How not to start a conversation with a feminist

As a feminist who is very active on Twitter, I receive daily unsolicited replies from people I don’t know, many of whom happen to be men. This post may not serve much of a purpose beyond providing catharsis for feminists who go through the same thing but in the optimistic hope that there are men out there who truly want to speak to feminists in a way that doesn’t end up making things worse, this is a guide for you to follow. Good luck!

Most of the men who engage feminists online are attempting to do one or a combination of the following:

  • gaslighting
  • harrassingopinion_maxedout
  • mocking
  • belittling
  • trolling
  • derailing
  • co-opting
  • obfuscating
  • silencing
  • condescending (AKA mansplaining)
  • pretending to play devil’s advocate when they’re really just trying to waste women’s time, make them angry, and then throw their frustration back in their faces

A common reaction to this is, “but I’m not like that!”. Actually, I hate to tell you but a lot of you are, including those of you who acknowledge your male privilege. When it comes to how men talk to women they very often fail to see how their sexism manifests in subtle ways. Maybe you don’t see it but we do. Does it mean everything you say is wrong? Nope. But when something you say or the way you say it isn’t being received warmly, that’s your cue to take a step back.

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It’s the responsibility of men to continually interrogate their beliefs and assumptions. It is not the responsibility of women to explain over and over and over again things that men can and should figure out for themselves. Approach carefully. If you don’t, you may very well get your head bitten off and if you’re dealing with a feminist who takes shit from no one, she will give zero fucks about how that makes you feel. Here’s a case in point of how things can progress if you come off as a typical mansplainer. Go ahead and take a look…

Was I too harsh? Personally I don’t think so. And anyway, I don’t care.

If you’re a man reading this and you take nothing else away, let this be the one tip you remember for as long as you live: never approach a woman with the attitude that you know something she doesn’t. If the first thing a man says to a feminist is “you’re wrong” or “that’s not true”, from that point on he can have no reasonable expectation of not being told to go jump off a cliff into a fiery abyss.

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The amount of arrogance women have to deal with on a daily basis is not something you should be adding to if you consider yourself an ally (forget calling yourself a feminist). A classic pastime of chauvinists is to pretend they’re asking genuine questions when they’re really just trying to pick at straws and make a show of putting women down. Maybe you’re not one of these losers and you have good intentions. Pay attention anyway – this is directed at you too.

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What’s a better approach? Before you launch into something like, “Well, actually, I think…”, the best thing you can do is to ask questions. Ask, don’t tell. Know that women don’t want or need your insight. When it comes to feminism and women’s issues, it’s our turf – the only turf we have in this world – not to mention our area of expertise. It’s your turn to sit down, listen, and learn. Take the time to consider what women have to say and if you’d like to explore the topic further or you’re looking for clarification, you’ll most likely find that you’ll be met with patience and respect.

Men like Ricky Gervais who make a career out of being offensive are applauded whereas women aren’t given that kind of latitude. But guess what? We swear too, we fart, we burp, we talk back, and we might even offend you. Get over it! It’s more than possible that your shock and the negative reactions you have to women who are less than friendly toward you stem from your expectations about how we should and in fact do behave.

There’s also a lot of talk about privilege checking but not enough understanding of what it means in practice. You may think you’re a nice guy and you can verbally acknowledge your male privilege all day every day but that doesn’t cut it. If you truly understand what it means for you to have a great deal more power than women in this society, it shouldn’t surprise you that your ego will have to take a back seat. If you initiate a conversation with a woman, never forget that you’re a member of the oppressor class – that always matters. No woman owes you their attention or regard. No woman is obligated to listen to what you have to say.

A major goal of the project of patriarchy is to erode the physical, emotional, and social boundaries of women. So when a woman tells you she doesn’t want to talk to you, go away. I have an annoying habit of trying to end a conversation that’s going nowhere and then seeing a subsequent response and jumping back into the conversation. The point is when you’ve been told clearly that it’s over, leave it.

Another thing you should avoid saying is, “I’m on your side”. If you have to say this to a woman, chances are she doesn’t agree with you and I’m willing to bet she understands her side better than you do. This is another scenario where you might think you’re helping but you’re actually in the way. Rather than continue trying to convince her that you get it when you obviously don’t, refer back to my first piece of advice: ask questions.

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I’ve worked hard to overcome my deeply ingrained tendency to want to please others and gain the approval of men. It’s a challenge to want to be kind and compassionate while at the same time maintaining my politics, especially when it’s clear that softening them will only leave the door open to more status quo sexism. I’ve learned that men know, at least implicitly, that females are socialized to be passive and accommodating, they know we fear the loaded slur ‘bitch’, and they take advantage of this. Because I put myself out there and can be quite mouthy, I come across men who think I should be nicer to them. I just don’t have the time or the energy to be bothered with their feelings. If a man comes out of nowhere acting like a bull in a china shop, why should I care if I’m perceived as an asshole? Emotional manipulation is one of the most common ways that men try to silence women so as time goes on I’m less and less concerned about what random dudes on the internet think of me. I do genuinely want to engage with people where there appears to be room for growth but the only way I can do that and maintain my sanity is to weed out the jerks and idiots. Self care is a feminist imperative.

Frankly, women are too damn busy getting by to make it our business to educate men about how to treat us. Those of us who are interested in getting our hands dirty and digging down to the root of patriarchy know that men behave the way they do toward us because fundamentally, consciously or subconsciously, they don’t see us as fully human. Misogyny isn’t just a synonym for sexism; it literally means hatred of women. Men and women are not valued equally in this society because men have internalized a constant barrage of messages that tell them females are inferior, less capable, less important, less intelligent, less knowledgeable, and not to be taken seriously. You may think you’ve sufficiently hedged this process but I guarantee you haven’t escaped it. Mature women who see this system for what it is are still unpacking their own internalized misogyny well after their children have grown up. What makes you think you’re not sexist?

It’s naive to expect that we can fix the problem by speaking kindly to men who know they can get on just fine being dominant and oppressive. It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to rewire the brains of grown men who are on some level unwilling to see just how bad things are. Managing men’s behvaiour is a cosmetic approach that takes up too much female energy as it is. It’s far more liberating to let men know point blank that whatever they think and whatever they believe, we women don’t care. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad. Men need to get used to hearing women say stop, no, goodbye, and shut the fuck up.

jl

If you can deal with this, maybe we can be friends.

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How men are using gender identity to deny male privilege

Anyone who has delved into the topic of gender identity has likely heard about the diverging understandings of gender according to queer theory (gender is an arbitrary, personal, unqualifiable feeling) and radical feminism (gender is a social construct with well-defined parameters). This disagreement comes down to how womanhood and manhood are defined (although for reasons obvious to feminists, the nature of womanhood is much more frequently debated) and what we’re ultimately supposed to do about sex/gender stereotypes.

For centuries, women have struggled to break away from the expectations regarding how we’re supposed to look, act, think, and feel. While debates rage on about what it means to be a woman or a man – or a proper lady or a real man – there are people who want to identify as something other than what they were born as or how they’re expected to be. While it’s often said that the reason for this varies from person to person as it’s a purely personal choice, this individualistic approach fails to take into account the inequality between the sexes. This is critical to understanding what’s happening and why because a system whose goal is the dominance of males over females will necessarily seek to define womanhood and manhood, femininity and masculinity, in such a way as to perpetuate that supremacy. It attempts to do this at every opportunity and within every social movement, arguably most aggressively when done under the guise of progressive politics. Once a theory regarding gender is adopted by those who identify as social justice advocates it becomes nearly impossible to question a doctrine already presumed to be revolutionary.

Are we willing to consider that some of the ideas promulgated by such groups could in fact reinforce structures of power rather than challenge them? Is it possible that gender identity is one such example?

The first clue is the prevailing assumption that gender identity exists in a sociopolitical vacuum. We see that where there are males and females, males are able, by virtue of their simply being male, to exert greater physical, sexual, economic, and political power. We see that they enjoy this privilege even when they’re not trying to wield it and are unaware that they have this advantage. The fact that some males feel uncomfortable about this privilege doesn’t undo that privilege. The fact that some males don’t feel comfortable with masculinity and are punished when they don’t conform to it doesn’t change the fact that relative to women, they are still constructed as the dominant class. It is not possible in a patriarchal system for men to be both the oppressors and oppressed relative to women.

Here we have a person who in no way whatsoever presents as female or feminine demanding we agree that he is not something he clearly is. Furthermore, he claims that to question this is violence, making it impossible to be on the right side of history in his estimation without denying reality. He insists we ignore the fact that we can accurately predict what any random person would perceive him to be and that this perception, and not his feelings, is what determines how he is treated: as a man, in contrast to how he would be treated if he were a woman.

