Men must stand against this misogyny

// 23 August 2013

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By Stephen Burrell.

 Who could have predicted that putting Jane Austen and a slightly misjudged quote from Pride and Prejudice on the back of the £10 note would lead to so much rage among male Twitter users? Trolling and sexism on the internet are nothing new, but the nature and scale of it on this occasion seem to have reached unique heights. With this in mind, I believe that it is high time men started doing more to stand against misogyny online, but also throughout society, and in our own lives.

Whilst there are important discussions to be had about why people feel that they can behave in such a way online, what is most significant in my view is the fact that these trolls are choosing women as their targets, and misogyny as their vehicle. It is surely an indictment of the society we live in that such ugly hatred can be so openly expressed towards women. How can we be so hateful of one half of the population, the same people who are our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our partners, our friends, our fellow citizens?

Of course, not every man is a misogynist. But that does not mean we can stay silent about the misogyny of others. All men benefit to some extent from the patriarchal system in which we live, and men have to recognise the position of privilege that this gives us. Online abuse and all other forms of misogyny are therefore not things which should be left for women to deal with alone. Misogynist abuse cannot be treated as a ‘women-only’ issue; quite the contrary, because men are its main perpetrators! Men therefore also have a responsibility to challenge sexism wherever we encounter it. A vital part of the fight against the oppression of women is for men to take up the cause of feminism, and to tell other men that sexism and misogyny are deplorable.

This is something we can all do in our everyday lives. We are not talking about an injustice taking place on the other side of the world, that we are powerless to do anything about. It is everywhere, and as feminists have long pointed out, the personal is political. The whole world is a battlefield against sexism. On the internet, in the newspapers, in the relationships of people that we know, in conversations with friends, even in ourselves. We have to stand up and say that we are men, and that we think this behaviour is simply unacceptable. I confess that I have never quite been able to get my head around Twitter, but now feels like a good time to start trying harder, if only to add my voice to all those standing in support of those women who have been subjected to abuse. We must drown out the voices of the misogynists.

In order to tackle misogyny, we must confront the ideas, discourses and norms that underpin it, and which legitimise and justify it in the eyes of its perpetrators. We have to put forward alternative discourses which illustrate that sexism and misogyny are never legitimate or justifiable.

We have to demonstrate that different forms of masculinity are possible, and are not oppressive to either women or ourselves. I believe that our society’s idea of masculinity holds men back, inhibits and limits us from being the best we can be, leaving many of us alienated, disempowered and insecure. How can any perpetrator of misogynist abuse truly feel proud of their behaviour? All the loathing wrapped up in this abuse gives a poignant insight into where this society’s masculinity leaves so many men: hateful of women, and hateful of themselves.

Only by freeing ourselves from the chains of these gender norms can we be free to be whoever we want to be, and not have to constantly feel insecure, inferior or ashamed about our failure to conform to them. A more equal society would therefore mean the liberation of not just women, but men too. It would enable us to reach our full potential, and to engage in more honest connections with people of all genders, free of destructive power inequalities.

Challenging misogynistic ideas and behaviour among other men, and even in ourselves, requires a great deal of courage. But not as much courage as that of the women who have refused to bow to the endless abuse of the Twitter misogynists, for example. This abuse demeans all of us, as do all instances of sexism and misogyny. Look around you; the patriarchal system expects so little of men. There is so much more to us than that. We are better than this hatred, prejudice and chauvinism, and it is time for us to show it.

Photo of a group of men and other people on New York Slutwalk 2011 by xoder, shared under a Creative Commons licence. One man holds a sign reading “Men of quality support gender equality”.

Comments From You

Elisa // Posted 23 August 2013 at 5:46 pm

It’s always difficult to find the balance between the two truths that 1) it is men’s responsibility not to oppress women in the various ways that many of them do, as opposed to being women’s responsibility to educate them out of it or protect ourselves from it, and 2) that if women are liberated *by* men, if we depend on men *for* our liberation, we aren’t liberated at all.

This is why whenever men ask me what they should do for feminism, I say ‘not oppress women’. What this article says about men confronting their own misogyny is important: the one unequivocally good, helpful thing men can do for women’s liberation is make sure they don’t rape, batter, harass, underpay, undervalue, gaslight, patronise or generally shit on women. But if men only stop doing those things for the sake of other men’s approval, if women proclaiming those things unacceptable isn’t enough to make them stop, then fundamentally the cause of the problem is still there: women being considered inferior.

Similarly, there shouldn’t be a need to say that these behaviours or other manifestations of misogyny and sexism and patriarchal bullshit ‘also hurt men’ in order for the call to end them to have credence. It should be enough to say that they hurt women, if women were considered fully human.

We are not considered fully human though (or how could it be ok for two of us to be killed by men in the UK every week and for 85,000 of us to be raped every year?). So a lot of people say that under real existing circumstances, we must depend on benign men using the privilege they, or at least many of them have (of being considered fully human) on our behalf in order to at least make things liveable for us: that way we can at least address the symptoms, if not the cause of the problem.

To an extent, the need to survive dictates that we must depend on these benign men talking other men out of oppressing us. But I really wish we ourselves could make it non-negotiable for men to stop oppressing us.

Stephen Burrell // Posted 27 August 2013 at 1:28 am

Thank you very much for your response Elisa! I think you make some really important points. Like you say, I think the role men can play is somewhere in between 1) and 2). Of fundamental importance is the fact that only women can achieve their own liberation. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a vital role for men to play in the destruction of patriarchy which goes beyond simply not committing acts of oppression (which would be letting men off the hook somewhat!).

For me, that role is to tackle patriarchal discourses among other men, to break down norms of masculinity, and to adopt a critical, pro-feminist approach in everything that we do. Men cannot liberate women, but we can liberate ourselves and in so doing weaken patriarchy.

