Tag Archives: Justin Trudeau

Why men should stop calling themselves feminists

When Emma Watson posted a tribute to the late Alan Rickman by highlighting one of his quotes about feminism, she faced a swift backlash for what some people idiots claimed was a gratuitous promotion of feminism (because promoting feminism is a bad thing and famous people are never quoted in memoriam?).

It’s always good overall, I think, when men can say the word feminism without looking like they’ve just smelled something funky. Although it’s helpful that not all men (or women) think it’s a dirty word, not speaking derisively about the movement for women’s liberation is a basic minimum of decency. If the bar has been set so low that men are lavished with praise for verbally recognizing that women are human beings, this is a solid argument for sustaining the topic in public discourse, to be sure.

The question is: who should shape and own that discourse? Lately there have been numerous instances in which men – especially white men of means – take up the mantle of feminist and instruct other men to do the same. While some women don’t have a problem with this I think it’s worth exploring why some women do because talking about feminism, whether it’s being done by women or men, is not a gender-neutral practice.

The words, ideas, and actions of men carry more weight in society. Females and males aren’t just individuals but also members of social classes which are defined by specific criteria: who they’re perceived to be, how they’re expected to behave, and how they relate to each other. Men hold certain things in common, with some variation thrown in the mix such as nationality, ethnicity, economic class, and sexual orientation. The same goes for women. The result is a complex web of social groups, some of which are organized according to hierarchies i.e. structures of power. The internal commonalities that differentiate males and females from each other are one such example. Of all the topics imaginable, sexism is the subject for which sex-based inequality matters the most. When men and women talk about feminism they’re doing so from privileged and underprivileged positions respectively.

As well-meaning as all of this is, it presents some significant problems. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that men need to be a big part of the conversation, I cringe. Men should critique the system of gender (masculinity and femininity) and talk about what they can do to dismantle it. Most importantly, they should elevate the voices of women, especially marginalized women such as women of colour, indigenous women, immigrant women, poor and working class women, lesbians, disabled women, etc. – bearing in mind that many women belong to more than one of these groups. Organizations like A Call To Men UK do a great job of advocating for the well-being of women and the reason for this is that they take responsibility and they listen to us. Men acting as the face and voice of feminism and taking up space in the movement is actually the last thing that feminism needs. There are loads of intelligent, charismatic women who can (and do) discuss feminism more articulately, more accurately, and with more credibility than men ever can. Why should they have a platform to speak our truths?

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I believe that men should never identify as feminists – and certainly not any time they feel like it as Trudeau suggests. A man, especially one who enjoys multiple levels of privilege, dictating who can or should adopt this title and when smacks of hubris and paternalism. The benefactors of an oppressive system have no business setting the language and parameters of the activism that seeks to destroy that system. The conflict of interest here is obvious to anyone willing to see it.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend who, as soon as he found out I’m a feminist, was eager to tell me that he’s a feminist too. I thought, ‘Oh no. Here we go again’. I took a deep breath and told him that a lot of women aren’t comfortable with men adopting the label of feminist. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dismissed me. “That’s not my problem,” he said.

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It’s always deeply disappointing when men who assume the good guy status ultimately prove themselves to be classic mansplainers. It’s become such a cliché.

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Ilana and Abbi in Broad City

Isn’t it convenient that there are two tranches of feminism that men can pick and choose from as though they’re deciding which ice cream tastes better and the one that’s most desirable to them happens to be the one that least challenges their privilege? This serves the purpose of creating a subclass of feminists who are deemed deserving of abuse and allows men to avoid questioning themselves while appearing virtuous. They can rest easy because they’ve been accepted by the good feminists. The real feminists.

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There’s something mildly relieving about the few times guys manage to say something about sexism or feminism that isn’t misguided, stupid, or arrogant. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the Ryan Gosling memes because you’ve probably seen a lifetime’s worth and then some.)

It’s not wrong for public figures to say that it’s important to demand a shift in attitudes as Trudeau has said, but I have a feeling he means something different when he says this than when I do. I know I’m not alone in feeling that we’re far from done and radical change can’t come soon enough. We’re expected to be satisfied with minor advancements and I’m sorry (not sorry) but women have only ever made progress when we’ve fought for it. It doesn’t make sense to low-ball in what is essentially treated as a negotiation of human rights.