But of course, he’s not saying he’s a man and he’s not saying he’s a woman. He’s just refusing to say which he is because he’s special, unlike all the “cisgender” people who we’re to believe are walking stereotypes perfectly accepting of the expectations that gender foists upon them. What’s more, “ciswomen” are told that we actually identify with femininity – you know, that collection of traits that have latched themselves onto females and just happen to be deemed inferior to masculine traits? Those supposedly inherent female characteristics meant to engineer our servitude and submission? Gender identity claims that gender is a binary (or a spectrum – gender defenders can’t seem to get this straight), slamming the door on the critical feminist discovery that gender is in fact a hierarchy.

It’s all well and good to recognize that sexist attitudes and bias exist, but how do we explain how they arise and how they continue to be so insidious? The answer is gender: gender is the mechanism by which patriarchy is reproduced. But Kappel doesn’t want to hear about that because he’s too busy figuratively manspreading his way into women’s spaces under the guise of being an oppressed non-male. If you thought this regressive ‘non-male’ bullshit is too ridiculous to gain any traction in feminism these days, think again. People like Aaron Kappel and Sam Escobar avoid the actual violence they would encounter from people men who attack gender non-conforming (GNC) people while demanding access to all of the grievances of visibly GNC people.

This is the trick of the non-binary/agender label when harnessed by men: it’s a way of denying one’s own privilege by neutralizing sex and gender. Reality is overridden by an identity which is activated by mere thought and utterance. That identity is then sanctified and protected. Those who do not comply are policed and shamed. Quite simply, men like Kappel know they’ll be exposed if they dispute the existence of male privilege so they’ve finally found a way around it: male privilege exists but it doesn’t apply to them because they’re different. Presto! A get out of male free card. It may be hard to believe people are falling for it but they are, including women who consider themselves to be feminists.

A common practice in gender identity politics is to single out and vilify women while being careful not to criticize them as women per se because that would make the misogyny all too blatant. Instead, women are criticized as feminists – or a certain type of feminist – because the goal is to validate the idea that there are good feminists and bad feminists and the feminists who accommodate non-binary dudes are the only acceptable ones. All of this works out just fine in a patriarchal context because uncompromising feminists are already presumed to be angry [insert sexist slur here]. So if you were expecting pseudo-feminist organizations to give a platform to men who write whiny, self-validating pieces about how they’re being victimized by terrible women, you’d be justified.

Because that’s exactly what Aaron Kappel did. It’s a common feature of mainstream feminist media like The Establishment, which describes itself as a multimedia site run and funded by women. The site published Trans-Exclusionary Feminists Cannot Exclude My Humanity, in which Kappel says he’s a non-binary (trans) person because he doesn’t embrace stereotypically masculine things. He claims to have felt like the girls he socialized with, although how he could know how these girls actually felt, he doesn’t explain. His language is hyperbolic from the outset: anyone who believes he’s a man is somehow saying he’s not human, that he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t have rights like everybody else, etc. He seamlessly transitions from telling us how sensitive and tortured he is to talking down to women (I’m sorry – certain feminists) he claims are violently excluding him because their struggle for liberation from men like him won’t bend over backwards for his feelings. Feelings he believes can’t possibly be the natural feelings of men. Feelings that make him a not-man. What makes you a man, apparently, is thinking and feeling a particular way – but don’t ask what this means. We’re told it’s up to each person to decide, even though we all know exactly how masculinity and femininity are characterized. When it all gets too complicated, we can just pretend we’re something other than the thing we want to avoid being associated with.

The crucial thing to note here is that while gender identity adherents talk a lot about feelings, in the grand scheme of things it’s not really about feelings. It’s about power, which Kappel reveals here:

Feminism was a direct response to oppression, and oppression lives within us all.

What does it mean to say that oppression lives within all of us? That we all experience oppression? Oppression is characterized by inequality; if everyone experiences it then there is no inequality and there is no oppression. The term is rendered meaningless when feelings are equated with oppression and are given precedence over political movements that seek liberation from social hierarchy.

There’s a lot of talk about intersectional feminism going on right now as a feminism that must validate queer theory and gender identity. Intersectionality provides the critical insight that there are simultaneous axes of power which compound marginalization and shape how specific groups experience oppression (e.g. white women experience sexism but not misogynoir). The problem is that along with that insight, other ideas, which are anything but feminist, slipped in through the back door. A new generation of feminists has been weaned on a stealthy vocabulary of terms and phrases that functions as a kind of script, but unless they have a road map that shows them how these ideas are connected and where they come from, how do they know if they’re going in the right direction?

