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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage