I haven’t written a lot lately because I’ve been confronted with a lot of disheartening things--things that, as a guy, it’s hard for me to comment on directly.
Take the recent kerfuffle where the “Honey Badger Brigade,” a women’s auxiliary of the noxious A Voice for Men MRA media empire (“Honey Badger” is MRA jargon for women who are “strong enough” to reject feminism and embrace MRA logic) got their booth booted from the Calgary Expo last weekend. The argument was that the Honey Badgers had signed up for a booth at the expo under false pretenses and they wouldn’t have been allowed in had the convention organizers known they’d be there to harass feminists.
I am a fan of this decision. I’m a fan of it because I actually am familiar with A Voice for Men and the Honey Badgers and I find their beliefs noxious and extremely harmful. I have no sympathy with the Honey Badger Brigade’s aims, or their methods, or the way they conducted themselves at this con. I’m glad they were kicked out.
But I still have a hard time watching this video, by Honey Badger Alison Tieman, on her reaction to being kicked out, and still feeling glad.
I can’t look at someone who feels that deeply wounded and betrayed and feel good about it at all.
I started writing this column several times this week and stopped, mainly because of that disquiet I felt every time I wanted to start eviscerating the Honey Badger Brigade for their awful views and awful actions.
The irony, of course, is that this reaction plays directly into the gendered script Tieman lays out in her video. She claims that feminist guys — "white knights" --only care about women who are weak and crying, that we hate women who are strong and self-sufficient, and here I am, showing empathy for Tieman despite my deep dislike for her beliefs because she’s showing emotional vulnerability.
I could argue back against this. I could point out that if you listen to the recording of her antagonizing the Women in Comics panel the panelists don’t come off as weeping “damsels” at all, and in fact come off as much more confident and in control of themselves than she does. I could point out that by her own logic--that “damseling,” using victim status to try to win arguments, is always bad regardless of who does it--she’s fighting for a movement that does pretty much nothing but “damseling”. That men who consistently blame everything wrong with their lives on some massive, monolithic feminist conspiracy are in fact trading on victimhood, and saying that they’re entitled to do so because of their gender is exactly the kind of gendered thinking she claims to abhor.
I could’ve done a whole column about that argument. But I’d rather not have it.
Instead, let’s talk about Maureen Dowd and Hillary Clinton.
Maureen Dowd is a poison-penned political columnist whose job is to offer a witty, Washington insider’s look at politicians’ public image. Hillary Clinton is an extremely high-profile politician--already the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for 2016--about whom people have a lot of controversial opinions.
You’d expect them to have an adversarial relationship regardless of gender. And yet gender keeps coming into it. Dowd’s latest screed against Clinton is one long laundry list of ways Hillary Fails at Gender —“overcorrecting” from a too-masculine past to a too-feminine present, failing to learn the lesson of how “feminized man” Obama got punished for his own gender fails.
Lots of people thought the situation with Clinton mixing her personal and business emails was shady; Dowd was there to throw gendered imagery onto the situation, calling Clinton an “annoyed queen” for her high-handedness.
Lots of people thought thought it was an obnoxious move for Clinton to not step aside for Obama in 2008 when he’d clearly become the frontrunner; Dowd was the one who slapped gender-fail labels onto the two candidates, blaming the situation on Obama’s “pretty boy” weakness and Clinton’s “50 Foot Woman”/”Mommie Dearest” ruthlessness.
And way way back in 1998-1999, when I was in high school, Maureen Dowd was the one whose reaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal was to call Hillary Clinton a “counterfeit feminist” who “let her man step all over her” and meanwhile to cast Lewinsky as a “predator” “brimming with testosterone” and Bill Clinton a “teenage girl”.
It’s hard to look at this stuff and not feel that same sick-to-my-stomach feeling that I got the first time I watched "Mean Girls." To see gender dragged out and thrown in my face over and over, all too often in a way to slap at public figures for performing their gender wrong. I feel like yelling “Can’t you just leave gender out of it and talk about these people as people?”
But Dowd would probably reply that that’s easy for me to say, as a guy. That it would, again, be the height of naivete to pretend gender wasn’t on people’s minds in 2008, or 1998--that she wasn’t saying anything the average voter wasn’t thinking, that for me to imagine I could view the world “gender blind” is absurd, much less that the American public could.
And she would say--has said, often--that to not talk about how someone like Hillary Clinton inhabits and invokes her gender would be to give her a free pass, to let her get away with gross malfeasance under the shield of feminism.
I am uncomfortable, sometimes deeply so, at how often I hear “progressives” throw out gender as a defense for a candidate whose own “progressive” record is deeply checkered. I absolutely do want to vote the first woman President of the United States into office in 2016; I feel like I’m being given no choice of whether that woman is, specifically, Hillary Clinton; and that, honestly, feels like I’m getting played.
But Clinton’s defenders would reply that that’s exactly the reaction Clinton’s opponents want me to have--to dismiss her as “running on her gender” simply because her gender is impossible to ignore, to put her under the increased scrutiny all high-profile women go through for being women and to cloak it as “respect” when I hold her to an impossible standard.
It brings me back to the Great Progressive Infighting of 2008. I got to hear nasty arguments on both sides, from “progressive” Democrats all, about how Obama was “running on his race” while Clinton was “running on her gender”. Just like I got to see Democrats run Sarah Palin through a creepily obsessive and cruel media gauntlet in 2008, leading up to gems like declaring she was not a woman and fantasizing about her being gang-raped and moving in next to her to write a critical book about her (which apparently doesn’t count as stalking because reasons).