Take the concept of heteronormativity, for instance. It’s often discussed as a standalone problem, but it’s actually a fundamental element of patriarchy because it dictates how males and females are supposed to behave relative to their biological sex. More specifically, this entails marriage with men being the head of the household and women being assigned the role of wife and mother. Effeminate gay men and other GNC males are victims of discrimination (typically in the form of violence by males – a derivative of masculinity) insofar as they violate the rules of masculinity. Why is this seen as a bad thing? Because a male who doesn’t exude aggression, strength, and power is viewed as a wuss. A sissy. A pussy. A bitch. This behaviour implies femininity and anything associated with females is inferior.

Of all the things GNC men experience, including those who convincingly pass as women, their male socialization inculcates them with negative views toward women and instills in them a sense of entitlement. Gay men still make more money than women and they enjoy the gamut of male privileges. They’re not threatened with corrective rape the way lesbians are. They don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancy or a lack of reproductive care or justice. They don’t experience femicide, female genital mutilation or breast ironing. They don’t grow up being made to feel ashamed of their breasts, vaginas, and the painful, exhausting, and messy process of menstruation. Their bodies aren’t mined as sexual commodities to any comparable extent (transwomen are certainly an exception) and they’re not exploited as surrogate mothers. The bodies of women are the source of reproduction of the species and hence the source of all labour. In short, the oppression of females is both social and biological in nature. Who else but a misogynist would deliberately erase this fact? There’s also no distinct axis of oppression in the form of hetero or cis supremacy; what is termed ‘cishetsexism’ is an explication of patriarchy. Nowhere within the framework of sexism do women, feminist or not, oppress men, GNC or not.

Zoom out and the picture is clear: taking into account white supremacy and economic class, at the top of the hierarchy we find rich white men and at the bottom we find poor women of colour (and in a colonial context I think indigenous women deserve a special mention here too). This is a simplified representation, of course, with many ethnicities, nationalities, and other social groups organized within this system. There’s a lot of overlap. But intersectionality is not supposed to be a weapon for men to use against women. It does not mean feminists have to save everyone who thinks they’re oppressed. Feminism was not a direct response to oppression, full stop, as Kappel claims. It was and is a direct response to male supremacy. While radical feminism ultimately aims to dismantle all forms of hierarchy and domination and anti-racism must be an integral part of its politics, feminist politics that do not centre females are not feminist by definition. Now why would men like Kappel fail to mention this? Male privilege, perhaps? Misogyny? Here we have yet another man bulldozing through the incriminating truth to remind feminists that we’re supposed to be here for him. He gets to set the agenda – via a platform created and funded by women, no less. Women, know your place.

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No matter how females identify, our being visibly female marks us as targets. No amount of eschewing certain pronouns, titles, or identities insulates us from this. And just as you can’t identify your way out of being oppressed, you can’t identify your way out of being a member of an oppressor class. Agender and non-binary men would do well to remember this.

Whatever your views on gender identity, it can’t hurt to look a little more closely at a concept that remains a mystery to most people but is shaping legislation around the world. In the following talk, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Warwick, deconstructs gender identity and clarifies the aspects and implications of this doctrine:

An open letter to Fightback: how the left fails women

Yesterday I received my last copy of Fightback (Issue 91). Some of the leftist analysis in this journal is decent and I feel that the meager $20 I paid for a yearly subscription was well spent. I will not, however, be renewing my subscription, the reasons for which I’m providing in an open letter because they speak to the challenges that women often face when we try to organize for our rights within leftist circles.

In the first article in this issue, The niqab debate: A weapon of mass distraction, Joel Bergman correctly and articulately describes Stephen Harper’s hypocrisy in trying to present himself as a defender of women’s rights through his grandstanding around the niqab. Harper says that the practice of covering a woman so that only her eyes are visible is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. If we’re being honest, it’s impossible to imagine how a culture that renders women essentially invisible while allowing men to dress as they wish can not be considered to be anti-women. An egalitarian culture would see this as unthinkable. We’ve heard the argument that veiled women, especially those who have immigrated to Canada, wear the niqab by choice. How many of these women’s families would be supportive if they decided they wanted to wear jeans a t-shirt with nothing on their heads? The niqab is not a female creation and it is worn within a social context that does not afford women autonomy or equal status.

Nevertheless, the government has deliberately created confusion about the personal identification process involved in citizenship. We know that the hegemonic “culture” that Harper refers to is a contrived notion that seeks to paint every brown-skinned Muslim with the same extremist brush. He wants us to think they’re all current or future terrorists and a horrifying percentage of Canadians agree with him. Part of what’s so sickening about the niqab debate is that conservatives have nothing to teach anyone about women’s rights.

