Saturday, July 5, 2014

Dear Dude Feminist: You're Probably Okay


So let's assume you're a straight white dude, and I absolutely mean that in the nicest possible way. You're probably smart, and you have a good heart, and you're aware that inequality is bad. Recently your social media feeds have been brimming with talk about how the media doesn't really cater to anyone but you, and you can see that. There are people out there, mostly women but all kinds of people, who make inspiring statements prompt you to say "well I never." You've never in your life had cause to say that. That alone makes it worthwhile.

And feminism might still be a bit of an icky word, but there's other words and phrases that you recognize and love and respect. Words like equality, freedom, the right to choose, the right to live free of persecution, the right to representation, and you are down with that. Feminism sounds great! And it is!

Then other words and phrases start popping up. Kyriarchy, patriarchy, male entitlement, rape culture, Schrodinger got involved somehow, and there's a lot of anger. We've already established that you are smart and have a good heart, so you know better than to confuse attacks on systemic oppression for personal insults. You are capable of great empathy and compassion. You know that the good fight is worth fighting no matter how you get involved.

Still, it's complicated. Looking up the dictionary definition of these words and phrases doesn't help much. Every time a new controversial topic pops up, you can't find two feminist blogs that actually agree. You see your own opinion echoed by someone else and immediately torn down. It's super scary. It's complicated. It's enough to make you very, very nervous about participating in this movement. On the one hand, you hear that male voices are needed. On the other hand, you are told to shut up and listen, and ponder privilege while you're at it. Scary, frustrating and confusing don't even begin to describe it.

You've already broken through that barrier of male entitlement. You've done it without taking it as an attack. I commend you. Many people don't make it that far. Now what?

Here the thing though: it's scary for everyone.

Feminist theory, at its core, is an intellectual discipline, comparable to a soft science. A lot of activism and opinion flows from this, but it starts with thought, with history and fact. It introduces a new way of thinking. And any new way of thinking is daunting at first. Nobody comes into the movement fully formed. You cannot walk into your Psychology 101 class and expect to be a licensed psychologist by the end of the week. You should be a little daunted stepping into that class, because you're about to be buried under centuries of history, conflicting theories, opinions, papers, personalities and the lessons of teachers both good and bad.

Feminism is much the same. If you expect to read one or two blog posts and be up on your feminist theory in time for dinner, you're probably going to have a rough time of it. This is the same for everyone, not just straight white dudes. Anyone coming into the movement has a learning curve in front of them. And feminist theory evolves just like science does. You have to keep up, keep learning, keep reading. When have you learned enough? Never. Don't wait until you've learned all there is to know about feminism before you speak up. It's not going to happen.

But you've done all that. You've done your due diligence, you've listened quietly, really listened, you've challenged yourself, you're committed. I know some men in your position, quite a few. Women too. They've done a lot of heavy lifting, they've listened, and now they would like to speak. But they're scared to. Because feminism, like any social justice movement, is filled with people who have strong opinions backed by the fury of a thousand angry voices. And they're all going to yell at you.

Yes. Yes they are. You've done your research, so you know that women aren't a monolith, there is no such thing as a female hivemind, no "all women" anything, nothing in our soul or DNA that gives us even one common trait.

Feminists are much the same.

Of course that group is a little more narrowly defined than "women." There certainly are things all feminists have in common, like the belief that female-identifying people are being systemically marginalized. But we are not the Borg. As in any theoretical discipline, there are different schools of thought, different ways in which different theories are presented, varying levels of engagement and activism.

There has to come a phase when you start speaking. Not lecturing, not teaching, not throwing down the gauntlet, but engaging. You've done it right, you've listened to many marginalized voices, you know your theory and you know compassion. But before you start confidently confronting the issues in your daily life, there's one more step to take, after listening but before activism: it's time to engage with feminists.

Yeah, I know. I was scared too. Not because feminists are grrr scaryclaws, that's just such a nasty stereotype, but because you and I don't want to hurt people. What if our stupid question really upsets someone? What if the point we make in good faith places us on one side of a fence we didn't even know was there? What if we try to do good and cause hurt instead? That's fucking awful. That's the worst feeling in the world, trying to do good and falling face-first into a steaming pile of the opposite. Nobody wants that.

But it's going to happen.

There's a reductive, dare I say sexist joke that feminists could have anything they wanted if they just stopped bickering amongst themselves. It seems like we're at each other's throats a little more than we rally together to sisterly kick the patriarchy in the nards, or whatever it is we do. And in my experience that's not quite how it is, but there are going to be clashing but equally valid and thought out opinions. This is a good thing. Challenging each other to think in a different way about the things we think differently about is intellectually invigorating and crucial to the continued growth of this movement. All facts and opinions need to be questioned from time to time. Everyone needs to be told to check their privilege now and again. Everyone makes mistakes.

Man, I've made some mistakes. Big ones. Embarrassing ones. Harmful ones. I got yelled at and everything. There are thoughts I've had that I'm very happy I didn't vocalize or commit to the internet. I've agonized and picked over every single sentence I've posted on this blog and I'm horribly insecure about half of them. My biggest fear is that I'll cause harm anyway, through privilege, unexamined biases or even plain old thoughtlessness. I've also had differences of opinion. I've had standpoints challenged and after consideration chose to stand by them anyway. It happens. And that's okay.

And so you, dude feminist, you're probably going to be challenged if you speak. You might even get yelled at. I don't support the yelling so much, but it might happen. Being a dude and all, you might even catch more flak than anyone else does. That sucks. But that doesn't make you a Bad Feminist. If you've done the work, if you know how to engage in good faith, how to accept an intellectual challenge and test your own ingrained biases and beliefs on a daily basis, well, guess what?

You're probably okay.

Don't be afraid to speak up. Know that there is a learning curve, and that this curve exists for everyone. It'll be a little less steep for those who intuitively understand these things from personal experience, but we all have to unlearn the habits of a lifetime and deprogram ourselves on a daily basis. It's a lifelong challenge. But being challenged is a kindness, an invitation for growth, not a smack-down. It still sucks, it hurts and smart when we unintentionally cause harm, but it's part of that steep climb up the learning curve. And once we make it to the top, we still make mistakes. The feminists I respect most, the only ones I find genuine enough to listen to, they know how to say "I made a mistake. I sincerely apologize. I promise I will apply myself to challenging the thinking that led to this mistake."

Of course they also know how to say "I see your point and respectfully disagree." I find that the best of them employ a mixture of both, where appropriate.

And I don't even agree with all of them. That's how it goes. And that's okay.

Dude feminist, I thank you. We need your voice, and I'm not even a little bit bitter about that. You are my ally, and I welcome you. Don't be scared. Don't be afraid to speak up for fear of enraging the feminist hive. If you do, and you probably will, it won't be pleasant. But that too goes for everyone. All of us, any gender, orientation, race or background, all of us make mistakes. All of us are unique in our personal interpretation of feminism. All of us are active in our own ways.

You are welcome in my space, dude feminist. Do the work, listen before you speak, practice good faith and learn how to say "I'm sorry" and I promise you, you'll be okay.

This space is yours too. It's okay to speak with care, good faith and confidence.

Until you fuck up.

And you will.

And that's okay.

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