Can people be so tainted that even when they do a good deed, it somehow isn’t?
Jennifer Kesler wrote about the death of Margaret Thatcher under the heading, “Sometimes Bad People Do Good Things,” including a little story about the time Thatcher destroyed food rather than feed the poor. Though lauded by some as a feminist icon, Kesler writes, “Thatcher’s policies harmed women. She didn’t break barriers for us. Any civil rights gain from her actions was despite her, not because of her.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has written on at least a couple of occasions about the actions of men’s rights activists—individuals who have killed, including the murder of more than a dozen women in an engineering college, down to anonymous trolls on the internet who spew misogynist hate and threats. A couple of websites get named by the SPLC, but the organization has not named any single men’s rights organization as a hate group.
The name of men’s rights has been sullied, some would say irreparably, by ugly voices online and actual hate crimes against women. Men focusing on their own rights are shamed as selfish, myopic, or weak. But even the SPLC admits that some of these men have legitimate grievances, and have endured shocking abuses that deserve justice. Earl Silverman was a Canadian man, a domestic violence survivor, who created the only men’s DV shelter in the country. After years of denigration and repeated rejections for federal aid for his shelter, which Silverman funded from his own pocket, he took his own life. Reportedly difficult to work with and a trauma survivor, Silverman was a complicated man. His shelter was his one great work. Was it also the one great work of the men’s rights movement?
Men’s work should be done, and it’s being done, both by men who call themselves men’s rights activists, and also by men who do not accept this label. What’s in a name? Everything. What makes a man a gay man? There are men who are out and proud gay activists but still virgins, and there are famous schadenfreude-inducing cases of homophobic lawmakers being caught in same-sex affairs. I’m a bisexual man who’s been told bisexuals don’t exist, that we’re suffering from internalized homophobia, that if gender is a spectrum the term bisexual is too limiting. I agree that bisexual is a problematic word, and it doesn’t sufficiently describe my sexual orientation. But when I moved to New Jersey, was new in town and looking for queer community, the first people I met were active in a bisexual organization. I eventually served on the board of BiZone, and still call myself bisexual, because I met such wonderful people who called themselves bi, and accepted me just as I was. None of our desires were simple or binary, nor were our notions of gender. Language is not enough, and yet it’s all we’ve got.
So I go on calling myself by terms that are merely off the rack fits—the cuffs brush my fingernails, the pleats gape. I’m not an orthodox enough model of any fashion to wear its label confidently on my sleeve, and yet I do. Some of what I wear is what last fit me best, or out of fashion, or both. I still hold fast to Jewish identity even while there is little in my life to point to as Jewish practice. I go through long periods of doubt that G-d exists. But I’m Jewish because this is the faith tradition I respond to; this is the G-d I doubt, not another.
It’s important to understanding me, to know that I am Jewish, and bisexual, and also that I am a mother, that I’m transgender, and a hippie, a trauma survivor, a Virgo. They tell you when I live, and where, and how: what I think is important to know about me, the context in which I’ve developed. The labels I choose matter to me and to others. Not just the ones I proclaim loudly but the facts I let people presume about me—that I’m striving to be a good man, for instance, because I am Managing Editor of a magazine the explores the meaning of modern manhood and because I write frequently about ethics, or because I’m a locavore, or a yogi.
We call ourselves The Good Men Project, and this section, The Good Life—aspirational terms, as far as the “good” part goes. We accept that sometimes good people do bad things, because no one is perfect. Neither is anyone perfectly bad. Some of my favorite articles in this magazine have been from perspectives I would describe as cynical, even evil. “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying” might be described as an example of one good act of warning by a bad person. Jack Donovan’s “On Being a Good Man” delineates the difference between being a good man, and being good at being a man, while pointing out our strong preference for the latter over the former.
There is a tradition in my faith of the sinner who “turns,” and someone who has done this in a big way as being a “master of turning”—a Ba’al T’shuvah; we speak of sin as “missing the mark.” It is possible to hit my mark for goodness this time and the next, and to miss it further down the line; it’s also possible to miss it very often and then, rarely, to hit it.
In the call for submissions for this series—to which there were no submissions—I got some flak for what was perceived as picking on a man who’s turned his life around. My intention in capturing Mike Tyson holding a pigeon was not to illustrate the Ba’al T’shuvah, but the boxer and rapist who also, paradoxically, nurtures birds symbolic of peace.
Someone I know starts a new “I’m starting a new healthy lifestyle” blog every six months or so, then abandons it as her Facebook account reports more frequent visits to local comfort food establishments. We can turn and turn, but it might not change us: we might just be whirlers. The archer will go on shooting, because none of us can help but to keep on trying, to do something. But for his aim to have more intention behind it of hitting his mark, not simply letting his arrow fly: that is the possibility. That we can do more than live: we can strive. That is the hope, anyway.
Generally, we believe things are as they mostly seem. We don’t come to the lone correct answer made on a test, and conclude that here is a sign of hidden excellence. We believe in the odds—of stopped clocks and failed tests—of a low but non-zero rate of accuracy among the broken, bad, failing, losers of society. Yet odds deny such things as long shots at goodness, currents of change, glimmers of potential, thwarting forces, hope.
Kesler points out that none of the good that an evil person does is lessened by the fact she has done bad things. If Thatcher opened doors for women, then those women are still benefitting, even while other people in the world are starving to death because of her decisions. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, while six million men, women, and children perished in the Holocaust, a few animals’ lives were spared by Hitler’s vegetarianism. Speculative, or alternate, historical fiction—a popular subgenre within science fiction—hinges upon such human potentials being opened up in the crucibles of history.
When things are at their worst, people do not behave most nobly. Because we are so much a product of where we live and who we live among, it is startling and awe inspiring when bad people do good things, and when progressive movements arise out of tyranny and suffering. The point is not to weigh the great darkness against the spark of goodness, one against the other, but to take inspiration from wherever you possibly can. This skill is essential, as it’s without a doubt that you will most need it in the darkest hours of your life.
Whether men’s rights activists can do more good in this world than bad is not yet known. The odds are against it, but I’m not a gambler: I’m a believer.