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Archive for October 18th, 2011

Years ago, on a sun-drenched afternoon at the Vancouver Folk Festival, folk singer Utah Phillips was talking about his life. Having just returned from the Korean War, he was working in Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, and had decided he was a pacifist and an anarchist. Then his mentor told him, “Renouncing violence isn’t enough. You have to give up all the privileges that your life has left you with.”

I’m sure the tale grew in the telling – after all, who in the 1950s talked about privilege? But Utah was a storyteller, and probably would have admitted as much if cornered. But, despite such doubts, the comment stuck in my mind, and became the foundation of my thinking of what it means to be a male feminist. You can’t just announce that you believe in feminist principles or send a donation; you have to try living by your beliefs as well.

What do I mean by that? In some ways, I can more easily explain what I don’t mean. I don’t just mean ruefully admitting the truth of The Male Privilege Checklist. Nor do I mean a Gandhi-like renunciation of your normal life. Still less does it mean somehow a feminization of your thoughts and your actions (whatever that means), neutering yourself, or wallowing in guilt.

Instead, what I am talking about is a final act of maturation. Broadly-speaking, growing up is a gradually increasing awareness of other people and your responsibilities towards them – a journey away from egocentricity. You learn, for instance, to take turns, and not to interrupt others when they are speaking. You learn (or should) that little bits of politeness help people to get along.

Trying to move away from your male privilege might be called the last step in this process. A male feminist needs to rethink his way of interacting with people – especially women. He needs to learn not to be the first to speak when someone asks for suggestions, knowing that social conditioning makes many women slower to express opinions. He needs to learn to listen to women, and not to take charge automatically. He needs to realize that he is not automatically the center of attention, that he won’t always dictate the topic of conversation, or that women will view his concerns as paramount over their own. In general, he needs to learn a sense of restraint, and to extinguish the egocentricity that male gender roles encourage in him.

In particular, the male feminist needs this responsible attitude in matters of sex and gender. He needs to stop assuming, as catcallers on the street do, that, because he is interested in a woman, she will be automatically be interested in him, and that he has a right to impose his attention on her. He needs to learn that, while nothing is wrong with appreciating that a woman is attractive, something is very wrong with expressing that appreciation in any way that makes her uncomfortable. He needs to accept “No” as an answer, and to pay attention to the subtler signals of human sexuality that indicate whether attraction is mutual and might progress. If he misinterprets, he can never retreat into claiming that “I can’t help myself” or “Men are just following their biological imperative,” because he has chosen  to be personally responsible for his behavior.

This rethinking has to be extended to every aspect of his life – even small ones like how he occupies social space. What’s more, he needs to keep his choice constantly in mind, because most of his upbringing and experience tells him to do exactly the opposite of these things. Often, he will fail to meet his own standards, or over-compensate to the point that he looks or feels ridiculous.

Other times, both men and women will give him privileges he hasn’t asked for, listening to him while ignoring a woman, or hiring him in preference to a woman. He may never be sure that is what is happening, but the possibility will haunt him. Sometimes, he may be able to turn his male privilege to an advantage, such as advising that a woman be hired, but that will be qualified satisfaction at best. Most of the time, he won’t be able to do even that.

No question, renouncing your privileges as a man isn’t easy. Nor is it completely possible in our current culture. But it’s one of those things that’s worth trying despite its impossibility. After all, the alternative is to wallow in self-centeredness. And who wants to remain a child all his life?

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