Are Men Oppressed?

It's wonderful to see gender oppression, and ANN's collective response to gender oppression, being so well debated in NvT. I have two short(ish) responses to Mary Heath's article (NvT#48). I agreed with about 97% of it. Here are the exceptions.

Are men oppressed as men?
Mary cites Marilyn Frye, who argues that simply being male does not and cannot be a ground for oppression being visited upon someone. If men are oppressed it's because of some other factor in their lives. They are working class, or ethnic, or gay, or indigenous, or have some other attribute which secures the oppression. But "his being male is no part of the explanation. Being male is something he has going for him". This statement is contrary to my direct experience.

In her own words Mary comes much closer to what my experience is/has been. "Until we tackle this, movements for nonviolent change will be constantly struggling under the weight of the training men have received to make them part of militarism and institutionalised violence against women and children" (against everyone and everything, in fact). "The weight" is oppressive.

The structures of society that shape men's and boys' behaviour towards participation in militarism include family, school, prison/police, and sport. I hope things are changing as much as they seem to be, but my childhood involved a lot of pain and suffering as I tried to "live up to what it takes to be a man". The first and always lesson is that boys don't cry, which is disabling and dangerous to health.

Imagine depending for peer group acceptance on an ability to suffer pain without flinching (cricket, basketball), and to inflict it on others without compassion or remorse (football). From age eight to seventeen I was expected to participate and succeed in these sports as a key indicator of my value as a human being, particularly at school. Which meant I was a failure because I really didn't like doing it, and wasn't very good at it. (Those cricket balls really hurt, man).

I got conditioned (by corporal punishment) to obey the parade of authority figures, starting with my mother and father. I got my direct military training in the high school cadets. While I never got selected as officer material and don't know what happened in there, the patterns of brutalisation on intake were the same across class and ethnic boundaries - differentiation came later. The one and only thing that selected me for this brutalising treatment was my sex. I am a man.

As working class man, I found it also very "useful" training for accepting pain and stupidity as a daily inevitable part of my work experience. In the work place, competition is for dollars instead of points or bodies. But it's competition nonetheless, socially and personally corrosive. And it's horrible.

Oppression is complex, and the way different oppressions interact is complex. I agree with Mary that we need as subtle an understanding of it as we can get. So let's not leave the oppression of men out of the picture. Let's not allow it to distort or excuse other oppressions either. Instead let's figure out how to transform all oppressions.

What about false consciousness?
What I understand people to mean when they say "all men are privileged under patriarchy" is that viewed through any framework of institutionalised power (parliament, courts, corporations, 'offices' of all types) or economic value (ownership of assets, income) men have more than women. Statistically. Generally.

Now, from my point of view all these things are not "benefits", but "false goods" held out as a reward for participation in the system of oppression. That men (and increasingly women) still chase these things - and give up compassion, love, community, and simple enjoyment of the miracle of life while doing so - saddens and hurts me.

This is the false consciousness that Marx and others have written about. Why do people support the institutions that oppress them? Because they are promised something that looks good in return. An example in my working life is the ingrained and unthinking competition among taxi-drivers for a short-term dollar gain. This undermines trust, and makes cooperative solving of major problems very, very slow business - even when everyone will get better working conditions and more secure earnings as a result.

I don't dispute that men as a class have more of these competitive "benefits". I only dispute that they're worth having. I prefer to be poor, property-less, and outside the thrall of institutions (none of which will have me anyway because of my poor performance in the past).

My feeling is that men will change their oppressive behaviours most effectively when they are led to see the personal and social benefits to them of such a transition. Less stress. An emotionally complete life. More friendships. More fun. More empowerment. That's an agenda I'm willing to work for. If I can't dance to it, it's not my revolution.

Bryan Law

Nonviolence Today Issue #49 - Table of contents

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