This is a flash transcript of an interview by Meghan Murphy with Shira Tarrant, conducted Feb. 27, 2012. This transcript reflects the broadcast version [MP3] of the interview aired on Vancouver Co-op Radio.
The podcasted version of the full show can be found at rabble.ca
Meghan Murphy: Do you think a man can be a feminist?
Shira Tarrant: I think we can all agree that discrimination and sexual assault, stereotyping are things we all want to fix. And the fact is that men have always been part of those problems. But there have always been men who have been involved in fixing these problems, and I think that’s really an important element to understand this history of men and feminism. In my book Men and Feminism, I have an entire chapter about this and I call it the Men’s Auxiliary. So, I just wanted to mention really briefly to your listeners for instance there are men who demonstrated for women’s suffrage rights in theU.S.; John Stuart Mill wrote famously with Harriet Taylor about women and liberty; there’s a man named Qasim Amin, who is an Egyptian Arab, and wrote two books on women’s liberation that came out around 1900. And today there are so many feminist men and feminist male activist groups doing work like Voice Male magazine, Men Can Stop Rape, and A Call to Men. Byron Hurt’s film on hip-hop is feminist. Jackson Katz’s book Macho Paradox is feminist. So to get back to your original question, my answer is yes, emphatically, anyone can be feminist. What matters are the everyday actions that we take to end sexism and end racism and end the abuse of power. And the actions we take mean a lot more than the plumbing between our legs.
MM: There’s that debate about not only whether a man can be feminist in his actions, but whether he can take on that label of feminist. Some people will say he should call himself a feminist ally or pro-feminist or some other term besides a feminist… So how do you respond to those kinds of arguments?
ST: Especially when we have people like Sarah Palin and Republican, right-wing, anti-choice women who call themselves feminists, it really complicates the picture. And then we have really progressive women who are actually afraid to call themselves feminist, and then there’s this question ‘what about the guys.’ I get it. I get that concern. And I think there’s no reason for anyone to shy away from using the f-word. I understand the argument for using pro-feminist or feminist ally or any of that. But my concern is about our goals and our actions, and I think that it’s really our commitment to social and political improvement that is far more important than what we call ourselves. It’s not like the word feminist is unimportant, but sometimes people don’t want to be tied down by labels or they feel like a label doesn’t fit them well. Those are all important questions. But I hate to see us get bogged down by it when we still have repressive legislation, violence against women. We have unequal pay, and these issues really require our attention. So I really encourage people to keep our eye on what are the primary issues and we can have these simultaneous conversations about what we call ourselves. But sometimes I see us getting bogged by that and those fights, those internal fights, and in the meantime while we fight with each other, Congress passes laws or state legislators pass laws that really harm women. [We need to] keep our eye on the issues rather than the label, but again that isn’t to say the label isn’t important. I want to add to that that, and I’ve written about this a lot, that there is strength in numbers. When it comes to feminist politics, we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing really. We need people on board. And we need to create those critical masses of people – male, female, trans, queer – and one of the ironies to me is that the feminism that I understand, or feminisms plural that I understand, is devoted to breaking down gender stereotyping and the biology of destiny kind of arguments that we know are really harmful. And so to have feminism as an anti-essentialist movement, to say biology is not destiny and then to gatekeep and say men can’t be part of this, is logically inconsistent.
MM: I think the issue is that I’ve met men who call themselves feminist and don’t act in feminist ways, and dominate the conversation or try to explain to other feminists how they should be feminist, or something like that. So I see that as problematic. And I think that’s maybe something men in particular do because of male privilege or the ways men are socialized to act in social situations.
ST: In terms of everyday interactions, in terms of how we communicate and in political goals, I want to be clear that I am not giving all men a pass, ‘oh yay, strength in numbers, sure, come join the team.’ Because yeah, people need to be held accountable when those actions like taking up all the space in the room, mansplaining.
I was on a panel about men and feminism and this youngish gentleman on the panel with me on the panel started telling the women in the room who were early 20s, he started telling them how important it is that women know about their own reproductive systems, and especially when they get to menopause. I just looked at him and was like ‘really, this is the time you need to be quiet.’ You’re 28 and you’re talking to me about menopause. Why?
MM: How odd!
ST: It’s a bumpy road, and we need to hold people accountable. We need to hold ourselves accountable. Life is messy, and people are messy, and, as feminists, those quirks and bumps on the road are going to come out and the question becomes what are we going to do about it, how do we address it, how do we confront it, how do we maintain good politics.
MM: So in terms of men playing roles in the feminist movement, what kinds of roles do you think they should play?
