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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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University