Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Inviting Men to be Feminists

As you have all probably heard by now, the actress EmmaWatson recently gave a speech at the United Nations testifying to the importance of feminism, and calling upon men around the world to support the cause. The content of the speech itself is nothing particularly controversial or ground-breaking with regards to what popular feminism has been saying over the past years, but being invited to present it at the UN is a welcome gesture of support on the part of the organisation – even if, as things are wont to in international politics, it may never be more than this. To summarise in the most general way possible, its aim is to persuade men to work towards gender equality by making them feel as though they have a stake in the movement by detailing how gender roles harm men, whilst at the same time presenting an apology for feminism against criticisms of been exclusionary towards males, and highlighting the issues women face around the world.

Her speech, I think, should generally be welcomed by feminists: it is at least useful if‘men’ (acknowledging, but setting aside for brevity’s sake the complex issues at play here, I am concerned here with those who broadly ‘identify’ with a selection of the standard traits which society associates with biological maleness) are motivated to help further the feminist cause, given that they are the demographic predominantly in possession of the power required to initiate lasting social and institutional reform (indeed, if they were not, there would be no need for feminism).  However, I must admit to being made slightly uncomfortable by the appeasing tone of the message: it is, after all, men who are the problem - and as such we are confronted with a moral duty to assist in realising the goals of feminism quite apart from any other personal investment we may or may not have in the movement. In light of this, Watson’s approach smacks a bit of a pragmatic pandering to the sense of entitlement of the problematic privileged group at best, and a kind of timidity in making the moral demands that women have a right to make at worst.

Perhaps the most obvious instance of this is Watson’s “invitation” to men to participate in feminism. This raises the obvious question of just whether men should be ‘invited’ in such a manner – a question that many internet commentators have been considering over the past few days. I think that this issue is one that benefits from distinguishing between two notions of the term ‘participation’ which arise in this context. These are: ‘participation’ in the sense of identifying with, and intending to further, feminism conceived as the activity of the pursuit of a set of objectives; and ‘participation’ in the sense of identifying with and participating in feminism as conceived as a community or social movement defined by the collective activity of pursuing those objectives. In making this distinction, we can reflect on the relationship that we feminism-supporting (or potentially feminism-supporting) men, hold towards feminism in general.

With regards to the first sense of the word, men occupy positions of power in society – socially if always not institutionally - such that they are often capable of challenging structural and attitudinal misogyny where they encounter it. To this end, they could identify with cause and work to ‘make things better for women’ (leaving this intentionally undefined on my part) without even identifying with any sort of movement or group at all. As such, there need be no invitation here at all, as there is nothing to which you, as a man, need be invited: you can just ‘get on with it’ if you recognise your power, and the need, to do so.

The second sense involves slightly more complex considerations. Feminism as a movement operates through group activities, such as discussion, socialising and direct action, in which individuals can support each other in the cause through morale-boosting displays of solidarity, creating a forum for the activity, or just making being a feminist fun. In short, feminism as movement has a social base. Participation in feminism can thus be taken in the sense of participation in a social group. This social group has its own internal power structures, which must be negotiated by participants and prospective participants.  These structures are female-dominated. Consequently, power achieved by men within it must be granted to them by women. In this light, invitations are necessary: an invitation is a speech act which grants social power to participate, in the form of the recognised authority to do so.

There are a number of reasons why feminists might want to grant men such power. Firstly, feminism requires the power held by the privileged in order to secure the change that will provide the conditions to realise those aims. Thus, if it is to achieve its aims without actively wresting power from the hands of men, needs to be evangelical. However, people don’t just spontaneously acquire motivations in a vacuum. Relationships with individuals and groups is a catalyst for adopting new points of view, and becoming emotionally invested in certain truth claims (about society, ethics etc.). Seeming welcoming to men is instrumental in achieving the participation will persuade people of the issues and to have the motivation to right wrongs, and thereby securing for the movement the power that it requires to be successful.

There is also a danger in men ‘participating’ in feminism in the first sense without the second. Without the insight that comes from associating with a group, or the adoption of specific intellectual positions required in order to participate in the group (‘being orthodox’), outsiders will often lack the insight and dispositions to truly act in the interests of the people they need to help. Instead, all they can do is impose their own analyses and value judgements on the situation in a way that almost inevitably disregards the experiences (where the problems are made explicit) of the parties they seek to help. This approach may lead to the kind of naiive, ‘imperialistic’ aid that, while well-meaning, entails an imposition of the viewpoint of the privileged upon the experiences of the underprivileged. This is intrinsically counter-productive both in terms of realising the autonomy of the disempowered, and also often in terms of formulating policies which actually address the problems they face. That is not to say that such an approach cannot result in productive action, or even that it a priori precludes attaining sufficient insight. However, it does make such things much harder.

An assumption one might make here is that granting men the power to participate will establish power dynamics which will prevent feminism from functioning. This isn’t necessarily the case. For example, one issue which leaps to the fore here is that of women leadership: if women do not occupy a protected position of privilege within the feminist movement itself, then the status quo external to the movement will eventually establish itself within the movement, thereby vitiating it as a challenge to that status quo.

However, participation in a group does not entail any particular level of authority within it other than the minimum level of authority required to participate in a just and meaningful way. ‘Meaningful’ may set the bar for authority pretty low – for example, a Private enjoys very little authority within the army, and yet is no less a soldier for it. ‘Just’ may actively entail a non-equal position in movement that is about one particular demographic, if the position which it refers to is one for a person who is not a member of that demographic. Obviously, the notion of justice here is vague, and intentionally so, being hotly contested. Similarly, the notion of single gender ‘safe-spaces’ may seem threatened. However, participation does not entail participation in all activities, presence in all places, or having voice on all platforms or in all contexts. The ends and principles of a movement can justify different forms, contexts and modes of participation. In this case, we might argue that safe spaces are instrumental for allowing women to participate in feminism meaningfully themselves. This is a strong argument which seeks to justify restriction of male participation to non-female exclusive contexts. The important point here is that mere participation in a group doesn’t entail any given position for men within that group except for in the most general sense.

There is good reason then, as I see it, for actively inviting men to participate in feminism - at least in our second sense of the word. However, as I have also argued, men do not need an invitation before the responsibility falls on them to work to further the goals of feminism. Indeed, if you are a man who is actively concerned with questions of justice, and appreciate the feminist analysis of society, there is really no excuse to not at least consider trying to help - even if you feel excluded from participation in the second sense. Admittedly there are problems with solely participating in feminism in the first sense. However, you can still do your best to help the cause, and with some research it is not hard to inform your approach. Sometimes, you may decide that you lack enough information to participate constructively. However, if you have good reason to think that a certain action would be helpful, then perhaps it might be argued that you have a duty to press ahead despite potential limitations in your knowledge: patriarchy demands a response insofar as it places men in a position of unjust power. It is unjust to allow oneself to remain in such a position. Insofar as a moral action might be defined as on that aims to, and is predicted to (to the best of one’s ability), bring about a good end, we might argue that a well-meaning and well-considered, but ultimately misinformed, response is at least morally justified, and potentially better than no response at all. Either way, a disposition of willingness and readiness to help if the opportunity arises is clearly required as an extension of the same disposition towards fighting injustice in general.


Indeed, if you find that absence of an active invitation to participate in feminism is enough to dispose you towards not participating, you’re possibly putting your own vanity and desires before the cause itself - in which case, you lack the disposition to be an ally in the first place, and thus there is no reason to ‘welcome’ you.

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