But neither do leftists, it seems. Only in a patriarchal society could individuals outraged by the niqab attack the women wearing it and not the men who enforce this code of conduct. When we see New Democrat support in Quebec swinging toward the nationalist Bloc Quebecois as a result of this debate, we have to wonder about the class consciousness of people who only consider voting for the two parties in Quebec that can be described by some measure as progressive. White working class and middle class men have traditionally organized around economic class, but there are other forms of class oppression which Marxism still fails to address.

Simply put, why is a man writing an article about women’s rights? Couldn’t Fightback find a woman to write on this topic? Come to think of it, why are all four of the articles in this issue – and almost every article in every issue I’ve ever read – written by men? Let me explain why you picked the wrong person to cover the niqab debate and women’s rights. Bergman writes:

“In supposedly fighting for the emancipation of women, the Harper Conservatives, in alliance with Quebecois nationalists and liberal feminists alike end up using the state to once again take away women’s right to choose.”

I’m sorry? Choice is a keystone of liberal feminism that can apply to literally anything a woman might decide to do because making that decision in itself is considered to be empowering, including wearing a mini skirt or a hijab, being a submissive in a BDSM relationship, or stripping. To deny a woman her agency, as this theory goes, would be anti-feminist. Basically, the guy writing about women’s rights is trying to critique a branch of feminism, which he gets backwards but is actually a proponent of, without even knowing it.

But here’s what sent Fightback sailing into my blue box:

“The niqab cannot be legislated away. What is needed is to create the conditions in which women themselves choose to reject it. The only real way to do this is not through state imposition and policing, but through building a mass united movement of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression and against the capitalist system itself which forms the cement foundation, perpetuating all of the rotten garbage that we see in our society today.”

None of the women who could honestly call themselves feminists are suggesting that state institutions be used to prevent women from wearing the niqab. More importantly, only a member of the dominant class can afford to believe that a mass movement of oppressed peoples will do anything other than prioritize the goals of the privileged class. How do men, who are members of the biggest oppressor class on the planet, imagine they’ll help to bring about women’s liberation when so many of them imagine themselves to be educated on women’s rights but have never bothered to learn feminist theory? I don’t want to organize alongside Marxist men who repeat all the mainstream feminist talking points only to go home and watch violent, misogynistic porn. I don’t want to surround myself with “comrades” who think that socialism is the answer to patriarchy because I’ve seen far too many lefty men use the same tactics as their conservative brethren to silence and bully women.

The next time Fightback runs an article on women’s issues, I hope you’ll demonstrate your commitment to women by elevating our voices and actively challenging the pervasive culture of male entitlement. You might also consider providing more feminist content. The class analysis of radical feminism is something that anti-capitalist movements could greatly benefit from. You see, capitalism grew out of a patriarchal, white supremacist ideology – not the other way around. After all, there would be no market in capitalism for women’s bodies in the first place if men didn’t think they existed for their own use and abuse. There are plenty of women who would have done a better job of analyzing this topic, among others, including those outside the realm of women’s issues. No one will believe that you believe that if you don’t hand over the microphone.

‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

Women need fierce leaders

Some people are calling for the resignation of a Progressive Conservative bigwig who mocked the weight of Alberta’s Health Minister. I won’t repeat his words here, but suffice it to say that he claimed that a woman who is overweight is not qualified to set health policy.

Criticizing someone’s appearance rather than their conduct is superficial and childish. It’s a classic straw [wo]man tactic. Women are scrutinized at a rate much higher than what men experience, especially when they occupy prominent positions, so it can’t be explained away simply as fatphobia or body shaming. In their article on the Health Minister the National Post consulted Clare Beckton, executive director of Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, who said that the comments would never have been made about a male politician. She said:

“It’s misogynist. It’s inappropriate… Since when has appearance had anything to do with legitimacy in terms of your intelligence and ability to be a legislator?”

Beckton said the body-shaming episode is evidence that stereotyping and bias against women politicians are still real issues.

She’s exactly right. But then… this:

“There are a certain number of people who still want to pull women down,” she said. “It’s a small minority of men who would make these kinds of comments. They’re not the majority.”

What purpose does this statement serve?

Here we see another example of hedging what would otherwise be insightful analysis with yet more #NotAllMen apologism. This is the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a random man pulled off the street. But we’re talking about a spokeswoman for a women’s organization. One that advocates for female leadership, no less. One might assume that by extension this makes the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership a feminist organization. Is it? Perhaps a bit of skepticism is in order.

