Men, Feminism, Race, Movements and the Cult of Hugo Schwyzer: An Interview with Ernesto Aguilar

Hugo Schwyzer, a Pasadena City College (Calif.) instructor promoted in some circles for his work related to gender, has been at the center of an online controversy since December when he disclosed an attempt to kill an ex-girlfriend. The Atlantic recently covered the story, for those not familiar with Schwyzer or the incident in question.

The story, the defense and the reactions since have created many debates about men in feminism, forgiveness and violence against women.

The following is the transcript of an interview conducted by writer and radio host Meghan Murphy. A shortened version of the interview aired Feb. 27, 2012 on Vancouver Co-op Radio. This transcript is of the full interview.

Further thoughts to add to this discussion:

I have not written or spoken much about the Hugo Schwyzer issue because, honestly, many smart people have had really powerful things to say; I am afraid I would not have much to offer; and, really, the world has enough tiresome men offering opinions on feminism. Hugo Schwyzer and whatever. I was honored to be asked for a race and class analysis of this issue by Murphy (someone I admire and recommend highly; we’ve posted her work previously on People Of Color Organize!, because of its relevance to issues impacting women of color), and felt compelled to share opinions not just of this affair, but its meaning to movements. In addition, the focus on more unruly reactions to Hugo Schwyzer rather than the substance of the better commentaries as a classic language-policing tactic used against marginalized people — in the same program, Shira Tarrant refers to a “a groupthink sort of mob mentality takedown culture” — bears coverage. As well, given what I’ve seen in a few spots minimizing Schwyzer’s depravity in the context of ‘more important [racial justice] stuff to do’ (no linking to it, though… would rather not promote), I had a lot of motivation to share some thoughts.

Please do read some of the writing on Hugo Schwyzer and his actions, including the following:

Many of my conclusions in the transcript are focused on movements, with emphasis on the sociopolitical culture that sanctions noxious conduct and supported Hugo Schwyzer even as more and more sketchy exercises in privilege came to light. I commented more than once in the interview that times like this call for introspection — why some people stood by and actively/passively promoted this person for such a long time (or merely said nothing), etc. I’m not convinced even enthusiastic supporters themselves buy the idea that everyone makes mistakes and thus all of this stuff was okay, for virtually none of the prominent folks citing Hugo Schwyzer or promoting him were out front saying, essentially, ‘this person is wrong and I will say something’ as one would reasonably expect.

In the interview, I remark that what Hugo Schwyzer is doing has been and is being reenacted right now in scores of movements. Those in the online realm should certainly check out sites like Occupy Patriarchy and the Feminist Peace Network, which have faced and documented many issues offline. The activities of Hugo Schwyzer and supporters as well as the ones various organizers note have long histories in movements. These include:

  • Men, particularly white guys, quietly seeking validation of themselves from men, but especially women, whose defense blunts criticism by other women.
  • Bestowing unearned regard for their egalitarian viewpoints rather than correction of their horrid behavior.
  • Supporting cults of personality, where a particular guy’s skills or knowledge are extolled as negating predatory behavior.
  • Pressuring women to forgive men for the betterment of the movement.

(And people wonder why some women have a critical view of progressive movements…)

Finally, I find it troubling when the concern is about men who are involved and what they might face when their own crimes come to light, rather than what these men have done to women and whether forgiving them in two months’ time is a cardinal question. I’m unambiguous in my view that, had this been my loved one he tried to murder, Hugo Schwyzer’s place in feminism would be the last conversation I’d be interested in having. Everyone seems to forget the women no one knows in these incidents as well as the people of color as implicit besmirchers of Western civilization who never get this sort of support, because it’s easier to identify with the guy who, by virtue of social stratification, is seen as authoritative just by his existence.

So much more to say, but here’s the transcript:


Meghan Murphy: Today on the show, we’re talking about men and feminism. So, I wonder, first of all, do you describe yourself as a feminist?

Ernesto Aguilar: I describe myself as pro-feminist. And that’s primarily because I think women have paid a tremendous price throughout history for standing in support of feminism, and men just have not done that to that extent. We also live in a patriarchy, so men’s voices oftentimes get privileged in movements, and the danger of men co-opting a struggle women have led and sacrificed so much for is very real.

