Thursday, April 10, 2008 • 3:04 PM Comments ()

Arguing with angry men and its discontents.

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I’m faced with a dilemma right now. For the past few weeks, my “Masculinity and its Discontents” co-blogger Jamie and I have been writing, once a week, at GlennSacks.com, which is one of the focal points of the relatively small, but perhaps growing, Men’s Rights Advocacy (MRA) movement.

Glenn invited us to write this weekly column (the nifty icon for which you see here) for him because he felt that his readers, who are largely defined by their opposition to feminism and by their conviction that it’s men, rather than women, who are getting the shaft in American society, could benefit from a feminist perspective (and perhaps benefit in particular from a feminist perspective offered by two men).

It seemed, when offered, like a win-win situation for us. We’d get more readers (Glenn gets about half a million a month, versus whatever orders of magnitude smaller number we get at our blog). We’d have bracing, spirited intellectual debate with people who disagree with us. We might even be able to convert a few skeptics to our viewpoint. Sure, there’d be some fireworks (or flamewars, or whatever the kids are calling them these days), but we were big boys. We could handle it, and the inevitable hostility would be a small price to pay for living the dream.

Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Or rather, maybe it has (we have more readers, we’ve had a few moments of good conversation, I’ve had some of my assumptions usefully challenged) in an limited way, but it doesn’t feel like it has. It feels icky. Among other things:

* I fear that we’re basically playing Alan Colmes to Glenn Sacks’s Hannity—the man or woman who ostensibly offers a liberal perspective to counter the conservative one but who really, in effect, confers the appearance of legitimacy and fair-mindedness on the conservative while at the same time offering to conservative readers/viewers a caricature of the ineffectual/arrogant/latte-sipping liberal who enables them to feel be affirmed, rather than challenged, in their sense of righteousness and smugness. Glenn seems like a decent guy (from my phone and email conversations with him), but at bottom he’s feeding raw meat to a lot of angry, alienated, misogynistic men, and if the truth is that Jamie and I, whatever our intentions, are really just more raw meat in a quasi-feminist wrapping, then we should stop being that.

* I don’t enjoy being attacked, in the comments to my posts, by lots of nasty people who call me names (see the comment threads for examples; I don’t have the heart to go back into that shitpile right now) and seem far more interested in scoring points against me, and in articulating their anger at women and feminism, than in engaging in any kind of meaningful dialogue. I could handle it, if I thought we were doing some good, but there’s little evidence that we are doing any good, and in the absence of that evidence, my inclination is to stick with the rule that’s served me well in my day-to-day interactions with people—keep a healthy distance from destructive, damaged, dysfunctional people.

* There’s an enormous amount of pain in evidence at Glenn’s blog—the jagged shards left over from nasty divorce and custody battles, from awful childhoods, from alienated existences, from profound and persistent romantic failure,etc.—and while it’s a worthy notion to try to speak to that pain in some constructive way, I’m just not sure I know how to do it.
Anyway, Jamie’s already decided to quit the guest column-ing and return to the more pleasant environs of our blog. I’m torn.

On the one hand, there’s all that shit I just said. On the other hand, who said this was going to be easy? Who said that preaching to the unconverted would be pleasant? In fact, it seems almost guaranteed to be unpleasant. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless, though.

I was talking to a friend of mine a few days ago, a pretty brilliant political/business/journalist type, and laying it all out for him, and he basically told me to sack up. His smaller point was that by focusing on the comments, and on my experience of them, I was making a conceptual mistake.

“Remember,” he said, “you’re not talking to the guys who comment. They’re not representative. You’re talking to all the other people who read the blog, most of whom don’t even read the comments, and who, if they did, probably would find you reasonable by comparison to the guys who are attacking you.”

His larger point was that this white male anger/pain out there—the stuff I was finding so toxic—is real, and even if it finds expression in lots of unpleasant ways, that doesn’t mean that the pain doesn’t have its roots in authentic problems, or that society hasn’t failed these men in real ways, or that us pro-feminist guys should give up on trying to offer a compelling vision of gender justice.

It means, in fact, that it’s more urgent than ever that we—meaning progressives, or social democrats, or feminists, or however you want to identify the “we”—find better ways to talk to the pain, to diagnose its sources according to our perceptions of reality, to offer compelling narratives that can outflank, in the marketplace of ideas, the compelling, but divisive and poisonous, backlash narratives of the right (i.e. women/black/hippies/liberals/fags have ruined everything for the normal red-blooded American folk).

I agreed with him. It’s one of the reasons why I started my blog in the first place, and why I accepted Glenn’s invitation. As I wrote in my first post for Glenn:

When Jamie and I started our blog, “Masculinity and it's Discontents,” about a year ago, there were two kinds of arguments that I hoped to have. One was with men (and women, but mostly men) who were against feminism. The other was with other feminists. I wanted to offer a feminist perspective on masculinity that wasn’t driven, as I believe a lot of such views are driven, by the perceived demands of feminist ideology or movement-building. I wanted to err on the side of sympathy for how hard it can be, for a man, to live up to all the demands that his spouse, his kids, his friends, his politics, and his culture place on him. Marriage, parenthood, friendship, romance, career—these are hard things. Getting by is hard. And when you throw in a barrage of ideas about being a man, and about relating to women, coming at you at high velocity from feminists, anti-feminists, MRAs, conservatives, radicals, etc., it gets harder.

Then there’s pop culture, which sometimes tells us to be all McDreamy—sensitive and ready for commitment and emotionally vulnerable—and at other times to be all Russell Crowe, Gladiator-ish and stoic and emotionally inaccessible (not to mention when it’s telling us to be a pimp-playa hybrid of James Bond and Jay-Z). So my reaction to the general tone and content of a lot of feminist writing, which focuses a lot of attention on the wrongs done to women by men and by the patriarchy, isn’t that it’s wrong, but that it’s not intended to speak sympathetically to men. It tends to be oppositional, for the reasons that all movement-based activity tends that way. I think that this orientation makes sense (for the most part) from the perspective of building and sustaining a movement. But there are consequences to an oppositional perspective, one of which is that the people you’re opposing, as well as the people who fear that you’re opposing them, tend to feel attacked and maligned. And reading feminist bloggers can sometimes leave me with the sense that feminists think that all of women’s complaints against men are justified and that all of men’s complaints against women are expressions of sexism.

Re-reading that, and the rest of the post, it still makes sense to me. But I still feel icky. And I still feel that with a full-time job, a book I’m under contract to write, and an 11-month old daughter, that maybe Glenn’s blog isn’t the right platform, right now, from which to work out my ideas on how to save America’s men.

I don’t know the answer. And even if I decide that the answer for me, right now, is to give up on talking to Glenn's readership, I don't know what the larger answer is. Is there value in talking to people who seem too angry, or too tightly wound, to really listen, or is one's crusading energy better spent transforming into action the good intentions of the people who already, basically, agree with you, or in speaking to the undecided, and indeterminate, masses in the middle?


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