It's early on a Thursday morning, and I've got finals to give and papers to grade. And though at least a good percentage of my mind is elsewhere, I am ready to begin to respond to folks like Piny at Feministe, McBoing at Punkass Blog, Sheelzebub, and Violet at Reclusive Leftist (among others) who have been debating my June 6 post in which I gave advice to a lad named "Pete".
As best I can tell, the problem unfolded on two fronts. First off, a number of voices in the feminist blogosphere felt I took it too easy on Pete when he announced that he wasn't ready to practice pro-feminism and give up some of his "bad boy" behavior. Secondly, when called on that by McBoing, I wrote in a comment at that blog:
The key thing I would like to stress is that unlike a great many folks who commented, I do the pro-feminist thing FOR A LIVING. I work, in the trenches, to try and bring young men who are profoundly hostile to anything that smells of feminism to a greater accountability in their lives. If I confront these guys, they’ll walk away with nothing at all but an even bigger chip on their shoulders; an incremental approach that encourages small changes is the one way that I have found that really works.
Let me see if I can tackle the two related issues in order:
First off, I'm sorry that my original post about Pete gave the impression that I wasn't interested in challenging him (and other fellas like him) to overcome their sexism and become better, kinder human beings. I think I made it fairly clear in the piece that I was challenging Pete's notion that pro-feminism isn't about chronic anxiety and indecisiveness. I certainly didn't intend to give the impression to readers that I thought that Pete was "just fine where he was", without considerable room for growth. I wasn't endorsing reckless, cruel, and unthinking behavior with women -- regardless of what age Pete is.
But becoming a pro-feminist is a process, not an event. There are hundreds of comments at Feministe and Punkass Blog suggesting that I ought to have been more forceful with Pete, more condemnatory of his "player" attitude, and more firm in my challenges to his worldview. A great many folks were appalled that I chuckled with Pete and let him leave with the seemingly benign maxim to take things "one day at a time." Yet I remain convinced that with some young men, this sort of gradual (even indulgent) approach is best. Before I can hold a young man to account, I have to earn his trust; before I can challenge him to grow, I have to establish my bona fides. And part of earning that trust is acknowledging that some of his concerns (not all) are legitimate, and that living life as a pro-feminist man (particularly in college) isn't a cakewalk!
As a Christian, I've spent a lot of time thinking about evangelistic strategies. I have friends who are faculty members and students at Fuller's School of World Mission; their field, "missiology", is devoted to the study of evangelism. The great question is always: "How do we couch the Gospel in terms that will be heard by people from different backgrounds and cultures?" I've sat in on a class or two in "missions"; it's a fascinating academic discipline and an enormously important subject in the evangelical world. And as a gender studies professor, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I can adapt some of these missionary strategies to reach young men and women with a pro-feminist message. In missions work, you learn fast that hectoring (the "hellfire and brimstone" strategy) gets you nowhere fast. Though Christianity has a history of aggressive and often violent proselytizing, modern evangelism is an elegant,intellectually sophisticated, culturally sensitive seduction. I'm convinced that those of us who preach feminism should use the same strategies!
Now, I'm not saying this "softer, gentler, one-day-at-a-time" strategy is one that every feminist ought to use. Feminism is a big house, and there is room within that house for a variety of approaches to "spreading the word". Confrontation has its place. All good movements for justice, in other words, need their "Martins" and their "Malcolms"! (Please know I'm not trying to compare myself to either Malcolm X or Dr. King.) I'm more interested in adopting an incremental approach because it's the approach that I think works best with the greatest number of young men and women. My students always hear me, for example, compare becoming a feminist to getting into a cold swimming pool: a few will find it easiest to just dive in, but most of us will climb down, step by step, shivering all the way, only gradually becoming comfortable. And none of us can fully immerse ourselves forever; we all have to keep a head above water in order to breathe. That image may not work for everyone, but it comes as close as any to describing my "slow and easy" approach to transformation.
And then there's the second issue: my unfortunate choice of words on McBoing's blog. I wrote, rather defensively: I do the pro-feminist thing FOR A LIVING. I work, in the trenches, to try and bring young men who are profoundly hostile to anything that smells of feminism to a greater accountabilty in their lives. I posted that comment in haste, and I regret my poor choice of words. I didn't mean to imply that I am a "better" feminist than those who are not paid to teach feminism. And I recognize that as a man, I can always make the choice to not be a feminist without paying a major personal pricee. It is obvious to me in hindsight that the comment was pompous and patronizing, and I regret that I made it.
My goal was to point out that I do have a decade or more of experience teaching feminism to college students, and seven years of working with teens as a youth leader. I've learned, through trial and error, a great deal about what "works" and doesn't work. When I was younger, I was far more passionate and far more likely to see things in black and white. I'd like to think that my appreciation for ambiguity and incremental change is a sign of wisdom on my part, but I am aware that my critics are more likely to construe it as cowardice, people-pleasing, and privilege. It is possible that at times I am not forceful enough with young men and women who are still "stuck" in certain patterns of thinking and behavior; then again, I know plenty of colleagues of mine who scare off potential converts. This much I am certain of: no one who teaches this subject has anything like a 100% success rate in raising up young feminists and pro-feminists! We are all struggling, as best we can (in the trenches) to carry out the feminist version of the Great Commission: to convey the message that women are full and complete human beings, radically equal to men in every imaginable respect. We who teach and lead will all have our sucesses and our failures, and we do well to always be alert to new and possibly more productive strategies for achieving our goals.
I've got another post in mind about the way in which my writing seems to infuriate my potential allies, but that's for later.