PSA: Spreading the word

The fabulous Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has written a fabulous post about, well, why women don’t just trust men. But that doesn’t do it justice by any means.

The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck

There are also individual men in this world I would say I probably hate, or something close, men who I hold in unfathomable contempt, but it is not because they are men.

No, I don’t hate men.

It would, however, be fair to say that I don’t easily trust them.

My mistrust is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark my every relationship with a man—the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the careless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreaction, the eyerolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language (“humankind”).

Please, go and read it. I guess that many people will have had a look already, because they read Shakesville themselves, or because Tigtog put out the word at Hoyden about Town, but I’m also guessing that many people in New Zealand won’t have seen it yet.

32 responses to “PSA: Spreading the word

  1. Mmmh… Once one gets laboriously past the crushing self-regard, which is a hallmark of Shakesville in general and McEwan in particular, there seems to come a moment in which she acknowledges and even examines her speaker position.

    There are men who will read this post and think, huffily, dismissively, that a person of color could write a post very much like this one about white people, about me. That’s absolutely right. So could a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual, an asexual. So could a trans or intersex person (which hardly makes a comprehensive list).

    Except it’s actually sitting on top of even more self-regard:

    I’m okay with that. I don’t feel hated. I feel mistrusted—and I understand it; I respect it. It means, for me, I must be vigilant, must make myself trustworthy. Every day.

    The problem is not that a person of color could write a post very much like this one about white people. It’s that a white person could write it about blacks, a non-Muslim about Muslims.

    She (unthinkingly) managed to exemplify a slippage that is quite simply what’s wrong with identity politics today. In the case at hand, the problem aren’t men, the problem is mysoginy. Women are perfectly capable of it.

  2. (The strong wording of the above might have something to do with running through the first fifty or so comments on Shakesville and finding them all so unquestioning. I did however genuinely think it was very insidiously argued.)

  3. Hmm…. well… here’s an analogy. I have a lovely hairdresser who is gay. He was friendly and charming to me right from the start, but very reserved about his sexuality, which is a large part of who he is (for him, not necessarily for everyone), until he was sure he could trust me. So even though I know that I am trustworthy with respect to respecting lgbtqi people, he didn’t know that, and his experience is such that he needs to assume a basic stance of mistrust.

    Yes, able bodied white cis-gendered heterosexual men can be the subject of racism / sexism / etc. too, and yes, patriarchy hurts men too. But the power structures in society are such that able bodied white cis-gendered heterosexual men occupy the top rungs, and benefit from patriarchy, and I think benefit from it more than they are harmed by it (NB: as a group c/f on an individual basis). So the mistrust / racism / sexism / wev that able bodied white cis-gendered heterosexual men is real, but not damaging in the same way as when it goes in the other directions, because it is not as closely linked to power structures. There are some good posts at Finally Feminism 101 about this: What is “sexism”? and Aren’t feminists just sexists towards men? and What is male privilege?

    From my own point of view, I get nervous about something as simple as telling people that I meet that my husband and I don’t use the same name, and that no, it is absolutely incorrect to say that my name is legally Ms Deborah [Husband's Family Name], because I never changed it legally (when you marry in NZ, you both fill out the marriage licence / form and each of you specifies the name you will be known by after marriage, so both of us specified the family names we had since birth). You wouldn’t believe the number of raised eyebrows and snarky comments I’ve gotten about something as simple as asserting my own identity in a relationship of equals.

  4. Your hairdresser has every right to be guarded about his sexual orientation, society responding to it the way it does, but I think it leads you to a charitable interpretation of McEwan’s stance. I don’t really know where to start. Let’s say here:

    “It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark my every relationship with a man—the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the careless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreaction, the eyerolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language”

    I’m not saying that the above is reverse sexism, which is generally a bogus accusation anyhow: I’m saying it’s straightforward sexism. Your relationship with “a man” doesn’t authorise you to make assumptions about what “another man” or “men” are like. What American public figure said something to the effect of “when I’m walking at night and I hear steps behind me I hope it is n0t a black man?” And then his stance was justified with statistics about which group does the most muggings in the United States? It’s really the same thing. Applying to the individual the social ills of a group or of society at large; discriminating on the basis of skin colour or, in this case, being born with a penis. And worse than that, it’s coolly wrapped into the mantle of progressive politics. But it’s not, it’s the opposite. It’s a deranged game of the Russian Dolls of Mistrust: asexuals are entitled to mistrust bisexuals who are entitled to mistrust lesbians who are entitled to mistrust gay men. People of colour are entitled to mistrust white people, and everybody is entitled to mistrust white men. All because there is discrimination in society. But you cannot simply pin discrimination on the group that stands to gain from it, and then break it down into mistrust for each member of that group. That really is the opposite of progressive.

    Our job is to fight discrimination, inequality, violence, rape. Men commit most individual acts of all of those things; so the answer is… fight men? I don’t think so. I might accept that line of argument from Dworkin, whose writing was searingly passionate and reflected an enormous degree of personal investment and commitment to what is essentially a poetic level of truth. McEwan? Not so much. She’s just writing the calculated amount of hateful things she knows she’ll be allowed to get away with. Call it feminist blogger privilege.

    (I’ve been riled by versions of this argument for a *long* time, I think it kind of shows.)

  5. “reflected a degree” = “reflected an *enormous* degree”. Plus assorted typos you can all correct in your heads :-)

    [Deb: Fixed.]

  6. Okay. I want to withdraw my use of the word “sexism” in my comment above, and replace it with discrimination, because I want to reserve “sexism” for the dynamic of “discrimination coupled with power” per the Finally Feminism 101 post I linked to above: What is “sexism”?

    I think that what Melissa is saying, and certainly what I take from it, is that she starts from an assumption of mistrust. But the way I read it, it’s a defeasible assumption. So it’s not a matter of saying that all men are untrustworthy, because clearly, that’s not the case. Even more clearly, not all men are trustworthy, and the prevalence of sexism in our society, from the colleague who thinks it’s okay to comment on the size of your breasts to the constant use of women’s bodies to sell anything and everything, means that you start from a defeasible stance of mistrust, until you know a bit more about the particular man you are dealing with.

  7. “I think that what Melissa is saying, and certainly what I take from it, is that she starts from an assumption of mistrust. But the way I read it, it’s a defeasible assumption.”

    Tell you what. There have been some well documented incidents regarding sexism, religious tolerance, violence in society and terrorism, so I propose starting from a defensible stance of mistrust, until you know a bit more about the particular Muslim you are dealing with.

    And what about poor people? They’re demonstrably more likely to commit violent crimes. Pays to be safe.

    Is it okay, or ‘different’, so long as you’re a woman and the subject is sexism? Very good. Ask yourself this: which is more likely to be sexist, a Catholic woman or an agnostic man? A Swede person or an Italian person? Which is more likely to be anti-gay: a black Californian female or a white Californian male? Are you going to apply mistrust differentials in all of these situations? And according to which formula?

    What Melissa is proposing, with a cool-headedness and an acceptance that I find dismaying, is gender profiling. It is wrong. Because finally, even if this proposition is true:

    “not all men are trustworthy”

    I’m going to have to ask you: who is?

  8. It’s the link to a power dynamic that makes a critical difference. Because no matter how rosy tinted one’s glasses are, the fact is that white able-bodied cis-gendered heterosexual men hold a position of power in our society.

  9. So that authorises discrimination, does it? But wait: are white men demonstrably more sexist than men of colour, or disabled men? If not, should we mistrust them more anyway because they are more powerful? What about the not inconsiderable number of white able-bodied cis-gendered heterosexual men that are less powerful than you or Melissa McEwan? What makes it okay to discriminate [against] them?

  10. “There have been some well documented incidents regarding sexism, religious tolerance, violence in society and terrorism, so I propose starting from a defensible stance of mistrust, until you know a bit more about the particular Muslim you are dealing with.”

