Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cis men, it's not about you - HeForShe

Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech to the UN extended a “formal invitation” to men to join the feminist movement – if only in spirit rather than in name.

Ms. Watson brought up several valid points about how the patriarchy negatively impacts men, and called upon men to fight against gender inequality alongside women. I feel it was an effective speech in bringing the issue to the foreground in a prominent way, and the speech was a very sincere request for help.

As part of her request for men’s help, however, Ms. Watson tended to be very conciliatory and focused on cis men. In some ways Ms. Watson made a demonstration of de-fanging feminism – even to the point of dismissing the word “feminism” as unimportant – in order to coax in male allies.
I wanted to write this to clarify that, to me at least, being a male ally of feminism is not simply believing that women should have equal rights to education and equal pay for equal work in the abstract.

Saying that you agree with these extremely basic feminist concepts is a good first step, but voicing agreement is functionally irrelevant if they are not backed by certain actions and avoidance of other actions.

I have tried my best to be a good ally to feminism for a while. I can tell those who are joining up with HeForShe just now that being a feminist ally is an ongoing project that will probably last the rest of our lives. It is not easy. It will mean confronting others as well as confronting yourself. I have made mistakes. I have put my foot in my mouth several times. I have found myself blind to my own privilege several times and probably will again in future. I have had to risk my job and I have lost friendships all simply for standing against gender-based discrimination. I do not say this as a boast. I simply want to inform others of what to expect.

All of these obstacles, however, pale in comparison to what women speaking up about the subject have to endure. While the troubles of a male feminist ally are not negligible, it is unconscionable and morally irresponsible to stay on the sidelines – particularly while women face much worse repercussions for voicing even the most basic pleas for equality.

So, you’ve decided you want to be a male feminist ally? Good. Your voice will be useful, but it will not be the focus.

Here are a few guidelines that I’ve picked up myself. I can’t say I never make mistakes and I still break these rules myself, but I do try to follow them. I can’t say this list is exhaustive either. Nevertheless, I think if cis men keep these points in mind, they will start off better feminist allies than I did.

1.    Have problems with GSD (Gender and Sexual Diversity) people or people of color or non-believers or people who have a different faith? Leave now.
Feminism is not just about white women. It is not even about the cis-normative definition of “woman.” Trans women are women too. All women of color are women too. Bi and lesbian women are women too. Atheist women are women. Women of all faiths are also women. All women are women. People who do not have a binary gender identity are also impacted by gender discrimination. Feminism is about ending gender discrimination. That includes non-binary people too. You don’t get to pick and choose who you support in the name of feminism, and who you do not. If someone is harmed by gender discrimination, feminism should be there to help them.

2.  By the way, there is no systemic gender discrimination against cis men. Just FYI.
We have a whole societal system designed to build up cis men. Yes, this backfires and cis men can feel they are discriminated against because they feel owed everything, but there is no feminist conspiracy to harm cis men. I promise. Get over it. Now. Please.

3.  Feminism belongs to the victims of gender bias. Cis men are guests.
You may have been invited by Emma Watson herself, guys, but this is not your show. It never will be. It never should be. Feminism controlled by cis men or even co-controlled is an oxymoron. We cis men can and should be a part of feminism, but we can never be co-owners of feminism. Forcing our opinion on how feminism should be shaped contradicts the idea that cis men have no right to define other people.

4. It’s not about you.
The patriarchy does negatively affect cis men, but it’s not about us. It’s a tough idea to absorb because we’re trained from birth to believe everything is about us guys, but feminism really isn’t. Feminism is not about cis male plight, although it may help us. Feminism is also not about ruining cis men’s day or making cis men feel bad. It is not even about making misogynists feel bad, although that is a nice bonus. It is about the empowerment of victims of gender discrimination – all of them (see #1.)

5.  Cis men should never restrict or define feminism for women or non-binary people.
      It is not a cis man’s place to restrict a woman’s or non-binary person’s definition of what is acceptable in feminism. We have no first-hand data on what that person’s experience is like. We have zero right to judge or dictate what a victim should do in response to her own oppression. It’s extremely disrespectful. Never do it. Freedom whose parameters are defined for you by someone else is not actually freedom. 

6.  Men should listen to victims on feminism, and talk at men about feminism – not vice versa.
Again, feminism is a space that belongs to the victims of gender bias. Not cis men. It’s about their experience. Not ours. The idea that a privileged group understands the situation of the oppressed better than the oppressed themselves is ridiculous. If you’re a cis male feminist ally, the mode on the topic should be listening to feminists and talking at misogynist men. Voicing support when a woman speaks about feminism is fine, but avoid talking over her. Telling a non-binary person that stand with them against the hatred they endure, is fine, but don’t monopolize their discussion.

