What should we call… Men’s Rights Advocates?

The term “Men’s Rights Advocate” and its shorthand, MRA, loom large in many feminist circles. The term is far less familiar to the general population and on its face, the connotations of “Men’s Rights Advocate” seem positive and wholly defensible. After all, patriarchy may bestow privilege upon men and boys (duh) but it also foists on them a variety of problems and sexist expectations worthy of an advocate’s attention. Unfortunately, the term does not honestly represent the modern project of men’s rights advocacy. While today’s MRAs (not necessarily cut from the same cloth as earlier iterations) rail against the sexism men and boys face, their chosen culprit is not patriarchy but feminism.

Men are not denied custody of their children because a sexist society and family law system deem child-rearing a woman’s domain. It’s feminists trying to make sure women take all the kids!!! Women don’t have an easier time getting laid [sometimes against their will, it bears noting] because men and boys are socially instructed by a patriarchal, heterosexist, cissexist culture to view them first and foremost as sexual objects. It’s those pesky feminists encouraging women to lord their sexual dominance over lonely men, muhahahahaha [evil feminist laugh]!!! Girls don’t perform better in the school system because social cues encourage them to be obedient and polite, while boys are encouraged to roughhouse and interrupt. It’s a teaching system brainwashed by feminists to ensure women’s supremacy!!!!

Okay that’s enough, but it should give you some idea of what most MRAs are really about, which is anti-feminism. Some sites and organizations make this agenda more obvious (see: A Voice for Men), while others (see: Canadian Association for Equality) push their agenda more insidiously by, say, hosting a speaker who has a history of calling date rape “exciting” and pontificating about the positive impacts of incest. In fact, A Voice for Men used facial recognition software to doxx and actively encourage the harassment of teenage women who protested this speaker’s appearance on the University of Toronto campus in late 2012. What ties the extreme and less-extreme groups together is their belief that feminism is a barrier to men and boys overcoming gender-based challenges and realizing their potential.

The truth is that men do face challenges in a world that, ironically, has largely been governed by men. Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for MRAs to make feminism the scapegoat – it seems illogical to presume that men are holding themselves back. But patriarchy isn’t one big, discrete, conscious decision. It’s the composite of zillions of decisions: conscious and unconscious, big and tiny, made by humans of all stripes including men, women and trans* people. Collectively these decisions hold back all genders in different ways, but men by far the least so. Their challenges are also counterbalanced by myriad privileges they accrue (often without noticing, because privilege is like that) for simply being guys. On the whole, men (in particular cis, white, straight, able-bodied men) occupy the position of greatest privilege on the gender spectrum.

Recently I got together with some feminists and feminist allies to discuss how to address a recent spread and intensification of anti-feminist activity in Canada, especially on post-secondary campuses. These men and organizations are not so much concerned with reclaiming men’s rights as they are with preserving men’s power and privilege. So we thought let’s call a spade a spade, scrap the “Men’s Rights Advocate” handle and call them Men’s Power Advocates. MPAs: they’re a thing.

Epilogue: Shout-out to the men’s organizations doing great work to challenge sexism and foster positive masculinity, including the White Ribbon Campaign.

Sort-of Review: Manufacturing Depression

This is less a review of Gary Greenberg’s 2010 book Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease, and more a description of what I loved about it and why it was useful to me.

The book’s title suggests that Greenberg doesn’t believe depression is a real affliction, but that is not at all the crux of the book. The feelings and struggles are very real, and he doesn’t hesitate to share his own history of depression in great detail. While Greenberg’s analysis does not spare Big Pharma, he does not argue that depression is a profit-driven illusion.

Instead he elucidates how profit-driven scientific research and discovery shaped our collective and individual understandings of depression, its role in our lives, and whether/how to cope with it. He illustrates how a lot of psycho-pharmaceutical research involves discovering neurological reactions, then creating conceptual definitions for conditions whose effects would be reversed or mitigated by those reactions.