    But the difference is that Melissa is talking about things that have happened to her, are happening to her everyday. If you had been the victim, in some way, of a terrorist attack carried out by fundamentalist Muslim terrorists, then I would have no problem with you feeling that way.

  11. (Ah, cheers, I didn’t know that about the verb “to discriminate”. And to clarify, I have nothing against positive discrimination nor against a degree of broad negative discrimination aimed at all men as opposed to individuals – for instance, I’m greatly in favour of women-only rooms on campuses and the such.)

  12. “If you had been the victim, in some way, of a terrorist attack carried out by fundamentalist Muslim terrorists, then I would have no problem with you feeling that way.”

    I sure as hell would. That’s how the US got into Iraq.

  13. Because always, as a matter of being a member of a vulnerable group, you have to keep a watchful eye on what people who are members of the more powerful groups are doing, just in case you need to get yourself out of a difficult situation.

    Seriously, Gio – when was the last time you got that awful sinking feeling in your stomach because one of your colleagues made a comment about your secondary sexual characteristics? It hasn’t happened to me for many years now, mostly because I am now armed with a fair amount of status in my own right, as an individual, but it has happened, in such a way that I was made to realise that no matter what I said or did, I was either a joyless feminazi, or complicit in the positioning of me as an object.

  14. “Seriously, Gio – when was the last time you got that awful sinking feeling in your stomach because one of your colleagues made a comment about your secondary sexual characteristics?”

    I’m balding, so take your pick. But sexism isn’t just that: it’s also calling you a bitch or a cow behind your back. Would you pick a man to be more likely to do that to you than a woman? That wouldn’t be consistent with my experience.

    “It hasn’t happened to me for many years now, mostly because I am now armed with a fair amount of status in my own right, as an individual, but it has happened, in such a way that I was made to realise that no matter what I said or did, I was either a joyless feminazi, or complicit in the positioning of me as an object.”

    I get that with the Italian thing. And arguably, everything else being equal, a white cis-gendered etc Pakeha man starts from a position of greater power than I do in this country. Yet that doesn’t make me assume a position of informed mistrust of individual Pakehas I encounter (also known as racism), nor does it – crucially – make me trust other Italian immigrants more. Everything else being equal.

    But again, I’m not wholly against gender antagonism on the part of women. It’s the crude yet pitch-perfect manner in which McEwan articulated it, her refusal to recognise, examine, acknowledge her own position of power, the fact that it isn’t sutured into anything resembling an emancipatory project that makes me recoil. It’s the caricature of what identity politics should be and could be, to my mind.

  15. I am tending to agree with Giovanni here. I found the McEwan piece rather less than fabulous too. His comments about self-regard resonated for me.
    I think what bugs me most is the the starting assumption of mistrust which is founded on a position of victimhood. That just doesn’t inspire me as a template for life.

  16. I mean, consider the title! “The terrible bargain we have regretfully struck”. C’mon, Melissa, it’s not that terrible. It’s better now for women than during any time in human history – isn’t that worth celebrating?

  17. And let me immediately qualify that by saying that in many, many parts of the world, of course, things are as grim as they ever were for women.

  18. I wonder whether Melissa McEwan would profile the gazillionaires at the top of the patriarchy. “Look at that guy, until I know better, I’d wager he’s going to give all his money to worthy altruistic causes, just like Carnegie, Kellog, Ford, Gates, Soros and Buffet. Until I know better, I’m going to expect any obscenely wealthy man will ultimately give it all away.”

    Guess not.

