How to Argue with a Feminist (if You Must)

By Si Griffiths (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As I alluded to previously, I had the unfortunate pleasure of arguing with a dude* about feminist issues on Facebook. The whole thing was aggravating, exhausting, emotionally draining and, truth be told, really upsetting. I have known this guy for a long time, and feminism has always been a bit of heated topic between us. I never really understood why he was so stridently anti-feminism (I think he’s one of those people who think ‘feminist’ is a sexist term, and who would call himself a ‘humanist’ or an ‘egalitarian’), or why, no matter what I said or how many well-written, thoughtful feminist essays I pointed him towards, he just couldn’t ever seem to consider that I might have a point. After several years of ridiculous shouting matches (and, I have to add, a couple of rather civil email exchanges) I’d pretty much decided that it was one subject we just shouldn’t talk about. There was no point. But then the Great Facebook Debate of June 2014 happened, which quickly devolved into ugliness, weirdness and general WTF-ness, and ended with him verbally attacking me and two of my friends, after which I (somewhat reluctantly) decided to block him. At the end of the day, I don’t have the time or the patience to argue until I’m blue in the face with people who are just being assholes and don’t want to listen.

‘But dude, not all men are like that!’ you might be saying. ‘Some of us really want to discuss this stuff! We have questions! We want to learn!’

I hear you. And rather than use this platform to ridicule and publicly humiliate Facebook Guy with a blow-by-blow account of his asshattery, I have decided to turn it into a tool, an example through which to teach men** how to actually have a thoughtful, polite and grown-up conversation about feminist issues with feminist women.

1) ‘Check Your Privilege’

Yes, I totally went there.

I’m actually not a big fan of this phrase; I find it a bit dismissive, and think that a lot of people use it as a sort of shorthand for ‘stfu straight white dude,’ which, obviously, upsets a lot of straight white dudes who want to take part in a conversation. Having said that, I do believe that if you’re going to enter into a discussion on feminist topics, and you are a man (or, particularly, a straight white man), you need to consider that you are coming at the issue from a place of privilege, and that really matters.

Wait, don’t go! I know that the dreaded word ‘privilege’ is provocative; it offends men and puts them on the defensive. ‘How can you tell me I’m privileged when my life has been really hard?’ you say. ‘I worked my ass off to get this shit job at the slaughterhouse and nothing was just handed to me dammit!’ This is because you don’t actually understand what we mean. And rather than argue back and forth about it for however long, I will instead point towards this essay, which I think offers one of the best and simplest analogies I’ve probably ever come across to explain the concept of privilege. In fact I totally stole this analogy once in an effort to explain to Facebook Guy what I meant when I talked about male privilege, and that it was, like, actually a real thing. (No prizes for correctly guessing whether or not it worked.)

Or, if you’re more into comic books and geek culture than fantasy RPGs, I give you an alternate viewpoint via Doctor Nerdlove.

Please, go ahead and read up. I’ll wait…

So, why does this matter? It matters because, as a man, your experience of the world is very different from my experience of the world. And you’re probably saying, ‘Well, no shit!’, but one of the reasons so many men find it so easy to argue against feminism is because, you know, they don’t know what it’s like to be us. Your experience is your reality. You don’t see or experience sexism like women do in our day-to-day lives, so it’s easy to believe it doesn’t exist, that it isn’t real, that we’re just making it up. This is male privilege. And this is why you need to ‘check’ it.

2) Seriously, don’t do the ‘not all men!’ thing.

Trust me. We know not all men are misogynist fuckheads. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that the vast majority of men are not misogynist fuckheads. We are not talking about you and your non-misogynist fuckhead brethren. We are not blaming you as an individual or men as an entire gender for everything (#NotAllFeminists!). If you think that this is what feminism is about, go forth and google for a bit, do some reading, educate yourself on mainstream feminism and feminist issues, and please stop being so defensive. (And before you come back at me with a list of notorious quotes from man-hating feminists to prove that I’m full of shit, have a gander at this.)

We don’t need to keep having this argument; it only wastes time and takes the focus off of what we’re actually trying to talk about.

3) Also, don’t do the ‘what about the men?’ thing.

Just as we know that not all men are chauvinist pigs, we also know that men are raped too; that they are abused by their partners; that they have their own impossible body standards to live up to; that they often get the shaft over custody of their children; that they are more likely to die in a war; that they are expected to be tough and stoic and never to cry or show weakness; that nobody thinks they can properly operate a washing machine.