Greenberg deftly integrates surprisingly colourful research about the science and business of depression with provocative anecdotes about his personal experiences with it (as a sufferer and as a psychologist). There may or may not be a really entertaining and touching story about how taking ecstasy helped him feel emotionally awake and connect with his partner again.

He is a verbose storyteller (which is maybe part of why I like him…) but his tales are vivid, relatable, and sometimes hilarious. He encourages readers to formulate their own narratives for their mental health journeys, and to consider but not confine themselves to definitions and solutions offered by the industries and professionals that diagnose and treat mental health.

Since it’s that day where we all talk about mental health (can we do that more, please?!), it seemed like the perfect time to recommend this book to anyone interested in these issues for personal development or just food for thought.

“Lady” problems

On Friday a woman who I respected as a peer, despite our tendency to disagree on matters relating to feminism, wrote a piece for VICE disparaging forms of womanhood that she considers lesser (certainly less subversive) than her own. She goes as far as to suggest that those who don’t line up with her standards of womanhood (in which the Woman’s impulse when she is wronged or in danger is to destroy her oppressor) are not women at all, but “ladies” or even “girls”.

She crudely used me as an “example” of a lady concerned only with “amicable co-existence with men and ‘the status of women,’ so long as it doesn’t upset the status quo.” Her reasoning? Last year I turned to the justice system to prosecute a man who harassed me incessantly for months on Twitter. Well this guy bothered her too, y’know, and getting rid of him was as easy as being “directly and verbally a cunt” until he disappeared. As such she felt it was within her rights to judge the acceptability of my decision to go to the police, and to deem me an inferior woman (not a Woman, but a “lady”) for it.

“Good ladies, for example, complain daily about female bodies and identities being “policed,” then call the literal police, the literal fucking patriarchy, when something threatens that body or that identity. […] Giving the bro-force some nice, educated, single, white female to protect is the lowest of low things a lady can do, and while it was maybe, depending on her immediate threat level, okay to report him, it would have been far righter to fight back, to go Foxfire on the guy.”

Thanks, Sarah. I’m glad to have “maybe” secured your approval for the choice I made in order to protect myself, although it was “the lowest of the low” things I could have done [?????????]. The morally superior choice, the “righter” choice, would have been vigilante justice, “going Foxfire” on the guy. If only all women being relentlessly pursued and harassed by men who come across as hostile toward women and emotionally unhinged (perhaps dangerously so) knew that they could just form a gang and beat the living shit out of the guy.

I’m not entirely sure that such choices would end as poetically IRL as they do in, well, literature and films. I’m also not entirely sure how responsible it is to advise the readers of a publication that this is the “righter” way for women to deal with situations that make them feel unsafe. But then, Women probably don’t concern themselves much with issues of personal responsibility because they’re far too visceral for that.

For most people, I hope it would go without saying that perhaps Sarah’s experience with this guy was not identical to mine, and perhaps she is in no position to determine what the best way to handle it would have been, because we are not the same person nor are we in identical situations.

The police and the justice system are far from perfect, both on the handling-gendered-violence front and the knowing-what-the-internet-is front. I am more than a little insulted at the insinuation that I’m naive to their roles in the patriarchy. But there are officers who are doing what they can to push their institutions in the right direction. I was lucky enough to find such an officer, who spoke in front of a group of his peers last week about online harassment at SMILE (Social Media in Law Enforcement) Conference.

I would never attempt to prescribe the most appropriate or “right” way for a woman to cope with a situation in which she feels unsafe and in which I lack personal knowledge – I’ll leave that sordid task to other Women. The truth is for many women in many situations, the police are not a viable option. But I’m not willing to wholly write them off, and I’m certainly not willing to make determinations about the character of any woman who turns to them in her pursuit of justice and safety.

The more officers like Detective Bangild find opportunities to do good work and set positive examples for their peers, the more viable police may become as an option for women in dangerous situations. And if some Women continue to choose vigilante justice over courtroom justice, well, I wish them the very best in those endeavours and hope they choose their tools and targets wisely. There are many routes to personal safety and peace of mind, and none of these routes make the traveller any less a woman.