A Google domain search shows that the word ‘feminism’ hasn’t appeared on the Centre’s website since 2012 (one of two times, the first being in 2011).

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There are several mentions of the word ‘sexism’.

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Not too many. And we know that sexism is a friendly way to say ‘patriarchy’, and that word doesn’t show up once on the site.

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On its website, the Centre states that it “works with a wide range of partners to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life, in Canada and internationally”. When you click on the link to their sponsors, only one is listed: Goldcorp. A corporation that according to the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected Peoples operates on 85% of indigenous territory and whose activities have contaminated their environment. Volumes of human rights and environmental abuses have been documented, particularly in jurisdictions where Goldcorp enjoys weak regulation and enforcement.

Is it a coincidence that the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership is publishing reports such as The Pathway Forward: Creating Gender Inclusive Leadership in Mining and Resources? Here’s an excerpt:

The mining industry has the opportunity now to take leadership to capitalize on women’s untapped potential by increasing women’s participation on mining boards, in senior leadership positions and entry level positions.

In other words, let’s bring women – whom we didn’t care about until relatively recently – on board so we can exploit their labour too, all while scoring brownie points. What I want to know is why women are being asked to participate in ecocide. Why are we being encouraged to imagine the world, as women and workers, from a capitalist lens? Is that the compromise we’re supposed to make in order to be recognized as human beings and included in the economy – not even afforded the room to consider whether or not this is how we want to live? Radical feminists want to build a society that reflects women’s needs and worldviews, including those that challenge the current economic and social systems. We want liberation, not inclusion.

It becomes increasingly clear why the National Post, a conservative publication, would choose to print comments filtered through organizations like the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership. They knew they weren’t going to get a fundamentally critical analysis.

Feminism isn’t just about gender equality in the sense of having equal representation in government roles, executive positions, etc. This is just one of many necessary ingredients. Time and time again, we see that women have been socialized to internalize patriarchal attitudes and ideologies. There are powerful women who hope to gain the support of other women because of their shared sex, but such blind allegiance can be dangerous. Hillary Clinton may say a lot of great things about women’s rights but she also happens to be a shill for the military industrial complex. There can be no liberation for anyone, women especially, under imperialism and colonialism. It’s deeply racist to advocate for reproductive rights at home while sanctioning the massacre and torture of women abroad.

Women often compromise for the sake of likability and even safety, particularly when they represent an organization that wants to appeal to a wider audience. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Clare Beckton seems to grasp the issues. She’s an intelligent woman doing important advocacy work. I just have a very difficult time accepting a woman of her knowledge and influence peddling what she must know is a falsehood; that a small minority of men are misogynists. How is that possible when misogyny is so rampant? Behaviour characterized by sexism and stereotyping is by definition systemic and thus cannot be the fault of a handful of people. It’s so much deeper than that.

My hope is that the women who speak for all of us will follow their feminist analysis to its logical conclusion, speak their truth as women, and resist the temptation to dress up controversial opinions in pretty packaging because when people look inside, they’re not going to like what they see anyway. Forget likability. Forget compromise. Women need fierce leaders.

“For the commanding man”: lathering up the male ego

A few days ago I was in the supermarket when I happened upon Old Spice body wash. I’ve seen the commercials so even though I’ve never bought this product I was somewhat prepared for the ridiculousness that is Old Spice marketing.

What kind of guy looks at this packaging and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like me! Maybe now that uptight bitch at the office will notice me’?

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Of course, it’s all intended to be ironic in the ‘Yes, I know it’s stupid and that’s the point’ hipster vein. But acknowledging that something you’re deliberately doing is stupid doesn’t make it any less stupid (quite the opposite, actually).

If I recall correctly, at some point while I was in university men started to care about what kind of body wash they use. Deodorant was no longer just a way of making sure you didn’t reek. It was a surefire way to turn any woman close enough to smell you into your own personal sex slave. If I had to take a guess I’d say the marketing team at Old Spice wasn’t satisfied that metrosexuals were doing a good enough job of defending masculinity.

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The Old Spice family is a diverse one. Whatever your self-image and olfactory orientation, they’ve got you covered.

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Are you a big, burly bear? A swift-minded hawk? Or perhaps you’re a howl-at-the-moon type? No? That’s okay. Old Spice has loads of other manhood-validating options.

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DANGER!