It’s not as though women have been sitting around at Stitch ‘n Bitch waiting for politicians to give them the green light. Women have been practicing feminism since well before male sympathizers were born. Women are the ones with the most at stake and we also happen to be the experts. So shouldn’t the experts be educating the public on how to move forward? If gender parity really is a priority in his administration, the best way for Trudeau to demonstrate that is to step aside and let women speak, and not just about feminism but every other issue too because we are people, after all, and we have a lot of smart things to say about every topic under the sun. The only way for us to change the fact that men’s words carry more weight is to take some of it and place it on the other side of the scale.

The truth is, very few men know what they’re talking about. Time and time again we see men insisting that they’re feminists and that they know what feminism is and how we should go about it, only to end up stepping in it. Then they track that garbage all over the place without even realizing it. When do we say, enough?

We can pluck examples from a wide variety of men with the same predictable outcome. The most ridiculous case that comes to mind is when porn actor and serial abuser James Deen was lauded as a feminist and “feminist” publications had to backtrack when his misogyny became too embarassingly obvious to rationalize.

A lot of people laughed when Pope Francis said, “forgive me if I’m a bit feminist” and then went on to say, in the way that condescending men are wont to, that women are just so fantastic because they do the care work while men do all the talking. But are other spiritual leaders much different? For instance, what about the Dalai Lama, who proudly wears the feminist label?

It didn’t take long for him to screw up. Just one year later self-identified Buddhist feminists went into damage control after the leader made an unequivocally sexist comment. Oops! When asked whether he supported the idea that the next Lama could be a woman, he enthusiastically said yes (watch at 4:52) but he followed this up with two assertions. The first was that women are biologically wired to be more affectionate and compassionate than men – that familiar stereotype that’s been used for centuries to force support roles on women and deny them other forms of employment. The second was that this woman would have to be very attractive or else she wouldn’t be of much use. Visibly shocked by this, the interviewer asked him if he was joking and he confirmed that he wasn’t. He clearly wasn’t. But even if he had been joking, which many Buddhists insisted was the case regardless of appearances, sexist jokes aren’t funny (how many times do we have to say this??) and they definitely aren’t feminist.

The term ‘male feminist’ exists because females are the default feminists. We’re the default feminists because feminism is a political movement that organizes for the liberation of females from male domination. If I’m being brutally honest? Very few men are interested in destroying this system and those who say they are almost always get in the way. The biggest hindrance to progress is the fact that any given man is far more likely to perpetuate sexism than to challenge it. Women participate in this system as well as a result of our own social conditioning, but with one key difference: relatively speaking, men have power and women do not. The potential for men to divide, derail, and sabotage feminism through their mere presence is enormous.

From this angle, members of the oppressor class referring to themselves as the liberators of the people they oppress is itself an act of domination, whether intentional or not. It’s not for men to decide what or who is feminist. It’s disrespectful to feminists who work hard, take risks and make sacrifices. They shouldn’t have to share the well-earned badge of feminist with people who not only hold power over them but will never understand what it means to be a woman in a culture that hates females. If a man insists on calling himself a feminist despite all of this, he is anything but; that it’s a matter of respecting women’s boundaries should be enough for him to back off. Feminism belongs to women, as do the words we use to signal our support for the struggle.

There are a lot of things men can do to help women, some more effective than others. As Helen Lewis explains, whereas men often want to be part of the feminist conversation – as many believe is their right – the most valuable contribution men can make to feminism is to take on the burdens that have for so long been the responsibility of women. It’s not glamorous or fun but that’s not the point anyway.

Apparently this needs to be said: men are not entitled to feminist spaces, nor do feminists have any obligation to listen to what men have to say about the women’s liberation movement. It’s great when they reject masculinity but if they’re just performing a different stereotype, or they think their gender divergence means they’re not really men, then gender roles are left intact. When it comes to men and gender, true nonconformity means abandoning one’s allegiance to masculinity along with any notion that one’s sex is correlated with one’s personality.

