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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.

Photograph: LLUIS GENE/AFP/GettyImages

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.