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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Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn than Smith

The week in the media, including Cambridge entrance exams, the Brexit tourism boom, and why Owen Smith is a no-hoper.

A woman canvassing for Jeremy Corbyn called me the other day. I explained to her that I would be voting for Owen Smith as Labour leader – as long as he seemed to have no chance of winning. She sounded bemused but, after I explained my reasoning, I think she agreed, although she may simply have decided to humour a feeble-minded eccentric.

I told her that my objection to Corbyn is not so much about his political position as about his competence as leader. If he cannot command the confidence of Labour MPs, he is unlikely to command the confidence of voters that he can run the country. However, Labour needs a more convincing alternative than Owen Smith, a soft-left figure in the mould of Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, who lost three general elections between them. As his proposal that we should sit down and talk to Islamic State suggests, his ear for politics, like that of the incumbent leader, appears to be manufactured from tin. Moreover, his past as a lobbyist for a drugs company represents precisely the bundle of connections between politics, media and international capital against which so many voters are in revolt.

Smith deserves a large vote, mainly to give heart to future challengers. But – given that no party has ever overthrown two leaders in a single parliament without either having fought a general election – his victory would leave the party with the prospect of nearly four wasted years followed by defeat in 2020. Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn. There is still time for him (or preferably her) to emerge.

Agent Choudary

It is widely believed in the Muslim community that the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary is an MI5 agent, whose high-profile flamboyance was used to attract and flush out the most dangerous radicals. Those who subscribe to this theory are not fazed by his conviction at the Old Bailey on terrorism-related charges. Although the prosecution detailed numerous instances in which people allegedly linked to him were convicted of planning violent attacks, nearly all such attacks failed, according to the theory, because Choudary did his job, allowing plotters to be apprehended before they could strike. Now MI5 has decided that he should continue his work in prisons, which are said to be increasingly potent sources of radicalisation.
I hesitate to scoff too much. Who would have thought that the Soviet security services could recruit several former public school boys in the 1930s and plant them in positions at the top of MI6 and the Foreign Office? We should not assume that our spymasters are incapable of being equally clever. Besides, the MI5 agent theory probably does Choudary far more damage among young Muslims than the media’s standard portrayal of him as an evil genius.

Apt pupils

A new hurdle, in the form of a university-wide exam to test “aptitude”, will confront applicants to Cambridge from this autumn. It illustrates why state schools can never hope to catch up, still less overtake, fee-charging schools in the race for elite university places (another manifestation of what the NS calls “the 7 per cent problem”).
Unlike its predecessor, which was abolished three decades ago because it was thought to favour those from privileged backgrounds, the new entrance exam, Cambridge argues, does not require coaching. The publication of sample questions shows that this is not true. Several are, in essence, exercises in logic, which comes naturally to a tiny minority but not to the majority who will need, if nothing else, a great deal of practice to achieve competence even at an elementary level. The better fee-charging schools will organise the necessary preparation for the dozen or so candidates each year who try to get into Cambridge. Comprehensives, with far more modest resources, will not do so for the one or two candidates they are likely to have even in a good year. Their teachers’ inferior knowledge of how the exam will be marked and what tutors will be looking for – matters on which Cambridge is unhelpfully vague – will further disadvantage state school candidates.

Stashing cash

I cannot think of a better example of what crazy times we live in than this. Keeping cash under the mattress used to be something that criminals and mentally impaired old folk did. Now, the Financial Times reports, banks and other financial institutions are thinking of doing it, although they will use vaults rather than mattresses. This is because interest rates are moving into negative territory, so private-sector banks are, in effect, charged for keeping cash in their central bank accounts. The FT estimates that banks have lost €2.64bn since European Central Bank rates became negative in 2014. Some pension funds have already asked their banks for wads of cash in €500 notes.
Could any satirist or futuristic novelist have envisaged this?

Foreign throngs

The Brexit vote and the subsequent fall in sterling’s value has led, it is reported, to a sharp increase in tourism. I thought of this as we struggled through people crammed into the excellent Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, the other day. Haworth is a tiny village (population 6,379) that was so poor two centuries ago that raw sewage ran down the main street. Now, it has created a flourishing industry from being the place where the Brontës’ novels were written. 

The prospects for British manufacturing and financial services may be uncertain but there’s always tourism, for which we seem to have an absolute gift. Even the damp, cold climate is an advantage, because it forces more people into the shops. But I wonder what the Brexiteers think of this growth in the number of foreigners, possibly including terrorist sympathisers, now walking our streets and thronging our museums, royal palaces and country houses. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser