The 19th Century German philosopher, Hegel, once expressed the notion that we should see the past, not as a list of primitive ideas which we should be discarded once they have been conquered, but as a repository of knowledge that can be used to inform the present. He was also of the opinion that one could learn most from the ideas one most disliked.
Perhaps nowhere else in the present is Hegel’s view of history and learning more clearly needed than in the present conflict between feminism and the emerging Men’s Rights Advocacy movement.
By taking a Hegelian approach, I argue that MRA movement, far from being the scourge that will dismantle the equality and progress feminism has achieved, will help us to achieve greater progress by keeping feminism honest, and by helping to synthesize equality-based feminism with gender feminism in a way consistent with ideas about intersectional social justice.
Furthermore, rather than seeing feminism as useless, oppressive, and harmful to men, I argue that the MRA movement needs to acknowledge and adopt the feminist concept of privilege pioneered by feminism in order to fully realize and fight the oppression of men and women alike.
After reading and thinking through various feminist and intersectionalist works, after watching the MRA documentary,“The Red Pill” and after listening to to several discussions between feminists and MRAs, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hegel’s dialectic: the idea that every mature idea or movement (thesis) must first undergo necessary conflicts with its opposite (antithesis) before finally settling into a stable and coherent whole (synthesis).
Therefore, in the pursuit social justice and of synthesizing feminism with MRA, I will attempt to draw from the original thesis of feminism (the belief in female liberation and oppression and denial of female privilege and male oppression), while also drawing from the MRA antithesis (the belief in male liberation and oppression and denial of male privilege and female oppression) in order to arrive at a synthesis consistent with ideas of equality and intersectional notions of social justice (the idea of gender liberation for all, and the recognition that varying degrees of privilege and oppression are common to all genders – and to all people generally – because power relations and the oppression produced by them are interrelated and interdependent).
As a means of unpacking this dialectic and exposing the differences and similarities between the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I’d like to compare examples of how the two different movements treat specific ideas relating to power and gender – namely, ideas about privilege, oppression, and notions of masculinity and femininity. If the MRA movement is to avoid becoming the new patriarchy, and the feminist movement the matriarchy, clearly we are due for such an analysis.
Let’s start first with the feminist understanding of power and privilege. The feminist understanding of privilege is that privilege is a function of power – specifically, male power (patriarchy) – which places the needs, desires, and values of men over the needs, desires, and values of women in virtually every single area of society.
As proof of the all-encompassing nature of male privilege, women point to the number of male CEO’s, members of congress, tenured professors, and so forth, drawing attention to the lack of representation of women and lack of consideration of women’s needs in these key areas.
The feminists then conclude, based on these facts, that because men have historically enjoyed and continue to enjoy certain privileges that women do not within key areas of life, that male power therefore controls and dominates the whole of larger society, oppressing women in the process.
Moreover, since the feminist understanding of privilege is that is solely function of male power (or white, male power), feminism as it is currently understood cannot reasonably suggest that that men are also oppressed, as this would contradict the notion that males are the source of privilege and power.
In essence, the gender-based notion of patriarchy as the source of all oppression (male and female), but which excludes a discussions of men’s oppression and female power is problematic because it focuses on fighting the oppression of women and the privilege of men while refusing to allow men and women to recognize and combat the oppression of men and the and privilege of women.
The problem of feminism is therefore one of ontology, because it operates under the assumption that males cannot be oppressed, or at least that they cannot be oppressed to the extent women are, thus undermining the principle of social justice for all people.
Conversely the MRA understanding of privilege is much like that of the feminist, only in reverse. Although MRA advocate understandings of privilege is that privilege is a function of power, they suggest that this power is not patriarchy (male power), but matriarchy (female power) which disadvantages men and elevates the needs, desires, and status of women.
The MRA, like the feminist, will cite key areas of society in which males are disadvantaged, citing domestic abuse against males, male homelessness, suicide rates, legal issues surrounding children, and so forth, concluding that women actually control and benefit from larger society more than men do.
However, also like the feminist, the MRA movement’s ontological problem keeps it from acknowledging – or rather, at the very least, makes it reluctant to acknowledge – that male privilege and female oppression both exist in society because this shifts the focus and attention away from men and male oppression.
By taking an Hegelian approach, we can therefore realize that both groups are right to a degree, but that both groups are also wrong. They’re right in their diagnosis that privilege exists, and that gender-specific privileges exist, but they are wrong in their diagnosis that gender privileges exist only be for men or only be for women, or that oppression only exists for women or only exists for men.
To begin our analysis, let’s look at feminist and MRA notions of “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity, on a basic level, is something that MRAs and feminists agree upon – namely, that rigid, misplaced ideas of what it means to “be a man” are harmful to men. The disagreement comes about when designating who or what is precipitating the harm.