Critically, I think men especially need to speak out about centering the male experience as central to that story of women’s liberation, because too often this point gets turned into one of excluding men, or that men are also feminists, or that feminism is about liberating men too. Whenever I hear these arguments, as a man of color, I have to see it in the frame of how the privileged often treat questions of privilege. For example, in the racial context, many advocate colorblindness, this parallel notion that communicates in essence we combat discrimination by treating every person’s stake in a movement as equal.

The problem with stating that feminism is about liberating men too, and shifting this conversation about whether someone is for or against excluding people, is that we validate a false notion: that men have an identical, practical stake in women’s freedom as women, who themselves are targets every day. A white person’s stake in racial justice is at its most basic starkly different than that of a person of color, and similarly a man’s stake in a movement for women’s liberation is different too. Men especially need to be aware of and respect that distinction.

MM: And as a man doing progressive, anti-oppression, radical work as you are, how do you see yourself as an ally to feminists? How do you actually ally with the feminist movement, and what role(s) do you think men can or should play within the feminist movement?

EA: I try to orient my political work in a way that supports the feminist movement, but I try not to get out front and label myself. I know some folks get fixated with ally and whatnot, but, as a male, I don’t think that is my call to make. For me, it is key to see what men are practically doing to support the feminist movement, women’s political development and, in a larger sense, an agenda that forwards women’s empowerment in our communities locally, especially for women of color and poor women. Whether women in these communities understand these individuals to be working in support is also critical.

Now, I personally owe a real debt to many great feminists for teaching me to try to incorporate such practice in my daily life and political work, but my effort in support of the feminist movement is still a work in progress. I do believe it is incumbent on men to speak up about national funding priorities, about violence against women, about the plight of indigenous and immigrant women — which I know you’ve covered on the program many times — about exploitation of women and girls in pornography and the sex trade, and to remember the greatest value in a society is not access to whatever the best off want, but rather what those who are most disenfranchised need. I also think it is on men to account for that work, not just in abstractions, but in a demonstrable way women in our communities can verify.

MM: There’s been this history of sexism in leftist movements wherein those oppressive frameworks we’re supposedly pushing against were kind of replicated within these activist or radical groups. For example, within the New Left movement, women would still be expected to do the cooking, cleaning, the administrative work, and of course, be sexually available to men. So progressive men haven’t always wanted to ally with the feminist movement. Do you see any noticeable change in terms of progressive and radical men and their relationship to the feminist movement, to women, to feminists? Are men in radical movements evolving in that way, to see the importance of feminism in those movements?

EA: One of the things I find really interesting is the role of social media in forwarding a positive idea about feminists to many in progressive movements, and creating some dynamism around that. However, there remain real troubles with men who perceive that they are feminists because they claim to be or read something online, when the real issue is the necessity for vigilant self-criticism and reflection by men as a fundamental tool before they start claiming any particular label.

In movements, I have oftentimes seen men think they have a role in the feminist movement because they’re men and that status magically grants them credibility with other men and with women who appreciate their interest. The whole men-listen-to-other-men argument is a bit fallacious anyway, because frankly men already know how to listen to other men; they need to be taught to listen to women. However, what a lot of these progressive men should be doing, and they’re not doing enough of, is taking some risks and putting in work in support of the feminist movement outside of the safe space of progressive movements or feminist movements, and endeavor in other spaces to talk about the practical issues women are facing.

Another problem that I often see is men’s marshalling of support. I recently had a heartbreaking experience where women I admire tremendously raised criticism about a male leader’s behavior. Coming to him to talk about these issues, his response to me was, flatly, he was a feminist and didn’t I think he was okay. I wish I could say that was the first experience I had with that kind of an action, but I have honestly lost count of how frequently such a defense ends up getting thrown up by these so-called progressive men to deflect from their actions. I do not see enough change from men in progressive movements, primarily because so few are willing to take a hard look in the mirror at male privilege, and themselves, not just as people who believe different things but as direct beneficiaries of male privilege. A lot of men have a hard time talking about that, acknowledging it, and trying to address it. As more progressive men seek to talk about male privilege and acknowledge themselves as beneficiaries, even though they may be nice people generally, I think we will be further along.

