Nobody can deny that there are people who hate certain groups. So, there indeed is such a thing as misogyny: as a man, I have often enough heard comments and seen behaviors by men (and sometimes, paradoxically, by women) that were clearly meant to be offensive to the whole female sex. There indeed are, even in this day and age, people who do think women are inferior to men in some (or even in many) ways. And there are also people who seem to hold incredible beliefs about men (such as that they can't love, as a poster was trying to convince me of not so long ago).
So I certainly am not trying to deny the existence of prejudice in society -- we all have had sufficiently many experiences with it, we all know it is there, we all know it is worth fighting against.
What called my attention now (especially after several posts on experiences of misogyny, and also misandry, at the Mary Wollstonecraft blog), however, was how people may sometimes jump to conclusions -- and think that something, some behavior, some pattern, some utterance, conveys misogynistic (or misandric) feelings when in fact there may be other reasons for it. As in my previous post (where I speculated that people might see discrimination where it may perhaps not exist because of their habit of fighting against discrimination), I think that, also in the misogyny-misandry debate, there is the danger of jumping to conclusions and assuming underlying causes (prejudice) that may not be there, which would lead to a misunderstanding of the real problem and then to wrong ideas about how to solve it.
Here, I will discuss two examples of what I think are misunderstandings, and the consequences I saw for the discussion of said examples.
Sandra Stephen's latest post here at Open Salon, Thoughts on misogyny, listed a number of examples of situations in which she experienced as misogyny. Most of them are actually awful, and clearly do involve people who had been motivated by such stupid thoughts and ideas about women that her strong negative reactions are clearly justified. Indeed, there is a lot to do to erradicate wrong, offensive ideas and stereotypes about women.
However, a couple were not. The clearest example involves the old discussion about the meaning of utterances like 'But what was she doing there at 3am?', one case of which she cites as her first experience with misogyny. I quote:
I understood at an early age that misogyny exists. I remember reading a newspaper story about a girl that was gang raped in a bar in Boston; the story concluded with a report of her suicide. I was about twelve at the time. I remember how, after reading the story, I sat for a long time staring unseeingly at the words, filled with emotions that felt too big for me, emotions that walked in boots: horror, disbelief, outrage, grief.
Dad walked past and peered at the story over my shoulder. “Oh, my God,” he said. [...] But dad’s next words shut my mouth with a snap: “What does she expect, being in a bar at three in the morning?”
I remember participating in a discussion about this very topic -- Kate Harding had written a post titled A tale of two rape stories, and there was a large number of reactions in the comments thread (479 comments!), which included a large number of people cross-talking to each other -- actually talking about different things, and drawing illogical inferences from each other's replies. To me, that was an education on the dangers of misunderstanding other people's positions and motivations.
Because there are two questions here: one is, was Ms Stephens' father right or wrong in his danger assessment -- it is risky to go to a bar like that at 3am? And second, was he, or wasn't he, misogynistic (i.e. giving expression to some prejudice against women) when he made his comment? Was there some other source for his motivation to make that comment?
My answer is that his comment was, as such, not misogynistic, but simply an expression of a judgment of prudence. Because, as adults, we all do make risk assessments when deciding whether or not to do something -- where to go, who to go with, what to buy, what to eat, where to live, and so on -- we expect others to do the same. And when they -- in our opinion -- fail to do so, well, some of us actually express that. My mother, for instance, often criticized me in terms similar to the ones Ms Stephens' father used -- 'Why did you go to that place at that time? Were you crazy? Don't you know it's dangerous? Something really bad could have happened to you!', and more than that in the (actually quite few) cases in which something bad did happen to me (my wallet was stolen once, another time I got a black eye). Now, was my mother in that case expressing some sort of misandry, was she giving expression to some 'force' in society that tries to keep and strengthen wrong gender stereotypes? No. I actually think that the motivation for her harsh (and in my opinion often wrong) words was her love for me, the fact that she cared if something happened to me -- to the point of thinking I was stupid to have run certain risks.
Nowadays, my mother-in-law is taking some of this role -- she thought I was 'crazy' because I took my 6-year-old daughter on a trip to Brazil to meet my family (I am Brazilian). 'It's a dangerous country for a child!' she said. If something bad had happened to my daughter during the trip (fortunately nothing did-- we're already back), I'm sure my mother-in-law would have blamed me. And wrongly so -- I disagree with her risk assessment. But... would her blaming me be an expression of misandry? Would it result from some thought she has that all men are foolish beings who like to do stupid things when they should know better? No. I would go as far as saying that her opinion shows she has some misconceptions about what Brazil is -- too many TV programs about dangerous diseases and animals in the tropical rainforest, or street violence in cities like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, or about poor families in the Nordeste not having enough to eat. In that sense, her statement might even have been caused by some 'anti-Brazilian' (brazilophobic? misbrazilistic? :-) prejudice based on the little she had been exposed to about my native country. But against Brazilians as people? I don't think so -- her daughter is married to one, after all, and that has never been a problem.
