Feminist is not what I am, it is what I aspire to

There’s a post up at Brute Reason that I think every male feminist should read. The title is “The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism”; a fine title, though it grossly understates the conceptual scope of the post.

I will be among the first to admit that it can often be difficult to be a male feminist in the current climate. We often face unfair stereotyping, and have to grit our teeth and accept sweeping generalizations about our gender (or sex) that are both absurd and offensive. And of course we can’t speak out in our own defence even when we do have a legitimate point, on pain of being branded with foul slurs.

But perhaps even worse are those cases where negative stereotyping is reasonable – such as the necessary default assumption a woman has to make to protect herself, that any man is a potential rapist; I accept that that not only makes sense rationally, but also that it’s necessary. I will, and do, take steps to give extra space when I suspect my presence might be unnerving. And of course, the default assumption given rape or sexual assault allegations should be that the man is guilty. I understand that, too, and accept it. Still. It stings.

And I can’t help feel anything but humiliation and despair at the whole universe of “men’s rights activists”. I would love a sound, rational, progressive voice to speak for my gender – even if it isn’t necessary, it’s nice to have a voice. But I feel nothing but embarrassment and loathing for the self-proclaimed “voices of men”. Far from making me proud to be male, those creeps make me wish I could give up my gender sometimes.

It’s not easy being a male feminist – though it’s undoubtedly not the hardest thing in the world to be – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t not be feminist; there is no other option for me. I can’t imagine how anyone could consider themselves a decent human being without also wanting to be feminist.

Nevertheless, I’ve struggled to find a way to express why it’s so challenging to be a male feminist, in a way that wouldn’t be summarily snarked into oblivion, and it finally clicked for me when I read this:

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself.

That was the keystone that my understanding had been missing. I know, and I accept, that I have chosen a path that is challenging to walk. It’s not just feminism; I have chosen to embrace all forms of progressive thought – for example I have chosen to reconstruct my understanding of gender and identity to embrace transgendered and transsexual persons – and this is hard. I constantly stumble, learn, reorient, and stumble again, but I have always believed that while progressivism is a challenging path, it’s the only ethical path.

So I thought I’d add to what Brute Reason wrote, giving my perspective as a male feminist.

I used to get defensive when people challenged by progressive cred, for example by suggesting that I wasn’t a really good feminist or that I had ideas that were quite anti-feminist. Sometimes I still do. It’s the natural response – I work so damn hard to be progressive, and, though it may be arrogant to think so, I believe I do a damn good job of it. To have that challenged is hard to take. And sometimes (though, not often) the challenge is illegitimate, which only makes it easier to be defensive about the next challenge.

But after I reflected on it, I realized that I can’t be a perfect feminist. That’s flat-out impossible, not just for me, but for anyone alive today. We live steepedimmersed… in anti-feminist and misogynist imagery, ideas, and experience. I had to have absorbed a ton of terrible ideas, some of them very low-level and deeply ingrained. And it’s not just feminism; I grew up in a world where racism is rampant… and homophobia… and transphobia… and ableism… and many, many stereotypes and ignorant conceptions of various ethnicities and cultures.

This has to be true. My parents were actually very progressive, and they consciously – yes, consciously; this was actually something they discussed, I discovered in my teen years – choose to raise my siblings and I to not have some of the biases they’d grown up with. I thank them deeply for this… but at the same time, I acknowledge that they weren’t perfect about it. They were humans; they slipped up from time to time – deeply ingrained and often subconscious biases have a way of leaking through. And even if they had been perfect, I didn’t live in a bubble. I was flooded with social and cultural biases and bigotry from every direction, just like everyone else.

None of that was my fault. None of that is due to some failing on my part as a progressive. This is simply the hand I’ve been dealt, and it’s stacked with garbage that is nefariously intertwined with everything else, making it both hard to extract, and hard to notice when it’s having subtle effects on other ideas.

I have to accept this. I have to accept that I started out tainted. I have to accept that, and then use my intellect and my ethical sense to rise above it. That’s what it means to be a progressive. But I can’t do it alone – and I wouldn’t want to. I need input from other minds to help me see when one of those latent biases has fouled my path. I need to be challenged. And I need to challenge others, when I spot them falling victim to a latent bias, or misconception – especially those who I know want to be progressive. In fact, I should seek out challenges to my preconceptions.

It is easy to accept that with the head, not so much with the heart. But I try. Realizing that was, for me, the key to understanding what it really means to be feminist… what it really means to be progressive.

I can’t be a feminist. I don’t think anyone alive today can. There’s just too much muck out there soiling our minds and thinking. You can’t swim in a veritable ocean of patriarchy, misogyny, and bias twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, starting from infancy… and not get just a little dampened.

But that does not mean the entire endeavour is pointless. Far from it, the point of progressivism is not about being perfect… it’s about becoming better. Progressiveness is not a label I wear. It’s a destination I direct my efforts toward. In that journey, I hope and expect that I will improve myself, but I would be a fool to believe that I could ever be perfect, and an even bigger fool to believe that I already am. And the wonderful thing about progressivism is that even though I will never reach the end of the journey, what progress I make will not be wasted. Any distance I travel will push the starting line forward for the next generation. Progressivism is not just about striving to make myself better; it is about striving to make all of humanity better. And feminism is not just something I wear to be a better person; it’s something I do because it’s right.

So I cannot wear the label “feminist” like a Scouting badge, boasting of completing some set of imaginary requirements that now let me swagger around like an unchallengeable elite. Feminism is not something I am, feminism is something I do, and the label “feminist” shouldn’t be treated as a certificate for merely showing up to the game, but rather as a reminder of the responsibility to face the latent biases I am infected with, and do better.

When I am challenged, I have to remind myself that that’s not only natural, it’s beneficial. I need the help; I’m not only not even close to being a perfect feminist – I was born and raised steeped in bad ideas and biases that make it impossible. It’s not always easy to remember that, and I will probably forget from time to time and get defensive. I just have to remind myself: I cannot be a feminist, but I can aspire to be. Feminism is a journey I’m on, through very challenging territory, bearing a burden placed on me by circumstance. But I’m not alone; every other feminist is on that journey with me, and our best chance at making the most progress is to help each other. And the way we help each other is by exposing the latent biases we all carry, and trying to shed them.

I am not on this journey because it’s easy. I am on it because it is right.

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Feminist is not what I am, it is what I aspire to by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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