men, masculinities and gender politics

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The pseudo-progressive man: Like the crane flower, attractive but toxic.

The crane flower, also known as the bird of paradise, is a fantastic-looking, vibrantly colored plant that spreads its gorgeous petals and uses their seductive beauty to get birds to come to help it to reproduce. Because of its great beauty and its unique appeal, the plant is immensely popular with gardeners. However, it is also toxic. Too much contact with it can bring on abdominal pain and nausea.

Which is a lot like how I feel when I encounter pseudo-progressive men who work in ostensibly socially progressive endeavors. These guys all look so good. They say all the “right” things. They talk about empowerment, about social change, about collaboration, about resisting oppression, about gender justice. But while they dazzle you with their beautiful statements and their liberating philosophies, they are at that very moment quietly looking for ways to slam shut the doors of opportunity and to consolidate their own power.

And as my life goes on, it seems like I just encounter more and more of these guys. I am beginning to think that there may well be a rather endless supply of pseudo-progressive men who have worked their way into positions of power through making promises to provide wider access for all and to fight for increased societal fairness – but who, at the first possible moment, rush to adopt the role of the oppressor.

The scope. Throughout my adult life I have studied and worked in academia, pursued a career in mental health, and fought against sexual and domestic violence. In all three of these areas I have continually seen covert attempts at patriarchal domination by pseudo-progressive men.

Universities:

“I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind/got my ticket and I was free!” – Indigo Girls

My time spent in institutions of “higher” learning (which actually turned out to be a lot longer than four years) is replete with experiences of witnessing the most aggressive, hostile and unbelievable acts by pseudo-progressive males. I will only mention a few:

I know a male professor on the east coast of North America who preaches social liberation, but every year he chooses one female student to target, harass, and try to force out of his (required) classes. He knows exactly where the line that indicates harassment is, and he always stops just short of it. Or, when he does choose to cross the line, he makes sure there are no witnesses. The woman he chooses is always small of stature and classically attractive. Usually blonde.

I know a male professor on the west coast who preaches social liberation but is a genius at manipulating the hiring processes at his university to ensure that only those who kowtow to him and unquestionably do his bidding are able to attain positions there. In the classroom, he talks about resistance and empowerment, but he picks apart his students without mercy. Especially when they disagree with him.

I know two other male professors who preach social liberation yet scream at their students and at their administrative assistants.

I know yet another male professor who preaches social liberation but screams at the women faculty members in his department. Only at the women.

And, for me, the most painful example of all is a professor I knew and liked a lot. This man, who was probably to the left of Marx, preached all sorts of social liberation in every appreciable form. But in his personal life it turned out that he was a very different person indeed. His female partner, who also was a professor I took courses from and greatly admired, cared for his dying mother as this man completed his Ph.D. Soon after that, the man ran off with a female student, before getting his partner to take him back. And, ultimately, horribly, apparently under great financial pressure, this man of peace and justice took a gun and shot his wife in the head, killing her. He then turned the gun on himself.

So much for liberation.

Mental health.

“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” – The Who

In the (theoretically, at least) more-functional world of mental health, the things I have seen are not much better. I have not seen murder, but I have seen plenty of abusive behavior by men who claimed to be all about “empowerment.”

I had a male colleague in mental health who always spoke passionately about the immense need for the dismantling of society’s oppressive social structures – and that so much of his clients’ suffering could be explained by the limits that society places on their ability to make choices for themselves. But the instant this man was promoted over our team into a position of authority, he became one of the most aggressive enforcers of rules and regulations that I have ever seen.

I did an internship where the supervisor prided himself on working to break down the “oppressive” power differential between therapist and client. Therapist and client, he asserted, were two individuals who could join as partners in an equally-empowered journey to find solutions for the obstacles that life had thrown in the client’s path. It ultimately came to light that this man was having sex with his female clients, and had been for some time, in violation of all ethical codes. This man who claimed to be all about empowering his clients had been using his power over them in order to seduce them, and to become just another obstacle in their path. He got fired.

Working on a mental health crisis team, I witnessed a case staffing about a woman who had been beaten almost to death by her spouse. The team’s lead supervising therapist, who often went out of his way to profess great outrage at men’s sexual aggression and domestic violence, looked up after reading her file, and, with a smirk on his face and a gleam in his eye, said: “Well I guess we just need to find someone to husband her through the process!” He laughed out loud at his own joke. As the three female therapists on the team got up and left the room in disgust, I looked at him and said coldly: “I think she has had enough husbanding!” Then I followed the women out. In retrospect, I wish I had been harsher in my criticism. But I was just so taken aback at this “progressive” man’s cruel “humor.”

Years later, managing a mental health group home, I often encountered one case worker who saw himself as a super-advocate for his clients. One day I saw him stand up in an auditorium full of over 100 mental health professionals and urge us passionately and at length to always keep empowerment first and foremost in our minds in all of our dealings. “No one deserves to be oppressed or imprisoned by the choices that others make for them!” he declared as the inspired onlookers nodded their heads in agreement. Soon after that, this man’s relationship broke up. He then began to stalk the woman. His stalking only ended when she quit her job and moved away.

