There's been a lot of discussion in the feminist blogosphere about this February 13 post at Definition: "An Open Letter to All the Liberal, Straight Men." As the comments below the post make clear, the author struck a nerve.
Most days, I don't like describing myself as "liberal" or "straight". My background in socialism makes me reflexively uncomfortable with the term "liberal", because I still associate it with 19th century ideas about free markets and the moral superiority of bourgeois capitalism. In the debased modern sense of the term, I suppose it's accurate enough for me.
I'm even less enamored of the word "straight." The opposite of "straight" is "bent", or "broken", and I don't like to imply that my brothers and sisters in the GLBTQQ community are either of those things. And, as my friend and hero Richard Mouw has pointed out, I'm not that sure that when it comes to sexuality, any of us are really "straight"! When it comes to our sexual desires, most of us have all kinds of nooks and crannies and "brokennesses". I may be a heterosexual man, but Lord knows, I am not straight. God writes straight, but I'm just one of many crooked lines he's using to do so, and so are most folks I know.
But I digress.
I had a "yes, no, and hmmm" response to the open letter. Here's what I liked: the author asks men to resist derailing feminist discussions by talking about the various ways in which males also suffer in contemporary society:
So, first of all, it doesn’t all revolve around you. If I am discussing sexism or the unique difficulties women face, I can understand and appreciate the frustrations that men also grapple with in our society. Really, the problem isn’t so much men and women as the fact that all powerful institutions want to make everyone feel worthless, so that we will do whatever they tell us to. But, for now, I am talking about women and women’s unique position in the world, and it is not about the big picture. It is about us. About me. Your tangents derail the conversation and shift the focus so that the issues I want to raise are ignored. This is the problem.
This is symptomatic of a greater issue: the fact that men are trained to keep the focus on themselves. It’s not the conscious insecurity of the male ego which causes this to happen, but rather, the result in living in a culture which focuses on men the majority of the time. When attempting to give women equal time, and an equal voice, the fifty-fifty split (or, since this doesn’t exist yet in reality, even the attempt to approach it) seems unbalanced and skewed to the minds of many men. Women trying to have an equal voice seem to be silencing the men, simply because the men are not the ones currently talking about the current topic.
Resist the urge to assert yourself in defense of the male voice. We’ve already heard it, and doubtless we will hear it again. Save it until we’re finished. Do it somewhere else.
That's right on. Many well-intentioned "liberal and straight" (and some not-so-liberal or straight) fellas I know do tend to enter a discussion about sexism as if it's an Olympic competition. If women are to be awarded a "gold medal" for suffering, some men want to ensure that they at least make it on to the podium. They change the subject of the discussion to the various hardships that straight white men face, and while perhaps acknowledging that these aren't as severe as those faced by their sisters, these guys still demand at least a bronze or a silver medal in the "suffering Olympics." It's an understandable, but tedious strategy.
One reason why so many "nice and liberal" men tend to try and derail feminist discussions is that they are eager and anxious to prove that they "aren't like other guys." Too often, young (potential) pro-feminist men seek to establish their bona fides by stressing the various ways in which they happen to be "exceptions to the rule." One way these guys think they'll establish their feminist credibility is by explaining that they too know what it's like to suffer from sexism and stereotyping. The goal is not always to derail the feminist discussion, but rather to win approval and acceptance.
But saying "Yeah, I understand, but I'm a victim too" doesn't help the feminist cause. Men do need to do the vital work of coping with their own very real issues, but we can't do that by introducing them into a feminist setting. What we need to do is create specific spaces -- like men's studies classes -- for focusing in on the myths, structures, and social obligations that create the "masculine mystique." We need to find healthy ways to express our very real pain and frustration -- and we need to express that pain to other men. Too often, traditional definitions of manhood force men to only open up to women, thus burdening our wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters with doing our "feeling work" for us. While we should indeed share our truest selves with the women in our lives, we need to do more of our emotional work with other men -- and not make as many demands on the emotional energy of women, energy that might better be spent elsewhere.
If you aren’t guilty of the offenses I’ve outlined, you aren’t defensive about it. You’re one of those guys who reads the whole list and nods along and then genuinely apologizes for your gender (while not feeling the need to defend yourself by insisting you do not represent these men).
I don't believe that any of us, ever, ought to apologize for the actions of others. I've never apologized for all the lousy things men have done to women, or whites have done to blacks, or what-have-you. We don't overcome sexism by imposing collective guilt on any particular group. That doesn't mean that most men don't have plenty to apologize for! We can apologize for all those times we let a sexist remark go unchallenged, because we were too scared of losing the approval of other guys to speak up. We can apologize for the times we have failed to listen, truly listen, to the pain and grief and anger that the women in our lives have tried to express to us. We can apologize for the many things we have done or said that have dehumanized our sisters, and we can apologize for what we have left undone. Frankly, there's plenty in our own lives for which we need to take responsibility. But there's no need, not ever, to issue apologies on behalf of an entire class of human beings. Though as men we experience privilege collectively by virtue of being men, we must accept responsibility for changing our lives individually. Blanket apologies won't do.
In my opinion, men don't ever need to be made to feel ashamed merely for being men. We must be quick to identify those ways in which we fall short, and we must be better about taking responsibility for our own actions -- and our failures to act. But it is no crime to be male. We are not complicit in the great crime merely because we possess a Y chromosome; we become complicit through our own choices, our own deafness, our own selfishness, our own cowardice. The pro-feminist goal is to help men feel more powerful, not through their ability to dominate, but through their ability to effectively relate as loving equals to women.
In the end, progressive pro-feminist men need to do a better job of truly hearing what our wives and sisters are telling us. But we also need to do a better job of identifying the sources of our own frustrations and disappointments, and we need to do that in community with other men. Adding to the emotional burden that our wives and mothers and sisters already carry is not acceptable; learning to tell the truth to other men is.