[cross-posted at Feminist Allies. If you would like to comment, please do it there.]
Q Grrl says: [...] Don’t kid yourself that a man challenging other men is brave or exceptionally impressive. It’s not even virtuous. More precisely, it’s a base-level human reaction to injustice — and no man should be given kudos for simply rising to the least common denominator.
Jeff says: [...] the common denominator is sexism, so to the degree that he’s not being sexist, he’s rising above the common denominator.
I’ve come across this issue before, the so-called “no cookie” issue. I think Jeff is basically on the right track, but I also think that he and Q Grrl are using “common denominator” to mean two different things.
If I understand Q Grrl correctly, she is saying that the base level of decency that anyone ought to display is to treat everyone justly and speak out against injustice, and so to do so means you’re only doing the bare minimum that you ought.
Jeff seems to be saying that since the default attitude of men is a sexist one, then to be better than that average is commendable. That is false. To be at that average is deplorable. An acceptable level of behaviour is well above the average male attitude. And to acheive a level of “acceptable” in your actions is not commendable.
The difference here is between what behaviours the average man exhibits and what behaviours he ought to exhibit.
When confronted with the fact that he is part of a culture that encourages men to treat women subserviently, to assume that anything to do with housework and childcare is by default women’s work, it is common for a man to proudly say “Well, I do half of the housework in my house.” Or, “I do half the cooking” or whatever. The correct response to this is “so what?” After all, this is the state of affairs that ought to be the norm: two partners equally sharing a space ought to equally share the responsibilities that come with that space. In all cases, distribution of work, responsibility, resources and so forth ought to have nothing to do with sex or gender*. So when a man announces that he does his equal share, he is essentially saying, “look, I’m doing the bare minimum that I ought,” and therefore deserves no acclaim or congratulations. No cookie.
There are more extreme cases too, where a man will say “I’ve never beaten any of my girlfriends” or “I’ve never raped anyone” or even, in one case I heard about, “a woman came over to my house and passed out before we got a chance to have sex, and I didn’t have sex with her while she was sleeping” — these are just stupid, and part of another discussion entirely, because I want to talk about the arguments that don’t involve the “effort” of not performing overtly cruel and violent acts.
I haven’t decided yet where I draw the line on the “no cookie” issue. On the one hand it is clearly true that the “feats” boasted about are not special. The fact is that for a man to treat women as equals — at home, at work and in the general case — is not some wonderful thing that some people might strive for. It ought to be the norm, and there’s no sense in congratulating someone for acheiving what ought to be the norm. In this sense saying “I don’t condescend to women when I speak to them” is similar to saying “I don’t punch random people in the face” or “I don’t run naked through the street thinking I am Napoleon.” On the other hand, there is effort involved. The effort is not in the act itself, but in examining and overcoming the indoctrination and socialization that leads to such behaviour in the first place.
Let’s say that Andy grew up in a household where he would pitch his dirty clothes in the general direction of the laundry hamper, and they would magically disappear from the floor into the hamper while he was off at school, then reappear, clean, in his drawers and closet every few days. Andy doesn’t necessarily consciously think it his right to have his clothes cleaned and put away without any effort on his part, but he has been taught to not question the way things are, and that’s “just the way things are.” This is a clear example of male privilege at work.
Then let’s say he eventually winds up sharing a residence with a female partner, Betty, and he acts the same way. Betty calls Andy on what he’s (not) doing. She complains that he’s stinking up the room with his laundry and that she’s doing all the work of getting the laundry clean, and he changes his ways. He always puts his clothes in the hamper and starts doing the laundry every other time it needs doing because Betty wants him to, and he is considerate enough to do what she wants. Say the same thing happens with cooking, shopping, childcare, bill management and all the other shared responsibilities Andy and Betty have. Then Andy boasts that he does half the work at home, and expects feminists to fall over each other trying to be the first to thank and congratulate him.
Andy didn’t actually challenge himself. While (for the sake of argument) he is sharing responsibilities and work equally he has not done anything exceptional, or even above the mean of what he ought. He could take on 75% of the responsibilites and work and still not earn a cookie, because the issue is not how much work gets done by each partner.
Andy’s twin brother Charlie had exactly the same upbringing as Andy. But as he grows up he becomes more used to examining his own motivations and actions. Perhaps it takes a feminist friend to point it out to him, or perhaps he reads something online, or perhaps he happens to take a course on feminism in college, or perhaps he just realized one day how he had been heavily socialized. Anyway, he looks for ways in which his privilege manifests itself and ways to counteract it. When he starts cohabiting with his girlfriend Dana he realizes how much his upbringing has caused him to overlook the work other people do on his behalf, and to not even think of certain responsibilities as such. He tries to make sure to notice when his privilege shows itself and to work against it. Part of this effort is splitting as equals the responsibilities shared with Dana.