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Being an ally to social causes shouldn’t be about personal identity and it shouldn’t matter whether you’ve taken on a particular status because having a shiny happy image doesn’t help anyone but you.

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Countries don’t have values – people do

In a CBC News article, Liberal Leader and PM hopeful Justin Trudeau had this to say about the Syrian refugee crisis:

Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.

Do we, Justin? Are we being honest about how many Canadians habitually show little compassion toward immigrants, refugees, First Nations, indigenous females, people of colour, and other marginalized groups? And not just show a lack of compassion, but blame them for our own policy failures? Since we seem to need reminding, I happen to have some examples on hand. A small sample:

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The sort of people who hold the views expressed above are the same people who balk at alleviating poverty and uprooting oppression except when these problems can be used as excuses for inaction, xenophobia, cynicism, and various other forms of pigheadedness. Not surprisingly, these types also cling to the official narrative of the Dominion of Canada, which goes something like this:

(Don’t ask me what the hell a cactus is doing there – I’m guessing in 1993 they had an extremely limited clipart selection to draw from.)

Apparently, it could only have been European immigrants who made this land great because prior to their arrival it was terra nullius. Empty, unclaimed land, so the story goes. A blank slate much improved by people who had maybe a piece of fruit and a few bucks in their pockets, people fleeing conflict, pioneers who despite having very little were seen as possessing a vast store of potential and value. In a fantastic feat of amnesia, the Canadian imagination doesn’t seem to include the 17,000 Chinese men who built our national railroad system in this group. Also interesting is the fact that when you mention immigrants and refugees to the average Canuck today – especially if the groups being referred to aren’t white and Christian – suddenly the romantic narrative of people making something out of nothing no longer applies.

The fact that our immediate unified response to humanitarian crises isn’t to see these human beings as the assets that they are reveals a lot about our enduring colonial mindset. Those who view migrants and refugees as liabilities do not see these people as human beings. Each and every one of us has value. It isn’t determined by one’s education, religion or culture, or whether one owns property or capital. We have value because we exist. We’re all connected and we all have something to offer. People should never have to prove their worth. When your neighbours’ house is burning down, do you leave them on your doorstep while you measure the floor space and count your pillows?

The language of great nations, Canadian values, American values, etc. has no real meaning. There’s a subtext to it, though. When patriots say these sorts of things, there’s an element of: we’re going to help you because we’re such nice people. In addition to asserting that we value others – whether we do or not in practice – apparently, it’s also crucial that we appear as good, civilized people. But good, civilized people don’t have to build a cozy narrative around why they help people. They just do it.

What strikes me as most troubling is that it’s not just proud imperialists like George W. Bush who believe that countries like Canada and the United States are shining beacons of prosperity and freedom and that people in the West are inherently different from and morally superior to people in other parts of the world. By insinuating that we’re special because we want to help refugees (well, some of us), we become apologists for our own colonial institutions. Nationalism is incompatible with universal human rights. There’s nothing decent about leveraging crises as self-congratulatory exercises or as a means to rub our patronizing gratitude for being Canadian in people’s faces. Millions of people on Turtle Island are suffering, our indigenous peoples most of all. How dare we erase their struggles with such careless hyperbole? If we’re so morally astute, why are we centering our discourse around helping people on our identity and the pride it gives us rather than the people themselves? Only a self-serving, arrogant culture would turn a real-life horror story into an opportunity to feel good about itself. Why do we need to make everything about us?

Patriotism and nationalism are to countries what marketing and advertising are to corporations. People who think they live in the greatest country in the world don’t have a reason to question the history they’ve been taught. Nor do they have an incentive to fight against the inequality and injustice that privilege insulates them from.

Appealing to Canadian values, after all, is standard scripting for politicians. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who is often described as a leftist, relies on the same loaded language. Canadians are going to hear a lot of it over the next several weeks. Like this, for example:

I’m confused. What group of people is going to define themselves according to a “value” of not exporting jobs? Is there a constituency on this planet in which a critical mass of people identify nationally with the idea of committing economic suicide? It makes no sense.

