On What A Men’s Movement Could Be

I oppose the Men’s Rights Movement. As I’ve written before, men don’t need additional rights as a gender. Individual men may need additional rights – for example gay men, trans men and religious minority men – but they need those as part of the intersection with the other groups to which they belong, not as an inherent part of being men.

However, a men’s movement rather than specifically a Men’s Rights Movement? That I could go for. This is because mass movements like this do something more than just activism for legal or social policy change, they also shift the cultural narrative and alter the prevailing stereotypes.

It is innately human to create stereotypes for every label that can be attached to a person. For example, if I tell people that I am South African, then they compare me to their stereotype of a South African, and use that to contribute to their mental model of me. This is how humans think, and it works well enough in situations where the stereotype is close to the reality.

However, in some cases these label stereotypes are heavily out of kilter with reality. For example, we know from anonymous statistics that most men are far less into sex and sports than our stereotypes – and indeed our advertising – would have us believe. The stereotype exists not because it describes how we act, but how we all pretend to act. We each pretend to act that way because the stereotype exists and we assume we must be the only one who doesn’t match it; and this in turn means that other people see our pretense, mistake it for truth and feel that they must pretend even harder.

In maths this is known as an Abilene Paradox. It’s a good phrase.

When the mask of the pretense slips or people confess that it’s only a mask, then they will often face ridicule from those who see themselves as the gatekeepers of this stereotype: worse, others may feel that they have to uphold their pretense by joining in the victimisation. In order to avoid this victimisation happening to us, we keep our masks on and don’t talk to one another. A good example of this is sexual dysfunction. This is in fact an enormously common condition, but when it’s discussed it tends to attract mockery rather than fellow-feeling. In order to avoid this mockery, men don’t discuss it – not with their partners, not with their doctors, not with themselves. We pretend to be “real men” even when it means that our issues don’t get the attention they need.

It’s extremely difficult for any one person to break the silence that the Abilene Paradox creates. Audie Murphy managed to do it to the silence around post traumatic stress disorder resulting from his involvement in the military, but he was only able to do it because he had immense status from his war record as well as his acting career. Most issues do not have an Audie Murphy to champion them, and many would-be Audie Murphys have fallen victim to the silencing and mockery of the Abilene Paradox. It’s a problem which lone heroes find very difficult to face, but which mass movements are much better suited for.

A good example of this sort of success can be found in the LGBTQA movement: although the march towards equal rights was long and arduous, one of the biggest successes of the LGBTQA movement was simply to force a recognition that such people exist, and therefore that it is possible to be one and that being one doesn’t isolate you. It is almost impossible to overstate how powerful this was in changing the cultural narrative. Anyone who grew up as the only gay person they knew can tell you this.

There are problems that men face. These are not imposed upon us by outsiders: by and large they’re created by our mutual attempt to live up to an impossible and inaccurate stereotype of what it is to be manly. We don’t go to doctors, or if we do only go when it’s too late. We don’t discuss our finances sensibly. We resort to violence too easily, both against women and against one another. We seek out relationship partners unsuitable for us. We do dangerous, wasteful or stupid things intentionally as a way of gaining status in one another’s eyes.

What harms us in these cases isn’t a conspiracy of women trying to bring men down, or some cackling evildoer in a black cape. What harms us is pretending to be something we aren’t in order to fit a poorly-suited stereotype. We don’t go to doctors because we don’t want to admit to ourselves that our bodies are fallible. We don’t seek out relationship partners whom we’d actually like, because it’s more important to us to have a trophy partner that other men would admire. We drink too much alcohol and we indulge in violence too easily because we want other men to think of us as tough, violent people in order to gain respect. We’re afraid to admit to each other, and to ourselves, that we don’t match the stereotype of what a “real man” is.

A men’s movement can fight the concept that we need to be “real men”. It can help us dismantle the Abilene Paradox and free us from the need to constantly pretend to be something we aren’t, and thereby improve the lives of men and boys in real and tangible ways – as well as stopping us from being assholes to women.



One thought on “On What A Men’s Movement Could Be

  1. I have a few objections to this proposal, although in many ways they’re the same objection in different language or perhaps analogous objections in related spheres. I ought probably to make a sophisticated case for their interrelationship, but I’m lazy, so I’m just going to print them separately at risk of repeating myself.

    EDIT: This ended up longer than I thought so I’ll just post one version.

    Also, a note on language: in this piece I will assume that cis men cannot be feminists, but only “pro-feminist.” This is not my usual position, but I feel that in this case it makes the argument easier to follow.
    Men, as a rule, fear having masculinity stripped from them; male identity is based on exclusion. Women, as a rule, resent having femininity forced on them; female identity is inclusive in the sense that everyone pushed of Bro Island is in some way feminized. I think organizing around an inclusive identity is very different from organizing around an exclusive one. In fact, I suspect that organizing around an exclusive label is an unsustainable paradox.

    Although feminism began as a movement of cis women, it’s proven extensible. Trans women, genderqueer people, and even trans men are now recognized as feminists. Feminism is becoming a coalition movement for everyone denied the full catalog of male privileges. In fact, I would argue that the mere act of including the gender minorities advances the original feminist project of liberation for cis women. I don’t see how a men’s movement could be as inclusive. Trans men would be welcome, but it would be very weird for trans women to participate. In theory genderqueer people could join in, but in practice there would be challenges.

    First off, genderqueer people already participate in feminism. Recruiters for the men’s movement would be up against tremendous inertia — I don’t know what a men’s movement could offer them that would convince them to redirect time and energy away from the feminist institutions they’re already invested in. Also, I get the impression that a supermajority of genderqueer folk are more comfortable around cis women than cis men. Second, if genderqueer folk *did* join in large numbers, it would actually call into question the need for a men’s movement that is distinct from feminism. If genderqueer people move freely between feminism and the men’s movement, why not just let it be part of feminism? If many people in the men’s movement are not men, why not a butch movement?

    Third, as a matter of tactics, queer inclusion could undermine the movement’s persuasive capital. Feminists have already written volumes about the downsides of the male gender role and the damaging effects of toxic masculinity; the men open to learning from women and queer folk have been reached. The promise of a men’s movement would be the opportunity for men to hear that same message coming from other men. To whatever extent the movement included the queer and nonconforming, it would lose that rhetorical appeal.
    To sum up: A men’s movement that wanted to appeal to men who are currently invested in traditional masculinity or to be independent of feminism in a meaningful way would need aggressive gender policing to protect its borders. However, gender policing is incompatible with the goal, which is gender liberation. Therefore, the men’s movement is a non-starter.


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