MM: That’s an interesting point. Often identifying as a feminist for some seems like enough. I think sometimes men think that if they say they’re feminists that we all as women or as feminists should say ‘oh, okay, you’re a good guy, you just said you’re a feminist.’ Or that that’s used, as you say, as a pass. What does that mean, and why is it up to you to take ownership of that? People are pointing out that something you’re doing or your actions are problematic, or oppressive or you’re using your male privilege or power, and your response is ‘well, I’m a feminist.’ And that is a really interesting conversation to have, whether men should be taking on that label.

EA: You raise a really important point to me about people doing the practical, day-to-day things that really matter, and make a difference in the lives of people, because those interactions are real things we all participate in. And I completely agree with you. Too often, people want to declare themselves with a banner, and men in particular are not spending enough time doing those practical things: listening to women, not taking up space, not giving an opinion on things they know nothing about, or trying to be defensive or passive-aggressive or gaslighting women when they bring up these issues.

I pointed out earlier that men should be able to talk about the things they’re doing, and someone should be able to verify that you’re doing those things, that you’re going beyond calling yourself something and doing something, putting it to practice, and being someone acting in support of a movement instead of appropriating a label.

MM: I’ve had the experience in my personal life of an abusive man claiming to be feminist. Within my personal life, a man I knew to be abusive from my personal experience was taking on this label, as feminist, as if this gave him a right to speak on feminist issues, and women’s issues, as though that could erase his actions somehow. And, of course, that issue has come up recently with the whole Hugo Schwyzer debacle. Seeing as we’re talking about men and feminism, I wanted to talk about it, seeing as it has been so heated online. As much as I don’t want to focus a conversation on men and feminism on this one man, I think there are some interesting conversations around the Schwyzer issue. Hugo identifies as a male feminist (or did, in any case, I think he is re-thinking his relationship to feminism as a result of everything), I think a lot of questions and issues have come up around men and male power and privilege in feminism. What to you has been problematic about Hugo’s role in feminism in particular?

EA: The conversation we just had about movements frames a lot of this. What appears to be going on with Hugo, to me, is what we’ve seen many times in different movements: that a man who has been asked to account for his behavior goes from one space to another. In this case, while the words may say regret, stepping back, rethinking, the actions — going online to martyr oneself about being open, promote the comments of defenders, shifting work from feminist to proto-feminist websites that welcome him and so on — are not uncommon behaviors. I have witnessed countless times men whose actions are exposed publicly, and their brand of accountability and that of supporters is to recast the actions, make the question not the behavior but others’ capacity to forgive and to attack, then export the behavior elsewhere. This happens every single day in all kinds of movements. This is not unusual.

Given Hugo’s role as someone who actively promotes himself and, to me, a deeply flawed vision for women’s freedom, such actions should not be considered surprising. I share the critique of Hugo’s activities that Tiger Beatdown and lots of others have explored: that Hugo Schwyzer’s vision of women centers a paternalistic gaze and himself in particular. Few supporters blinked when he mentioned some time ago that he had abused his position of power to have sexual access to young female students. Fewer expressed concern when he as a male took a leading role in Slutwalk, which had mildly creepy undertones given how many young women were attracted to that endeavor and his previous admission about sleeping with students. His positions on pornography and other matters which upheld men’s experience, insecurity and pleasure as central did not bring as much as a blush of rebuke from his most ardent fans. Those are things those individuals should be accountable for, and I hope this instance gives people a chance to think about what supporting such views means not just for feminism, but what it says to women new to the movement, those for whom poverty or prejudice has largely been ignored by online conversations, and the survivors of behavior Hugo exhibited and still exhibits.

MM: How do you see race and class privilege in this, and the redemption narrative coming into this? Hugo’s past actions and unethical behaviour have, for some, turned into this conversation about forgiveness. How do you see this related to race and class?

EA: For me, this creates a curious question about the movement, and where people want to see it go. For many years, movements have taken the position that affected communities should be the ones who choose their leadership. But what happens when you have a well-known online feminist voice, or set of voices especially in the social media world Hugo and allies occupy, and virtually all are white, virtually all are well-off to middle class, virtually all are apolitical to liberal – contrast with progressive or even radical in social orientation — and, amid the rise of social media, seem to be primarily associated not with the volunteerism they do on behalf of poor and working class women in their own backyards, but a position that is centered on marketing or demonstrating oneself (purposely or not) as an authority on feminism, relationships and so on? Are these the voices, consciously or not, people seek to see promoted, followed, validated with their support?

