One of the biggest mistakes men make is assuming that their unhappiness is proof that there’s no such thing as male privilege.*
I am intensely interested in the ways in which men position themselves as victims. I spend a lot of time reading the literature of many “men’s rights” and “fathers’ rights” groups. I spend a lot of time in conversation with men who are going through divorce (I am, if nothing else, an expert on starting over.) And I mentor a lot of young male students and boys from my youth group at church. And in conversations with many of these boys and men, I hear “narratives of helplessness” emerging.
From the older, angrier voices of the so-called MRAs, the narrative describes a world in which women (and their male “collaborators”) have usurped traditional male privileges for themselves. Men are at a disadvantage in the courts, in the business world, in academia. The MRAs see public space in the Western world as increasingly feminized, and they fancy “real men” (in whose ranks they invariably include themselves) to be under attack from a dark coalition of feminist activists, cowardly politicians cravenly surrendering to the cultural left, and a media that never misses an opportunity to demean and belittle traditional men. It all provides a satisfying sense of being “under attack”, which is why many — not all — men’s rights activists use, absurdly enough, the language of oppression and resistance to describe their movement.
There’s not much point in telling these men, “you know, you’re an oppressor more than you are oppressed”. The “you’ve sinned more than you’ve been sinned against” trope doesn’t go over well!. These men feel victimized, they feel exploited, they feel ignored, they feel — often — impotent. And too often, our feelings become facts. Too often, we conveniently ignore the ways in which we played the part of volunteers, not victims. Too often, we deny our own complicity in our own misery.
Many men make the mistake of equating the role of the oppressor with a sense of personal fulfillment. If they really were oppressing women, they assume, if they really were part of a dominant class, they’d experience a greater degree of happiness and satisfaction. After all, if there really was a patriarchy, isn’t it supposed to benefit men? If men really did systematically take part in the dehumanization and degradation of women, wouldn’t more men feel the tangible benefits of that oppression for themselves? In other words, they ask the plaintive question over and over again: “How can I be an oppressor when I feel unhappy and powerless?” If most men are leading lives of “quiet desperation”, then surely those same men cannot also be agents of injustice. Right? So goes this line of thinking, or more accurately, this line of emotional reactivity.
Fourteen years ago, I began three interrelated journeys: I committed my life to Jesus Christ. I drank my last drop of alcohol, and turned to a Twelve Step program for recovery from my various forms of acting out. And I began to work to do more than espouse a superficial egalitarian philosophy — I began to make the effort to match my language and my life, to live a life of radical justice. Now it’s true that alcohol hasn’t passed my lips in nearly a decade, but I’ve had plenty of slips and falls on my walk with Christ. I’ve had quite a few struggles as I’ve sought to live in to an authentic pro-feminism. Growing up and taking responsibility isn’t easy.
One thing my faith, my feminism, and my recovery program all taught me: I was the architect of my own adversity. I couldn’t blame God. I couldn’t blame my parents’ divorce. I couldn’t blame my genetic inheritance for my predisposition to become an addict, and I couldn’t blame my hormones for my chronic infidelities. I certainly couldn’t blame the women I’d married. My misery was a result of a series of choices I made. Hormones and family history helped shape those choices, but the final decisions were always mine. I came to realize that my sense of my own helplessness was an illusion, one I used to justify my bad behavior and one I used to justify a chronic refusal to change.
It’s true that men are frequently oppressed by other men. When a group of older boys or male coaches ridicule a young man for crying or showing fear, that’s a way in which men are complicit in their own oppression. The older lads who torment a younger were themselves tormented when they were his age. The “be a sturdy oak” rule, a rule that teaches men to be alienated from their own inner emotional terrain, is one that is almost entirely enforced by other males. The little boy who is beaten for showing fear or for weeping is not responsible for the beating he endures. But when he grows older, and belittles other men for showing those same emotions, he is making a choice. He has transitioned from victim to volunteer. The fact that he is too frightened or too ignorant to make a different choice doesn’t change his responsibility to make a better decision, and it doesn’t mitigate his own complicity in the perpetuation of a very Great Crime.
The first task of authentic men’s work is helping boys and men get in touch with their own ancient wounds. Men need to re-feel the old injuries inflicted upon them. They need to rediscover the tears they suppressed. They need to go beneath the anger (most men have a considerable amount of anger not too far from the surface) to the root cause of their pain. And once they’ve dragged all that garbage out, then they need to be encouraged to understand themselves as active agents with a choice:
“So your father never showed you how to be there for his family? That’s terribly painful. But your father’s script isn’t yours. If you follow his example, it is not because it is your ‘destiny’: it’s because you are consciously ignoring alternatives. If you do to others what was done to you, you have become not only an oppressor, but a victimizer who has made a decision to be one.”
This is true in the big things and in the little things. The fact that we don’t raise men to be as in tune with their own emotions, to be as perceptive and intuitive as their sisters, doesn’t mean that men are destined to be shallow and obtuse. It’s appropriate for a grown man to express frustration when his own vocabulary for his feelings isn’t as deep and broad as his female partner’s; it’s not acceptable for him to shrug and say “Well, it’s the way I was raised” or “Well, that’s just the way my brain is wired.” To say those things is to be complicit; to insist on one’s own inability to transform because of one’s biology or one’s childhood is to buy into the seductive lie of our own helplessness.
I’m not big on self-acceptance. Really, I’m not. What I’m big on is self-love. Too much self-acceptance leaves me believing the idea that I’m okay as I am, even when I’m not particularly happy and I’m not making the world a better place. Self-love reminds me I’m a precious child of God. Heck, I’m God’s favorite! (And so are you, you, you, and you.) Self-love reminds me I’m worthy of joy, but that the world doesn’t owe me happiness. Self-love reminds me I am called to share with others, to live in community with others, to work to change and transform and heal the world and myself. My Jewish friends call this mandate tikkun olam. The Christians I worship with call it building the Kingdom.
But we can only heal the world and build the Kingdom when we know we have been given the power to do it. And if we buy into the lie of our helplessness, our oppression, our victim status, the world doesn’t change. We stay miserable, or maybe just vaguely dissatisfied. Our relationships are, at best, just okay. And we settle for so much less than we could have.
*An earlier version of this post appeared in 2007.