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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In this week's magazine | The longest hatred

A first look at this week's issue.

6 - 12 May issue
The longest hatred

 

Cover story: The longest hatred.
Brendan Simms
and Charlie Laderman: Why anti-Semitism in Europe today is a threat to us all.

Howard Jacobson on anti-Semitism, Ken Livingstone and an Oscar-winning argument for Zionism.

Jim Murphy: BBC neutrality in reporting on the EU referendum is misguided and dangerous.

Politics: George Eaton on tensions inside Labour; Helen Lewis meets the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, on the eve of the Holyrood elections; plus the Tory activist Shazia Awan on why she will be voting for Sadiq Khan tomorrow.

Jason Cowley: How immigration is testing Scandinavian welfare capitalism to breaking point.

Shiraz Maher on Syria: The slaughter of civilians in Aleppo is a threat to our national security.

From wars to power ballads: Helen Lewis on the geopolitics of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Philip Norman shares his memories of childhood food.

Radio: Antonia Quirke has had enough of the Guardian bias on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.

“Alderley – for Alan Garner”: a new poem by Rowan Williams.

 

****

Cover story: The longest hatred.

In this week’s cover story, Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman consider the rise of Jew-hatred in contemporary Europe – the clearest manifestation of which is the flight of Jewish people from France. And the authors trace anti-Semitism to its roots in the pogroms of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages:

The cancerous belief that the world is run by an international Jewish conspiracy shapes the world-view of much of Iran’s governing elite, operatives of Islamic State (IS), nationalist leaders in Slovakia and Hungary, and a major Palestinian political organisation. It even pervades parts of a mainstream British political party, and our university campuses, too. Where did this poison come from, and is there an antidote to it?

[. . .]

Like Nazi ideology, Islamist extremism and far-right fascism are rooted in a deep-seated anti-Semitism that begins by targeting Jews and expands its focus outwards. Islamists and European fascists are convinced that a global Jewish conspiracy runs the world. They regard Jews as the embodiment of the West and as symbols of all they most despise about its values: tolerance, liberty, freedom and democratic capitalism. The West is thus regarded as politically “Jewish” whether it is aware of this or not.

Far from being an exclusively Jewish problem, paranoid, political anti-Semitism endangers us all. It is the harbinger of a broader assault on Western modernity.

[. . .]

The absurdity of anti-racist anti-Semitism is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by a march in 2014 in Toulouse against anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of racism that ended in Jewish protesters being denounced as Zionists and urged to leave. When Jews are being chased away from rallies against anti-Semitism, the problem should be clear for all to see.

[. . .]

We must recognise that, throughout history, the Jews have served as a “canary in the coal mine”, providing early warnings of extreme, xenophobic ideologies on the rise. This is evident in radical Islamism, the most extreme contemporary manifestation of anti-Semitism. While the West thinks it is fighting a war against “terrorism”, Islamists are fighting a war against what they perceive to be a world Jewish conspiracy. Islamist terror attacks are almost certain to be preceded by, involve, or be followed by attacks on Jews, and we must adjust our security measures accordingly.

Above all, we must all be aware of the stakes. Supporting Jewish people worldwide against the new anti-Semitism, be it Islamist, far-rightist or leftist, is not so much a matter of demonstrating solidarity, but of ensuring our own survival.

 

The Diary: Howard Jacobson.

In this week’s Diary, the author Howard Jacobson considers accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in the light of an Oscar-winning argument in favour of Zionism:

I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror.

 

Jim Murphy: The BBC is in danger of being too impartial on the EU referendum.

The NS columnist Jim Murphy argues this week that the unthinking neutrality of British broadcasters on Europe: Leave or Remain? is misguided and dangerous:

I want to put something to you that may at first sound strange. At best, it may appear counterintuitive; at worst, anti-democratic.

I believe that the British broadcast media are in danger of being too impartial. This has been especially true in the lead-up to the EU referendum. In a single-question vote such as this one, absolute neutrality lacks integrity and can produce gross inaccuracies.

Stay with me and I’ll explain why. In multiparty general elections, we have become used to hearing broadcasters announce which party they believe has had the best of the campaign on any given day. It’s the moment during the national ten o’clock news when the country gets to find out what campaigners likely already knew: that their preferred side has had a bloody awful 12 hours.

In its absolute form, however, impartiality declares every event a draw. At its purest, impartiality witnesses a house fire and declares it a shame for the property owner but a joy for the fire. And therein lies the difference.

There is a breed of critical mind which can accept that campaigners’ soundbites need to be reported, but also that their assertions must be interrogated, too. There are a good number of broadcast journalists who have mastered this art. However, it can prove difficult when much of their exceptional insight does not make it on to the flagship news programmes and remains instead on blogs, network websites and social media.

British broadcasters behave more like American newspapers, while UK newspapers often behave like American broadcasters. Given the choice, I’d rather have our system of partisan print than a US one of biased TV and radio. All the same, some will claim that what I’m arguing for will guarantee a “slippery slope” towards mid-Atlantic broadcasting. It will not.