Within a racial and class context, it is essential to acknowledge how white and male positioning related to how Hugo’s views were stood by actively and passively. The story that I saw time and again as the Hugo Schwyzer tabloid got more and more gruesome was one of awe. Prey on young women as an instructor, then write about your sexual conquests? Some people seemed to take this as honest. Spend inordinate amounts of time self-promoting as a conduit to young men to learn about feminism? Some saw this not as misleading, because it is, but brave. And many people upheld and deferred to this individual not as a predator extolling the virtues of men ejaculating on women and pornography and such, but as a voice worthy of placing as a featured male to talk about feminism. How much of that had to do with what Hugo Schwyzer actually wrote and who he is as a well-off academic whose position draws credibility to fellow whites demands consideration.

These sorts of orientations haven’t had enough debate, oftentimes because white, middle-class orientations often focus on boosting rugged individualism, the Protestant work ethic, this mysticism of the individual, which is at its base less about the community and more about singular people. Thus we hear more about people making mistakes, being gutsy for admitting fault and Hugo the man needing to be forgiven than about what that effort says ethically to fight over Hugo Schwyzer or other men who could possibly be hurt by such reactions than what standing with that says to women he has abused, slept with in his position of power, tried to murder and so on. For white, middle-class people, upholding the cult of the individual – in this instance, Hugo as an articulate, God-fearing, socially acceptable, white professor who some believe speaks to young men, who frankly probably aren’t interested in hearing much from somebody 30 years their senior on what he particularly believes — is more important to back up than a movement to whom defending a man who upholds women’s subjugation should be seen as antithetical.

I often wonder what it says to women in movements because the forgiveness conversation privileges the fate and well-being of men, even those seeking acceptance, at the cost of women. We need to first talk about what the most affected people in our movements want and need. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that wronged people get to choose punishments, I believe what is in the greater interests of movement cohesion, safe spaces and what women in this case need to fully realize their potential in a movement is what should be prioritized first. Once you address that, I think whole idea of forgiveness and what is their place will be clearer.

The redemption story related to race and class is an interesting one, because if we all look a little deeper we see it almost exclusively the purview of white men. I have a hard time remembering people talk about forgiveness so fondly and protectively when we discuss women and people of color, especially Black women and men. In the U.S., the foibles of prominent Black figures in particular are part of the rest of their lives, and even in cases like, say, Michael Vick, those who have paid a debt to society for same, their errors, their mistakes, their failures still follow them to this day. In the case of women, from women exited from prostitution to celebrities like Sasha Grey, illegal and some would say immoral things they’ve done taint their lives forever. Hugo Schwyzer still has a job, a home, people who defend him, and, safe to say, two years from now, he’ll have a place on some website writing about whatever is on his mind. There are a lot of people who won’t even have that.

MM: I want to talk about this issue of accountability, because that comes up a lot around men and the feminist movement. What does accountability really mean when it comes to dealing with male privilege, race and class privilege in feminism and in progressive movements at large?

EA: To me, you can’t divorce accountability from male privilege. I don’t think you can divorce it from race and class either. The Hugo Schwyzer issue is instructive on this, because I hope that it prompts us all to think about how white men, who have a dominant social role, get exceptions that women and people of color, who are held to account for their own mistakes or, even less, things out of their control, do not.

I sometimes tell the story of my late grandfather, who served 10 years in prison for a scuffle with a police officer who had attacked him. Once he was released, he could only get work as a truck driver for the rest of his life. A lot of women and people of color, who had his same experience and don’t get the benefit of the doubt Hugo has and have done far less than trying to murder someone, do not have people rushing to their defense within hours of the revelations. For many more people of color, a cloud of suspicion surrounds them, connected to perceptions of patriotism, economic impact, criminality and a lot of other things. And when we’re thinking about accountability, for me, we need to look at how accountability is framed to the benefit of the most privileged. I would have a lot more respect for those individuals advocating for this particular man if they were jumping on Facebook and Twitter to speak for people of color who have done far less and are paying a far bigger price.

