Saturday, January 7, 2012

My First Brush With Speaking Up And Related Thoughts

To explain a little relevant backstory, I have a friend named Beatrice. She's a coworker of mine, a single mother who is half a generation older than me. Namely, my age is almost exactly the average of Beatrice's age and Bea's daughter's age. Anyways, to get to the point, Bea is also rather good looking for her age. This leads to lots of people hitting on her, married men, guys half her age, and so onI became a dear friend of hers since we both carry undeservedly large amounts of the burden at work, and her extreme frankness in private has opened a door to me about the realities of what it's like to be a woman.

Seriously, you didn't know?

This article is what got me onto the subject of thought. I can't say that I've always been unaware, my long days of online gaming and my scrupulous attention to the OK Cupid blog have brought this issue up many a time in the past. The issue, of course, is all the blatant sexual harassment experienced by women. What has changed, in me, however, is the notion that I need to start speaking up about it. After all, if no one in my community wants to bring it up, then how is it ever going to go away?

Before I get to my story, I want to share my thoughts on the matter. Catcalling and things like that create a hostile atmosphere that's intensely damaging to both genders. It offends women and builds a sense amongst women that all that men want from them is sex. The fact that the harassment is incredibly gendered is where the real poison lies - women develop a distrust of men, which leads to an excessively restricted partner selection process. This means that, in many cases, "good" men are ignored, "bad" men are accepted. If you're laboring under the notion that men in general are only interested in you sexually, then why bother trying to sort the wheat from the chaff? Why investigate every guy who considers himself good, if everyone considers themselves basically good but then, from your perspective, they turn around and collude with the guys you know are bad and don't stop them from hurting you?

In this scenario, both men and women suffer. Women, from the obvious degradation, and men, from the consequential presumed guilt. The ideal result would be that men treat women as more than sexual objects, while women understand men as emotional individuals. The primary barrier to this, however, is male shaming techniques. No men want to speak up because it's not a big deal to them and they stand to lose the respect of their peers. Well, it's about time something changes.

What I did is disappointing, yet hopeful

Now that I've built you up with all of this introductory thought, here's the story. I was working with Bea and my more immediate coworker Bryan. Bryan is a fair bit younger than I am, and is the absolute pinnacle of "the man box". His behavior is so sharply dictated by the content of that box, I cannot even describe. When he first started working with me, he gave me this huge unprofessional speech about how he never gives anyone respect unless they earn it, about how he didn't really want the job but just did it because he didn't have anything else better to be doing (how about reading, troglodyte? OK, I didn't say it, but I wanted to), and so on. In his first week, he outed himself as a first-class piece of shit. Happily, I'm a mild soul, so I basically told him that if he crossed me he'd get his comeuppance and to just do what I told him to do until he got the hang of it.

To make a long story short, the kid has come a long way. He really did get his comeuppance. Very nearly fired, he angered a few people in very important positions and only barely hung on because of a few "Ol' Boys Club" networking contacts he had made. He's developed a decent work ethic and is closer to what I would consider a minimal level of respectfulness for a human being. Huge progress for a guy like that. One way, however, in which he has not made any progress at all, is how he treats the women who work there. Bea being an excellent example.

Bea is the kind of person who always wants to be cool with everybody, who wants everybody to be happy, even her enemies, and this is an admirable quality. However, she suffers from having insufficiently guarded boundaries, she doesn't know how to say no, except in the most flagrant of cases. After having read the above-linked article, my mind was filled with ideas of standing up and making a difference. The three of us, myself, Bea, and Bryan, were working together, when Bryan made a smart comment about something, Bea told Bryan that she was gonna beat him up (jokingly) for saying it, and Bryan commented that he'd be fine with that if they were both nude [while fighting]. OK, the fighting comment was somewhat objectionable, but I decided that this was the place to take a stand. This was the time. I needed to make a point about this just to get the wheels turning, even if it wasn't the ideal situation.

