As we all know, people are never sexist. And when I say “people” I mean, of course, “men.” Our culture is generally willing to admit that sexism exists — and even that men might do sexist things — but don’t try to label them as “sexist”… That’s going too far.
The reality, of course, is that some men are sexist. It’s not just an abstract idea. The famous injunction, “fight patriarchy, not men” completely disembodies oppression to the point wherein “the system” hides the people who prop it up, and wherein “patriarchy” has nothing to do with individual men who rape, beat, and kill women.
We are offered two justifications for the above injunction (which is little more than tone policing) in order to prevent us from labeling a man as sexist (or macho, or misogynist…): If he is not an academic, he is simply “not educated” about “these issues,” and if he is educated, then he is not sexist, just crazy. The reality is that both of these responses are problematic and, ultimately, antifeminist.
He just needs to be educated
What do people mean when they say that a man is “unaware” of feminism? If it meant that he had never encountered any feminist positions or texts, I would be the first person to forgive him (well, maybe not the first, but I could do it eventually…). Yes, a man needs to “meet” feminism (or, perhaps, “a feminist”) in order to challenge everything society has thought him. But in this information age, is it really possible that a man has never come across feminism? Ever??
In any case, that’s not really what people mean when they accuse me of “attacking” a poor man who is simply lacking a feminist education. If he is a person I know, it is very unlikely that he could have never been made aware of the existence of feminism.
An example: Following the Ghomeshi verdict, a male student at my university responded by posting a number of sexist comments about the trial on Facebook, triggering a huge debate among dozens of students. I was promptly accused of being intolerant, and told I should engage via face-to-face, non-confrontational communication because it would make it easier for him to understand where I was coming from — he simply needed to be educated about rape culture and sexism in the law. However, this man had been involved in more than one heated discussion with feminist students in his faculty, had witnessed feminist campaigns happening on campus, and had read feminist legal theory at school… Yet we are to believe he’s never had the opportunity to learn about feminism?
It’s more accurate to say this man has yet to be convinced by feminism than it is to say he just doesn’t get it and needs a gentle education about our movement.
This kind of response takes all responsibility away from men who refuse to be convinced and who persist in ignoring the words of feminists around him — in short, who do not educate themselves. It also overlooks all the work that men need to do to become feminist allies. In the end, it gives the supposedly “uneducated” man the power to decide when (and if) he becomes “educated” about (read: convinced by) feminism. It gives him an elastic excuse that will protect him from despicable feminists for the rest of his days, should he choose to remain close-minded.
Ultimately — and maybe most importantly — it is very clear (even if unsaid) that when people tell me a man simply “needs to be educated about feminism,” they mean that I need to convince him. If I fail to properly convince him, it’s not his fault, but mine. Being “sexist” no longer means that a man hasn’t done his homework, but that women have failed at educating him. It is up to me to exhaust myself, for years, by patiently discussing feminism with men who, in all likelihood, don’t even value my opinion in the first place — men who resort to mansplaining, tone policing, sexist micro-aggressions, and so on. All of this before I am even allowed to accuse him of being sexist — which is, ironically, precisely the reason I need to “educate” him.
This is strategic. There are more sexist men than feminist activists on this planet, which means I guess we’ll all be incapacitated for life, trying to teach men about our plight to end patriarchy, while sexism continues, unaddressed.
Men: educate yourselves.
Maybe he’s just mentally ill? Maybe his delivery is just bad? Did you ever consider he might be autistic?
Another way men are excused from being labelled “sexist,” is through the suggestion that they are suffering from mental illness. Beyond the fact that it is inappropriate for people who are not doctors to be diagnosing strangers as “maybe a little autistic,” “suffering from anxiety,” or “probably depressive,” there are other problems with this response.
It is incredibly ableist to link sexism and mental health problems. To my knowledge, there is no correlation between being autistic, depressed, or suffering from an anxiety disorder, and being sexist. In fact, feminist groups have worked tirelessly to convince society that the violent men are just “regular” guys, with no other defining characteristics except for their choice to abuse women.
Finally, even if a man struggles with mental health issues, this does not excuse his sexism. Those two things are unrelated. We need to remember that mental health problems (real or imagined) are sometimes used to excuse domestic violence as well. Abusive men will often, for example, threaten suicide to a partner who tries to leave/refuses to have sex with him/doesn’t cater to all his requests/stay by his side constantly, etc.
Plenty of women suffer from mental illness, yet society doesn’t commonly use that as a means to justify abuse or bigotry.
When all else fails, there is always the “anti-label” position. We’re often told that it is “wrong” (or even violent!) to “judge” people by imposing a label on them. With men’s approval, we are allowed to say that someone’s actions are sexist, but not to label individual men as sexist. This ignores the fact that we do (and should) judge a person whose actions are sexist, and that “men whose actions are sexist” are, in fact, sexist. This positions also falsely imagines that:
– labels are based on stereotypes and imposed a priori
– labels are permanent
– labels are crueller than their actual meaning (that this person’s actions are sexist)
– feminists are unable to recognize sexist men
– labels are useless
It seems to me that it is both ineffective and superficial to pretend that labeling is a monstrous act that, if avoided, would lead to more harmonious relations between women-who-have-feminist-beliefs and men-who-are-violent-towards-feminists-but-don’t-judge-them-over-such-a-little-thing.
The fear of “naming” also comes with its own issues…
Refusing to identify the author of sexist violence erases that violence. Euphemizing violence against women is something that we see happening every day in the media (saying “sexual misconduct” instead of “rape,” or “couple’s fight” instead of “domestic violence,” etc.). We, as feminists, are afraid of being seen as “violent” by using strong language when, in reality, the violence resides not in the words we use but in the act that these words qualify.
Furthermore, separating the person from their acts frees sexist men from responsibility and accountability. “It’s not his fault” or “it doesn’t define him” brings us back to the idea that patriarchy is fundamentally distinct from the men who maintain patriarchy.
Yes, sexism comes from conditioning, but we must not forget that sexist actions are also voluntary, conscious, and motivated by the will to protect one’s privileges. Granting immunity only adds to the list of these unassailable privileges.
I’ll end with Albus Dumbledore’s words, because he spent a great deal of time explaining to Harry Potter and his friends that naming Voldemort was essential to defeating him, and that refusing to name him would not make him disappear: “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”