Talking over misogynist cis men discussing feminism, however, is 100% a-okay. They do not know what they are talking about, but will not listen to women or a non-binary person tell them that. This is one of those rare times when a male voice in feminism is valuable. Don’t stand by while men hate on women or non-binary people and call yourself a feminist. It’s easy to commiserate with feminists, but that commiseration has no value if you do nothing when someone is threatened physically or verbally.

7.  Misogyny can get so absurd that it feels surreal, but, trust me, it’s real.
This is a prime issue for men who want to be allies. The idea that someone could be as cruel as these misogynists is absurd to us. You will encounter stories that seem inconceivably horrific. Your first instinct sometimes will be to disbelieve or excuse, because it is simpler than believing and acting. Belief means you have to confront a dark reality that you, as a cis man, probably have never experienced firsthand. You’ve never had to explain your presence somewhere. You probably feel safe most everywhere you go. You are confident in your control of your own space. This is not the case with everyone. In fact, if you’re a white heterosexual cis man, you most likely have NOTHING as a point of reference.

You have to trust people when they tell you about their experience at the hands of misogyny. You have to trust the stories of rape, abuse, unfair treatment, subtle sabotage…. Again... people just know their own experience of oppression better than you do. You cannot know as well as them, because you are not oppressed. What Cis het white men count as “oppression” is usually when they are not rewarded even when they do everything wrong. Victims of gender discrimination face oppression even when they do “everything right.” Emma Watson, for all her efforts to be polite and conciliatory was still threatened for advocating fairly minimal feminist goals.

8.  Follow the conversation’s tone. Be sensitive to all people in the group.
I’m ashamed to admit that this is a point I have blundered on many times. Since misogyny is so surreal and ridiculous, my first instinct is to poke fun at it. There is a time and place for this. Some people use humor as a coping mechanism. Some do not. For most people, it varies depending on the situation. If you bring in humor to a serious conversation where someone is hurting, you can cause serious harm. It’s insensitive, isolating, and can reinforce the idea that even men who call themselves allies do not care about the victim. Listen. Making sure a victim of misogyny feels supported and backed up is infinitely more important than making misogyny look ridiculous. Misogyny manages to look absurd on its own well enough.

9.  It’s not about you.
I know I’ve already said this, but it warrants repeating. The movement is about supporting victims of gender-based oppression. It’s about everyone feeling safe to exist and thrive regardless of their gender identity. Feminism’s impact on cis men is a byproduct, not the goal. It is not about you. It is not about what you say. It is not about your goals or what you want. It is not about you.

10. If you are a macktavist, leave now. If you expect something in return for your support, leave now. If you seek to profit off feminism, leave now.
Being a feminist ally is not special or exceptional. You do not deserve praise for being a male ally (see points 4 and 9.) You do not deserve love or attention for being a male ally. Fighting against gender-based discrimination is just a pre-requisite to being a decent ethical human being. If you expect women to swoon over you because you recognize their right to equal personhood, you are not getting it. If you think that discussing the horrors of gender-based oppression, which include the issues of rape and assault, is an aphrodisiac, there is something seriously wrong with you. If you see feminism as a key to riches through endearing yourself to employers or an audience, your insincerity will be exposed. Examine your motivations for wanting to help feminism, and your actions in service of feminism. Are they about helping others or are they about you?

Remember. It is not about you.

These are just a few guidelines for cis men to keep in mind as they become allies of feminism.

I want to conclude by saying doing what is right is not going to be easy. If you’re finding it easy, you are either lying to yourself or not being terribly helpful. Cis men will have to be willing to do things that are uncomfortable, dangerous, and financially disadvantageous to assist feminism.

You’ve voiced support to a hashtag. That’s good. That is probably the easiest thing you will ever do in service of feminism.

Every feminist ally’s experience is different, but here are a few things I have had to do: I have risked my job more than once. Being a feminist means finding the most diplomatic way to call out your supervisor, boss, or company president, when they’re being sexist. It will mean supporting coworkers too scared to see HR without backup. Being a feminist means pointing out the good job your coworkers are doing even when you are both going for the same promotion. It has meant lost or strained friendships for me.  Supporting gender equality has meant awkward and confrontational conversations with friends and relatives whom I love. Fighting for gender equality will pit you against strangers – some of whom can be creepy and terrifying.

Even so, keep in mind that, as a cis man, this will be much easier on you than victims of gender discrimination themselves. Cis men are listened to almost by default. People who do not listen to victims may actually be convinced by you. Following the conflict is easier than having the conflict follow you. You will probably not have your life threatened. You will probably not have your sex life researched. Cis men will always have safe spaces to retreat to. The victims you are advocating for may have none of these advantages.

If you believe that people being treated differently just because their gender is different from yours is wrong, it is imperative that you do your best for feminism. Being a cis male ally of feminism is not easy, but it is easier for us than it is for others. If you support HeForShe, acting and advocating for feminism is the very least you can do. It may cost you much and give you little in return, but the knowledge you did the right thing is worth it. At least it has been for me.
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