But wait, people would say--I would say, since I was just as invested in the national sport of Palin-bashing as everyone else--Palin really did hold horrific political positions and really did say incredibly offensive things and really was direly unqualified to be President. To not criticize her in as vigorous terms as possible for fear of sounding misogynistic would be to treat her with kid gloves because of her gender. It would be failing to take her seriously because she was a woman--which would itself be misogyny.
And it would be playing into the hands of the GOP strategists who quite brazenly picked Palin in the first place because they saw Palin’s gender as a useful shield against criticism and cries of misogyny as a useful wedge to divide the Left. They wanted to turn feminism on its head by presenting an anti-feminist woman as a kind of logical paradox that would make left-wing pundits’ heads explode. And to a large degree, they succeeded.
This game of “Who’s the Real Misogynist?” makes not just my stomach but my head hurt. Dowd’s words about “overcorrection” ring in my head--am I giving Clinton too much of a pass for her constant compromises with Wall Street and the Pentagon because of her gender? Or, by asking that question, am I already giving her way more of a hard time than I gave Obama or Kerry for doing the same thing?
It’s like trying to color-correct a photo without a “true color” reference. You see a photograph of a dress that’s clearly been washed out by glaring sunlight. You can tell the light is there, distorting your perception of what the dress would look like under “normal” conditions, but your brain isn’t sure exactly how bright the light is and how much you should correct.
Some people mentally subtract almost all the light and see a dress that’s black and blue. Some subtract a bit less and see a dress that’s white and gold. Fights break out, friendships are ruined.
If I try to correct for that glare, if I try to imagine how I’d see the world if thousands of years of gender assumptions hadn’t been crammed down my throat by the culture I live in--would I see Hillary Clinton more or less favorably than I do now? Would I be more or less forgiving of Maureen Dowd’s nasty rhetoric if she were a man? Would I be harsher or kinder to Sarah Palin? Is the dress periwinkle or cornflower blue?
It’s exhausting. Just like it’s exhausting watching the fight between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson play out in the arena of race. Is West right that I’m giving President Obama a free pass for war crimes because of the color of Obama’s skin? Or is Dyson right that I’m giving West a free pass for lazy demagoguery against Obama because of the color of West’s skin? Or is it somehow both?
I don’t know. All I can do is give my best guess, and try to match my perceptions against those of the people around me I trust, and accept I might well be screwing it up. And that’s not easy to accept.
I can’t speak directly to sexism. I can speak to racism, though, and how deeply appealing the fantasy is--not only for white people but people of color--to imagine the quick fix of colorblindness, to just decide to have race not matter anymore one day, to wave a Photoshop magic wand and make the glaring systemic bias in our culture and in all of our minds just vanish.
I remember chafing against the boundaries staked out for me by people of my own race when they used terms like “fob” and “banana”, deciding that I was just going to ignore labels and ignore race and just be An Individual, and being a huge jerk as a result. It’s so easy to just decide you don’t see the glare, to ignore it and just accept the simple evidence of your eyes and say the dress is white and gold, the testimony of people who’ve actually studied the dress notwithstanding.
Maybe you decide that all Asians, or black people, or women really are as messed up as your culture says they are and you’re just the exception. Or maybe it’s just that in this one instance the person in your crosshairs really deserves it. Maybe they’re a power-hungry elitist politician, or they’re a really cruel and nasty New York Times columnist, or they’re a truly frighteningly weird dark horse candidate from Alaska--and so this time you’re freed from the responsibility of trying to correct for the glare in your eyes, this time you can relax and just let the snap judgments fly.
I can’t sympathize with Alison Tieman. At the end of the day I can’t look at what she stands for and who she stands next to and not be repulsed. But I can empathize.
I can’t forgive her for what she’s done to others and what she condones doing to others--it’s not my place, I’m not the one targeted.
But I can believe her when she says she feels feminism has hurt her, and that self-proclaimed anti-feminists have hurt her in the name of feminism. And that even if you’re on the side of the “good guys” you’ve probably got that glare in your eyes and whenever you feel the urge to be nasty to a woman you’re probably being more sexist than you think. (That dress is, in reality, a quite dark blue and black; that sunlight shining in the lens is really bright.)
As I write this I’m reading something all too common on my Twitter feed--progressive friends and colleagues going after each other online, accusing each other of bad faith and unexamined prejudice, locked in fundamental disagreement about the color of the dress.
I certainly don’t have any answers. All I can do is link to a chain of tweets from the one person I do trust most on these matters--a woman who, like Alison Tieman, has been hurt a lot by a lot of people on all “sides” of the “feminist question” but is doing her best to do the right thing regardless of her own hurt.
When I find myself burning with holy rage and us-versus-them zealotry--an artifact of my own childhood damage, my own distorted relationship with my gender, my race, my sense of who I am--it’s usually my wife who tends to bring me back down to earth. Reminding me no one of us created this sick culture we live in--we’re all damaged by it sometimes and we all use it to damage others.
That yes, we can and we must make judgments about right and wrong, we can and we must call each other out, stand in opposition to each other, fight to try to make the world better--but all of our “enemies” are people we could easily be ourselves, had a few variables in our lives gone differently. Everyone’s got that glare in their eyes, and everyone’s making an unconscious judgment of how to correct for it. And just because someone is wrong, dead wrong, doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
I saw the white and gold for a long, long time. I’ll always be grateful for the patience and kindness my wife (and others) showed me while I was busy being arrogantly, confidently wrong at them. I didn’t earn it and I wasn’t entitled to it, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without that capacity for kindness.
I don’t ask that we be nice to the people who are hurting us. I just ask--and I ask this of myself first--that we not be cruel, that we remember there’s no saints and there’s no devils among us, just people trying to survive.