The following is written in response to a brief discussion on Facebook regarding the article ‘On Women’s Rights: Yeah, Yeah, Blah, Blah, Blah. Whatever’ by Yashar Ali, originally published at The Current Conscience (March 19, 2012). It’s the second time I’ve been sucked in to doing something like this (or possibly the third if you count this anarchist stoopid). Ah well…
The reason I published the link on Facebook is because a Facebook friend did, and the reply I posted on their page was mis-read (which is another story). Leaving that aside, my reluctance to develop a more considered response is based on two main factors. One, to do so requires a good deal of time and energy. Two, in my experience, this expenditure of time and effort is generally wasted. That is, I’m not convinced I have anything especially novel or terribly useful to add, and it’s unlikely to have any real effect in any case. (Of course, the same observation could be made in regard to everything I write.) Further, while Yashar’s article has some general relevance, it’s probably of greatest relevance to a particular audience in the US. Thus, there may well be better articles — addressing concerns closer to home, or conveyed in a more critical manner, and perhaps emanating from a more radical quarter — which it would be more fruitful to address (for example: Not all feminists are worth supporting). In addition, the commentary which accompanies the article on ‘The Huffington Post’ is simply painful. That said…
I think we can agree that, regardless of its specific merits, the issues raised in the article are worthy of further discussion, in particular the central question of why it is that men, especially ‘progressive men’ (that is, men-who-should-know-better), pay insufficient attention to the struggle for gender equality. In essence, the article reads to me like a plea to men-of-good-conscience to take women’s rights seriously. The implicit assumption that men should care is made explicit by Yashar when he explores the concept of empathy: if men care about women — and they do — then they must also care about their struggles, and a central part of those struggles is for women’s rights/against gender inequality; gender inequality, in turn, should be understood as a key feature of contemporary (in this case US) society.
On the surface, this seems a reasonable enough argument, and yet it seems to me that it ignores some obvious facts. First, individual men have individual interests. These may be gendered, but however else they are conceptualised or enacted, they are on some level always and everywhere in potential conflict with others’ interests, whether men, or women, or both. In other words, reconciling the interests of individual men with women’s collective struggle for equality is not straightforward and how this proceeds depends very much more, I think, on the historical and social context in which it takes place than it does, say, on (mere) good will. Yashar writes that “[t]he men who dismiss these women treat their desire for equality as if it were a hobby or a pet project”; the same could be said of men who dismiss other sectoral struggles, or who ignore or treat with disdain emancipatory struggles as a whole. (Of course, a political lacuna on the part of ‘progressive’ men when it comes to women’s desires for equality is a different proposition, but also begs the question of what genuinely distinguishes one from the other.)
Secondly, ‘gender equality’ and ‘women’s rights’ can be interpreted in both quite narrow and very broad terms. I may be wrogn, but the structural framework within which Yashar articulates his argument appears to me to be what’s usually termed a ‘liberal’ one. For example: a concern over gender ratios in management (corporate), or political representation (state) rather than, say, the liberation of women from the shackles of the military-industrial-entertainment complex (and the reconstitution of society on the basis of subsistence economies). On one level, then, such concerns as Yashar identifies are legitimate and worthy; on another level — which is to say one closer to my own — they are largely irrelevant, useful largely as one of a number of social barometers by which gender relations may be measured.
Thirdly, if I’m concerned about the burdens women face, it’s largely those of the women closest to me. Obviously, these burdens have a political dimension, but it seems to me that as one moves from the macro-political to the micro-social, the nature of these burdens becomes, inevitably, more specific. And here again I think there is something of a gulf between my concerns and those of Yashar, tho’ true or false, an exploration of this question isn’t really possible in this context.
Fourthly, this concern, it seems to me, is dependent just as much, if not more, on a sense of justice as it is empathy, a sense of justice which is in turn based on some more general ethical principles. This is important both because it is true but also because it places a concern for ‘gender equality’ within a broader political and social framework, one which allows for the articulation of a politics rooted both in concern and critique. When Yashar asks “do we, as men, have to care about women enough to notice what they are facing, or do we first have to notice what they are dealing with in order to care about their burdens?” I think the emphasis is misplaced. In my view, men cannot help but care; the question is one of understanding, of locating these hurdles in a political context.
Regarding hurdles, I think resistance on the part of men to considering feminist perspectives is double-edged. On the one hand, it makes a good deal of sense. That is, as referred to previously, men benefit from patriarchy, and insofar as men’s interests lie in the continued domination of women, it would seem foolish to appeal to our better natures. On the other hand, such benefits as do accrue to men in a patriarchal society are hardly distributed evenly, gender inequality is intimately connected to other forms of domination and exploitation, and creating a free and equal society brings benefits to all. Further, a ‘good’ feminist analysis is not just one that embodies a particular, ‘foreign’ interest, but is (by definition) one that is actually revealing, and as such enriches the understanding of both men and women. Insofar as knowledge can be joyful, it may even be said to be a pleasurable experience.
A few further questions which have been prompted by the above but which I’ll leave aside (for the sake of brevity if nothing else) include: what do men and women seek in theory; what is gender other than the relations between men and women and; why do so many ‘pro-feminist’ men give me the creeps? Another subject which surfaced in the blancmange of my mind while writing the above is: what is it about the complex interplay between men’s conscious and unconscious motivations that is so compellingly absent from this discussion?