a wife, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that. I don’t love my daughter less than my sons. And I certainly have no idea what I would do on this planet without my wife.
The only thing I could come up with that perhaps the stat is driven by some kind of fear: Fear by men of not being able to take care of a daughter, fear of stretching to cross the gender chasm, fear of the unknown. But that is just a guess on my part and no I am not trying to speak for all men.
I will speak purely for myself here, no one else. There are moments when I find my sons easier. My boys (sample size of two) have tended to be less complex emotionally, which isn’t to say they are not sensitive because they are. But my daughter (sample size of one) has a certain nuance to her moods that are harder for me to understand, to respond to constructively, to predict.
I would say that each of my kids has made me a better man, but especially my daughter. She’s taught me about empathy, about listening, about not reacting, about loving unconditionally when everything else fails, and often just standing back in awe at the talent and charisma that could not possibly be a child of mine.
I really hope that the challenging conversations that started in twittergate can continue in a way that inspires and informs all of us. I hope we can take the labels off and just talk one person to another about our own experience, our own views, and try not to purposely hurt each other. I hope we can at least agree that part of being a good man, a good woman, a good human being is seeing gender for what it is: an opportunity to grow in respect for the “other” and, in so doing, for ourselves.
That doesn’t mean that I think there is anything wrong with men. Only that most of the guys I know want desperately to be good dads and husbands and men, and are open to talking about the challenges in their lives and listening to how it works in the lives of others, male and female.
—Photo M.Markus / Flickr