The net result, objectively, may seem the same as Andy’s situation. Each does half the housework, each does half the parenting, each makes sure not to be dismissive of what his partner has to say and so on. But Charlie is the only one putting real, useful effort into the deal. Andy aims for equality to make Betty happy, without actually examining why his inclination is toward inequality. Charlie’s decision to act against his upbringing might as well be independant of his cohabitation with Dana, in that he examines his privilege because it’s the right thing to do, not just to make her happy.
That a man treats women as people and doesn’t act as though what he has to say deserves to be heard and doesn’t trivialize women’s social difficulties and so on is not something worthy of praise. However, I think that the effort required to examine one’s privilege, look for new ways it manifests itself and counteract them, is laudable. Privilege is a bit like an addiction sometimes: you have to be vigilant, conscious of every instance where it applies and prepared to go the other way. Unlike most addictions, with privilege the opportunity to lapse is always present, in everything you do, and is not necessarily obvious unless you train yourself to see it. It is difficult to come to grips with the idea that you will never be able to be lax about what you say and do, that you will never be “cured”. It is easy to say “fuck it” and give in to privilege, and suffer few ill results in consequence.
There is another level of complexity when we get into the issue of a man speaking out against the sexism of other men. It ought to be the default behaviour to speak out against oppression wherever one sees it, and therefore doing so is nothing noteworthy. But in the case of a man speaking out against other men, be they friends, co-workers, family members or whatever, there is an additional factor: to do so is often to risk ostracization, hatred and, in extreme cases, violence. I suggest that it is that risk that makes speaking out against other men commendable. It goes beyond simply doing what is right to doing what is right in the face of personal harm.
Obviously, women and other oppressed groups have faced adversity much more extreme than what I’m talking about here, and the challenges men face in standing up for what is right can’t even hold a candle to what oppressed groups have gone through. The challenges are still there, though, and I think it is commendable to face them when it is often so much easier to ignore one’s nagging conscience and not speak out.
I’ve been generalizing a fair amount in this post. I’ve used a stereotypical example for Andy’s and Charlie’s childhoods. I’ve been ascribing traits to men in general based on my own experience. But I think the argument is valid. No, most men probably have never even encountered the concepts of privilege or entitlement. A great number (most?) don’t even put in as much effort as Andy. And most of the time, when a man claims that he is not part of the oppression of women, he is dead wrong. If he claims to do half the housework, he is most likely discounting all the “invisible” work such as deciding who does what and finishing up unfinished jobs and saying “please do X now.” And even if this is not the case, he probably still acts with the motivation of “pleasing the wife” or “share and share alike” rather than of mending a flaw within himself.
So when a man gets up and boasts that he does half the housework, yeah, he gets no cookie. And if he boasts that he’s never raped anyone he deserves contempt for thinking that’s anything close to worth boasting about. And if you ever meet the fucktard who thought he was special for not raping someone in her sleep, please feel free to inflict on him pain approaching that experienced during organ failure. But acting against one’s indoctrination is difficult — not in the acts themselves but in the attention and analysis that leads to them. It’s not difficult to shut up and let a woman finish what she’s saying; it can be difficult to notice that you’re interrupting and realize that it’s because you’ve been told your entire life that whatever you have to say is more important.
I’m currently somewhere in between Andy and Charlie. My privilege has to occasionally be pointed out to me because I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I can reliably see its incarnations myself, but I’m working hard at it. I decided to write this post because the “no cookie” response sounded to me like no matter how much progress I made toward being the sort of person I’m trying to be, I would never be worthy of praise**. That because I started buried up to my neck in privilege digging myself up to where any decent person ought to be does not count as effort.
However, what I’ve realized in writing this is that the “no cookie” response seems to be to men like Andy, who want to pretend that their actions demonstrate how wonderful they are. Men like Charlie don’t bother mentioning that they split responsibilities equitably with their partners because that is not the point. Unless what you are doing somehow goes above and beyond what you ought, as a moral person, to be doing anyway you deserve no congratulations, no kudos and no cookie.
* Except, obviously, where proscribed by biology or whatever. Like, if a pregnancy is planned, someone with a uterus needs to do the getting-pregnant part.
** I don’t generally try to garner praise, but I’d like to be worthy of it :)