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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Who is in Jeremy Corbyn's new shadow cabinet?

Folllowing the resignation of over a dozen MPs, Jeremy Corbyn has begun appointing a new front bench.

Following an attempted coup over the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn has begun forming his new shadow cabinet, appointing MPs to replace the numerous front bench resignations that have taken place over the last 24 hours.

The cabinet is notable for containing a relatively large proportion of MPs from the 2015 intake, many of whom were also among the 36 MPs who nominated Corbyn as a leadership candidate last year. 

Emily Thornberry

Shadow Foreign Secretary

Thornberry, a former human rights barrister, served under Ed Miliband as shadow attorney general until she resigned in 2014 following a “snobbish” tweet about an England flag sent on the day of the Rochester by-election. The MP for Islington South since 2005, she returned to the shadow cabinet in 2010 as Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow employment minister, and then helped him out of a difficult position by accepting the position of shadow defence secretary in the January 2016 reshuffle after a spat between her predecessor, Angela Eagle, and Ken Livingstone.

Diane Abbott

Shadow Health Secretary

Diane Abbott, known for her forthright interventions on a wide variety of subjects as well as her zany appearances on the This Week sofa with Michael Portillo, has held a health brief before – she was shadow minister for public health under Ed Miliband (although she was sacked in 2013, saying “Ed wanted more message discipline”). A long-time ally of Corbyn’s – they had a brief relationship in the 1970s – she nominated him for the leadership and accepted the post of shadow international development secretary upon his victory in September 2015.

Pat Glass

Shadow Education Secretary

Pat Glass, a former Labour councillor in the north-east, was elected to parliament for North West Durham in 2010. She was initially appointed shadow education minister in September 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn first formed his shadow cabinet, and was then reshuffled to shadow Europe in January 2016. She now returns to her old brief.

Andy McDonald

Shadow Transport Secretary 

McDonald entered parliament in 2012 after the by-election following Stuart Bell’s death. He served Emily Thornbery as PPS from 2013, and then joined the shadow cabinet in January 2016 to replace Jonathan Reynolds as shadow minister for rail (Reynolds resigned in protest after Corbyn sacked Pat McFadden).

Clive Lewis

Shadow Defence Secretary

Clive Lewis is part of the 2015 intake, and has been a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. He was appointed shadow energy minister in September 2015, and has been staunch in his opposition to Trident renewal. He has military experience, having done a three-month combat tour of Afghanistan in 2009.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Rebecca Long-Bailey is MP for Salford and Eccles elected in 2015. She previously worked as a solicitor, and was given the backing of Unite and Salford’s elected mayor Ian Stewart when she decided to run for parliament.

Long-Bailey was one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership in 2015. After winning the leadership, Corbyn used her to replace Hilary Benn on Labour’s NEC.

Kate Osamor

Shadow International Development Secretary

Kate Osamor is the MP for Edmonton, also elected in 2015. She is Labour Co-operative politician, and was previously a GP practice manager.

Osamor also nominated Corbyn for leader. In January, she was made Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.

Read a profile with Osamor from last year.

Rachael Maskell

Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary

Rachael Maskell is the MP for York Central, elected in 2015. Before becoming an MP, she was a care-worker and physiotherapist in the NHS. She is committed to improving mental health services and has served on the Health Select Committee since July.

Until recently, she worked on the Shadow Defence Team under Maria Eagle.

Cat Smith

Shadow Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

Cat Smith has been the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood since 2015. Prfeviously Shadow Minister for Women, Smith worked for Corbyn before entering parliament, and was one of the 36 MPs to nominate him for the leadership in 2016.

Lancashire Constabulary are currently investigating allegations that Smith breached spending limits on election campaigning.

Dave Anderson

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary

Dave Anderson has been the MP for Blaydon since 2005. He worked as a miner until 1989 and then subsequently as a care worker, during which time he was also an activist in UNISON.

He has been a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since 2005, with a longstanding interest in the Peace Process. In early 2015, Anderson was one of the signatories of an open letter to then leader Ed Miliband calling on Labour to oppose austerity and renationalise the railways.