ST: There are times that I think men should definitely not hold back, and here are some examples: donating money. They should not hold back. They should donate lots of money to progressive organizations and feminist organizations. They should not hold back in shopping ethically, and voting with their dollars in terms of feminist politics and ethical consumerism. And I think men have a really important role talking with other men about violence prevention and everyday steps and things like that. They can donate their time and energy by putting their feet on the street and showing up for demonstrations and events that are women-centered, gay-centered, trans-centered, queer-centered. But when it comes to talking and those leadership positions, that is where I say step back, be quiet, listen more and talk less. And I think if we can have a conversation around that and bring more awareness, I think a lot of men who want to be feminists are like, ‘What should I do, I’m kind of scared, I don’t know what to do.’ One message can clearly be donate more money, donate more time, talk to other men. But in terms of taking up space in the room and talking at people and taking those key leadership positions, consider stepping back, consider listening more and consider talking less. That would be really appreciated.
MM: I wanted to touch on a couple of issues related to the recent blowup around Hugo Schwyzer… Do you think there’s something wrong with a man, a white man in particular, being in such a visible role in feminism?
ST: One of the things that really strikes me is the attention he has received for the controversy far outweighs any contribution he has made in feminism. And I am not defending Hugo, and I am not taking him down. I am saying these are really important issues. I know plenty of white men, white straight men, who are in positions of quote unquote leadership who don’t self-promote in the narcissistic way that Hugo has. And I say narcissistic, using that word, knowing he himself has used that word in reference to himself. Mixed in with this is the issue of white male leadership in feminism, and there’s also the issue of social media, self-promotion, and a lot of his presence has been from his own blogging. And when you work in that way, there’s no accountability, there’s no editor, no peer review. And this is someone who, in fact, has not done a lot of speaking gigs. He has not written a book. As an academic, does not have peer-reviewed journal articles about feminism where he would be held accountable for how he’s writing and what he’s writing about, and I think that’s important to put out in the mix.
At the same time, what I’ve seen online is a groupthink sort of mob mentality takedown culture that is very destructive in terms of how we do our politics. It raises some very serious questions, because all the nuance has been wrung out of that conversation. A polarizing ‘I love Hugo’/’I hate Hugo,’ and in the meantime, and again I have to say there are some really serious reproductive rights issues going on. Rape continues to happen every day. Why are we giving this one guy so much attention? And I think to shift this conversation a bit to say ‘I think this is a really, really great moment to help us rethink how we are doing politics.’ And I would suggest that we think about what our goals are. Do our actions serve those goals. So, for instance, if our goal as feminists is violence prevention, and a person’s history is polarizing, then that distracts or takes away from the central goal of doing violence prevention work.
The other thing is part of feminism is promoting dialog and free speech. So if any of us are participating in this online takedown culture that happened surrounding Hugo – and you know it doesn’t have to just be Hugo – if we’re participating in that practice, who’s next? If you’re participating in the takedown culture that silences people, that makes people afraid to speak up, does that meet our goal, our goal of promoting dialog and free speech? And how do we disagree? How do we do that ethically?
I want to say with Hugo, his reputation as a feminist leader has been overblown through self-promotion. He did organize Slutwalk inLos Angeles. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad or wrong that a man organized it. I think it’s unfortunate in this case, given what’s come to light, that is was Hugo.
MM: A big part of this case is his very problematic past. And so the question of forgiveness or redemption comes up… I wonder if you can or if you want to speak to the idea of men who have behaved in misogynist or sexist or even abusive ways in the past, and how we deal with that. Can we move forward? Can they become allies to women? Is there a place for those men in feminism? Is it too difficult to fathom that a man could change enough to be trusted in feminist spaces? What would this look like?
ST: First of all, I personally believe that men can change, I believe that people can change, I believe that societies and laws can change. And if I didn’t believe that change is possible, I would not be doing the work I do. I’m in the business of social change. That said, I don’t know why we’re talking about forgiveness or redemption. I’m not obligated to forgive someone who assaulted me. I’m not obligated to find redemption in someone’s story. I personally am fascinated by stories of radical change, transformative moments, those epiphanies, those lightbulbs you know. The recovery that people can have, whether it’s from abusive relationships, substance abuse, whatever those issues are, that transformation. But I don’t think any of us are required to forgive. And I think it is really, really incumbent on Hugo or on whoever that person might be – this is asking a lot of them, by the way, of individuals – but to say, ‘I recognize I may not be trusted. I do not require forgiveness. I’m not even going to ask for it, so I’m going to continue doing my work.’ And that’s where it may be very, very crucial for that person, those people, to step back and shut up and listen.
