On vulnerability, men and feminism

Every day for the last few months I have made a facebook post with the hashtag #InternationalMensDay (#IMD). In the same way that International Women’s Day visibly gives one day out of three hundred and sixty-five to the achievements, communities, and collective struggles of women, International Men’s Day(s) recognises that every single other day of the year is invisibly devoted to the interests and concerns of men.

The statuses vary. Sometimes I go with a satirical take on men’s rights activism, like the argument that a Dutch season of Survivor was evidence that patriarchy was a superior form of society. Sometimes I share examples of how men benefit, daily, in ways that women don’t. Other times I highlight an egregious example of how, every day, women are left worse off because they aren’t men. There is no shortage of possible content.

#IMD is an experiment. And although it began spontaneously, I have now thought more about what it is aiming to achieve. Partly, I want to use my male privilege to speak about feminism in a way that makes it easier for women to speak about their experiences. Secondly, I’m hoping to challenge and change some of my Facebook friends. At the least, I hope some of them have glanced at my statuses and paused for thought and perhaps shifted slightly, become a little more open to these conversations.

But I think a surprising audience for #IMD has been other male allies. In a curious way, my daily Facebook posts have been creating an opportunity for men to engage with feminism. #IMD has been great for me personally in prompting me to learn more about male privilege and oppression; it’s also been a chance for other men to weigh in, ask questions, and support each other in some quite difficult and challenging work.

For example, I recently shared a post about a decision by certain US colleges to require affirmative consent (‘yes means yes’) of their students. While some commenters found this idea radical, there was a robust and respectful discussion – predominantly between men – which drew out the nuance both of the importance of this requirement, and of the concerns some had around it. Of course, women’s comments are part of this too, and it’s powerful to see men hearing voices and experiences that they might not otherwise encounter. I also appreciate when women take the time and energy to guide some of my less-informed Facebook friends, showing incredible patience and forbearance!

I want my #IMD posts to be an opportunity for all people to reflect on their experiences of both oppression and privilege – safely. But, this is intense stuff for people, and sometimes that safety is undermined.

On June 19 I posted about Trevor Harris, a 29-year-old man who got only a suspended sentence after blackmailing girls between 13 and 17 into sending him sexually-explicit photos – to me, an example of how the legal system trivialises crimes against women. Ben*, a male lawyer friend weighed in to the effect that, while the crime was horrible, perhaps the judge was being reasonable: Harris suffered from a mental condition, was unlikely to re-offend, and a long jail sentence would limit the chances of rehabilitation.

A female Facebook friend, Bree*, replied to his comment, calling it ‘rape apologist speech’, and calling him a ‘sycophantic little patriarch’. Ben removed his comment, and sent me a Facebook message, and we had a brief conversation.

This is an unpleasant situation. Bree clearly had some deep feelings about this – the post, Ben’s comment, made her feel awful. And Ben too ended up feeling ashamed.

What is the net effect of this? Next time, Ben is less likely to take part. Someone who is open to being challenged, who wants to further a confronting conversation around privilege, is put off.

Of course, we should confront privilege. Of course, men and other privileged people, should be open to having their privilege confronted. In Privilege, Michael Kimmel describes the discomfort that comes from this confronting as ‘a productive and healthy discomfort’, albeit ‘extremely uncomfortable’. The discomfort isn’t something to be avoided. But nor is it something to be pursued, and the mere fact of discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean that privilege is being constructively confronted.

It’s possible for feminists and their allies to be confronting without being confrontational. For men to feel bad should be a regrettable (and ultimately trivial) byproduct of a much more important process. Making anyone feel bad, shaming anyone, should never be the aim of a movement based around ending oppression.

Writing about vulnerability in Daring Greatly, Brené Brown distinguishes between guilt and shame: ‘the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.”’ This isn’t just a semantic difference. Shame can be paralysing, whereas guilt motivates change: ‘when we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt—not shame—is most often the driving force.’ To make anybody feel that because of their actions they are less worthy (‘sycophantic little patriarch’) is not only an uncaring thing to do, it’s also counter-productive. It makes it less likely that their actions will change.

Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.’ In the pursuit of equality, women need spaces where they can be vulnerable: honest, uncertain, exposed. Some women find such an environment only in autonomous women’s spaces. Other women choose to speak of their experiences more publicly – like Blair Williams, with Unsafe – and risk the judgement that can go with that.

Maybe men too need these spaces. Male allies also need the chance to be uncertain, to expose their ignorance, to disclose their difficulties. Maybe men can only do this if they trust that they won’t be shamed. That doesn’t mean a space need be men-only. But men need – indeed, we all need – to be able to trust that the errors in our judgement and the mistakes in our behaviour can be challenged and spoken about from a place of compassion and a desire to work together.

This isn’t the space Ben found on my Facebook wall. But in our messages back and forth, afterwards, there was a vulnerability that was as powerful as it is rare. Mainly, Ben just felt bewildered and helpless. Violence against women made him sick, it brought him to tears. He wanted to be doing something. But Bree’s reaction made him feel that he wasn’t good enough.

Black feminist scholar bell hooks writes: ‘When women and men understand that working to eradicate patriarchal domination is a struggle rooted in the longing to make a world where everyone can live fully and freely, then we know our work to be a gesture of love.

‘Let us draw upon that love to heighten our awareness, deepen our compassion, intensify our courage, and strengthen our commitment.’

A movement against oppression requires men to grow in self-awareness, to challenge deeply-entrenched behaviours, to somehow undo a lifetime of socialisation. This isn’t an unreasonable demand. Indeed, it’s necessary. But it is also deep, difficult, and demanding. If men are to do this work, they have to let themselves be vulnerable. And if they are to let themselves be vulnerable, they need a space where won’t be shamed for it.

While men have a lot of spaces already, they have few spaces like this. I hope that #InternationalMensDay can be one such space and that there can be many more. Not necessarily because feminism needs men but, at the very least, because men need feminism.

Image: Feminartsy

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joel-looking-okJoel is a campaigner and writer based in Canberra. He has studied collaborative management and facilitation with the Groupwork Institute of Australia. He has recently taken #InternationalMensDay to Twitter: @everymensday. 

2 Comments

  • Millie commented on October 1, 2015 Reply

    This was a great read!
    I love Brené Brown and her research, I think her work is very important in these times.

    I make a lot of collage artwork, probably half of which is feministic in nature. I try to keep it amusing but strong enough so that people can become more aware of the gaps in gender based equality. I use a lot of pop culture references (a lot of my work is named after songs). Maybe you can have a look at it and give me some feedback.

    @luckybabyco on Instagram.

    Thanks again for a great read!

    • Trevor commented on September 21, 2017 Reply

      What utter drivel!! The only space Dignman negelcted to mention was the space between his ears.

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