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Semiformalishmaybe

On Men's Rights movements and Feminist movements

Those of you who know me well may find the central parts of post to be utterly predictable, but I don't think I've written directly on the topic so this might provide more nuance to my thoughts on it. It's inspired by a recent tweet referencing a blogger I normally moderately dislike (I don't read her, but people sometimes link to her posts) by the pen-name of Holly Pervocracy. I actually rather liked the post at hand, where she points out the exaggerations made by the "Men's Rights" movements of the feminist movements.

I basically think she got this post pretty much exactly right (or at least the way I'm reading it, she does); I have met MRAs ("Men's Rights" Activists) a few times over the years, occasionally been pointed to their gathering spots (like The Spearhead), and their dominant forms of discourse only rarely break from the faults she points out:

  • Portraying Feminism as monolithic
  • Portraying Feminism as being about reducing the rights of men
  • Portraying Feminism as being pointless in modern times
  • Portraying Feminism as being anti-sex and oversexed
  • Portraying Feminism as being about shaming privileged people
  • Portraying Feminism as being intrinsically disapproving of all men
The first is probably the strongest point; if one doesn't understand feminism as being a cluster of movements, many of which strongly disagree with each other over ends and means and discourse, one is bound to misunderstand *everything* beyond that; if one cherry-picks the worst of the movements, one can find specific ones that are (or appear to be, if one is paranoid enough) counterexamples to any of her points above; the understanding of feminism as being an (ill-named) cloud of movements and tendencies and commitments instead suggests to us the difficult quests of:
  • Figuring out what mainstream feminism is all about, if there actually is a mainstream (it might not actually be the people speaking the loudest or label themselves the most strongly)
  • Figuring out how one stands in relation to the issues with which feminism is concerned (which might or might not place one in the mainstream)
This is not unique to feminism; various other commitments are clusters of semi-separate movements rather than monolithic.

Having occasionally raised the topic with many people over the years, I feel I'm not too far from mainstream feminism, there are various feminist people and groups I have a big problem with (not usually in core commitments, but in standards of discourse and methods of activism), I'm not involved with or interested in either queer or feminist subculture, and I'm friendly to transexuals but not particularly validating of them on the topic of transexuality (they can define themselves as they like, and I can define them as I like, and they can define anyone as they see fit; no obligations are permissible). The explicitly and strong-identity feminist subculture is, I think, actually distant from mainstream feminism, and both are distant yet from the small deeply-anti-man militant lesbians who took over "Take Back the Night" with urine-filled supersoakers that year back in Columbus (to the outrage of the rest of the feminist community).

The point of diversity is not to play good-cop bad-cop; I wholly disapprove of many branches of feminism (if you ever use the term "mansplaining", or think not-being-privileged makes you right on subjective matters, or refer people to "$something 101" rather than talk with them, or think we're obliged to validate any possible personal identity regardless of what mess that might make of our philosophy, I probably have some beef with you) and would have them lose and fade into obscurity, but there are commitments I have that make me want to see what I see as the mainstream (as well as my particular kind) flourish. It is not entirely about the welfare of women-as-such; partly it is because of a general commitment to the public good of all of humanity, but I believe these goals are also good for men (even as the goals might feel odd under the label of "feminism"; the label is almost as bad as the group of atheists who call themselves "The Brights").

Having stressed that the worst of feminism are not all of feminism and that the movement is overall a good one by my metric (for specifics of why and how I approve of feminism as a whole, see my other blog posts; I don't want to restate that right now), I'll now do the opposite (risky!) and demonstrate why Men's Rights Advocates, or that particular subculture, is rotten-by-my-metric.

First, a disclaimer. I am not against men's rights, nor do I think that there are no causes for concern for men who are self-actualising and moving beyond the regressive past. The static roles we knew for men and women did entail some female privilege in our law and culture, and I'd like to see those diminished or removed, particularly relating to custody. Some advocacy to better handle these topics is warranted, and I expect that advocacy to come at least mildly from mainstream feminism and strongly from the parts of the movement (post-PC gender-role-abolitionist) I fit into. If this truly is the limit of what men's rights means to someone, I probably have no beef with them on the topics (hey, it's just a word and not everyone's working from the same definitional frameworks); in my experience, that's *not* what MRAs are talking about though.

