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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There are sinister goings-on in the race to become the UN's next Secretary-General

The United Nations can and must do better than this, says David Clark. 

2016 was meant to be a year of firsts for the United Nations as it prepares to choose a new Secretary-General. Optimism was growing that the top job would go to a woman for the first time in the world body’s seventy-year history. There was an emerging consensus that it should be someone from Eastern Europe, the only region never to have held the post, provided a candidate of the right calibre was put forward. Above all, the selection was supposed to break new ground in openness and transparency after decades in which decisions were stitched up in private by a handful of the most powerful countries. Innovations like open nominations, public campaigning and candidates hustings were introduced in a bid to improve public scrutiny.
 
All of that now threatens to be turned on its head as the battle to succeed Ban Ki-moon becomes embroiled in intrigues and plots, according to stories that have surfaced in the Belgian and Portuguese media in the last week. Allegations centre on the activities of former European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, and ex-Portuguese MEP turned lobbyist, Mario David. Both are said to be promoting the undeclared candidacy of Kristalina Georgieva, the serving European Commission Vice-President from Bulgaria. Barroso reportedly arranged for Georgieva to participate in a recent meeting of the Bilderberg group in order to boost her profile with world leaders. David is said to be touring the capitals of Eastern Europe to canvas support.
 
While there is nothing necessarily unusual about senior European politicians supporting a colleague in her bid for a major international job, there are two things that make this case very different. The first is that Bulgaria already has an official candidate in the person of Irina Bokova, a career diplomat currently serving her second elected term as Director-General of UNESCO. Reports suggest that Barroso is among those pressing the Bulgarian government to switch its nomination to Georgieva, while David’s role has been to find another country in the region willing to nominate her in the event that Bulgaria refuses to budge. The second piece of the puzzle is that Portugal also has an official candidate – its former Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres – who Barroso still publicly insists he is supporting.
 
It is in the nature of the way these matters are often decided that there is no necessary contradiction between these facts. Georgieva’s candidacy would appear to stand no real chance of success. She lacks diplomatic experience and news reports suggest that the Bulgarian Prime Minister’s decision not to support her was based on information linking her to the communist-era intelligence services. And while there is nothing to stop another country nominating her, precedent suggests that a lack of domestic support will be fatal to her chances. Georgieva is highly unlikely to end up as UN Secretary-General, yet she could still have a significant role to play as a spoiler. Bulgaria’s official candidate, Irina Bokova, is frequently described as the frontrunner. As a woman from Eastern Europe with heavyweight UN experience, she certainly has an edge. A rival Bulgarian woman candidate would create doubt about the strength of her support and potentially open the way for other candidates. The aspirants who stand to benefit most are men from outside Eastern Europe. Step forward Antonio Guterres.
 
Those with the best chance of preventing these manoeuvres from succeeding are the governments of Eastern Europe. Although the principle of rotation does not confer on them the automatic right to have one of their own chosen to run the UN, a degree of unity and professionalism in the way they approach the contest would make their claim much harder to resist. Unfortunately there has so far been little evidence of the kind of collective solidarity and diplomatic co-ordination that helped to deliver the top UN job to Africa and Asia in the past. The strongest advocate for Eastern Europe is currently Russia, although it has stopped short of threatening to use its veto in the way that China was prepared to do for Asia when Ban Ki-moon was appointed in 2006.
 
In addition to casting doubt on Eastern Europe’s chances, the descent into private plotting is an ominous warning to those campaigning for the UN to become more open and representative – the appointment of a new Secretary-General may not prove to be the turning point they had hoped for. What is the point of public hustings for candidates when the real discussions are taking place at a closed meeting of Bilderberg group? Why bother to encourage women candidates to put forward their names when the power brokers of international diplomacy already have their man? Seventy years after it was established, the UN should have found a better way to do this. It still can.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.