James and the Giant Screed

I have a confession. I used to be a Men’s Rights Activist.

I’ve been mulling an essay on this for a while now, but James and the Giant Screed has brought it to the surface.

In case you’re not familiar with it, James Damore came to national attention recently when a memo he’d written and circulated within Google was leaked into the wild.
In this document, he argues that the biological differences between men and women shape their behaviors and preferences, and that these differences at least partially support career goal differences. In other words, in his opinion, Google’s goal of gender parity is wrong-minded because men and women are too biologically different.

Damore was fired by Google. This has led to the predictable claims of free speech violation, political correctness run amok, and liberal snowflakes. Since Damore had used corporate time and resources in distributing his memo, Google as a private entity was well within their rights to fire him (although the legal waters might be choppy). Had Damore used his personal time and resources, I’d be more inclined to accept the narrative of Evil Censorial Corporate Overlords.

But enough about Damore. I’m a white male: Let’s talk about me.

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I believe I have always considered myself a feminist. Damore might well consider himself one, too, although it seems to be the trend now, thanks to lingering love of Limbaugh, to equate feminists with “feminazis.”

The MRA mindset is not logically incompatible with one of the more common definitions of feminism, i.e., “the radical notion that women are people.” And since the MRA mindset claims to put logic before emotion, this view of feminism is acceptable.

Indeed, when I was an MRA, I would have most likely argued that Damore’s manifesto was overtly feminist. Its base argument hinges on accepting not just that women are humans, but that women are different humans than men, and that we should be mindful of these differences when making corporate choices. In so doing, my goal would be to resolve the cognitive dissonance of identifying as a feminist while appeasing the Cult of Manhood: It’s not sexist to keep women out of technology, it’s actually sexist to encourage them in.

This is ridiculous. The first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, was a woman. The recent movie Hidden Figures celebrated the role of black women in NASA’s space program. Historically, women have been sadly scarce in mathematics, but that has far more to do with opportunity and social pressure than with competence.

As a mathematics teacher and as someone who once had a mathematics role in the corporate sector, I have seen how women and girls are treated, compared to men and boys. I have spoken to girl students about their history of treatment. As hard as I try to overcome my own programming, I have watched myself engage in it. Any biological differences with regards to STEM are very much overshadowed by cultural machinations meant to undermine women’s success.

To the MRA mind, though, that’s emotion. That’s not logic. Logic says that women like Oprah Winfrey and J. K. Rowling worked their way from poverty and that there are more female CEOs now than ever… so sexism is all but dead.

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Earlier this summer, YouTuber PewDiePie provided a clinic on an MRA approach to the gender wage gap. The argument, which has been around for as long as I can remember, is that men and women make the same hourly wage for the same quality of work. Differences in wages are due to men choosing more lucrative work, men working harder, and women being focused on other things.

PewDiePie’s argument relies on choice rather than biological differences, but the upshot is the same: Men are more successful not because of something as emotional as sexism or fragility, but because of logical reasons like biological destiny or serious effort. Inherent in PewDiePie’s argument is also the myth of meritocracy, i.e., that there is a strong correlation between relevant individual characteristics (such grit and talent) and cultural success, and that things like luck and irrelevant individual characteristics (such as race and gender) play a negligible role.

When I was an MRA, I did not believe I was being sexist. My primary bailiwick was about how the legal system was unfair to men. I could tell you, at the time, that while a significant portion of domestic violence abuse victims was male (one in four men, as opposed to one in three women), most DV shelters were exclusive to women. Having been weaned on Kramer vs Kramer, I could tell you how child custody laws were biased towards keeping the child with the mother as much as possible. When my fast food employer decided to enforce a sexist hair policy which would have forced me to quit my job or cut the hair which extended past my shoulder blades, I raged about the unfairness of it all. If you’d asked me twenty years ago, I would have pounded the table in self-righteous ire that fathers had little say if their woman partner decided to abort, but they could be legally forced to pay child support if the woman carried to term. Yes, I was that guy.

These are all logical positions. They’re ways in which the system is indeed unfair towards men. In case you’re currently but-but-butting like an MRA motorboat, save your fingerwork. I know.

At the same time, though, all but the DV issue are minor compared to how the system is stacked against women. And, even at the time that I was railing, many woman-only DV shelters were providing motel rooms to male victims. In other words, some men were getting better resources than women in the same position (who were relying on dorm-style facilities), and I was still railing about it.

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It’s not surprising that MRAs often rely on logical arguments. That’s a key part of the Evo-psych narrative: Men are logical, women are emotional. That’s largely what Damore’s argument hinges on as well. It is important that MRAs act like Spock at a Roman orgy; it supports the argument.

But at some point I came to realize that my attempts to compare having to cut my hair (as beautiful as it was) to the beauty standards that women are held to was absurd. Life is not a binary, where things are “fair” or “unfair”; fairness is a scale, and on the scale of unfairness, as a white male, my life is pretty good.

Could they be better? Sure. One thing I’ve learned, in deciding to listen to women instead of talking over them, is that most women readily admit that the things I mentioned above are unfair to men. Generally speaking, feminists are not unreasonable, they’re focused on women’s issues.

And that’s okay, because sexism isn’t dead. The other day, I got mail from a prospective medical professional for my child. It was addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Paul Hartzer.” There is no “Mrs. Paul Hartzer.” My spouse and I reject that title; she is “Ms. Hartzer.” As a result of this gaffe, we changed our medical professional. If you’re a male reader, you may well think that’s so minor as to not be worth comment. That’s logic speaking, not emotion. Life is not just logic.

I used to be a Men’s Rights Activist. I’m glad I’m not anymore.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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