I would love to set up a hidden camera in this aisle. Some of this stuff doesn’t even make sense. I can understand a forest being fresh, but what exactly does it mean to be fresher than nobility?

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“Life success”? UGH.

Now for a painful confession: there is one that I actually liked but I won’t say which one. I don’t want to give these weirdos any credit. Though I will say it’s not Denali – which is either really popular or sucks so much it doesn’t get restocked.

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Who knows? Apparently it smells like wilderness, open air, and freedom.

Anyway, whichever variation the Old Spice man chooses, at least he can be sure he won’t feel insecure in the shower. Because the male ego should never endure one second of not being stroked. Even while one is scrubbing one’s nether regions… or maybe that’s when it’s needed most?

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Children don’t need to change – gender stereotypes need to go

Folks who see equality as a good thing readily agree that gender roles are discriminatory and oppressive. Despite this, it appears that many people have difficulty applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Perhaps this is because it’s far easier to agree with concepts when they’re presented as straightforward and conciliatory rather than as confrontational or requiring critical analysis. Acknowledging the harm caused by gender roles often incites derision and dismissal, which speaks to the reality that these tropes are status quo. They’re so ingrained in our culture that overcoming them is a constant struggle.

Gender roles stretch across the globe and dictate not only how females should behave but also how males should behave. The key difference, however, is that whereas males are punished for non-conforming, females are both punished for non-conforming and made to be subordinate when we conform through a host of expectations designed to make us passive and submissive. No matter what we do we’re set up to fail because not only are we never dominant like males are, but we’re never even equal in the gender hierarchy.

Patriarchy is the most oppressive system in the world. Save for whatever minute percentage of people who might live in matriarchal or equal circumstances, patriarchy controls everyone, impacts everyone negatively, and subordinates half of the world’s population. When we throw in the additional trauma of discrimination based on race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and every other form of oppression, it’s a miracle that people who are marginalized and oppressed multiple times over are so resilient.

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Children have a tough time trying to make sense of this when they realize that the things they’re supposed to like and do don’t always match up to their own interests and personalities. They don’t yet have the experience or analytical tools to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them and that the source of this cognitive dissonance is a system that was deliberately concocted well before they were born. This is mass psychological torture. It’s not up to kids to figure this out. It’s up to parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults. This is not a personal problem, a family dispute, or an identity crisis first and foremost. It’s a social issue. A moral issue.

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that a seven-year-old child was banned from using the girls’ washroom at a Catholic school in Edmonton, Alberta. The child identifies as a transgender girl.

The parents say they knew from the beginning that something was different about their child…

“As soon as she could speak, she would articulate that she is a female and would gravitate towards feminine objects,” the mother said.

“I just told my mom I felt like a girl,” the seven-year-old recalled.

That’s when her parents say they knew their child wasn’t “a boy who liked girl toys — she was a girl who had a penis.”

This is where I have to call a time out. What exactly is meant by feminine objects? Females have specific sex characteristics, so it makes sense to describe females and their unique physiology as feminine; but how are inanimate objects feminine? What about them is in any way female – or male, for that matter? For example, in an episode of Food Network’s Southern at Heart, Damaris Phillips describes her coconut lavender macaroons as feminine. On its face this statement doesn’t make any sense but the viewer understands what’s implied; something about these cookies reminds her of abstract qualities she associates with the female sex. This is the essence of gender and it’s where the problem starts.

It seems highly tenuous that an individual at the age of seven is at a stage in their life where they can elucidate the difference between being a boy who likes “girl toys” and actually being a girl. Children as young as four years old are now being asked to declare their gender identity. So what does it mean to think or feel like a boy or a girl, exactly? How does a boy who is learning to speak know enough about language – about anything – to know that they’re in fact a girl? Surely we should approach cases of potential gender dysphoria in children with extreme caution given their lack of maturity. I don’t know that anyone should be comfortable trusting the judgement of a child on a subject so complex it makes the heads of educated adults spin.

I’ve thought about what I would do if this were my child. Here’s what I’m thinking. A boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” things or has stereotypical “feminine” qualities is simply a boy who doesn’t conform to how society has decided boys are supposed to be. That doesn’t make him female. Associating traits like sensitivity or vivaciousness and an interest in dresses, pretty things, dance, soft colours, dolls, etc. with being female does nothing except reinforce gender stereotypes. There is absolutely no logical basis for associating the things our society identifies as feminine to the condition of being female.