Not all Twitter fights are trivial

This morning I woke up to find a popular and respected Globe & Mail international affairs columnist making a light joke about a Scottish chef murdering his girlfriend. When people said “hmmmm not okay” he made more jokes in response. Albeit these jokes did not suggest he actively felt like “hahaha domestic violence”, but can we not make light of these scenarios please? It is extremely irresponsible use of an influential voice (a major privilege).

So I confronted him and, to his credit, he ultimately deleted the tweet and acknowledged the joke’s inappropriateness. In the process, a feminist I like and respect suggested this kind of transgression is not significant enough to warrant a Twitter fight, which she considers a “small” act of feminism. While I don’t think each of these conversations changes the world, I don’t think they should be dismissed either. I wrote about how it all went down for Canada.com – read the rest here.

I’m not done thinking or feeling or writing about this, so expect more here in the next day or two.

What should we call… “trolling”?

ImageThere’s a problem I’ve been encountering a lot in my travels as an internet feminist. Sometimes the presently available language for describing a phenomenon is wholly inadequate, and sometimes the consequences are harmful. The internet has been going through a bit of a popular-use growth spurt in the last several years, and a lot of things (governance, commerce, the legal system) are struggling to catch up. Language is one of those things, so I’ve decided to start a series on my blog examining the phenomena I feel are begging for re-definition.

I think we’ve long since reached the point of linguistic inadequacy with the word “trolling”. It’s only gotten worse since the mainstream media picked up on the concept in its most rudimentary form. These days it seems like 75% of the time I see the word “trolling”, the context implies its meaning is something along the lines of “being mean on the internet” (um, nope.jpg).

So what do we talk about when we talk about trolling? I tend to think of trolling as provocation for provocation’s sake. In other words, intent is an important part of the definition, and a troll’s primary intent is to get a rise out of someone. Urban Dictionary, o holiest of internet linguistic tomes, backs me up on this one. (Worth noting: all the most popular Urban Dictionary definitions had a high number of downvotes as well as upvotes, suggesting that definitions of trolling are pretty contested terrain.) One of the most popular definitions of trolling says, among other things, “…trolling statements are never true or are ever meant to be construed as such” and “trolling isn’t simply harmful statements”.

THANK YOU, PERSON WHO WROTE THAT. In so many of the instances in which the popular press (and the general public) apply the label “trolling”, they’re referring to sincere statements from people who believe every word they’re saying. These alleged “trolls” have myriad intentions that may include getting a rise out of their target, but also include silencing their target, humiliating their target, inspiring fear or emotional distress in their target, etc etc etc. It’s not provocation merely for provocation’s sake, and the stakes are much higher.

The word “trolling” is not appropriate for these situations, and that’s largely why ye olde adage “Don’t feed the trolls” is such absolute bunk advice in these situations. If the person’s primary intent were to get a rise out of you, then sure, “feeding” that desire would probably be unwise. But what if the person’s primary intent is to silence you, to erase your voice and your presence from their jealously guarded spaces for online social interaction? Following the “don’t feed the trolls” advice would be giving them exactly what they wanted, wouldn’t it?

It’s one thing to erroneously apply the “trolling” label when referring to someone simply being a dick on the internet. I can live with that. But when we apply it to people who are spewing hateful things about people of colour, women, queer people, trans* people… When we apply it to people who orchestrate months-long campaigns of harassment intended to terrorize the target… When we apply it to people uttering death threats and rape threats… Well, we’re insulting the targets of this hatred and harassment, and I’d even go so far as to say we’re insulting THE PROUD INTERNET TRADITION of trolling itself.

I’d argue these kinds of behaviours shouldn’t be defined differently on the internet than they are offline. We don’t need special internet words for hate speech, harassment, or death threats. These words already exist. But to appease the many who seem hell-bent on calling this stuff “trolling”, would it be worthwhile to come up with a new expression for this kind of internet treachery? What should we call it? Tell me in the comments.