When we have a conversation about gender, C.W. Nahumck writes, we are often set up to fail before we even begin.
In the back and forth about the “Wrath of the Feminists” there has been one small problem: discussions and debates tend to break down into arguments and name calling because of misunderstandings and problems with the nature of the debate in the first place. This is a stretch, but I would say that most, if not all, gender discussions between people of differing views will breakdown because of issues of power dynamics. It’s just not the power dynamics that one would first think of.
When I was in undergrad, ten years ago, philosophy club tended to have a knowable cycle. We would meet to discuss some topic of ethics or metaphysics or epistemology, only to have our discussion go absolutely no where because we argued and clarified definitions. One thing became clear to me then:
Whoever defines the terms is able to frame the debate in a way that sets them up with the advantage and ultimately the ability to “win.” When it comes to the debate on gender, in general, men are at a disadvantage, because feminism has started the debate and thus has been allowed to define its terms.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Feminism has brought to consciousness many things about society that should be challenged, addressed, corrected, highlighted, and embraced. That said, feminism is still an “ism,” and all “isms” miss details, make assumptions about reality, and tend to focus on trying to define the terms as they see them. Again, this is not any different from any other “ism,” from sexism, to progressivism, to conservatism, to patriotism, to racism. “Isms” by their very nature, exclude some and raise others up.
The issue is not who gets to speak, but what the rules are for speaking. When one group gets to determine what the definitions are before the discussion even happens, the game is rigged from the start. This is what is wrong with the discussion. When men and women say that men need a space to figure out what masculinity means to them, it does not mean that women are not allowed into the discussion. It does not mean that feminists are not allowed into the discussion. What it does mean is that the definitions that are developed must be agreed upon before the discussion begins.
When the term “Rape Culture” is used, arguing against it is impossible, because those who endorse it have accepted the definition as true, while those who find the (intentionally) jarring term troubling are at a loss. Feminists, both men and women, have been speaking intentionally about women, men, and equality for a lot longer and from a specific place for longer than men and women who may not want that same label applied to them.
Unfortunately my experience of the discussion, both here on the GMP and in my own conversations, have been one where I, as a man, need to conform to the definition of others.
Yet there are times, in articles or in comments, that one of the sides of the conversation tries to say that the other doesn’t “get it” because their experience doesn’t stack up to another’s. When we do that, we invalidate the particularities of the individual’s life, and all the things that make them who they are, as interesting human beings.
And this is happening, to a large extent, in the conversations that men who do not want to take on the feminist label, disagree with. Can we define what it means to be men, in our own particularity, without having to accept definitions of others? To put it another way, can I play in the sandbox and play by my own rules?
I hope so, because to do otherwise means that true discussion and learning and growth for all involved in the discussion is cut off. If we all have to agree to the terms of the negotiation before we negotiate, then why are we even talking?