Feminists, for example, claim that toxic masculinity stems from patriarchy – that is, that rigid ideas of masculinity are a self-imposed byproduct of male power – while MRAs claim that toxic masculinity is not due to self-imposed male power, but rather stems from female power which is imposed on men from the outside.
Again, if we take the Hegelian route and realize that gender itself is dialectical – that is, that gender roles and ideas about masculinity and femininity are negotiated through a push-pull process within a society that both privileges and oppresses, we can realize how both positions are right to an extent, but can also see where that both positions miss the mark.
If we accept gender is dialectical, if we accept that what it means to be a “man” or “woman” within a society is determined by a combination of males and females, and if we accept that this dialectic takes place within a society in which the distribution of power between men and women is relatively equal but distributed throughout society in different ways, then we must acknowledge that the idea of toxic masculinity is something which is imposed on men by men and imposed on men by women. It is not solely patriarchal, but neither is it solely matriarchal. It is both.
In this sense, all notions of what it means to be a “man” are derived from what most males and females think manhood should entail just as notions of what it means to be a “woman” are derived from what most males and females think being a womanhood should entail.
Moreover, not only is gender negotiated between men and women, but I argue that the relationship between all genders – including the male-female binary – is necessarily interdependent because it is a function of how power operates – namely, through the dialectical negotiation of privilege and oppression by people within society.
To make this interdependent relationship clear, let’s examine the idea of chivalry – an idea which necessitates gender toxicity which is thought to be solely patriarchal by feminists, and solely matriarchal by MRAs. Again, I’m going to show the ways they are both right and wrong.
Contrary to feminists and MRAs, I argue that the idea of chivalry (which includes the toxic idea of the strong male savior and the corresponding helpless damsel in distress) reveals the degree to which rigid gender roles and toxic ideas of masculinity and femininity are codependent, as well as the ways in which both men and women are equally privileged and oppressed by traditional notions of gender.
Since chivalry, by its very definition, puts men in the position of being the strong, decisive, savior of women, it simultaneously puts women in the position of being weak, passive, damsels in distress. In this way, we can see how chivalry harms men by telling them that their identity as a man can only be validated by being responsible for saving women; but we can also see how chivalry harms women by telling women they can only validate their identity as a woman by being saved by men.
Moreover, in the dialectical and codependent relationship between chivalrous men and damsel women, we can also see the ideas of privilege and oppression at work for both genders.
While chivalry grants men the privilege to be the strong, decisive savior of women, it also gives men the burden of having to self-sacrifice for women at the expense of their own well-being (male oppression). Similarly, while being the damsel in distress makes women unable to be seen as strong, decisive saviors (female oppression), it also grants women the privilege of avoiding the same self-sacrifice which would be equally harmful to their well-being.
In other words, chivalry, as well as other toxic and rigid ideas about gender, are always a double-edged sword because they simultaneously privilege and disadvantage the people that adopt, reinforce, and perpetuate them. In this sense, while one gender within the savior-damsel dialectic might feel more liberated or less oppressed than the other, the reality is that both are equally privileged and oppressed.
Furthermore, what makes gender toxicity so hard to dispel – whether that toxicity is masculine or feminine – is not because of patriarchy or because of matriarchy, but because of the lack of awareness and understanding on the part of the men and women who adopt these roles of the harm they cause to themselves and to the people in their lives.
Interestingly, the notion of intersectionality – the idea that systems of oppression are linked – also helps to explain the various ways in which people recognize or fail to recognize privilege and oppression as it relates to gender, and therefore fail to realize that they are complicit in the perpetuation of feminine and masculine privilege and oppression.
For example, a man’s inability to realize or articulate the fact that tall women threaten his masculinity and the masculinity of men around him makes him complicit in perpetuating the idea that a man who is short – i.e. less tall than a woman – is somehow less of a man or less desirable to women.
Conversely, a woman’s inability to realize or articulate the fact that short men threaten her femininity and the femininity of the women around her makes her complicit in perpetuating the idea that a tall woman – i.e. a woman who is taller than a man – is somehow less of a woman or less desirable to men.
To conclude, by synthesizing feminist and MRA conceptions of power, privilege, and oppression, we can see how the progress of social justice depends on realizing and becoming conscious of our own privilege and oppression relative to our gender, race, class, nationality, and species so that we can use our privilege to liberate ourselves and others rather than continuing to dominate and oppress ourselves and others.
As sentient beings that inhabit the earth, we are all complicit in the pain and suffering of others just as we are complicit in their pleasure and joy. If we hope to bring more happiness and less suffering, it therefore behooves us to be aware of ourselves and our history, to be aware of how our thoughts and actions impact the lives of others, and to listen to the voices of others different from us with objectivity, understanding, and empathy.