Men point out these things in an effort to somehow invalidate feminism, or to prove that men have it ‘worse’ and we should just shut up and enjoy another slice of that tasty equality cheesecake we’ve made. The thing is, most of this stuff is the result of a patriarchal society. Feminism is not the cause of these masculine problems; it’s seeking to destroy them (the problems, not the men). Feminism (apart from being the radical notion that women are people!) is a movement which is actively fighting against a patriarchal society that harms both men and women, but has historically harmed women in much more tangible ways. That’s why it’s called ‘feminism’ as opposed to ‘humanism’ or whatever. So yes, women do recognise and care about the problems that men face – but until we’re actually on equal footing (and sorry, but we’re not), we’re going to need a lot more feminism than we are masculism.

Which isn’t to say discussions about men’s issues are never appropriate or that feminists don’t want to hear them. But don’t go barging into a feminist discussion, particularly on a feminist website, screaming ‘WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ?’ It’s just rude.

4) We’re not all lying in order to promote the vast feminazi conspiracy.

A common response to women’s reported experiences is a demand for ‘proof’ or ‘more details’ – the implication being that an exact, verbatim transcript of whatever event the woman recounts is needed in order to make sure she didn’t just misinterpret something (i.e. ‘it wasn’t really sexism, you were just being an irrational feminist’). Don’t come into a feminist discussion asking for charts and graphs and annotated quotes and photos. No one’s on trial here, OK?

Maybe you didn’t realise how insulting and infuriating it is when you ask what, exactly, was said or done. Or maybe you honestly believe you need some sort of proof that sexism and misogyny are real, and if you are a woman, it’s just part of your everyday experience. I suppose you could start by re-reading point #1 above. Once you’ve done that, google ‘#YesAllWomen‘ and read some of the thousands of tweets from women experiencing this shit every day. Or this essay describing how goddamn tiring it is to have to constantly defend not just your opinions, but your own personal experience to people who don’t believe you, and who will argue and tell you you’re wrong, even when you can provide the proof they insist upon. Or, like, talk to some women you know. Ask them about it. Listen to them. And take them at their word.

5) Learn what irony is.

Don’t read an essay about, for example, how women are constantly asked to prove their arguments and are generally doubted and then comment that you’re not sure it’s that simple and you need more details. You just end up proving the essay’s point.

6) Finally, if things don’t go your way, don’t start spamming our inboxes with insults and comparisons to Andrea Dworkin. 

That shit just gets you blocked on Facebook.

 

* There were actually two dudes involved in the discussion, but only one of them truly upset me, so I’m talking about that one in particular.

** I know, I know. #NotAllMen! I’m aware that there are also anti-feminist women out there. But in my experience the people who argue with me about this stuff have always been men, so I’m using ‘men’ here. If you are one of the Good Guys, please assume I’m not talking about you.

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2 thoughts on “How to Argue with a Feminist (if You Must)

  1. Peter Carter

    Hi Amethyst,

    I just realised you’ve blocked me on Facebook, so I had a quick look because I thought it might be worthwhile to try to calm things a little, and a google search turned this up. First let me say that I understand that what I ended up saying was deeply hurtful and I did not mean to upset you as much as I no-doubt did. I said it in the moment when hackles were risen and obviously I do respect you a great deal.

    I will try to explain my reaction in terms of how the exchange made me feel, and the things that I was trying to put forward. I hope this doesn’t come across as cold, or unfeeling, but I am trying to keep emotion from clouding things so I can demonstrate through my words that I do not bear you any malice and am not attempting to work against the things you are trying to achieve, it’s just that my personal experience and knowledge give me a different view on them. I’m not expecting that this will magically bridge the obvious gap in our understanding of each other, especially given the number of times we have tried to do so in the past and failed, but I at least hope that it might have some positive effect? Things I feel important to put across (please do understand that I am trying to convey only how things felt to me, and not making any sort of poor me or you’ve hurt me so much argument):

    1. I felt deeply attacked and disrespected in that exchange. I felt like you were not listening to my arguments at all and were just responding to pre-packaged positions that I do not hold. Pre-packaged positions that carry an incredible weight of social stigma to the degree that, did I not practice Buddhism and as a result attach my self-worth to myself rather than others (well, at least a little) I doubt I would ever voice any opinion contrary to the accepted line.for fear of being accused of them.

    However, on reflection I can see things from the other side and I’d like to tell you that I understand why terms like ‘mansplain’ and such were used, though I still find them offensive. In exactly the same way you see certain things in my arguments because you’ve heard other elements of them before, so I am apt to see things as I have seen them represented before. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstanding, and that we both end up feeling the other obstinate or intransigent when such is not totally the case. Please do understand that I am aware of at least some forms of oppression against women and I DO want to see them ended. I would hope from our long friendship you would understand that and that you remember all of the situations where women have been disrespected and threatened and I have attempted to use whatever privileges I have to moderate the situation. I know some of my positions may seem willfully arbitrarily complex or oblivious or even on some level even an attempt to hold on to male privilege. Perhaps on some level they are. However, please do consider that I have educated myself, I do read often and at length about these issues and I do attempt to consider all angles, even going so far as to pose as a girl on the internet just to see how people react to me and what I can learn first-hand — much of which has been very eye-opening (and yes, I realise this is all a bit Common People but what else are you gonna do? :P).

    2. I understand that my response to the essay was probably not that conducive to dialogue, even from the very beginning. It was ill-judged in many ways and often I react with emotion when I see things that I see as unhelpful and/or accidentally harmful to both men and women by closing down dialogue even when they are purporting to open it up. I understand that this article was more likely than no written in good faith. However, if I am not provided with details of a situation, how can I hope learn from it? If I am just told ‘this happens to women,’ well, ok, but what if another woman says it doesn’t, who am I to believe? Perhaps a situation has been misunderstood or misrepresented. Almost everyone I know does that at some point. I do not assume this is likely because of someone’s gender — or I hope I don’t, though I am aware that the world is rife with unconscious prejudice. Just as many men hate women, so many women hate men and many men hate men and many women hate women. Many of the men who hate men are MRAs, and unfortunately there are many women who hate their own body or gender in feminist groups. My horribly badly put point was an attempt to say ‘hey, maybe there’s multiple sides to this?’ that maybe the oppressor in the situation didn’t always know they were oppressing or that the oppression flows both ways. I don’t know the truth of these things. In any case, the point I was trying to make was more ‘I don’t always know’ and ‘I just react to situations as I see them’ than ‘feminism is wrong’. I obviously didn’t communicate well enough to put that across. That is very much my error and for that I apologise.

    3. I am not anti-feminist. At all. In the argument I went to great pains to say that I am not, and I always take care to point out that there are about as many forms of feminism as there are feminists, and while I oppose elements of some, the same is not true of others. I said that the term feminist is sexist before and while it can be, I have moderated my opinion on that. I do, however, also believe that where an individual thinks and acts as feminist alone and not feminist-masculine (e.g. where no real attempts are made to engage with the male experience) that this is sexist and, worse, that it will inevitably serves to exacerbate the very problems it hopes to eradicate.

    4. It makes me sad that you would assume that I have not talked to women about this. I have, a lot, at length. In fact, every woman I have had any sort of intimate relationship with (not necessarily romantic) I have at least attempted to discuss this with. Some of the opinions I have been privy to are not at all what I expects, and some were deeply worrying. I don’t want to go into detail on these in a public blog as, as much as anything, I don’t want to give anyone reading the opinion they are correct. But they were very surprising. Very, very surprising.

    5. I hope that maybe we can go back to an uneasy truce on this issue? If you don’t see fit to unblock me that’s fine. Of course that is your right. However, I can see from your essay that you’re really genuinely confused by my position and why I would end up in such an argument. You’re not the only one, and believe me, it’s not easy to hold opinions that, no matter how you put them forward, get you hated by ‘lads’ and MRAs and Feminists alike (at different times, it has to be said). I would almost like to say ‘hey, I agree with everything you’re saying’ or at least leave completely alone, but I would feel false, and as if our friendship were based on a falsehood.

    Regardless of what you think of the rest of this message, I hope you are doing well and things are good with you in general.

    Peter

    p.s. I have attempted to go some way to gleaning an understanding of women and the female experience in the novel fragments I sent you. That was part of my reason for showing them to you. I wonder if perhaps it might be easier if you could write, or indeed point me to some of your old fiction in which some aspects of the experience is represented and the cushion of myth might make it easier to talk without things ending in these progressively more horrendous and upsetting outcomes. I do not and would never mean to make you feel sad and if closing off all contact is the best thing for you then of course I will do what is best:(.

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