Which is why my claim is: statements like 's/he was crazy to go there at that time!' do not necessarily reflect any misogyny, misandry, or in fact any prejudice against any group -- they simply reflect our expectations, based on our individual risk assessments (which may of course be wrong, but people never think they are wrong when we assess risk... :-), of what people should or should not do in certain situations. As a consequence, they are not aimed at specific groups -- in fact, I bet pretty much anyone has heard similar comments aimed at him/herself (as I have from my mother and from my mother-in-law), and I at least have heard comments like Ms Stephens' father's being uttered about all kinds of people -- women, men, children, adults, Whites, Blacks, Americans, Europeans, Australians... I think they basically stem from our desire to show our 'knowledge of the world' -- "if I were that guy/girl, I wouldn't have been so stupid as to risk doing that!".
But isn't there such a thing as 'blaming the victim'? Aren't some people saying 'this woman was too sexy, she provoked those guys, so she got what she deserved?' Sure there is such a thing. And it's not only against women. In fact, every time we say 'I told you so!' when something bad happens because someone ignored some advice from us, there is the danger that we're 'blaming the victim' -- again, my mother (and now my mother-in-law) have also blamed me when I took risks I thought were OK and yet something bad happened. 'Blaming the victim' is not necessarily a gender issue: it's not only scantily clad women who go to bars at 3am and get raped who are blamed. I, as a man, got blamed too. ('It serves you right that they stole your wallet! Why did you go there? Were you crazy?' etc. etc. etc.)
Does that mean that there can be absolutely no misogynistic thought in a person's mind when s/he makes the 'what-was-she-doing-there-at-3am?' comment? No. The world isn't that simple. Yes, there are cases in which some 'blames the victim'because s/he thinks the victim's gender is bad, evil, inferior, too violent, too stupid, too full of hormones... So there are people out there blaming women for being women, and saying out loud that 'they had it coming' if they got raped. And these people are indeed despicable.
But what I'm saying is something else -- I'm simply saying that the 'but-what-was-she-doing-there-at-3am?' comment does not per se imply misogyny; you need more context information to establish that, because there are other motivations for such comments that have nothing to do with hatred or offensive stereotypes against any group (e.g. a desire to judge people who don't share our opinion about what is or isn't too dangerous).
And I'm further saying: if misogyny (or misandry, or any kind of prejudice against any group) is not a necessary part of the 'blaming the victim' problem -- if 'blaming the victim' is a larger pattern that has more to do with our desire to judge other people's risk assessments than with our opinions about specific groups of people -- then conceiving it as simply 'misogyny' will not help those who want to change it. If we actually want people to stop judging other people's "crazy behavior" or faulty risk assessments (and do we? that's an interesting question by itself...), then thinking that misogyny is the only, or even the main, thing involved is simply not going to do it. It may actually prevent us from understanding what really should be done to change it.
Now, on to my second example.
AsI had mentioned above, the Mary Wollstonecraft blog (here at Open Salon) did an open call for posts on misandry, as a (I think necessary) counterpart to the OS Open Call for posts on misogyny that has already had so many interesting results. Now, there indeed are many important topics for debate in this area: father's rights, custody battles, the belittling of men in female environments (as dads, in dance classes, in grade school, etc., and also in feminist environments like women's studies classes in universities, or feminist blogs -- I actually had one personal experience with the latter not so long ago), the profiling of men as possible perpetrators (e.g. male teachers, care providers, nurses, etc. now being frowned upon as 'potential pedophiles'), disparaging comments about males as a gender (from jokes and stereotypes in advertisements to comments on boys by adults -- Debbs4 in that comment thread reports having heard surprisingly much 'male bashing' against her sons, including from one -- female -- teacher), the lack of attention to men as victims of domestic violence, etc. etc. etc.
Yet I also see some comments that I think are off target. For instance, in the comments thread to the open call for posts on misandry, I saw several posters complaining about not getting a fair hearing -- 'they won't listen to us', 'they will laugh at us', etc., or variations on the conspiracy theme. I quote:
Dr. Spudman 44: "I could write volumes on both end of this issue. No way would my stories of misandry be accepted here. There is a classic example of it on the cover right now for you viewing pleasure. Hate speech accepted as laughter. I appreciate the offer but I just don't have guts or the need to defend myself from the scorn that would come. And all of us men know it. That is why this thread will go nowhere."
daveboy: "Feminist's have a lock on the hate speak and victim status. After all, the patriarchy they so despise had no complaints.. They still don't verbalize.. what good would it do? The plight of the eternally oppressed is what is important. Nothing else. Men can go to hell. They have no right to speak. Whatever misandry they may suffer at the hands of mother, lover or wife, it is so eclipsed my misogyny it has no viable relevance."
mishima666: "I don't think a post on misandry would go over very well on OS. OS is kind of an affirmative action place, and I don't think there would be much interest in men's experiences. I've had my head taken off just for writing in comments about it."