So, I bided my time. I waited until Bea left Bryan and I, and I cornered the poor kid. "Look," I said, "I know we all have a lot of fun joking around and such, but I need you to be more respectful towards Bea. That comment about nude wrestling seemed innocent enough, but I want you to keep off the sex topic. It's disrespectful and it makes her uncomfortable." Bryan was speechless. He simply looked at me, then looked at the ground, apologized, and I patted him on the back and that was that. Afterwards, I caught Bea and told her what I did. She hugged me and cried. Tears. I mean, I figured she would like that I said it, but she literally cried because nobody had ever said anything about it before. When Bryan made the comment earlier, she laughed, but when she cried, I began to actually understand what was going on, how much was being hidden.

Of course, not even a half hour later, Bryan was trying to shame me. He even tried to call me a bitch in a joking way, but I know how to navigate these waters. I could've gotten mad at him, called him out, something like that, but it would just feed him. Instead, I just smiled at him, knowing that he respected me deeply.

Concluding thoughts

In hindsight, I feel like this was a really good way for me to get my foot in the door. I had the advantage of respect from Bryan. I didn't need to explain myself beyond a simple "it makes her uncomfortable", and I didn't need to defend my manliness from him. I didn't need Bryan to think I was in the man box, because the respect he has for me comes from a history of behavior that I've built with him. This makes it safe for me, the only embarrassment I have is the fact that I didn't call out his behavior sooner. It went a lot easier than I thought it would, he didn't try to resist at all. He sensed my disapproval and was ashamed of his behavior. Later he would try to reassert his status, but I didn't give in to his taunting and thus took away his power, being as that he was trying to misuse it. I don't think it will always be this easy, but the opportunities do exist out there for other men.

If you have a story of calling out someone else for their abusive behavior, I'd love to hear it about.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What Are Feminists Allowed To Love About Men?

Today, an interesting article came up on my reader. Specifically, the issue of male objectification. Yes, you read that right. Here's the full, original article. What I find so interesting about this is hashed out a little more in the follow-up post.

How can men and women be appreciated, as a class, without being objectified?

DavidByron hits the nail on the head in his comment to the response article: "Honestly I am not sure what sort of qualities or reasons I *would* like to be appreciated for. It’s a tough topic."

Yes, yes it is a tough topic. When I first read the list, I was agape at that list being published on a relatively feminist blog. The basic definition of objectification is to treat something as an object, that is, with no due attention to it's desires, but rather, to be used for the benefit of the objectifier. This is said of men who leer at pretty young girls, they're not taking into account the fact that the girl is a person, too, they simply appreciate her for her sexual quality as one might appreciate a car for it's sleekness. Reading the list, this was very clear objectification.

Now, let me be the first to say that a year ago, I would've loved this list. Most menpeople seem to have no idea what objectification is and why it's bad, or at least can't see it from any perspective but their own. Men understand what objectification is when it comes to a "gold-digger" trying to use them for their money, that much is sure, even if they wouldn't use the term. In fact, in my younger days, I specifically harped on objectification as an example of female privilege, I felt like the ability to be seen like that was undoubtedly an advantage. While there are a few examples of how being overly sexualized can be beneficial (see: Women who can get out of a traffic ticket by showing a little tit), those examples are vastly trumped by the day-in-day-out damages of objectification: the lack of people taking you seriously, even people amongst your own gender, rape culture, and so on.

Regardless, part of why I came to start studying feminism is because I realized that my social perception of what it means to be a man was flawed, my perceptions were entirely in the box. Even though I couldn't articulate it, I knew it was flawed. I, and I imagine many men who browse sites like The Good Men Project, wish to be more than strong backs, more than chivalrous do-gooders. In fact, I suspect many of us want to escape that.

So how can men be complimented as a group without objectification?

The trick is to focus on the nature of why objectification is bad. Compliments like "Nice ass" leave no doubt as to why the suitor thinks highly of the young woman's ass. Because of the aesthetic pleasure he receives from gazing longingly at it. In other words, her being attractive isn't about her desires, it's about his. He makes it about him. In this sense, compliments about the good in men shouldn't be about what they do for women, but rather, should be about a more independent concept of virtue.