How feminist and progressive movements treat those with privilege, hold them accountable and what values we in movements uphold in maintaining justice must also be considered.

I do not believe Hugo Schwyzer and some supporters’ commitment to accountability is really there, but I want to encourage others to see beyond this particular instance and instead consider our collective hopes related to social change. I think this is a larger matter than whether individual men feel safe being open about their pasts. I believe this is a moment where we consider how movements appropriately create space for those who face the particularity of surviving trauma, and if welcoming perpetrators, even the most repentant ones — which Hugo Schwyzer certainly does not seem to be — when movements should prioritize the needs of the larger community. What values are we trying to convey to those who have suffered the greatest traumas?

MM: I’m particularly concerned with how this impacts the feminist community, and its potential to impact that community. The conversation has been so fixed on Hugo and what how to deal with him. As a result, a lot of feminists have been forced to take sides. So there’s a ‘you’re with us, or against us’ kind of mentality that has happened unfortunately. I wonder what has happened to opportunities for discourse related to things we’ve been talking about, what will happen when people are sort of living in fear of being ostracized or attacked because they choose the wrong side or they say the wrong thing. And all this because of a white man who really should not be at the center of feminist debate, as far as I am concerned, although of course we’re talking about him right now. As a pro-feminist, and of course, I don’t expect you to tell feminists how to act or how to address these very complex issues, but what are your thoughts on this fall out and how it’s impacted the community amd how could we best move forward? And, of course, what do you see your role as a man in these kinds of conversations?

EA: Within communities of color, this issue of internalized competition has been a subject of intense debate for many years. People of color fight with other people of color over issues, resources and perceived position or advantages, rather than the institutional issues that affect all of us. And I while don’t believe in false unity, there needs to be a space where we can compassionately discuss and disagree, but also understand no one person is so valuable that it costs us that unity.

When I talk with people of color about unity, I often ask us to think about what we hope to accomplish. Change takes diverse opinions. It takes different actions and approaches. Though I tend to agree with those who believe the feminist movement is more important than Hugo Schwyzer’s inclusion in it, I still consider those who like Hugo and those who don’t wish to get involved in this debate to be friends and allies. Every movement has conservatives, liberals, radicals and moderates in its ranks. That diversity is very positive. Attacking each other when the powerful and even Hugo himself are in a far more privileged position than any of us serves no one. I ask people, when I have these conversations, please focus on ideas, not our own with whom we may have even stark disagreements, but for whom that unity still means something.

I appreciate too that the situation for women is very challenging in this regard. Melissa Chiprin reminded me that society creates a lot of constructs which pit women against women starting at very young ages. This often translates into women competing, being suspicious of each other or just not being friendly, not valuing each other. Sometimes we miss, during these heated disagreements, the opportunity for meaningful connections. In focusing on valuable, needed struggles like this, we miss out on building together. I asked people to please remember pushing back against patriarchy, colonialism, racism, classism and other systems of oppression helps us not to internalize our disputes, but we should not play them out by deciding these disputes determine what we want as a movement.

Further, it is good to consider others’ experiences in these debates. Those surviving violence might take a dimmer view of support for Hugo, and react differently than those who haven’t but consider him a friend. Everyone brings their histories to conversations, and before we judge people for being unforgiving or harsh or voices on the margin, I ask that those with differing views on this incident treat each other with dignity. All of us has something to offer.

As a male of color, I do not know much I can offer beyond that, but I can model the best behavior I can in this regard. In this instance, it is to be open in my critique not just of Hugo Schwyzer but more critically of the currents that permitted a man like him to come to power, how we avoid these situations and create a tendency that supports women, notably women of color who often feel marginalized, and people of color as well. I am excited about the conversation about where this takes a movement. I am less interested in Hugo’s fate, obviously, because Hugo is going to be just fine without the movement. He is well taken care of and will continue to have a cushion. I am more concerned about those who are listening, who feel very passionately about one side or another, because we only have each other at the end of the day, and that’s something we need to keep in mind, because this movement needs all of us.

 

Ernesto Aguilar is host and co-producer of Liberation Radio, editor at Political Media Review, and founder of People of Color Organize!

This interview originally aired on February 27, 2012. The podcasted version of the full show can be found at rabble.ca

 

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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