Why Male Privilege Doesn’t Feel Good

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.

20 thoughts on “Why Male Privilege Doesn’t Feel Good

  1. “Self-love reminds me I’m worthy of joy, but that the world doesn’t owe me happiness.” This works well for the agnostic, too. :)

  2. You have layed the blame on your problems on yourself YET the one thing you fail to do time and time again , and again in this article is realize that your problem are your fault but for ALL WOMEN, their problems are the fault of a man somewhere, a husband, a father , a male co-worker.

    You have given yourself the biggest gift (IMHO) that anyone can give themselves, the gift of agency. With agency comes power, the power to change your life for the better. The power to see a future in which is will OR at least could be better.

    BUT you fail to give that gift to women, instead every article you write removes that agency from women.

    • There’s no denying that a good deal of the issues we face go back to the way society is structured, but I think blaming men for the problems women face right now is ludicrous. If you want to put it that way then men’s problems are also the fault of men. Frankly, I don’t think that blaming other people helps any of us, regardless of who is truly at fault. In fact, I can’t think of anything less empowering than that sort of helpless mindset.

      My problems are my own, and I take responsibility for them. I have free will, and so do you, and so do all other women and men. Pointing the finger gets us nowhere and turns us all into victims. I, for one, refuse to brand myself like that.

  3. Hugo, you ask alot of questions but fail to answer most.

    If there was male privilege, then YES men would feel happier and in control, YOU like most modern feminists. assume that if some men have power then all men must have power. The 1%ers don’t represent the other 99%

  4. It’s so true, Hugo. I think so many of us think we’re predestined to live our lives a certain way because it’s the way we were raised or because we were somehow damaged by our pasts and will forever be guided by it. It’s an excuse that keeps from believing that anything’s possible. One thing I have to say though…I talk a lot of self-acceptance and for me, I think there’s a difference between liking WHO you are and liking WHERE you are. Accepting yourself just means that you love and respect yourself as a human being, it doesn’t mean that you’re accepting being in a place that’s unhealthy or unfilling. Sometimes, accepting who you are without judgement gives you the courage and confidence to make the changes you need to make.

    I wrote about it in relation to weight here: http://fitvsfiction.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/liking-who-you-are-is-different-from-liking-where-you-are/

  5. You are in no position to lecture men about anything. You’re building a career based on the false narrative that “women are oppressed.” Sorry, dude, but if men’s lives are the way they are because of men’s choices, then women’s lives are the way they are because of women’s choices. Laying blame on men without laying comparable blame on women is just sexism.

    Of course, you conveniently claim that it’s not men’s place to hold women accountable for anything. The kind of feminism you profess is abject misandry. You’re afraid to face the truth that women need to grow up and be responsible for their own lives and stop blaming some non-existent ‘patriarchy’ or whining about men being men.

    Women and women-wannabes like you need to clean up their own act before they start dumping on men. You’re just feeling threatened because men are standing up to your bullshit. And lose the narcissistic habit of posting your own recovery story ad nauseam in an attempt to attract attention to yourself. Being on your fourth marriage is nothing to be proud of. You’ve been essentially assembling a serial harem. And you are going to point the finger at other men for being part of the ‘patriarchy’? And you’re ‘mentoring’ youth? Why does that seem absurd?

    No doubt you’ll reply that ‘marriage is a vehicle for growth.’ Yeah, maybe to a selfish, privileged narcissist like you, but what about the real harm you have done to three other women by your self-absorbed behavior? Those women don’t really count, do they? No, they were just around so you could ‘grow.’ Appalling.

  6. Hugo, this writing has brought my feet down to the ground for today. In all seriousness, I think of the “narratives of helplessness” happen when one starts to look inward, and not getting through a wall that is there. Said one must keep at it to break through and realize the truth. I needed to read this to acknowledge my own feelings of helplessness that happen as I am playing the part of a victim when I could be taking responsibility for my actions and words or non words. I agree that excessive acceptance would lead to complacency, and that language is the evidence of whats happening in this case. I believe changing the language here can lead to the right course and frame of mind. The course here is not to be emotionally reactive, placing the responsibility of unchecked emotions on someone else instead of growing the fuck up. I don’t see any other way to go about growing up in this sense. I think that you are an expert on growing up and change as well as on starting over. It’s difficult for me to accept that blame can not be placed on family history and hormones because it would be easier to do that than to accept responsibility, but in the end having the final choice and deciding on doing the next right thing is better. I feel satisfaction when I do the work to better myself so that I can be of service by attempting to better the world, and think that we are all in this together despite differences.
    Now I need to confess that I have been recieving eucharist at church that is dipped in wine and it’s a problem. This was a choice I made, and I regret it. I feel flushed from my toes to my face and back with embarrasment and dumbfounded about it all.
    I am also adding that I have trouble expressing my emotions because I haven’t yet unlearned the script that I learned from my family to not stress everyone out by being overly emotional. The other explanation for this problem is because I would try to fit the male stereotype of not being capable of talking about feelings because I percieved men to be more powerful. It seemed better then accepting the fact that I was keeping my emotions to myself to not upset the man of the house. I chose not to push passed this and now it is still something I need to work on. I also tend to date passive guys because I don’t like dating aggressive ones. Hugo, did my comment in the last post I commented on bother you? I am worried that you may have percieved my trying to be emotionally articulate as me ridiculing men who are able to do that. Does the wine thing mean I have to start over? I don’t want to make another assumption.

  7. What a remarkably sheltered view of society you have mr.Schwizer. Does it occur to you that not all people straggle to control their emotions? Inability to transform? You mean renouncing male nature? Or unable to accept conditioning of a feminist culture?
    Change every reference in a post from MRAs to feminist and you will get a accurate mirrored perspective.
    It is your choice to be sheltered in your own babble of self love and be limited by your own perspective but don’t pretend you know things.

    • i do enjoy a healthy debate…even a little fist to the table conjecture, but i have never seen the level of superior judgment and rude rebuttal like I have in the feminist community. y’all get down right nasty. “don’t pretend to know things?” that’s exactly what a blog is…a pretending to know things. and, I might add, ironically what you are doing with your statement…pretending to know things…

  8. Zarat, he’s been reduced to rehashing the same 10-15 articles for various sites over and over.

    Stick a fork in ‘im.

    We’ve won this battle.

    • i believe it was Malcolm Gladwell who speaks about repetition and the need to stick with something for 10 years before you’re a master and before the general public hears what you’re saying. It seems that if Hugo is sticking with a theme it’s to refine it and get it to each person who needs it. Like any master does over time. maybe in this world of new fangled “this and that” every 5 minutes a steady focus on one subject isn’t respected like it used to be.

  9. Far from the battle being over, men continue to do the work of helping other men heal from the strictures of a “don’t talk-don’t feel” societal imperative. This was fairly new work when I was in college and I’m still mindful of the Iron John style of men’s groups that were and continue to be helpful in allowing men to explore the false-frame of “men’s rules.”
    This kind of change takes generations and we’re barely one in. I see some younger men naturally wearing the mantle of open emotional expression and am both happy for and somewhat envious of them.
    I look back to my father’s generation, though, and realize how much safer it is for us now to own and express our feelings than in his.

    Nice article, Hugo.

  10. Andrew: This article isn’t about allowing men to express their feelings, this is nothing more than Hugo laying the blame for everything on MEN. Remember that is his job. He teaches womens studies at a college. If he were to do anything BUT lay the blame of everything on men, he would be fired right away.

  11. Energy,

    At it’s root, this is about how men who aren’t able to verbalize and own their feelings tend to re-route them into finding other reasons for feeling poorly, often at the expense of women.
    This is hardly a secret. It’s the basis of most domestic violence.
    I don’t read blame in Hugo’s work, though I get that many do. It’s a call towards self-examination and honesty. This is true for both men and women.
    Unfortunately, Hugo is in a lose-lose proposition with some of you who come here just to mock. If he writes about women, then he’s “writing about something he knows nothing about,” though he’s shown often that he understands quite a bit. If he writes about men, he’s accused of blaming them.
    Once more, if you don’t like his writing, go read someone you do. Why torture yourself? Or is that too much self-examination for you to tolerate…

  12. i read this article out loud to my boyfriend. there were some moments of honesty and it made him reflect. sounds like a win to me. also i just have to say i’m disappointed in the need for some people to get nasty to prove a point. sarcasm is ok, humor is even better…but don’t get all nasty just cuz you don’t agree with someone. yeesh.

  13. A passage like this is one reason why Hugo isn’t taken seriously (all the revelations about his past more or less bleached whatever credibility he had left out of existence):

    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.

    See, if a woman tells you her feelings, she unburdening herself in an act of the greatest possible honesty any human can perform, and if you don’t listen to her, you’re misogynist scum too wrapped up in your own privilege. But any feelings a man might have about himself and his life are simply dishonest and immature excuses to avoid growing up and taking personal responsibility.

    Women Always Good, Men Always Bad. That is Hugo’s mantra, 24/7/365. It’s the one and only message he has to sell, and he sells it, over and over again. And his double standards aren’t in our imaginations. He’s happily admitted to them. He devalues men at every opportunity as part of his personal atonement for his past. Transferring his self-loathing onto the rest of us allows him a vehicle for his redemption narrative. After last December, it’s not as easy for him to pull off as it used to be. But it’s all that’s in his toolkit, so he keeps trying.

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