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
Print Collector/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Ben Okri: Brexit is Iago's paradise

Politicians have become Iago figures, using passion and rhetoric to drown out the Othellos. Justice and civil rights are being rubbed out along the way.

One has lost all faith in the older generation to speak powerfully for what is going wrong in the mood of the times. Their liberalism has proved half-hearted and increasingly limp. Sweeping across the nation, and possibly across the Western world, is an erosion of notions of justice. In country after country it has become standard for politicians to speak out against the immigrant, the Muslim, the foreigner. In Britain, the multicultural dialogue is all but dead.

During the dimly conducted Brexit debates the national stage was taken over by Iago figures, reconfigured as politicians. Brexit is Iago’s dream. At last he had a legitimised stage on which to speak with force. Iago has all the passion, all the force of rhetoric, in Shakespeare’s Othello. All the other decent people speak in muted tones, so that the voice that rings out loudest is the one against our common humanity.

It seems to me that the whole discourse on Brexit was conducted in code. “Immigrant” was code for all perceived foreigners. “Getting our country back” was code for turning back the clock. “The revolt of Middle England” was code for nostalgia about empire. Politicians consciously speak a double language, a coded language, for those who want all the fruits of empire but none of the moral consequences, those who want Britain to be white again like it appeared to be in their dim childhood.

Maybe this is why few politicians spoke with force against the loud and powerful Iago voices that seized the stage and altered the nation’s destiny for ever. Maybe it was because these politicians felt themselves secretly in agreement. Maybe it was because, quietly, through language, a powerlessness had been spread through the land, disabling the voices of those who were being demonised so that they could not speak, for fear that they would somehow make the discussion worse. It was quite a sight to see so many Othellos during the Brexit debate publicly agreeing with the Iagos.

Brexit is somehow seen as the revenge of the neglected. But who was the revenge directed at? It is always the other. It is always the African in Surbiton who was punched on the nose in a pub on the day after Brexit. It is always the black woman who is shouted at by a group of youths saying: “Time you went back to your own country.”

We are living in Iago’s paradise. Fake news and alternative facts are not the invention of Trump et al; Shakespeare, in Othello, gave us the original fake news and alternative facts. Villainy is never so villainous as when it appears as common sense, and is spoken in the popular tones of boisterous pub entertainers.

Censorship does not only operate in tyrannies. There are various forms of democratic censorship, too. When good people cannot speak because the discourse has somehow disabled them, when writers are silent, when justice wavers, when a tide has turned so that decency no longer has a legitimate voice, then something has gone wrong in the mood of a country.

But, thinking about it deeply, one comes to different conclusions. Looking at the history of Britain and Europe, multiculturalism, women’s rights, diversity, notions of racial fairness are actually quite recent. They are part of the international victories spread on the wings of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. These ideas are not deep in the spirit of Europe or Britain. This is perhaps why an antibody for ideas of diversity is being successfully spread. It is perhaps why politicians across Europe feel that they are articulating the feelings of the masses. The idea of true equality was never a mass movement. It was and remains an idea; an idea that the educated would like to believe in, but whose conduct – in their offices, their politics, their theatres – doesn’t bear out.

Five decades of talking about it has made people think that they have achieved it. In truth, tokenism has been raised to an art form, perfected in subtlety. But no one is fooled. If the air is foul in the room, then we all fouled it, by not speaking our deepest truth. There are no windows to open that can take away this smell. In any case we are all getting used to it.

What the left needs now is a new story that it can tell with passion and clarity and good sense and charisma. It ought to be a story that articulates a new vision of hope and inclusiveness, a story that shows the confidence and rich benefits of a diverse and creative Britain. A story that shows Britain is at its greatest when it faces the world with bigness of spirit.

This is not a time to retreat into fear and abolishing our health service and shutting down libraries and strangling culture. This is the time to dream bolder than ever before, to be tough against terrorism, but to undermine ideas of terrorism by the bright light of civilisation that we represent.

The left needs a new story to enchant the age and open up the future.

Ben Okri is the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Famished Road”

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition