Hugo Schwyzer sees a world where men can be better, happier and different by including women’s voices in the telling of stories about men.
This article is a response to “Why Being a Good Man is Not a Feminist Issue” by Tom Matlack.
Is goodness something to which we all aspire together, or is it something men get to define for themselves without input from half the human race? That’s the question raised by Tom Matlack’s “Why Being a Good Man is Not a Feminist Issue,” and it reminds me of why it was I needed to resign from my position as a contributing editor at GMP last December.
Tom and I are both recovering alcoholics, and in our writing, we each often mention our transformative experiences through Twelve Step programs. In his latest essay, Tom mentions the vital importance of what are often called “men’s stags,” recovery meetings that women may not attend. (There are “women’s stags” as well, of course.) He writes that the men in these rooms “taught me to aspire to a completely different kind of goodness than I had ever contemplated.” None of what he learned, he writes, could have taken place if there were women present. While Tom welcomes women commenters, writers, and even editors and publishers at GMP, he wants the site to recapture the uniquely raw honesty that comes when men focus on telling the truth to each other.
There’s more to recovery, however, than going to meetings. As any newcomer quickly learns, staying sober requires working the steps. And those steps famously include compiling a “fearless and searching moral inventory” as well as making direct amends to all the people we’ve harmed. Of course, addicts are often unaware of the harm they’ve caused until the people they’ve hurt confront them; it’s not possible to make amends unless you know who it is whom you’ve hurt. That’s true on an individual level – but also on a societal one as well. In a culture in which men have done tremendous collective harm to women, that means that men’s successful recovery (whether from addiction or from the toxic straitjacket of traditional masculinity) is contingent on making amends to the women we’ve harmed. And how can we know what amends to make unless we’re willing to be confronted by those whom we’ve hurt?
Tom wants the Good Men Project to be a place where men can come together to share stories, to, as he puts it, “have a discussion of manhood in men’s own words” rather than “feminist critique.” He sees that critique as a distraction, an obstacle to men doing the important work of discussing masculinity. What Tom doesn’t consider is that feminism itself is a lens that allows everyone – men and women alike – to see issues of sex and gender more clearly.
When I was first going to AA meetings in Los Angeles, I was asked to read A New Pair of Glasses, a powerful and personal commentary on the Twelve Steps by a legend in Southern California sobriety circles. The book was invaluable, and the title is instructive. Just as the tools of the program gave me a new outlook on my identity and behavior, feminism give me a radically different perspective on my masculinity. Only when I put on the “feminist glasses” could I see the ways in which my acculturation as a man had limited my potential.
Tom concludes his essay with his vision for the future of the Good Men Project. He wants it to be a space where “men can have their own stories of struggle for goodness that can be shared man-to-man in a way that changes the teller and the listener alike quite apart from what a woman or a feminist might say about that story.” It’s the updated equivalent of nailing a “No Gurlz Allowed” sign to the clubhouse door, with the grudging caveat that women are welcome as long as they affirm whatever “stories of struggle” that the male members happen to spin.
There’s an old saying in Twelve Step programs: “If you want what you’ve never had, you’ll have to do what you’ve never done.” Men have spent a long time privileging the voices of other men; there’s nothing novel about creating a space in which women’s perspectives are seen as an unwelcome distraction. If we want to be happier, if we want to be better, if we want to be different, then “us guys” need to do what we’ve never done well collectively: listen to women and include feminist perspectives in our most intimate and important conversations.