  19. Well, no, she probably wouldn’t. But is there a more general point to be made, or is it just a McEwan thing?

  20. I read the post and felt sorry for McEwan. She says the men she loves do these things. The men I love do not do those things and I would not love them if they did. The title of the post is “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” and I do think she has struck a terrible bargain, but I do not consider myself part of the “We” in the title. I very very rarely have to deal with those kinds of comments at work, and at least part of the reason is that on the rare occasions when I do hear comments like that I immediately call the speaker on it. I usually don’t get particularly excited or emotional, but I do point it out. I don’t weigh causing problems in a relationship against being complicit because these are just casual relationships with co-workers. I don’t see it as a lose-lose situation for me. Some of my co-workers may decide I’m a femi-nazi or whatever because I say these things, but I don’t much care what these people think and I don’t see any of the men who have these attitudes having any extra power to hurt me or obstruct my career or anything in my day-to-day life. Regarding the whole trust issue – I don’t mistrust men I don’t know more than women, except for a situation where I am walking by myself down a dark street or something. I also did not change my name when I got married and I am as likely to get a negative reaction from a woman as from a man, if not moreso.

    I think McEwan acknowledges that this is her personal perspective, so I don’t think she is making an argument that I can say is “invalid”. I’m sure she is accurately depicting her experiences and perspective. I, however, am a woman who does not share those experiences and perspective, so I found it difficult to relate to the post.

  21. Oh, Adele, you expressed that so nicely.
    The post was just so .. negative that I found it hard to relate to as well.
    I was thinking something similar in relation to Deborah’s comment about being nervous when telling people about not having changed her name. I tend to start from a point of assuming that people will be enlightened, and if they’re not, well, that’s their problem rather than mine.

  22. I hadn’t come across the Shakesville blog before (although I’ve just noticed it’s linked to on your ‘About’ page – d’oh) and I found a lot of the content thought provoking. On that specific post though, I’d have to agree with Adele that I found the perspective and experiences McEwan was speaking from hard to relate to. Of course, sadly, I have met many men who make casual and offensive ‘jokes’ about women, and about rape, and who trivilise any expression of strong, justifiable feelings anger from a women as ‘PMT’ (though generally in cruder terms). But “my every relationship with a man” being marked by these things – absolutely not. And certainly not from any man I would choose to call my friend.

    Later in the comments thread she says, “It is a discussion that we talk around a lot, that men we love express misogyny”. Now I would agree that men I know who I consider thoughtful, intelligent and pro-feminist do on occasion express points of view or make comments that I would consider sexist. However I do not believe that in the case of men I respect such comments are born of hatred for women but rather reflect that such attitudes and beliefs are still so prevalent in society that most people, men and women, have absorbed and accepted some of them without question. On challenging such comments the response is usually one of openness to discussion. The result may be that they re-examine and revise their position. Or they may disagree on intellectual grounds with the argument presented. Or they may, because they have grown up and continue to live in a patriarchal society, find it difficult to personally identify with the problem/oppression/historical context etc. of my argument. This can be frustrating, yes, but not a reason to distrust.

  23. Well, yes. One of my female in-laws, whom I won’t identify any further, is as misogynistic as as any man I’ve ever met. She believes firmly that women should occupy secondary social roles, sacrifice their own ambitions, be endlessly self-sacrificing and generally .. suffer. In silence!
    It’s the misogyny that’s the problem, and while it usually attaches to the group that benefits most from it (i.e. men), well, not always. Arguably n0-one benefits from it. I just don’t think it’s helpful to address it by distrusting men in general.

  24. I’m short on time today (singing lessons, lecture to give and tutorials to teach) so I can’t respond, but can I direct you to this post, which I think is useful.

    Something about the way you look tonight

    I do have something much longer to say, but I might try to put it in a post tonight.

    (And may I just say how much I’ve been enjoying your company in thrashing out this issue.)

  25. I look forward to your new post very much, Deborah. I find it a little strange holding an opposing point of view to you as usually I agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m so glad we can have a discussion that remains constructive and good-hearted. I quite liked that post you just linked to – but I still don’t think the behaviour described warrants generalised distrust in men – women can be equally judgmental and tyrannical about appearances.

  26. Like Carol, I usually agree with you, Deborah, but this post reminded me why I stopped reading Shakesville. Arrogant, whiny, self-indulgent tosh: she does not trust men so all men must be vigilant in case they become the cardboard cut-out sexists of her world. I wonder if she seeks the company of brutes just to satisfy her sense of victimhood: it must be difficult finding men of the kind she portrays these days. Perhaps she advertises on Craigslist for retrosexuals.