For example, Neely writes: "I love the shape of a man’s big, strong back when he leans over to pick up something heavy." This could be better phrased as "I love the muscle-bound, rough and utile bodies of men". The compliments seem similar, but the first one implies that she's sitting there watching her man of choice sweat and grunt and lift things - for her. Or for somebody. She's admiring him because of how he looks while he's doing things for other people. Commenting on the basic nature of men's bodies as a product of nature is more of a compliment, since they get to the very heart and reality of what it means to be a man. Nature gifts men with muscles during puberty that they didn't possess in nearly the same quantity as they had before. That's a compliment that isn't directed at "How are men useful to me?", but is rather oriented towards "What's cool about men in a general sense?"

What is important to realize, however, is that Neely walked into this with pure intentions. Feminists have a way of seeming rather dark on men in general, and Neely was trying to show the men of GMP that they're wanted and welcomed, even despite the (sometimes) unwelcoming language. To this end, I thank her.

Truth be told, though, the compliment I was really hoping for was "Thanks for respecting our need for safe spaces and trying to dismantle your own privilege". I know I'm far from perfect in either of those, but it's harder than it looks.

My Privilege

Today I want to write about my privilege. I have no doubts about the fact that I possess it, but I've been thinking about it a fair amount this afternoon and feel like putting words to blog would be an interesting exercise.

Mad Adam as a Man

As a male, I encounter certain kinds of privilege. The first and foremost one to me is the fact that I generally overstate my intellect. I've been lead to believe (although I've been generally blind to it) that women are significantly less encouraged from displaying and exercising their thinking minds. I'm the opposite, my entire life I've had people constantly telling me how smart I was because I could recall something or beat a person using a calculator on simple math problems. This kind of privilege carries immense benefit to me - encouragement drove me to sharpen my mind and learn and think. The downside to this privilege is that I developed a self-image that was entirely based around my thoughts that crested during high school. To say that I was narcissistic, condescending, and asocial would be an understatement. My privilege would save me again, however, as I pushed myself early on in university and ended up surrounding myself with people who were far smarter than I am and put me in my place. Somewhat.

I'm also pretty embedded in nerd-culture. I spent years roleplaying on online games, I had an anime phase, Robert Jordan phase, the list goes on. Throughout all of this, never was my geeky credentials called into question because of my gender. Regrettably, I participated in or turned a blind eye to others calling out girls in the community. In one of my more shameful moments, I even remember getting angry about an incident wherein I was "treating a gamer girl like a human" in the hopes of her liking me. She treated me like another human being and I was incensed that she didn't worship me because of "equitable" treatment. So much for people telling me how smart I am.

I face advantages at work. Although my workplace is majority women, being a male still comes with a position of power. Most of the upper tier management is male, making it easier for me to form bonds with them. We tried to form a co-ed softball team. I don't really like softball, but I figured I would show up for the purpose of company spirit and all that. We had to cancel the team because we couldn't come up with enough females to form the team up. In hindsight, it was doomed from the beginning because most of the people who did show up were part of the ol' boys network, and the (majority in the workplace) women, on an individual level, simply weren't interested in a softball team. The downside to male privilege in the workplace is that I'm often called to do menial work. If people need things moved, or lifted, I'm one of the few male workers there and consequently am called to do it, no matter what I'm working on. However, my doing this is in reality an opportunity, because people see me doing both "male" and "female" work and see me as flexible and dependable. Somehow my doing work that's socially considered "female" around the workplace is superior to women doing work that's socially considered "male". Another example of male privilege.

My family also exhibits interesting examples of male privilege as directly concerns me. Thanksgiving dinner, as just one example, is prepared by the women. I am free to help out, and I do more years than I don't, but every woman in the house is confined to the kitchen/dining room while the boys hang out and watch TV or play video games or whatever suits their fancy. It seems to me like a silly example of male privilege, but the silliness is really only an example of how deeply ingrained these anachronistic traditions are.