Being female means being a member of the female sex and no doctor will deny that being a member of the female sex means having a female anatomy, which necessarily involves primary and secondary female sex characteristics, and absolutely includes a vagina. Whether any given female can become pregnant is irrelevant; a properly functioning reproductive system is required for pregnancy and gestation and any human being who’s ever been born was given birth to by a female. Being female cannot mean having a penis.

Of course, no one is disputing that the child is of the male sex, so what we’re left with is the question of what their gender is. While sex and gender are often conflated, they are separate concepts.

This is where what is considered controversial to some people is simple for others. If you believe that there is in fact no basis for thinking that being male must involve expressing a prescribed masculinity and being female must involve expressing a prescribed femininity, then you are gender critical. While gender criticism is often described as a central element of radical feminism (radical feminists are gender abolitionists, to be more precise), it’s also key to feminism at large because it’s impossible to challenge sexism without challenging gender stereotypes.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that discrimination against females exists but in order to challenge this discrimination we need to understand how and why it manages to organize different cultures, geographies, classes, and generations. In order for an ideology to endure so many barriers of time and space it must consist of a subliminal and self-perpetuating set of beliefs. Every oppressive system assigns unequal value to different groups of people. This requires that we develop a set of attitudes and assumptions about them that serve to make them unworthy relative to another group. At the same time, these people, should they use their voice or exercise any degree of autonomy or power, are seen as a threat and are summarily ignored, silenced, threatened, harmed, and murdered. How else can we explain white American police officers killing black women and men in cold blood and in plain view time and time again? How else can we explain the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, which Stephen Harper shrugged off as not “really high on our radar”, the blame for which indigenous men are expected to shoulder all on their own with no consideration of the effects of colonial patriarchy?

How else can we explain why discrimination persists despite the fact that many people who discriminate do so unintentionally and unknowingly? Patriarchy, like white supremacy, only requires that people with privilege go about their daily lives. That’s why even those who are aware of these systems and try to avoid contributing to them end up making mistakes. This is what it means for oppression to be systemic. To be systemic is to be effective.

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Growing up, I was very close to my older brother and was surrounded by boys more so than girls. This influenced my taste in music, my language, my sense of physicality, etc. I did all sorts of “masculine” things as well as “feminine” things and it never once crossed mine or my parents’ mind that this called into question my identity as a girl or a female. I have no doubt that the males who surrounded me rubbed off on me but they weren’t the way they were because of something innate. It was because they were raised to be that way from infancy as a result of the school curriculum, teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, friends’ parents, advertizing, books, movies, etc. It’s telling that this process actually hedged the female socialization that I was simultaneously subjected to. I also have a mother who exhibited femininity in many ways, but not consistently – and this didn’t escape my notice. My mom could be fairly tough with me and I saw that she was brave, outspoken, and did the same hard labour as her male co-workers. She told me about some of the misogynistic things they would say and do. It’s no wonder we’ve always shared a love of Bette Davis movies. Overall, the message was clear: never let people push you around and never let a man tell you that you’re inferior. I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today if I hadn’t had her example to follow.

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with my aunt, her 10 year old daughter, and two male cousins of around the same age. As she watched them my aunt said to me, “Boys and girls are so different.” I responded, “That’s because we tell them they are.” Silence followed. Later that evening I was teasing her husband and my brother for comparing their scars, which they seemed to think were badges of honour. To me, they just looked like reminders of stupidity. I remarked that they were lucky they didn’t have to go through the shit women do, neither through stupidity nor by choice, simply for being born with a reproductive system destined to hemorrhage every month unless it was transformed (usually accidentally) into an incubator that would eject a baby way too big for the hole it’s supposed to come out of. Whatever the method of delivery, I added, a woman gets ripped open, leaving a scar that will rival anything they can dream of bragging about. At this point my younger cousin – bless her heart – added that girls have to suffer the job of doing their hair and make-up too. “That’s your choice!” my brother countered. And therein lies the difference between sex and gender.

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Femininity and masculinity are arbitrary social constructs. Each of us should be free to express whatever traits come naturally to us without having to worry about how they supposedly relate to our anatomy. If we’re really concerned about equality and the well-being of children who will become adults who make important decisions, this is what we need to teach them.

Going back to the article about the transgender child:

The family has found an ally in Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell, who has publicly criticized the administration’s decision.

“I’m really worried about the impact of this stance we’ve taken on that child,” Grell said. “I’m very worried about that child’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I’m worried too. I’m worried that adults can’t seem to let children like what they like and act how they act regardless of their sex and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with these kids. They don’t need to change. Our society does.