The term “feminism” can evoke strong reactions. Its basic premise is the assertion that women are equal human beings. One of the most unfortunate assumptions is that feminism is strictly a woman’s issue and/or that men cannot be feminists.
This past weekend I attended a conference on Gender and Violence organized by a student group Men Against Violence. I am currently on the heels of completing lectures for my Philosophy courses on Wollstonecraft and Aristotle, and I couldn’t help but think of their theories in relation to the conference topic. One of the speakers at the conference, Dr. Thomas Keith, focused on what he calls “Bro Culture.” This “bro-code” socialization of young men, he explained, encourages behavior that manifests risky, life-threatening ways of being and void of empathy. Moreover, in the matter of violence against women, young men are numb to the seriousness of the violence in part through the media’s perpetuation of viewing women as objects. Keith noted comedians who have made rape jokes yet retain their popularity. Quite rightly, he said “No woman ever finds a rape joke funny.”
Another problem, especially with college life, is that when there is violence done to women, the “bro-code” enforces a silence among the young men who are privy to information of a crime. Part of the problem is that crimes against women are not seen as actual crimes by young men because they have been socialized to think harassment and rape are funny.
How do we address this? Keith stresses that men must get involved in the education of men. His angle in the feminism discussion centers around the detriment to young men’s lives when they actively pursue harming and degrading women. That is, the character traits emphasized for the “Bro” are exaggerated and cartoonish concepts of being a man which leave out essential qualities of what it means to be human such as empathy and nurture. Violence against women is the horrific result of this “education.”
To drive home his point that violence against women is not simply a woman’s issue he gave an account of an interview with a young male college student. The student’s sister had been raped at a college party, and because of the trauma she committed suicide. Keith said he has heard so many versions of this story on college campuses. “It affects all of us” he said.
Keith encouraged the audience to not participate in sexist culture that marginalizes women. Media and the like are interested in profits, so do not allow companies that market by using images of women as objects to profit from you. The role of culture resides in our hands! It need not be dictated by offensive stereotypes and corporations’ bottom lines.
Another speaker, Dr. Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox, also emphasized gender training as a central factor in violence. When news breaks of school shootings, for instance, the media poses all sorts of inquiries but leaves out the obvious, namely boys and men are committing these crimes. Adding to the discussion of rape, he pointed to a shift in language by the media to report cases. Normally, he explained, a defendant is referred to as the victim; however, in rape cases the term “accuser” is used instead. He argued this different term highlights a change in the way rape is reported and viewed. Empathy for the victim wanes with this label and attaches a negative-active perspective to the victim. She (although the victim can be male) becomes the aggressor and the “suspect” is the victim or the “accused.” This shift in language does not occur when reporting on other crimes. One such case, The Steubenville rape case, where boys video taped the rape of a sixteen year old girl, he called an “indictment on our society.”
As I mentioned, I wrapped up my last week of teaching with lectures on Wollstonecraft and Aristotle. With Wollstonecraft, she articulated the bold (obvious) assertion that women are human beings with souls (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792). She demonstrated the illogical and immoral position against educating women. By declaring that women are in fact human beings she insisted that their capacity for reason must be developed (since reason is the defining characteristic of human beings). To deny education is to deny the development of reason, which in turn prevents the ability to be a moral agent (virtuous). But, a couple lines in particular from her work scream out to me now in light of this conference:
“I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society” (my emphasis).
“…but it is first necessary to observe, that my objection extends to the whole purport of those books, which tend, in my opinion, to degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue.”
Wollstonecraft here points out the glaring effect of not only training women to focus on being pleasing, but that this creates a sub-human species that negatively impacts the society in its entirety. It is astonishing to me that centuries later we are still discussing the very real and dark unfolding of her warning. Underscoring the lack of understanding among “bro-culture,” to borrow from Keith, is that women are meant to be pleasing. That is why it is difficult for some (but certainly not all!) young men absorbed in such a socialization to fathom violence as wrong or criminal.
How to live well is overlooked as part and parcel to education. I’m reminded of this when I teach Aristotle’s The Nicomachaen Ethics, and I thought of it when listening to Keith and Katz at the conference. Happiness, excellence, flourishing are essential means for enjoying one’s life. Why is that not the focus for young men? Why bombard boys and girls with restrictive gender roles? Aristotle tells us that Happiness is acquired not by chance but by habit, learning, and cultivation. Why do we spend time enforcing hyper-masculinity especially when such a disposition lends itself to the disturbing statistics of higher suicide rates, death rates, incarceration rates, and fatalities in car accidents of young men?
I appreciate the aims of this conference and the project to unearth gender and feminism as more than a woman’s issue but as something that belongs in dialogue about culture overall. How does gender training impact men? In turn, how does that impact women? Violence against women is clearly a serious harm to women, but it is also an attack on families and society. Investigating causes of violence involves strengthening women and teaching young men that violence does not demonstrate power but actually reveals a lack of power and excellence.