In my first social work practice class at Utah State University, a professor taught us an important lesson. He asked the class how we might respond if a client told us that they had just broken up with their significant other the previous night. One of the students in the class responded that they would say something like, “That must be really hard.” My professor’s response to this was, “What if they say, ‘No way! I’m thrilled it was such a terrible relationship!’?”
He was conveying to us the danger of assuming another person’s emotional state by projecting our own values or the values we consider to be common in our society onto that person.
In many liberal feminist circles, I have heard it said that all men, including non-violent men, benefit from male violence because it lowers the standard for “good behavior” from “being an actively affirming, loving, and engaged partner” to “not being violent or abusive”. Similarly, liberal feminists often ascribe the lack of male involvement in challenging patriarchal structures and norms to men’s desires to keep the benefits that they gain from them.
In many ways they are correct. Men are more likely to be hired, promoted, and paid more for the same jobs than women. They often get away with lazy partnership in relationships and are given gold stars for even the bare minimum effort, so yes, for some men, particularly those who are heterosexual, white, and affluent, there are benefits that come from patriarchy and male violence.
Much like my classmates and I who jumped to the conclusion that a break-up was a bad thing to be met with a “So sorry to hear that!”, or “You must be devastated!”, many liberal feminists fail to see the bigger picture of what really “benefits” men in a patriarchal system. They tend to project what our society values onto these men.
In our society, individualism, material wealth, leisure, entertainment, traditional power, influence, and status are all highly sought after. They are some of the core values that influence everything we do from where we work, who we marry, what neighborhood we live in, what clothes we wear, and how we speak. Within the framework of these values, common particularly to wealthy, white, Americans, it is easy to understand how anything that increases our individual ability to earn money and gain status or power all while minimizing our effort would be seen as a great benefit. However, if you were to ask most people in America what their values are, you would likely not see this list featured as often. Instead, you are more likely to hear about values like integrity, fairness, honesty, kindness, openness, hard work, love, community, loyalty, faith, sharing, justice, and charity.
Whether or not people act on these personal values more than the other values is up for debate, but regardless, the ideals and values that people hold closest to them are of a higher moral character than the values found in the mainstream of our society. Under the values of justice or fairness, do men really benefit from being paid more than women? Under the values of love, community, and kindness to men really benefit from male violence? Under the values of hard work, loyalty, and connection do men really benefit from not being fully engaged in their partnerships?
The myth that men are somehow in a patriarchal utopia that helps them and oppresses women only holds up to scrutiny when we adopt capitalist, consumerist, and patriarchal norms and values. Feminism should work to dismantle those values and replace them with values that will increase human well-being through shared community, rather than wound spirits through individualism, materialism, and status seeking.
With this new framework we understand that the system truly benefits no one. This does not mean that the current system equally oppresses everyone. Wealthy white men face victimization in America, but that victimization is not equal to the oppression many poor women of color face, for example. Feminist theorist bell hooks has explained that a matrix of oppression built from “white supremacist, heterosexist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchy”, (and I would add ableist) fosters a system that is inherently hierarchical and in which one’s access to power is determined by where one fits into the hierarchies of race, sexual orientation, nationality, socio-economic status, gender, and ability. The typical definition of power under this system is the ability to dominate, control, coerce, or wield influence over others.
Using these value structures, it’s clear that some individuals necessarily benefit more than others from the status quo, but changing the value structures flips the script. Redefining power as human connection and shared community purpose to effect justice, we see that no one benefits from the current system. These ideas are intentionally radical. They are meant to challenge the way we think about success, power, achievement, and status, and they are essential to engaging men in feminism.
Many men are waking up to the ways that the current patriarchal system is failing them, even the ones who benefit materially or individually from it. They are seeing the way the system hurts others, and they are looking for something that can increase connection and fulfillment in their lives. Until we stop selling the misleading narrative that men are the benefactors of a system that oppresses exclusively women, we will not be able to reach them.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on November 6, 2019.