You are absolutely right in saying that it should be enough for women to point out how misogyny and sexism hurt them in order to change behaviour. But in countless ways the system does subliminally infer that women are not fully human, and this enables their oppression to continue to be tolerated. With that in mind, I think it is important to make the point that patriarchy does also hurt men, in order to get them to look at things from a different perspective. We must use every tool we can to challenge the deep rooted, insidious ideas of patriarchy and to get to the point where women are no longer considered inferior.

But this does not mean women can depend on ‘benign’ men in any way. Any lasting change can only be achieved by women forcing it to happen, as has happened with all of the achievements made my feminists up to now. In one sense, whilst patriarchy exists, there is no such thing as benign men, because the system makes all men into oppressors of women who are the losers in the power relations of gender inequality. But I believe we can help women to destroy that system so that one day, we might all be able to live together as equals.

Leisha // Posted 17 September 2013 at 6:24 am

Wonderful article Stephen. Reading things like this certainly make my anxiety and blood pressure go down so thank you :-). I did just want to mention a couple of the big barriers that I have found with communicating with men about feminist ideas and concepts. The main one is that many men don’t understand the concepts feminists are talking about (they are high concepts and can be complicated), and unless you find the exact right words the barriers tend to go up and the anti-feminist vitriol starts.

Secondly, many men struggle to separate their ‘personal’ experiences with women from the ‘collective’ experience. If a white person has a bad experience with a non-white person people don’t generally denigrate the entire non-white population but men can tend to tar the entire female species with the same brush rather than accept that all women are different and are individuals (another issue with the concept of women not being entirely human). Also, the idea that one bad experience with a women does not take away from the wider issues of misogyny in our society and the impact they have on women’s lives. Collective thinking seems to be an issue for a lot of men. Attempting to explain to some men that they are not actually being discriminated against and are not oppressed, when they have had one bad experience with a woman, can be a tricky business.

Another issue is trying to get the idea across that men don’t get to dictate what the feminist movement is about. Many men will make broad sweeping statements about feminism and actually tell feminists what they should be thinking and feeling about the movement and what it has done to our societies and what it’s motivations are (I actually had one man tell me how feminism had ruined my life, apparently it never occurred to him that I can make up my own mind on that point). It is difficult to get across that men are actually not the judge of how successful the feminist movement has been and how much it has benefited society, or what its agenda is and how successful it has been in achieving that agenda.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is still an overwhelming desire amongst a lot of men to dictate rather than listen (and this may be something that ‘particularly white men’ actually need to learn how to do); to listen and learn and try to understand the female perspective rather than dictate what they think it should be.

Thanks again Stephen, and thank you for your efforts to support the feminist movement.

Laura // Posted 17 September 2013 at 9:56 am

Hi Leisha,

I just wanted to point out that, actually, it is very common for white people to denigrate and discriminate against people of other races/ethnicities based on one negative individual experience, particularly where that negative experience matches onto a racist stereotype about a certain group. For example, I know a woman who is scared of black men who pass her on the street because she was once mugged by a black man. I think it highly unlikely that she would be scared of all white men who pass her on the street if her attacker had been white (in fact, she recognises that her fear is based on learned racism).

Stephen Burrell // Posted 13 October 2013 at 10:09 pm

I just wanted to belatedly say thank you very much Leisha for your comments! I think this all demonstrates how pervasive patriarchal discourses are, particularly among men. There is definitely still a massive stigma towards feminism, and especially from men: taking on board feminist ideas is completely at odds with the dominant conceptions of masculinity. Many men therefore have no desire to engage with feminist ideas and are conditioned to be resistant to them, without even thinking about it. The only way to break down these barriers is, in my opinion, with persistence! :-)

I think it’s a very important point that you make about separating personal and collective experiences, too. I agree with Laura that this does occur on the basis of ‘race’ and ethnicity too though. In fact the most obvious contemporary example I can think of is the way all Muslims are stigmatised based upon the actions of a few ‘terrorists’. But in terms of gender, I think this connects with the aforementioned refusal by men to take into account the structural inequality and oppression faced by women, or to see the ‘bigger picture’ and how the behaviour of individuals fits into society as a whole. Patriarchal ideas are so dominant that when men perceive a negative experience with a woman they will 1. Not give any thought to why she might have behaved in that way, and 2. Denigrate all women as a result, using that experience to further justify misogynistic views. However, it doesn’t work the other way round of course; the fact that the vast majority of their experiences with the women in their lives are probably positive will not change their minds about the way they see women collectively, because it goes against the patriarchal ideas that they buy into. And an increasingly prevalent aspect of these ideas is, as you say, the utterly ridiculous belief that it is men who are being discriminated against and oppressed, because women have the cheek to suggest that they have the right not to be victimised and to have an equal place in society. Unfortunately, these kinds of ideas seem to me to be pretty widespread and entrenched, but that does not mean that we cannot change them!

I think you’re right too in saying that some men do try to dictate what feminism is or should be all about, and there is even a risk of this from men who are generally well meaning and supportive. This is why I believe it is important to emphasise that whilst men absolutely can and should be supportive of feminism, the liberation of women is ultimately something which only women can achieve. Men do not get to decide how this should be done. We do not get to decide what is best for women. I totally agree that if we are genuinely interested in eradicating the oppression of women, then men have to stop talking for a minute, and listen to, learn from, and try to understand the perspective of women, and feminist ideas. Of course, it’s not surprising that many men are not used to doing this, since the society we live in is so structurally dominated by men and by ideas which enshrine that dominance, a society based around the subordination and suppression of women, their perspectives and their experiences. However, we’d better start getting used to it, because I am confident things will not be this way forever :-).

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