So yeah, I do think men can change. I do think change can happen. I also think sometimes the personal-is-political sometimes it might be okay to keep your personal past a little, you know, consider when it’s appropriate to discuss and not discuss. For instance, Hugo has this – I’m glad that we know these things, because we get to assess and decide how we want to engage with him – attempted murder-suicide. Wow, what does that mean? Sleeping with students as a community college instructor. Wow, what kind of an abuse of power is that? And then to go on and continue to facilitate student groups. That’s the time to step down from those student groups.
MM: With all this backlash that’s happened around Hugo because of this behavior, how do you think this might impact men or women’s willingness to be truthful about their problematic pasts or even past histories of abuse?
ST: I think there is a really, really crucial moment for all of us to assess those questions, and to think about if the personal is political and feminism has to do with coming to your voice and not silencing our abuse or our experiences or all of that, have we – and I don’t want to suggest that we’ve outgrown that, that’s really central to feminism – but maybe we should start expanding out definitions about what is appropriate exposure. So if I disclose, will it be effective? Again, what are my goals in this exposure? Do I want forgiveness? Do I want sympathy? Do I want attention? Or do I want to help people relate and see that happened to me and change is possible? And I am not giving Hugo a pass. I want to be really clear that I am not giving him a pass on his past and his present choices. But it makes me think about, as a professor, if I am talking about sexual assault issues for instance, or sexual pleasure and sexual concerns, as the professor in the front of the room I can talk about the issues, but would it be effective or constructive if I talked about my own personal sex life. If I talked about any abuse or sexual assault in my own personal history. That could actually be very destructive, counterproductive, polarizing, triggering, traumatic for my students who see me in a certain light. And so, especially for those of us who have positions of public visibility, it’s really, really important that we ask ourselves, ‘if I disclose this, why am I disclosing this, and will it be constructive, and what goal do I hope to accomplish with that?’ And I think Hugo’s misstep can be instructive for other men in really thinking through this in a measured way. What we want to be saying and what we want to be sharing and finding the most constructive way to be real, to keep it real, to come to voice, to disclose in a way to identify, and also knowing when it’s time to step back and not share those issues. Some issues are more appropriate for a recovery environment –Hugo is very forthright about being in a 12-step recovery program – and there’s a certain style of disclosing that is understood in the room, as they say. That might not necessarily be the best thing for political work – that’s a public writing. What I say to my therapist is not the best thing to say to my students, you know, for me to write about.
MM: My concern is not so much Hugo but how this has impacted the feminist community, and the feminist community online. It’s been very heated, and many women have felt attacked and unsafe talking about it. What are your thoughts on that?
ST: I think we need to be holding publicly visibly people accountable. I don’t want to call Hugo a leader, and want to shift away from Hugo as a person. This controversy online I think has been really dangerous for feminism. I think it promotes so much infighting that it’s been silencing. I had people call me and email me to say ‘I’m so troubled by what I’m seeing online that I’m afraid to say anything.’ I’m not the only one, but I’ve had lots of personal conversations with people about being scared to disagree online, That is a huge problem. So while we need to be holding each other accountable, I’m astounded that in this day and age when we are so aware of the problems of bullying, that there would basically be bullying, feminist bullying, saying ‘you can’t be part of our cause, you suck as a person, you should die’ you know? That is a really, really serious problem. There’s censorship, the fear that of you disagree or you pose a question, that it would put someone at risk for being in that firing line of attack, that’s taking ourselves down from within. We don’t even need the Tea Party to take us down. We’re doing it ourselves. It’s so damaging, and I’m very, very concerned that we find ways to disagree. We don’t have to mince our words, we can be direct, but the personalized form of attack I’ve been seeing is beyond a bad habit. This is a dangerous, dangerous practice of takedown culture online that is part of a bullying culture. People are afraid to speak out, and that is a huge problem. And for me to even say that on your show, I am taking a risk, but it’s getting to the point where it needs to be said. But I’m not saying it cavalierly. I am saying it at some amount of risk potential. I hope not, but the possibility is there.
MM: What do you think feminism has to offer men? Why should they ally with feminism?
ST: It’s an ethical responsibility we have to do what we can to make the world a little bit better. Whether that is how we relate to our partners, how we teach others. We have an ethical responsibility. I, as a white woman, have an ethical responsibility to engage with anti-racist work. In addition, I must say that feminism is doing, where’s the forethought in breaking down really, really restrictive rules about gender. Men have a lot to gain in terms of breaking outside the man box. Those expectations that are taught, that they don’t cry, they don’t back down and if they do they might get beat up. There’s a whole lot of freedom in shifting away from that man box, and I don’t mean in that personal, feelgood, fuzzy way. When we start breaking down those gender boundaries for all people, we’ll start to see more improvements in all our lives, our policies, pay equities issues, reproductive rights, and so we really need men engaged in that to achieve those goals.