“One of [the] childish things adult men must put away is the need to deflect, belittle, or exaggerate women’s anger.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally due to run on December 19. In fact, we posted it for a short while, pulled it down, and Hugo Schwyzer ultimately resigned when we couldn’t come to an agreement over his perceived censorship of this post and his role moving forward. The post first ran on his blog under the title “Why I Resigned From The Good Men Project.” We are publishing it now with Hugo’s knowledge and permission.
One of the most popular articles of the year (and certainly one of the most-viewed here at GMP) is Yashar Ali’s now thoroughly viral Why Women Aren’t Crazy. Referencing an old film, Yashar coined the simple term “gaslighting” to describe the way in which men undermine women’s self-confidence through subtle (and not so subtle) insinuations that women’s feelings are unreasonable. I’ve thought about Yashar’s piece quite a bit as I’ve reflected on the recent Twitter blow-up between GMP founder Tom Matlack and a number of well-known feminist writers. (For more, see here, and here, and here.)
I’ve also remembered an incident from a women’s studies class of mine many years ago. It was a typical course: perhaps 30 women and 6 men. Most of the guys had been quiet all semester long. But one (there is often such a one) was a talker. “Kevin” liked to stir the proverbial pot; a member of the college’s forensics team, he was a skilled debater who liked to argue. Many of his female classmates argued back, not infrequently getting the better of him, which spurred Kevin to try even harder to instigate arguments.
One day, Kevin came to class with a duffel bag. I thought little of it, until—in the midst of a discussion about men and feminism—he reached into the duffle and pulled out a football helmet. “I know I’m gonna get killed for what I’m about to say,” he announced dramatically. “I brought some protection.” Kevin then strapped the helmet on as his classmates and I stared in shock. I told him to cut out the cheap theatrics, but not before he’d made a powerful point, though I’m confident it wasn’t the one he intended to make.
Kevin’s gag with the football helmet was designed to send a signal about women and anger. The message he wanted to send was, as he told me later, that “feminists take things too seriously and get too aggressive.” The message he actually sent was that men will go to great lengths to try and short-circuit women’s attempts at serious conversation. The helmet was an effort to label those attempts as “male-bashing” or “man-hating.” The hope was that it would shame uppity feminists into biting back their anger; of course, Kevin only ended up inflaming the situation. In less dramatic ways, I’ve seen men use this same tactic again and again.
What bothered so many of us about the Twitter conversation about feminism was that Tom Matlack trotted out (as so many men do) that same tactic of attempting to silence women’s anger by suggesting that it poses a threat. Tom tweeted at Jenn Pozner that some men are afraid to speak up out of fear of female reprisals. Kind of being proven right here. Now Jennifer Pozner is a well-known feminist media critic, but she’s hardly in the position to carry out “reprisals” against anyone for speaking out, not that she would if she could. Nor was Jenn (or Kate Harding, or Amanda Marcotte) engaged in throwing stones, which didn’t stop Tom from describing the “pelting” he was taking from feminists.
A short while later, Tom tweeted I really thought the MRA guys were crazy until I engaged the wrath of the feminists. Insane. Though I doubt Tom thought this through clearly, this is the textbook “gaslighting” to which Yashar refers. No feminist had called Tom a name equivalent to the names he (and I) are regularly called by MRAs (“mangina” is the epithet of choice from the Basement Boys); it didn’t matter. Jennifer and Amanda were “insane.”
Seemingly innocuous words often have a profound charge depending on how and by whom they’re used. Tom knows, surely, how problematic it is to use the word “boy” to refer to an African-American. It’s not a curse word in most contexts, but when used by a white person to refer to an adult black male, it’s steeped in the long and painful history of racism in America. What many men fail to understand is that accusing a woman of being insane or of engaging in reprisals merely because she’s expressing forceful disagreement has an equivalent ugliness. If that seems hyperbolic, google the word “hysteria.”
All of this behavior reflects two things: men’s genuine fear of being challenged and confronted, and the persistence of the stereotype of feminists as being aggressive, wrathful, “man-bashers.” The painful thing about all this, of course, is that no man is in any real physical danger on the internet—or even in real life—from feminists. Women are regularly beaten and raped, but I know of no instance where a man found himself a victim of violence for making a sexist remark in a feminist setting! “Male-bashing” doesn’t literally happen, in other words, at least not as a result of arguments over feminism. But that doesn’t stop men from using (in jest or no) their own exaggerated fear of physical violence to make a subtle point about feminists.
There’s a conscious purpose to this sort of behavior. Joking about getting pelted (or putting on the football helmet) sends a message to women in the classroom—and online: “Tone it down. Take care of the men and their feelings. Don’t scare them off, because too much impassioned feminism is scary for guys.” And you know, as exasperating as it is, this kind of silencing language almost always works. Time and again, I’ve seen it work to silence women in the classroom, or at least cause them to worry about how to phrase things “just right” so as to protect the guys and their feelings. It’s a key anti-feminist strategy, even if that isn’t the actual intent of the men doing it—it forces women to become conscious caretakers of their male peers by subduing their own frustration and anger. It reminds young women that they should strive to avoid being one of those “angry feminists” who (literally) scare men off and drive them away.
This doesn’t mean that a “good man” is always in the wrong when he’s arguing with a woman. It does mean that when men and women argue about gender justice, women are more likely to have insights that men have missed. Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it. When a man and a woman are arguing about feminism—and the women involved happen to be feminists and the man happens to be an affluent white dude—the chances that he’s the one from whom the truth is more obscured is very high indeed. That’s as true for me as it is for Tom Matlack.
I’ll say it a thousand times. I respect and admire Tom Matlack for what he’s done to start this conversation, even as I disagree with him about the degree to which men and women are really different. I disagree with his take about being “attacked” by feminists, as I don’t see the evidence of animus towards him that that word implies. But the real disagreement we have is, I think, a bigger (though not necessarily insurmountable) one.
This is the Good Man Project, and as I’ve said a time or nine, I think the opposite of “man” is not “woman”, but “boy.” At the heart of the reason I joined GMP was because I believe we live in a culture where too few adult males assert the grown-up virtues of self-control, responsibility, and manifested empathy. Being “manly” is less about traditional machismo than it is about what the Apostle Paul calls the putting away of childish things. And one of those childish things adult men must put away is the need to deflect, belittle, or exaggerate women’s anger.
Read Justin Cascio’s interpretation of the events here:
—Photo Self-portrait Girl/Flickr