Men’s Authenticity Networkby David Shackleton on 03/18/21
Years ago, I had a friend. I won’t name her, but if she reads this she will recognize herself. I was a middle aged man who had discovered the reality of men’s issues. And by reality, I mean that I had discovered that men’s disadvantages and problems are the functional equivalents of women’s disadvantages and problems – and sometimes the precise equivalents. Historically men have been as disadvantaged by gendered roles and expectations as women have.
This is not a common insight. I remember reading in a feminist book that women’s issues are life and death, while men’s issues are like a bad hair day. That pretty much sums up the current cultural belief about men and women. Almost everyone knows that we need feminism, the advocacy for women’s equality. Few realize, however that we need advocacy for men as well as women. That claim is not a joke. Nor is it due to some conspiracy of angry white guys who resent an alleged loss of privilege. Rather, it is an insight of profound importance, not only to men but to women and society as a whole.
But my friend was different. She genuinely empathized with men. She felt our pain when we talked about false allegations against fathers as a tactic in custody battles, about men being 77% of the homicide victims,[i] 75% of the suicides,[ii] 70% of the homeless,[iii] 65% of the addicted,[iv] and 95% of the incarcerated.[v] About the fact that the typical female survivor of childhood sexual abuse, working to recover from her trauma in therapy or a support group, is in her twenties or thirties – while the typical male survivor of childhood sexual abuse only enters therapy, if he does at all, in his fifties or sixties. He has spent a lifetime trying to avoid his pain by succumbing to sex or drug or other addiction, through distracting himself with work, sports, food, alcohol and so on. Only when all of these strategies fail does he ask for help in coping with his distress.
The tragedy of those thirty wasted years is a characteristically male tragedy, and like many male tragedies it is largely invisible. Society, which means almost all of us, just doesn’t notice, because we don’t empathize with men as we do with women and children. Empathy for women and children, care and concern for their welfare, is completely natural. Empathy for the men is best described as unnatural. This severe imbalance in empathy naturally leads to a distorted perception that women’s needs and problems are central and important, while those of men are peripheral and therefore trivial. We project an internal, subjective bias out into the world and wrongly perceive an external, objective inequality.
But as I say, my friend was different. She came to a conference on men that I had organized and told me that she had wept after returning home, feeling the pain of the men who had told their stories. She was a feminist who strongly believed in women’s rights – but that was fine with me, because I agree with her. What’s not ok with me is the belief that women deserve concentrated and focused attention, but men do not. I wondered if my friend’s empathy would lead her to realize the functional equivalence of men’s issues to those of women, their equivalent value, scope, importance, seriousness. That would be a positive insight, I thought, solidly based on the sexual equality that feminists say they want. What if men and women are already equal, in terms of the damage they have suffered from historical gender roles?
She was resistant for years, holding that women’s issues are bigger, that women are more deeply victims, that men have the power that matters. But I remained hopeful. No other feminist that I knew empathized with men, felt their pain, at all. Surely that would end up making the difference.
A few years ago, my friend completed a PhD in sociology. Her thesis was actually about feminist distortion of an aspect of men’s issues. I went to the university event celebrating her achievement, where she presented a summary of her work. In her presentation, she talked first about the reality of women’s victimhood, citing an example of a woman who was beaten by her husband for burning his dinner. When the woman complained to the authorities, in this example, she was told, “Well, don’t burn the dinner.”
This is, of course, outrageous. As an anecdote, it has some historical legitimacy, but it is clearly designed to present women’s issues as an emergency and to denounce society’s traditional attitudes toward women as utterly contemptible. Clearly, something had to be done about such horrific attitudes. I looked around the roomful of sociology academics, and everyone was nodding in agreement. I agreed too, of course; women’s issues do indeed have deep legitimacy.
My friend moved on to discuss men. There are, of course, examples of men’s issues that are equally outrageous, such as men who are falsely accused by their wives of a crime in a child custody battle, a tactic that often works to deprive those fathers of custody of their own children. But such examples align with our prevalent lack empathy for men, so they don’t feel outrageous. However, my friend didn’t try for outrage. Her comment about how we might respond to men’s issues was different. Sociologists, she advised, should study such issues, but not as advocates for change. Again I looked around the room, and again everyone was nodding in agreement. My heart sank. I was alone in seeing the illegitimacy of this difference in attitude, the lack of equivalent outrage on behalf of men and the resulting lack of interest in advocating for men.
The presentation ended and it was time for refreshments and congratulations at my friend’s success. I couldn’t do it. I left the room, locked myself in a washroom stall and wept. My hope that my friend’s empathy for men would lead her to see the functional equivalence of men’s and women’s issues had finally died. Like almost everyone I knew, she put women’s issues at the centre. Equalism, the bipartisan model, the equivalence of men’s and women’s issues, was beyond her reach as it was for virtually everyone else.
I tell this story because it was key to my own journey of grieving, that is, of coming to terms with the fact that equality and balance between men and women is almost impossible for most people to recognize. It is so simple a concept, so obvious, the idea that it all balances out between men and women – and so useful in that it eliminates victimhood and resentment and replaces those with balance, with equality, with reason for collaboration. That’s what everyone says they want! But it seems that the attraction to innocence, to projecting guilt onto men, to being the victim, is just too strong for most people.
My grief over that event played out in my life for some time. I had to integrate the injustice that society continues to perpetuate, the compassion without accountability for women and the accountability without compassion for men. I had to let go of my fantasy that my friend would come to balanced sexual equality, that she would be the first that I had a hand in converting. It took time because I had hung my hopes on her. It wasn’t really about her, of course, but about men, my need to grieve the fact that society just doesn’t care about men the way it does about women and children. That difference in empathy is a fact, and I even understand the biological, evolutionary reasons for it. But I hadn’t really accepted it. It was just too painful to be the sex that is hardly cared about.
I have accepted it now, and my vision of social change takes that fact into account. There was a time when we didn’t empathize with black people, when we saw them as subhuman, fit only to be slaves. That has changed. Perhaps it will for men, too.
I see the grieving process that I have outlined here as the key to authenticity and constructive advocacy. By grieving, we come to peace with an undesired reality rather than remaining angry at it. From that place of peace, we can craft an inspiring vision of what we want to achieve in the world and work towards it in a way that is collaborative and invitational rather than divisive and judgmental.