At the heart of feminism, there are a few intuitions that are broadly agreed on; that men and women have approximately the same abilities and should be afforded approximately the same range of roles and privileges in society. This is a fairly common intuition in the circles in which I've lived for most of my life, and as a statement it's been broadly supported by most people I've met, even most of those who identified as not being particularly feminist or being definitely not. The reason I call that multiple intuitions is that roles and privileges can imply a lot: legal privileges, legal access to careers, expectations, encouragement, and the like; additionally, there's a fair amount of squabbling over the term "approximate" as used in above. Specific forms of feminism add additional commitments, specific methods, specific standards of discourse, and possibly links to other theory (I am a socialist and a feminist, but I find socialist-feminist theory bizarre and bothersome). I don't mind reading feminist theory in general, but I prefer "Feminism without Theory" for the broad movement because I think getting theory too mixed into a practical movement easily marginalises heterodox thinkers (like me and others) and is too heavy a cost for what this movement is trying to do.

I have been unable to discern a likable set of intuitions for either MRAs or any subgroup of them. This, I confess, may be my own failure; there may be such groups that I have not encountered enough that are pursuing only worthwhile causes, in which case one could be both a MRA and some kind of feminist. However, I am forced to the provisional-and-hardening-over-time conclusion, as I keep occasionally reading MRA sites (as frustration permits) and continue to find the same attributes (even knowing, as above, that activists may be generally different from some mainstream that may be more likable or have likable subgroups).

What do I actually see in MRAs?

  • Defense of masculinity and heteronormativity (and perhaps femininity, depending on flavour)
  • Defense of traditional division of roles in society
  • Criticism of certain kinds of feminism, done in the idea that they are criticising all of feminism
  • Opposition to any activism whatsoever (that strange doctrine - philosophical cynicism)
  • Ill-behaviour among those angered by needing to argue with people who in their view should be submissive, as well as those they consider to be freaks
Some of these are understandable through the light of theory, some are personal reactions. Most fit into the general idea of seeing society as an ongoing story with a particular form, and trying to defend that story against elements that would "mess it up" (although we all do this to some extent; we just have different ideas about the right form of the story: ideas of justice, good and bad, etc). For those who are just bothered by the ugliness of certain forms of feminism, many of them presumably could agree with the basic intuitions of feminism as I laid out above if they could shift their understanding of what feminism is to a pluralist one (and learn to overlook the not-very-good name). For the rest, I consider the actions bothersome-to-despicable to varying degrees.

Again, I'm not hung-up on terms; show me a MRA that's focused on the reasonable concerns, that's compatible with the basic definition of feminism I laid-out above, and that doesn't have any of the problematic traits above (or other traits I'm likely to find objectionable), and I'll be ready to approve of it. But I will also be surprised, because I've never seen such a group, while I can certainly provide myself and many of the people I've known over the years as folk of both genders who look little like the strands of feminism that get the most criticism (rightly or wrongly) but who also are committed to that basic definition.

I also found a web show full of fantastic interviews; I think intelligent dialogue on complicated topics is a great thing to see in media, and like probably a lot of you, I'm building a treasure trove of inputs; QI is probably another of my favourites.

Recently I've been walking around Brooklyn a lot, which is strange because I'm not finding a lot of barriers to my exploration. It's strange how the different aspects of the city keep leading me to different conclusions on whether NYC is more "one city" or "five cities". I haven't been to Queens yet (might go this weekend), but I understand it probably leans towards the latter but moreso, in that Queens historically was just a county near NYC that was absorbed, with all its towns, as a borough (and some bits of that county escaped during that process; Hawking radiation!). The Bronx was also passed between Westchester County and New York county before being split off into its own borough; the borough history of NYC is pretty interesting (and it seems that a number of New Yorkers don't know it).

Tomorrow I'm doing some volunteer work at Prospect Park. Hopefully I'll make a few friends; still haven't done a lot of that here yet.

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