There is a key difference between Mulcair and Trudeau, however. It’s hard to miss the hypocrisy in rhapsodizing about being open and compassionate while supporting a law that violates our fundamental civil rights and targets marginalized and racialized groups, with essentially no oversight or accountability. What are the Liberal Party’s real values, and whose values do they represent?

What’s lost in so much of this political discourse is the fact that we’re never going to be a country – or a world – where everyone is free and equal until we acknowledge what we have done and what we continue to do in the name of commerce, development, and growth. What do these ideas mean? What could they mean, if we had the courage to redefine them? Of course, values are everything. But countries don’t have values. People do. Assuming an ideological hegemony among 35 million people who happen to live within politically defined boundaries erases history as well as the current reality of class-based inequality. It’s likely that disenfranchised people throughout the world have more in common with each other than they do with many people who share their nationality.

This goes well beyond issues surrounding refugees and immigration. Politicians never pass up an opportunity to remind us that we’re citizens of the state first and humans second.

There it is. See that? A very nice message, but he just couldn’t resisting squeezing in that bit of propaganda at the end. What makes America great, exactly? I need reminding, Mr. President. Is it the legacy of genocide and dispossession? The guiding forces of white supremacy and patriarchy? The epidemic of police brutality? The perpetual profit-driven war? The ruling oligarchy? Or maybe it’s the undercurrent of arrogance through which America pretends it offers heaven, when for so many people both in America and abroad, it’s a living hell.

Canada is not much better. Instead of coming to terms with our failures, we double down on language that everybody speaks but nobody understands.

Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.
― Arundhati Roy

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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Empathy: without it, we are blind

In Canada today, new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suggested that when a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombings occurs, society should examine the root causes of these events. His rationale was as follows:

“There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, okay, where do those tensions come from?”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on the other hand, believes that the idea of thinking analytically about the origin of violence is somehow frivolous, prescribing this approach instead:

“You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

For conservatives like Harper, justice is synonymous only with punishment. People who subscribe to this mindset fail to grasp that attempting to understand something and condoning it are two very different things. One approach seeks to form a holistic view of how something has come about, whereas the other only takes into account the end result, ignoring critical elements such as motivation and process.

The key here is the distinction between empathy and sympathy, two concepts that many people seem to confuse. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines them respectively as such:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience

Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other

Empathy involves imagining yourself in a situation so that you can understand how someone is feeling and thinking. Sympathy implies some level of agreement or sameness of mind. Empathizing, therefore, is not equivalent to supporting, justifying or rationalizing. Rather than simply imposing one’s own judgment on a situation, one steps back and recognizes the broader reality as it relates to all those involved. MP Stella Ambler is one of those conservatives who completely misses the point when she says, “There is no root cause and no tension that justifies the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.” No one is saying there is.

No person or decision exists in isolation. Every decision we make is the result of any number of factors, some of which are influenced by others directly or indirectly. In any given situation, even one factor involved in a decision could influence how we choose to act. If we don’t acknowledge certain factors as a society (for example, the statistical relationship between poverty and crime), we can’t identify opportunities to prevent the negative conditions that may lead to harmful actions.

Having empathy means acknowledging that what happened at the Boston Marathon on Monday was horrible and shocking. It’s tragically unfair that people, including children, lost their lives and were injured. For some people the torment will never end. Emotional responses are perfectly understandable. I can imagine why a person would respond with rage and hysteria, but that doesn’t mean I will encourage those behaviours. I certainly won’t make the situation any better if I act as though what a person is feeling or has experienced – no matter how irrational or contrary to my own views – doesn’t matter. The fact is, it matters to them, and because it matters to them, depending on what they choose to do about it, it could matter to others as well.

Understanding and empathy have nothing to do with being a ‘bleeding heart’ or a coward. Quite the opposite; it takes courage to address serious problems fundamentally and directly. It involves moving beyond passion and arbitrary judgment and coming to terms with reality, no matter how complicated and scary it may be. This is how a just, conscious society deals with difficult issues.

Without empathy, we experience but do not understand action and reaction, cause and effect. If the only response we know is to become increasingly tenacious and ruthless, we will feed a vicious cycle that brings no benefit and only creates more misery. Without empathy, we are blind.

Source: Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau exchange barbs over Boston bombing, Toronto Star

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