Mad Adam as a Caucasian
Being Caucasian is another good example of my privilege. These are harder for me to see, simply because the issue of racial privilege interests me less than that of gendered privilege. Some aren't hard to see, however, so I'll list them here.

Foremost comes my cultural choices. Being white, it's more socially acceptable for me to belong to damn near any subculture. I can be a geek, a frat boy, a sopisticate, a gangsterish thug, the world is my oyster. I suppose income is a big deciding factor here, as well, but there is no doubt in my mind that black kids feel a lot more pressure to gravitate towards thug culture than towards many others. Just look at the role models available - white kids have had people like Bill Nye, every president (OK, so the last one is only half-white, still counts), Leonardo DaVinci, George Washington, most of the Power Rangers, and so on. Heck, even Legos generally appear to be Caucasian.  Black kids have what - Flava Flave? There have been numerous positive black role models throughout history, but none of them get the press that the white role models do. The black role models who get press are the thug types, which leads to my assertion of my own privilege. Being white, people don't just assume that I'm a thug. On a similar note, language is another valuable one, this one more of a privilege over Hispanics. It's expected of dominant Spanish-speakers to learn English, but not the other way around. There isn't an ironclad reason for this, save that white people have most of the money and don't care to reprint forms and signs in bilingual format. I can't even sympathize with someone who understands little English and is trying to make it in the US.

This one goes for my privilege as a male as well, but I don't suffer nearly as much as underprivileged groups concerning the behavior of my peers. If a white male dopes up on crack, people don't look at me and think "I bet he's done crack or at least knows someone who does it". This benefit of the doubt helps me find gainful employment, relate to people (of all races and genders), or do virtually anything where the quick judgment of my character by people who don't know me plays a role.

Mad Adam as Heterosexual

My existence, for one, isn't seen as being the bane of masculinity. Nobody is likely ever going to seriously use "that's straight" as an derogatory term. Similarly, if I dress well, it's because I have a good fashion sense, not simply as a result of my sexual orientation. Similarly, when my living space isn't tidied up it doesn't surprise people because people don't automatically expect me to be an anal-retentive domestic decorator, which far too often seems to be attached to gay men. People also don't assume that I have STDs, I am trusted to give blood, which, while I don't particularly enjoy giving blood, seems to be a pretty significant message, that society doesn't think of me as likely having deadly diseases due to my orientation.

The way I interact with my peers is also construed differently, in a gender-normative way that generally works to my benefit. I probably experience less trust around women, but I experience vastly more trust from my male peers. I recall once having a gay friend crash at my apartment as he was "between employment" and had been kicked out. I was fine with him staying for at least a month, maybe two (after which he'd need to start paying rent) but my roommate at the time wanted him out ASAP. My roommate at that time was not somebody I thought of as being homophobic, but the more I paid attention, the more I realized he was. I protested a little, but ultimately I wasn't going to force my gay friend on my roommate if either party was uncomfortable with it. That same roommate would, I'm sure, take me in in a heartbeat should I ever need the assistance. Even were I entreating a female friend as my gay friend asked of me, I don't think she (or most potential roommates) would think of me so negatively, since, being part of the status quo, I'm given more benefit of the doubt.

I'm also allowed to participate in virtually any religion I should want to. Although I don't see religion as a particularly good thing, it is certainly a privilege that affects my life. I suspect that someday I may marry someone, if it were another man I would definitely have trouble with the marriage. I would encounter resistance from my family, from a location and minister to perform the ceremony, and legal issues with my marriage, such as whether or not it's even considered valid. Even if I lived in a state where it was valid, I may end up traveling to (or through!) a state where my marriage is not considered valid and it would thus be ignored.

Whew. I was just about to do a section on income, but trying to sniff out my privilege without the help of a guide is getting exhausting. Maybe another day.