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Against Historical Revenge

Words: Kirsten Drysdale

Every time I see an article about men’s issues I feel two things: curiosity, because I am genuinely interested in a male perspective on gender identity in the modern world; and pity, because I know the author will be pilloried for daring to think he is entitled to one. The most frustrating thing about this scenario is that the people who are most scornful of the suggestion that men have something to contribute to the public dialogue in this area are often also the people I generally like and admire - social progressives whose views on most issues I find persuasive, empathetic and reasonable. Why, I wonder, does the idea that men also face gender-specific problems inspire so much binary thinking and vitriol from otherwise fair-minded people?

Case in point: an article was published last week at Women’s Agenda titled “What Men Want”. It was written on International Men’s Day – a day which, among other things, focuses on “men’s and boy’s health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models”. (In other words, a day more appropriate than any other to bring these issues up.) This was no Fox News ‘War on Men’ bile splatter piece. It was written by psychotherapist Adam Blanch, who specialises in trauma and men’s psychology (i.e. is intimately acquainted with his clients’ issues) and made a number of requests which, to my mind, were for the most part perfectly reasonable. What, can someone tell me, is so outrageous about asking for a healthy work-life balance and more time with family? About asking that “the male epidemic of addiction, depression and suicide” be addressed? About seeking a role in shaping “a society in which we all enjoy freedom from violence, prejudice and disadvantage”? Or wanting the right to “construct our own identities” in contrast to “outdated social stereotypes”? (I would quibble only with the call for more column inches to be given to men’s opinions in general. That doesn’t really seem necessary.) These are things that would make the world a better place for all of us – and that was precisely his point.

Nonetheless, I knew the moment I saw the headline that it would elicit a predictable response on social media, i.e. mob derision. Much of that sentiment was subsequently expressed in an article published at Daily Life titled “Are modern men being silenced by women?” – an article I would argue ironically proves the point of the original piece, by completely misrepresenting its tenets and dismissing its legitimacy. Furthermore, its argument is inherently inconsistent, snidely summarizing Blanch’s article as a ‘five part bullshit cake’ and ‘a wilfully provocative, completely hyperbolic piece of sub-telegraph rubbish’, then concluding “I really do hope that we see more articles that address directly the issues that are faced by men in Australia.” This is like saying “Man, you are such a douchebag for talking about men’s issues but you’re right, we should really talk more about men’s issues”. Presumably there was room to run this snarky commentary, but not a piece like that which the author calls for more of.

It irritates me because it’s lazy and unfair to respond with unthinking sarcasm to an invitation to discuss male-specific problems simply because men have traditionally (yes, for almost all of human history) enjoyed a privileged position in society -- and yes, in most parts of the world still do wield enormous advantage over women. Or rather, some men do. To say that it is all men who have enjoyed/still enjoy this position, or that they therefore don’t face issues specific to their gender, is abjectly untrue, and if we can’t acknowledge that basic fact then it will be very hard to reach any conclusions regarding gender relations that are even loosely based in reality.

Almost every day, at some point, even if only for a brief moment, I marvel at how incredibly fortunate I am to exist at this point in time in human history (and in this part of the world). I live in a society which expressly prohibits any sort of discrimination against me on the basis of my gender. This is not to say I live in a society where sexism does not exist - quite obviously, it does. But it means I enjoy the benefits of a world where women are recognised by law as people, first and foremost, and are entitled to all the rights and liberties citizens of a civilised society can and should expect. This is the way it should always have been and I recognise there are still areas where equality between the sexes has not been fully achieved, where outdated attitudes regarding gender roles linger, and where some people actively push for a return to the old state of affairs. We’ve got a way to go, but I would still rather be here and now, than anywhere else.

I enjoy this position thanks to centuries of courageous, relentless struggle on the part of my female forebears. Women who demanded the right to an education, the right to reproductive freedom, the right to have a political voice and be heard. Women who fought ‘the patriarchy’, a social system in which the concept of male superiority was so entrenched that for many it wasn’t just a cultural norm, it was simply the natural order of things. Those brave women - and the men who supported their goals - brought us to this point, where we will continue to try to improve our lot.

Now that we’re here, though, I don’t want men excluded from the conversation about how we continue to move forward, just because women were in the past. How does that sort of lust for historical revenge help anyone? How does not taking into account the legitimate issues affecting men in 21st century Australia -- of paternity leave, parenting generally, concepts of ‘masculinity’, body image, family law, work-life balance, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health (in particular, the shocking rates of suicide among young men) -- help any of us? To me, this does not signify progress. Excluding one side of the gender debate from the discussion in order to meaningfully move all of us forward is inherently illogical. And to suggest that any arguments to the contrary are merely the apologist rantings of men’s rights advocates demonstrates an alarming incapacity for nuance.

Incidentally, one of the best things to come out of the Daily Life take-down of “What Men Want” was a cogent, insightful internet comment - will historians please note the date and time - from reader “Ken” at 9:25am:

“Men are not the silent sex. However they are, to some extent, avoidant and inarticulate. There was a time when men could use levers like physical size, economic power, anger and intimidation to hold their place in the world, especially with women. A man was lord of his castle thanks to his ability to earn and perhaps his ability to engender fear. In these more enlightened times, using such levers is (rightly so) ruled out of bounds.

Women have shaken off the constraints of earlier times and are using their voices and intellects to make their case for change. In this new era, women may hold some natural advantages, such as the tendency to integrate emotional content rather than compartmentalise it, and to collaborate as well as compete. Some men, instinctively sensing that the women around them are more articulate and better able to navigate the new relational world than they, feel intimidated. Men are being forced to adapt to a new playing field where they don't have automatic advantage other than leftover vestiges from the previous era.”

The world (well, parts of it) has changed for all of us, wherever we sit on the gender identity spectrum. None of us exist separately from each other. Men are our fathers, our brothers, our sons and (at least in the case of straight ladies and queer dudes) our lovers, and guess what - sometimes they find navigating the new paradigm a bit tricky. I, for one, give a shit about that, not only for humanist reasons but for selfish ones – a world in which men are welcome in discussions about gender relations is one which will help them (and us) become better people. I’d personally like there to be more good people in the world. We’ve got enough assholes as it is.

So I want to hear what men think about how things are, along with how they should and could be made better. If some of their gripes are bullshit, then by all means I want to see them called on it, but let’s not make that the default response. Those of us who champion it need to remind ourselves of the definition of feminism - “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” - that is about eschewing gender roles, not privileging one above the other to the exclusion of that other’s legitimate needs. Isn’t that what we were fighting for all along?

Essentialist arguments on either side of any issue help precisely no one. They are corrosive and counter-productive, however well-intentioned they may be. Deliberately provocative, partisan pieces might be good for generating page views, but are less so for advancing genuine open-minded discussion. Surely this is something we can move on from.

Lead image via Shutterstock.

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