“No one deserves to be oppressed or imprisoned by the choices that others make for them…”

Men’s anti-violence activism.

Your charitable acts seemed out of place/With the beauty with your fist marks on her face. – Joni Mitchell.

As I noted in a previous posting specifically about the hypocrisy that can exist among males engaged in “feminist” endeavors, we men who declare ourselves to be allies in the struggle to end violence against women and children are certainly not above being viciously patriarchal ourselves. The cases I cited are these:

One man I knew in university was extremely active in the abortion rights issue. I later heard from several female friends he was in fact a real womanizer, and that he was using this “feminist” stance only in order to seduce women.

I once attended a training for men who were interested in working against sexual and domestic violence where one of the participants, it turned out, had signed up as a way to fend off three complaints of sexual harassment that had been made against him by women whom he had allegedly groped sexually when they visited him for professional massages.

In another similar training, it emerged that a male participant had recently hit his female partner in the face, that he had once exposed his erect penis to a woman on an airplane, and that as a teenager he had sexually molested his stepsister.

But there is more:

There was a man who was a pro-feminist leader in the town where I lived. There were two main reasons he was a leader. The first was that he was smart and knew his stuff. He knew the theory, he knew the politics, and he knew what to say. The second reason that he was the undisputed pro-feminist leader in that community was because he subtly but tenaciously made sure that no other man would ever share his spotlight. He would casually invite me (and any other men who expressed an interest) to join him in his efforts, but he never followed through on these collaborative plans. We would wind up finding out about his latest efforts only when we read about them in the newspaper. He needed to be the star. For him, it was all about his masculine ego, and not about justice for women.

And I knew another man who raised money for battered women’s shelters. All the while – I later came to understand – he was being psychologically controlling and physically violent toward his wife. And after she left him, he stalked her as well. And, of course, he knew exactly where the shelter was.

A fraudulent intent, however carefully concealed at the outset, will generally, in the end, betray itself – Titus Livius.

So what is my point in writing about these wicked men and their fraudulent intents?

Perhaps I am being unfair. Maybe not all of these men are “wicked.” Maybe not all of them originally had a fraudulent intent. Maybe it is just that some of them lack the character that is necessary to manage the stressful roles that they have assumed. Perhaps their ability and their judgment have become totally overwhelmed, and that as a result these men have reverted to that easiest and most traditional way of exercising masculine authority: through domination and control.

But whether this male bad behavior stems from wickedness or incompetence, either way the outcome is the same: educational, therapeutic, and social change efforts that were intended to help improve society all wind up being bogged down in patriarchal power politics, and these men’s actions and attitudes quickly become just one more layer of sludge that must be scraped away before we can get down to the bedrock issues.

But as to my point in writing all of this? It is two-fold. First, I want to bear witness to these betrayals and outrages that have occurred – most of which have yet to be recorded anywhere else. Someone needs to begin to hold these sorts of men to account! This is my small way of doing so.

And my second reason for writing this post? To try to deal with the fact that I have found myself believing in these men over and over and over again, only to end up feeling terribly upset (over and over and over again) when their fraudulent intents finally betray themselves.

I am not sure that I have a good answer about how to deal with how upsetting I find all of this. But as I write these words, I am reminded of the time I once remarked to a friend how disappointed I was that someone else had betrayed me.

“So what is your alternative?" she replied. "To decide to no longer trust people ever again?”

The price of trust. I suppose this is the dilemma that we all face after experiencing betrayal – how do we find it in ourselves to trust again?

At a memorial service for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the USA, Queen Elizabeth said: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

I like that approach. And I want to apply it here, and assert that:

“The risk of betrayal is the price we pay for trust.”

And while I will never again trust any of the two-faced men I have mentioned here in this post, I still choose to believe that there are many, many good, socially progressive men out there who are trustworthy, who have integrity, and who are not motivated by fraudulent intent.

The critical need for more men to step forward. But why is it so easy for these pseudo-progressive men to get so much attention and admiration? I believe the answer has to do with the fact that there are still so few good men who are willing to step up and speak out about fairness, about promoting equality, and about working for gender justice and for women’s liberation. And yet because so many of us yearn so badly to hear a man speak these words, because we are such an eager audience for a man who “gets it”, there emerges an empty stage that these charlatans can then jump up on and claim as their own. And they are able to garner considerable credibility and admiration based solely on what they claim to be.

The solution is simply this: we need far more men to step up and actively participate in the struggles for social equality and for women’s liberation. We need to reach a point where hearing a man proclaim support for women’s full equality is so commonplace it almost need not be mentioned, and that his willingness to fight for the basic human rights of women no longer makes him “special” in any way. Only then will these posers be forced to deliver on their glowing words, and actually do – rather than just say – the right thing.

We need gender-justice seeking men to become as common as the flowers in the garden. And then,only then, will we all be able to avoid coming into contact with the ones who are truly toxic.