The Second Sexism: don't judge a book by its press

David Benatar's book has valid comments to make about the position of men.

Anyone who has ever debated male-specific gender issues will probably have experienced an encounter like this:

Bloke: “Yeah, but men can also be victims of violence and injustice, why aren’t we talking about that too?”

Feminist: “Of course they can, and if you guys want to campaign on those issues, I’ll applaud you.”

In practice, it doesn’t always work out like that. This month, moral philosopher David Benatar published his book The Second Sexism to an excitable flurry of comment. Before discussing what Benatar says, let’s be quite clear about what he does not.

Despite what you’ve probably read in the Observer, the Guardian, the Independent or even here in the New Statesman, Benatar is not a Backlash merchant. He does not argue that men have a worse time than women; that feminism has gone too far; that men are now the oppressed sex; or that sexism against women does not exist. On the contrary, he repeatedly details the many forms of injustice faced by women across the world, and applauds efforts to address them. Indeed the clue is in the title: not “The New Sexism” or “The True Sexism” but “The Second Sexism.” Second, meaning in addition or secondary to the first sexism which is, of course, against women. Benatar does not blame feminism for anti-male discrimination, rightly noting that most such injustices long predate the women’s movement.

He certainly doesn’t suggest positive discrimination, instead devoting an entire chapter to arguing that such policies are unethical and ineffective as a response to any form of sexism. Perhaps the chapter title “Affirmative Action” may have confused any critics who only read as far as the contents page.  

Nor, BBC Online readers, is Benatar a champion of the Men’s Rights Movement. In the book he notes astutely that men’s groups can become “fora for self-pity and for ventilating hyperbolic views that are not checked or moderated by alternative opinions.”  

Benatar’s actual argument is that, in most societies, men and boys face several specific and serious forms of wrongful discrimination, and that these are not only injustices in their own right, but also contribute to discrimination against women. The issues he highlights include military conscription and combat exclusions; male circumcision; corporal punishment, victimisation in violence and sexual assault, and discrimination in family and relationship disputes.

I do not intend to list the various ways in which I think Benatar’s analysis is correct, incorrect or inadequate, although there are plenty of each. Instead I want to focus on how the feminist consensus has reacted to the release of his book. While it would be a stretch to describe it as a feminist work, there is much in The Second Sexism that should be music to the ears of the sisterhood. He largely rejects biological gender determinism; argues strongly against social conservatism, and makes clear that the value of challenging the second sexism includes the benefits to women. Here I might go further than Benatar, and make arguments from which he rather shies away.

Benatar details numerous ways in which society betrays relative indifference to and indulgence of violence towards men and boys. It begins in childhood, where both institutional and domestic corporal punishment and physical abuse are deployed much more commonly against boys. It continues into adulthood, through the traditional male role as wartime cannon fodder, through our greater willingness to imprison men than women – an expensive way of making bad people worse, and through social norms which decree that all forms of violence against men are more acceptable, less harmful, more worthy of laughter than equivalent forms of violence against women. If violence is thus normalised in men’s lives, could some knowledge of basic psychology not partly explain why men seem more likely to commit most forms of violence, including assaults on women?

Similarly, wouldn’t those who campaign against ritual FGM find their argument easier to make if society expressed unequivocal condemnation of ritual genital mutilation of any infant? Wouldn’t the battle for equality in domestic and professional fields be enhanced by challenging courts which decree that women are more natural carers, or that it is less harmful for a child to lose a father than a mother to custodial punishment?  Reciting that patriarchy hurts men too and these problems will be solved by more feminism won’t cut it. How can feminism address these problems if it barely acknowledges their existence?

Benatar’s book is mostly complimentary and complementary to feminist objectives. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that it met a hostile response from the likes of Suzanne Moore and Julie “It’s bollocks” Bindel. There is often resistance from some feminists to the suggestion that male-specific gender issues even exist. I’ve written elsewhere about the overt hostility of some feminists to International Men’s Day. Male victims of domestic violence, and academics who research that issue, have faced angry and violent feminist attempts to silence them. 