Well, as one might immediately ask: where are all those bad feminists, trying to castrate posters and deny that men as a gender have any problem or suffer any injustice worth talking about? I didn't see any in the other comments in the same thread; I followed threads of comments to posts by the above mentioned authors, and I did find some examples of answers that qualify as 'belittling' or 'ridiculing' their complaints; but I found many, many more, from men and women, who were taking them seriously and giving them support.
So, why all the fear? Where does this panic come from? Where are the booing hordes of evil dildo-waving, man-hating, silencing and castrating feminists that would prevent any serious discussion of misandry or men's problems? Is it only because I'm new here at OS that I haven't seen them (yet)?
In my personal experience, every single real-life person I met who identified with the label 'feminist' -- woman or man -- turned out to be a rather normal person, with a rather normal capacity to engage in reasoned dialogue and to accept arguments and dissenting opinions, and even quite capable of empathizing with the problems of men in today's world. They were even capable of criticizing feminism or feminist texts when they seemed to be stereotyping men. (We didn't always agree about specific instances, but it was always clear to me that there was no ill will there.)
Maybe I was simply lucky. Indeed, later on I did meet feminists on the internet that seemed to behave just like the stereotype of the extreme feminist (I like to call them 'radfems', just as I like to call those who exaggerate on their criticism of feminism -- the famous 'angry white men' of Broadsheet comment threads, for instance -- 'antifems', and I see more than a little similarity between the two groups). There was this poster who denied that men could love, for instance -- just as at some point in the distant past some men had doubted that women had souls. There was this blog where I was told men can't be 'feminists', only 'allies' -- while I sat and wondered if this isn't again those old 'patriarchal' (a word I don't like...) hierarchies that feminists were supposed to fight against and transcend; isn't 'feminist' and 'ally' a little like 'first- and second-class citizen'? And the essentializing stuff I found on pornography and the 'male gaze'... it would deserve a post of its own.
But are those 'radfems' a majority in feminism? It didn't seem to me to be so, because when I mentioned some of these things to my feminist friends, they usually (with only one exception) agreed with me. So it seemed to me that radfems are a fringe group -- that most real-life feminists are normal people who may disagree with you but won't silence you before you open your mouth and won't belittle you or your pain and your suffering just because of some stereotype they have about 'males'. Hell, even when I decided not to accept the label 'feminist' for myself (for other reasons -- the label has too many meanings these days, etc...), one of said feminist friends (a woman) even told me, 'sometimes I think of doing the same.'
At least, that was my experience. I'd welcome anyone who would like to share a different view or personal experience with real-life feminists and/or online feminists. But, to me, clearly, there is no big feminist conspiracy to castrate and/or silence men when they want to talk about the problems they face as a gender.
So where do such ideas come from? Why do some people go around thinking in us-vs.-them terms,they-won't-listen-to-us, they-despise-us, etc. etc.? Is it this polarization of American debate, that tends to resort more and more to theatrics and demagogy (see the debate on healthcare reform, Obama's birth certificate, the teabaggers...)?
I think this results from overgeneralizing. From having had bad personal experiences with (some) women or (some) feminists, and then imagining that they are all like this. From projecting fears that the problems we've had with women as individuals might be 'the fault of feminism'. From accepting a black-and-white view of the gender landscape.
Such overgeneralizations can lead to extremism. And on both sides: antifems and radfems, each choosing their boogeyman ('feminism' or 'patriarchy') for a cathartic take-no-prisoners war to the last (wo)man.
I respectufully note that it doesn't seem to me to be a coincidence that the Mary Wollstonecraft blog was started and is kept by a woman, and a feminist. I note that another blog on men's issues that I like to read -- dr. Helen's blog -- is also kept by a woman.
So, what's my conclusion? That one must be careful, and not jump to conclusions. That 'misogyny' and 'misandry' aren't always there even if it seems so at first sight; we have to check.That if we don't check, we'll end up making things worse than they were before by fighting the wrong enemy, or with the wrong methods, and generating resentment from the wrong people -- those who should be siding with us.
Misogyny, misandry... let's not misunderstand them. They're both forms of hatred. It's even conceivable that they are not the best words -- perhaps we should go back to talking about sexism, pure and simple.
Let's be careful. To project what is not there onto what is there is not going to help us change the way things are.