We should avoid at all costs having a BBC or ITV that mimicks the liberal partisanship of MSNBC, or allowing Sky to become a home for Fox News-style shock jockery. All the same, in Britain today, the understandable desire on the part of broadcasters to appear to favour neither side in the EU referendum puts them at risk of stumbling into a vapid neutrality.

 

George Eaton: The Politics Column.

The NS’s political editor, George Eaton, argues that although many Labour MPs are unhappy with the party leadership – and especially its chaotic response to mounting accusations of anti-Semitism – none of them will challenge Jeremy Corbyn before the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU:

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation.

[. . .]

Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

PLUS on newstatesman.com: On the eve of the Holyrood elections Helen Lewis meets the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, and the former Conservative parliamentary candidate Shazia Awan on why she’s voting for Sadiq Khan tomorrow.

 

Editor’s Note: Jason Cowley.

On a visit to Sweden, Jason Cowley finds a country ill at ease with itself and in retreat from its habitual openness to incomers:

Mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism to near breaking point and resentment is festering. “Immigration is now the number one issue facing our country,” Johan Forssell told me when we met at the Riksdag. He is a former chief of staff for Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister from 2006-14. As leader of the Moderate Party, Reinfeldt is a conservative, but, in his commitment to free markets and open borders, the politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. I was a guest at a lunch for Reinfeldt in London last autumn, and, as he defended his immigration policies, I was struck above all by his liberalism.

In August 2014, in a celebrated speech, he called on his fellow Swedes to “open their hearts” and “show tolerance” to immigrants and asylum-seekers. The speech was received with derision. It surely contributed to the defeat of the Moderate-led centre-right coalition in the general election in which the far-right Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, recorded their best ever performance, winning 49 out of 349 parliamentary seats. “It was a brave speech, but Freddie didn’t prepare the people for it,” one senior Swedish politician said to me.

 

Shiraz Maher on Syria: We cannot accommodate Assad – we must hit him hard, for our own security.

As Syrian forces lay waste to Aleppo, Shiraz Maher wonders how much longer we can tolerate the slaughter and the threat it represents to our own security:

Whether we like it or not, the depressing conclusion is that the Syrian crisis is our crisis. The idea that we can somehow insulate ourselves from its repercussions is a fantasy.

Think of how the past few weeks of chaos in Aleppo will create even more pushing ever greater numbers towards Europe. Set aside humanitarian and moral arguments and look instead at the situation through the prism of our national security interests. The conclusion is obvious: instability in the Middle East and North Africa leads to instability here. This is how we must now think about the war in Syria.

Our security and interests are best served if Syria is a country in which its people can live. For the most part, Syrians have shown a remarkable willingness to endure the privations of war and have been forced into exile only by the relentless campaign of indiscriminate aerial bombing.

The West has flirted with the dangerous idea that we should somehow accommodate Assad or rehabilitate him in the expectation that this will end Syria’s civil war. Yet the president has proved that he is not a partner who can be trusted to act in good faith. Indeed, his actions drive international terrorism and destabilise Europe. All of this points to nothing changing while he remains in power. To secure ourselves, we will at some point have to hit Assad – and hit him hard.

 

From wars to power ballads: Helen Lewis on the geopolitics of Eurovision.

With just over a week to go until the glitter cannon fill the Globe arena in Stockholm – and in the year of Britain’s Brexit referendum – Helen Lewis explores the complex politics of the Eurovision Song Contest:

“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once wrote. Defenders of the European Union often point to its success in bringing decades of peace to a troubled continent, but perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the Eurovision Song Contest has become a continuation of war by other means. The organisers of the competition are never going to succeed in making it apolitical, or “about picking the best popular song in Europe”, because an audience of 200 million people is too big an opportunity for any pressure group to pass up.

In 1956, no one could have predicted that the premier arena for political statements about European identity would be a music contest variously won by a bearded drag queen, a Finnish heavy metal group and a temporarily Swiss Céline Dion, but there you go. Still, no matter how much you hate disco or power ballads, they are infinitely preferable to a ground invasion. We should probably just let the Russians win it every year to keep them happy.

 

Plus

Ed Smith on Claudio Ranieri and Leicester’s lessons for losers.

Mark Lawson travels a thousand miles across England on a week-long, mammoth tour of 12 plays by Shakespeare.

Television: Rachel Cooke finds many shades of masculinity in Channel 4’s Grayson Perry: All Man and BBC1’s Chasing Dad.

Barbara Speed: Young women are ditching the Pill for tech-led, “natural” contraception.

Tim Wigmore: Why are Britain’s nightclubs closing their doors?

Ali Smith revisits the fantasy novels of Alan Garner and finds political anger as well as potent myth.

Simon Kuper wonders if Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football is the most pretentious book about soccer ever written.

Film: Ryan Gilbey is touched by the blind generosity of love in Florence Foster Jenkins.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396