This kneejerk defensiveness is not one of modern feminism’s more constructive traits. Perhaps it is understandable, given the constant drone of anti-feminism and misogyny that hums beneath much men’s activism, but that doesn’t make it right. Feminists are not obliged to agree with Benatar’s arguments, but it might help their cause to seriously engage with them. If, in de Beauvoir’s phrase, men and women are to “unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” then empathy and compassion must travel in two directions, not one.

Photograph: LLUIS GENE/AFP/GettyImages
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You're wrong about Leave voters - four surprising facts about the 52 per cent

Leave voters are not as anti-immigrant as you think. 

He is an old man from a coastal town. He’s uneducated by modern standards, and worked for an industry that is now defunct. He spends his retirement shooting suspicious looks at anyone who looks “forrun” and wincing at the sound of Polish voices. He voted to quit the EU. He’s Mr Leave.

In the aftermath of Brexit, this caricature has haunted the imagination of many a Remain voter. But a new report from the think tank British Future shows it is a false one. Just as a quarter of Remain voters also backed the Tories in 2015 (sorry, progressive alliancers), Leave voters have different views on immigration, sovereignty and the economy. 

Here are some of the most surprising insights from the polling, which was carried out with pollsters ICM:

1. Leave voters cared most about sovereignty

While a quarter of Leave voters cited immigration as their number one reason, more than half said they were motivated by “taking power back from Brussels”. 

In contrast to the caricature of the ancient xenophobe, the older a Leave voter, the more likely sovereignty was their motivation. 

2. Leave voters also hated Nigel Farage’s poster

For those who hated the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration, the lowest point was UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s unveiling of a poster showing refugees crossing Europe and the caption: “Breaking Point.”

It was also the low point for many Leave voters. Roughly a third said the poster overstepped the mark, and this rose to half of voters who only made up their mind to quit during the campaign. A majority of Leave voters and UKIP supporters felt the debate on immigration got dangerously overheated.

Overall, three-quarters of the British public agree with the statement:

“What we need now is a sensible policy to manage immigration so we control who comes here but still keep the immigration that’s good for our economy and society, and maintains our tradition of offering sanctuary to refugees.”

3. Leave voters want EU migrants to stay

The new prime minister, Theresa May, is refusing to guarantee the right of EU citizens living in the UK to stay – which makes her more extreme than most UKIP voters.

Three-quarters of Leave voters and 78 per cent of UKIP voters think EU migrants should be able to stay. 

In fact, a fifth of those who feel confident about the benefits of immigration to the UK, voted Leave.

4. Leave voters have to wait longer for the bus

While voters in the farmlands of Eastern England were most likely to vote to Leave, in some areas with similar demographics the vote was much stronger than in others.

South Holland, where 73.6 per cent voted to leave, is a rural, agricultural area with poor transport links. The jobs are low-paid, and often only zero-hours contracts. Many were filled by EU migrants. 

By contrast, nearby South Kesteven has three market towns, and the jobs market is less reliant on the food production industry. The transport links are better. Just 59.9 per cent voted Leave. 

A similar pattern can be seen in Stoke-on-Trent (69.4 per cent Leave) and Knowsley (51.6 per cent Leave). Both places have experienced industrial decline, but Knowsley is much better connected to Liverpool city centre.

So what should we make of all this? The British Future report concludes:

Even on a disagreement this big, we – Leave and Remain, old and young, graduate and non-­‐graduate, metropolitan and provincial -­‐ still have more in common than that which divides us, to quote a maiden speech that tragically gained a new poignancy with the murder of its author, Jo Cox MP.

"Build bridges, not walls" has long been a slogan of internationalists. But preserving and strengthening the 48 per cent and 52 per cent tribes will not build a bridge, it will build a wall. It is time to tear it down.