The Problem with Negative Gender Politics

Amber Tamblyn’s NYT article I’m Not Ready for the Redemption of Men is causing a stir at the moment and offers a useful extension to some of my thoughts from the past couple of weeks.

For example, I noted recently that when Stage 3 critiques masculinity it is often perceived by Stage 2 as an attack on all men. The Stage 3 response is, “we are not attacking men, rather a specific form of masculinity that is dangerous and abusive.” Stage 2 responds with feeling rather than thinking, and this results in a disconnect between the two stages.

However, Stage 3 does not help much in this matter. If we look at Tamblyn’s article we see in the title a reference to “the redemption of men”: not “abusive men” or “some men,” just “men.” We read of an apparently singular way that “men relate to women” and whether there can be a new relationship with power “for men.” This type of language makes it very difficult for Stage 2 to accept the argument that Stage 3 is not out to attack all men.

At this point Stage 3 responds with their rejection of the #NotAllMen argument, on which I have also shared some thoughts. Stage 3 does not want to hear about individual men claiming personal innocence, as this is argued to belittle women’s experiences. Certainly, this is understandable, but it also asks men to deny the undeniable truth that not all men are abusers.

More generally, the article extends a relentlessly negative onslaught of media articles about men with a religious zeal. Men are expected to consider their desire for “redemption” and even “atone” for the sins of—literally—men. Tamblyn and, more generally, the Stage 3 position she represents, must have a peculiar understanding of men if she thinks the way to engage them in the issue of power and abuse is to accuse them all of being sinners who should engage in public acts of self-flagellation.

So we have yet another curious commonality between Stage 2 and Stage 3. Stage 2 largely operates by making people feel bad, either by regulating men’s behaviour or oppressing women in various ways. Stage 3 also largely operates by making people feel bad, by demanding acts of confession and pathologizing men (sorry: pathologizing problematic forms of masculinity). Certainly, Stage 2 is worse inasmuch as it caused the problem in the first place. But this does not mean that Stage 3 responses are automatically correct.

The best way to engage in gender politics is to make it a positive process that people actually want to partake in. This does not mean glossing over the very real acts of abuse that have taken place. But it does mean framing one’s anger in a way that actually leaves open a realistic path to dialogue and change. I know this sounds like a crazy moment to ask Stage 3—or, more generally, women—to take men’s feelings into account. It’s a big ask, for sure. But that’s the only serious way forward; that’s the genuine moral high ground.