  27. I really liked the post, it articulated something I have struggled to explain to my partner over several years, about how every apparently harmless joke (as he sees it) contributes to keeping me on guard. All the time. If the dumb jokes existed in a world all on their own without context I would brush them off, but they don’t, they’re part of a world where women are still excluded from some professions, where we’re paid less for equivalent work, and where everything that is “women’s work” doesn’t require learned skills or pay at all.

    My father in law, on the whole a dear sweet man, is a champion of these jokes. His wife rolls her eyes (while serving the lunch) and his daughters in law either shut our ears (if we’re having a tired day) or point out why he’s being an idiot (if we’ve go the energy).

  28. I’ll disagree with Paul and Giovanni here – McEwan is indeed profiling all men, saying that her automatic burden is on men to prove to her that they are trustworthy before she puts her guard down. And I think she has every right to. She feels completely disempowered. She’s in a position where she feels she can’t fight sexism, not without incurring personal costs she’s not prepared to carry.

    It’s certainly less than ideal, and not something to be celebrated, but a reality. It’s the lived experience of someone who feels they don’t have the power to challenge the activities, behaviours, institutions, and power structures that serve to harm them.

    I think Giovanni is right however when he says that it isn’t a solution. It’s an unfortunate (perhaps tactical) surrender to silence.

    I find Paul’s comment that she’s asking to be treated like this highly offensive.

  29. I’ll disagree with Paul and Giovanni here – McEwan is indeed profiling all men, saying that her automatic burden is on men to prove to her that they are trustworthy before she puts her guard down. And I think she has every right to. She feels completely disempowered. She’s in a position where she feels she can’t fight sexism, not without incurring personal costs she’s not prepared to carry.

    I tried to read it that way, essentially because it came with Deborah’s approval, which cancelled out at least in part my feelings about McEwan’s writing. But I just don’t see it. It’s hard to express what I found off-key without repeating the nebulous points I tried to make upthread, but put it this way: I’m not against an argument that said “I mistrust men because men rape” – there’s plenty of truth in it, and at any rate it’s not for me to judge. But what she’s done I think is package misogyny as a set of behaviours that is hardly exclusively practiced by men – so where’s the justification to trust other women, other people in general? And secondly, there’s nothing that is emancipatory about it, no useful rage, no stepping out of the place of business, the writer’s niche that McEwan has created for herself. To that extent I think it’s genuinely self-serving, but this I’ll admit feeds into what I think of her work in general.

  30. Often I like what Melissa has to write a lot, but I have to agree with what Giovanni quite eloquently posted in this instance.

    I disagree strongly with Melissa. It is not all necessary to strike a bargain. It is certainly not what I taught my children, now young adults.

    The most important reason that I have started to read quite a number of feminist blogs in the last couple of years is because of my growing dismay at the misogyny expressed by young women.

    Whether men are now more aware and are less likely to express in a derogatory manner: ‘are you a feminist or what’, I find, particularly young women, have no qualms at all to do just that. And with no man ‘looking on’! ( I work in a female dominated field)

  31. Make Tea Not War

    Speaking for myself I really don’t identify with the statement that women distrust men. There maybe individual men I distrust but the whole gender? No.

    The fact that some men may manifest misogynistic attitudes, or be dismissive about women, or make insensitive jokes to needle me, or treat debating feminism with me as a diversion when to me it is a serious issue- all that it seems McEwan fears will happen- all of that has happened to me from time to time and I’ve found it annoying and immature- but the fact that some men sometimes say stupid, inappropriate things isn’t enough to justify distrust of a whole gender.

    Also, it’s been my observation that a lot of the most hateful misogyny seems to come from quite sad, inept individuals who don’t feel they have much power or control in their lives. I don’t fear those people. I’m better than them and the majority of men, and certainly those I choose to associate with, are too.

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