Using "because I’m a man" as an excuse for an "inevitable" response is just plain sexist

Gaslighting and self-reflexive sexism aren't something we can let slide.

If a man says he sucks because he’s male, it’s surely sexist to agree with him. But if he uses his gender as an excuse for bad behaviour, is it also sexist to call him out on it?

This is the latest gender equality conundrum raised by US website Jezebel. In a controversial piece entitled "I suck: how guys use self-deprecation against you", American author Hugo Schwyzer explores a variant of the phenomenon by which men "gaslight" women (defined as the various ways in which they convince them that they are overreacting or hysterical): “Call it the 'I'm such an asshole' speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.”

Invoking the crisis of masculinity theory, Schwyzer suggests that gas lighting is basically a response to men internalising the idea that they are emotionally stunted and wont to let down women because of it, a self-fulfilling negative prophecy which gender theorists call stereotype threat: “I think I’m crap therefore I am” kind of posturing.

As is to be expected, Schwyzer’s article is proving controversial. Not just because it is being defended by indignant males on the Jezebel comment stream, nor simply because Schwyzer’s failure to include a "NB – this may only apply to some men" caveat irritates the vehemently anti-generalisation gender debaters. Rather, detractors have accused Schwyzer of criticising men in order to endear himself to Jezebel’s feminist-leaning readership, effectively practising his own form of gas lighting.

That’s a pretty complex bit of double-bluffing, a grown-up version of the "all boys lie! playground riddle. Not impossible, but where does it leave men who want to call out gender iniquities practised or perpetuated by other men?  Probably in the same iron maiden many male feminists and pro-feminist sympathisers find themselves, silenced, and invalidated for expressing their pussy-whipped opinions. 

For every progressive, liberal man I know and love, I encounter two amoebae – whether that’s my ex-boss who wouldn’t let me lug about the oversized office atlas because "ladies shouldn’t", or the tweeter who disliked my comments on porn on Radio 2 the other day – "oh? So you’re a journalist? I thought you were just a common whore". This kind of sexism is easy to identify, and well rebuffed. The kind Schwyzer is writing about isn’t, probably because half the men practising it wouldn’t be able to recognise it as such, nor would half the women its receiving end. As such, a rare piece that identifies subtle sexism is definitely worth contemplation – even if less generalising would have been preferable.

As an intersectional feminist, who recognises men regularly suffer gender discrimination too, I generally recoil at any "he does, she does" oversimplifications when it comes to framing behaviour. Still, there is something about Schwyzer’s article that resonates. Possibly because I have become uneasily familiar of late with the "It’s because I’m male and a bit autistic" school of excuse when it comes to expressing an inability to offer commitment, one guy I know citing it as the reason he "can’t love", another as the excuse for why he would feel really uncomfortable if I stayed over after casual sex. (I mean, a woman can take a hint, even if she is, er, a woman.) But more importantly, because I don’t see how you can ignore the gender factor here - not when it is being cited as the singular excuse for the behaviour in question. The tactic may be textbook passive aggressive narcissism, but using "because I’m a man" as an excuse for an "inevitable" response is just plain sexist.

Granted, two anecdotes do not a scientific theory make (even if you extend that to two dozen, or 200 by including many similar stories I’ve heard from others), and sure, women do it too: "I can’t trust him to do the cleaning because his male standards are lacking", or, "I wanted a baby so I tried to steal his sperm" (remember that? From the nation’s most misunderstood feminist, no less.) So when we see gender being used as an excuse for bad behaviour, whether that’s by men or women, we need to call it, conscious that criticising it may leave us open to charges of perpetuating sexism, even if the intention was anything but, and mindful that it’s all too easy to do so, as those now criticising Schwyzer clearly feel he has.

But ignoring self-reflexive sexism because it would be sexist to draw attention to it? Sounds like self-gaslighting to me. And amidst all this light flickery-pokery, it’s pretty hard to see who is rearranging the furniture.
 

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gas Light.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder