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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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