Last week, at a panel discussion hosted by World Youth Alliance and co-hosted by First Things, entitled Mad Men, Modern Family: Examining the Role of Men in Social Development, the moderator opened with the question: “Is the cultural conversation about men, accessible to men?” “No,” came the first reply, from Dr. Paul Nathanson, author of several books on attitudes towards men, including five co-authored with colleague and fellow panelist, Dr. Katherine Young. Seated in the back, I watched the men in rows ahead of me, their shoulders visibly drop and the muscles in their face relax, affirmed by what they, and I, collectively knew to be true.
If my Facebook News Feed is any small sampling of a larger cultural trend, the sound bites and headlines related to men are overwhelmingly negative. Part open season, part reprimand, all a form of galvanization of one (un)kind or another. Though the tone from conservative, liberal, religious and secular, women and men, varies—regardless of the medium—the underlying message is the same: man up. And by this is meant: check your privilege. And by this is sensed: males, your opinions on matters of sexual and social importance are less important, your experience is less valid, and any offence you may have felt is less offensive than the offense you have (if only collectively) dealt.
While we, the personal pundits or contributors and consumers of established media outlets, are quick to call-out and decry sexist messaging about women, it is uncommon, if not entirely unacceptable, to equate the evil of misogyny with the evil of misandry. (Not even Word recognizes it as a word. Masonry, malady, missionary?)
While we are quick to parade the statistics on male violence against women, we fail to highlight statistics of benevolence. Believing almost everything we read and hear, disparaging or demeaning remarks about men are culturally permissible, largely acceptable, and most often left wholly unaddressed. I too am fully complicit, with the title Why There are No Good Men Left sitting on my bookshelf, though I have been personally privileged to know (many more than) a few good men.
The evening panel had long concluded, when, hours later, men in groups were still to be found, alongside women, deep in discussion. A crowd had gathered around Dr. Nathanson, still seated in his chair where the panel had since dispersed. Some men, some women, some seated, some standing, one kneeling on the rug—all eager for dialogue, to hear and be heard. “Why can’t more #realmen (like Sean Penn!) simply acknowledge the wrong of violence against women, by lending their voices to campaigns like the U.N.’s HeforShe, even if effectually symbolic?” Surely, the gender discourse could be settled if both “sides” could simply acknowledge the validity of the “other” side and cede ground? But, “ . . . that is to engage in a comparative and hierarchical model of violence,” Dr. Nathanson thoughtfully corrected. I nodded (ceding); he was right.
In our culture, we address suffering by way of compare and contrast, i.e. Who has suffered more: Women or Men, Blacks or Jews? We give the microphone (or pass the “phallic scepter,” that delightful phrase from my undergrad feminist readings on Jacques Lacan) to the victim-victor, by way of making recompense for our cultural sins. But this affirmative action fails to recognize the inherently subjective nature of suffering. And, not only this, it also serves to ensures that the pendulum will continue to swing, one extreme to the next: the rise of women necessarily precluding the fall of men: lavish the victor, vanquish the victim, rinse, and repeat cycle. As if history hasn’t shown us the pitfalls of failing to treat one another as simply, equally, invaluably, human, at all times.
All of which is to say, let’s not let ideology trump. The golden rule is still golden, and charity covereth a multitude of personal, relational, social and cultural, sins.
Clare Halpine is director of WYA North America.