My identity revolves around an axis of principle, one which says that every person has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Naturally, the right of individuals to pursue those things will come into occasional conflict, and so we as civilised people place certain restrictions on our freedom to guarantee the rest, restrictions that say, “I will pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness short of the point in which infringes upon the right of another to do the same.”
The short-hand for this is the social contract.
When I say that my identity revolves around this axis, I mean that I feel compelled to call out those who transgress those boundaries while doing my sincere best not to transgress them myself. That’s who I am. Every minute of every day is a conscious effort to pursue that end. I view, for better or worse, all things social in terms of the social contract. All of my writing involves some version of this theme at its heart.
If you want to deal with me, you have to deal with this idea of the social contract, so let’s examine it in more detail.
In the age of “identity politics”, my focus on gender equality must come first because those who disagree with me will point to my support of women and calling out of men as identity politics – a cognitive bias where one favours members of some group as a distinct political alliance against others.
In traditional politics, this partisanship is apparent in the United States as Democrats versus Republicans, but now refers to any number of groups based on gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnicity, or whether they support the designated hitter rule in baseball or not.
As someone who identifies with feminism, “of course I side with women over men.” I am a beta male who feels compelled to apologise constantly for my masculinity and whiteness. The things I do regarding gender equality must come from that place.
The truth is that gender does not matter to me and I abhor that sort of tribal thinking. Women, and those among them who are feminists, are imperfect like anyone else. Blindly supporting those people because they belong to the in-group is a huge part of the problem. Seeking gender equality means striving away from that sort of thinking.
Still, I am a feminist. Why? Because women existed as explicit second-class citizens right here in this country until comparatively recently. As most of humanity seems to agree that some version of true democracy (any system that provides agency to the citizens of that system) is desirable, and so suffrage is the preeminent feature of that system. Sure, men eventually passed the laws that allowed women to vote, but it came on the strength of the backs of women who fought for that change.
The idea of waves of feminism does not weigh heavily on me – I try not to bog myself down too much in those sorts of categorisations. Is this third or fourth wave? Irrelevant. The push for gender equality exists in the tradition of those feminists who pushed for suffrage, and in that tradition I approve of the feminist label.
The focus though is not “what rights can we give women (or, insert any underprivileged class)?” The focus is not “what restitution can we seek from the privileged class?” No amount of restitution would correct the damage done throughout history. The focus, for me, is the social contract. Maximum right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness restricted only by the right of others to the same.
Why, then, does this seem to take the form of supporting women and calling out men?
I hesitate to use phrases like “patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity” because it makes the intended parties tune out of the conversation, but, yes, those things. We live in a world that historically viewed men as the movers and shakers; women stayed and minded the home. As we move towards greater agency for women, the status quo resists that.
This is what women pushing for equality in particular reference with “patriarchy”. It doesn’t mean simply that men are in the boardrooms and political offices. We could change that tomorrow – patriarchy would still exist. It’s ingrained in the system itself, as much as any person. Until we can make the necessary modifications to the system to allow for the equal agency of all people, certain people, on the basis of their membership in some characteristic-based group (over which they had zero control) puts them at a disadvantage.
This is not every case. It’s a generality. People overcome those disadvantages, some succeed despite them. The exception does not disprove the rule though. In fact, pointing to the individuals who are exceptions to these general tendencies (what one might call a Token) is itself part of the problem because it prevents people from dealing with the general reality that, no, members of this group often cannot achieve that.
It does not mean creating arbitrary mechanisms to elevate under-qualified individuals to positions for the sake of representation. That, too, is tokenism. It means identifying and correcting the mechanisms that otherwise prevent those individuals from being qualified so they have the same opportunity as anyone else. When they fulfil those qualifications, the system (and people therein) must be able to recognise that qualification and provide equal opportunity – another element that often fails.
Case in point – the assertive professional woman who people in the office view as “bitchy”. Even more assertive men in that same office, bordering on aggressive even, may be seen as career-minded and driven, but it’s still commonplace for people to excuse that trait in women as undesirable bitchiness rather than the competitive edge that sees men succeed.
These double-standards do exist both ways, which is why the emphasis is gender equality and not “equality for women.” Men are unwelcome in certain professions. They face ridicule (and alarmingly often homophobic jokes) for displaying certain characteristics and tendencies, a pressure that results in more men committing suicide than women. Men face real problems in our society.
They all derive from this archaic sense of “men should be this and women should be that.” Note that this archaic sense is deliberately presented as a binary. The reason it’s a patriarchy rather than a matriarchy or some non-gendered term is because defined success in terms of the expectations for men. That’s all. It does not represent a vilification of men or masculinity. It’s a vilification of this archaic gender expectation.
Look at it this way. We have some imaginary line for maximum personal freedom. Men currently operate at, say, 85%. Women operate at 63%. The idea of gender equality is not to give women more rights than men or even to bring the women equal to men at 85%. It’s to elevate everyone closer to 100% by shaking off these ridiculous expectations of gender.
Got it? More rights and freedom for everyone.
Women are at the greater disadvantage of the two, which is why one hears references to male privilege and the rumblings of why I often appear more supportive of women and inclined to call out men. Because of those gendered expectations, men receive institutional insulation from accountability for many of the things that hold back women.
Even if one is not a sexist pig who believes all women should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen obeying her man, one still benefits in this sense from the social expectation.
Honestly, it’s a little okay in the sense that one does not have to disadvantage himself arbitrarily for the sake of equality. Recognise the privilege where it exists, recognise the harm it causes others’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and then leverage that privilege to help them. No one wants to take away that freedom. We need to ensure that freedom for other people. We keep it, they add it.
Let us examine this more specifically, with an example to shed light on what is meant rather than relying on buzzwords.
One might see a troll on Twitter, perhaps even a bot designed to automate the process of harassing people. It spews one sexist message after another on social media, targeting at first one user and then those who step in to support that person.
First, that person is most likely to be a woman. It happens to men all the time, but not with the frequency with which women experience this sort of harassment. Second, rather straightforward, right? Most people, men included, see that sort of thing and know the harassing account is terrible. Not enough people, which is part of the problem, but most.
Now along comes another man. He sees the woman harassed by the message replying back and offers the suggestion that she cease responding to the troll. After all, the troll specifically wants that outrage, energy expenditure, and wasted time. It plays right into the trolls hand to have someone engage back. In her best interest, he suggests that she stop doing that.
The trouble is, that woman did not solicit opinions about how best to handle the harassing account. She made a decision about how she wanted to handle. “I’m fine with spending time and energy replying to this account who clearly does not get it because it sends the message to everyone else who can read it, ‘I do not tolerate this sort of behaviour’.”
Not only is one’s suggestion unsolicited, but also it undercuts the agency she exemplified by taking a course of action already. Now she is dealing not only with the troll but also with this new man’s account who feels an entitlement to impose his opinion on her. Women have expressed not only that men do this to them with alarming regularity, but also those men, acting in her best interest, explicitly express their frustration that she is providing time and attention to the troll rather than them, as though she owes them either her time or attention.
That is perhaps the most insidious branch of this. One can identify the traditional “alpha male” misogynist from a mile away. More dangerous is the “nice guy” who knows what he is supposed to say and do to be a good ally, but does it solely because he feels that then entitles him to the time and attention of the women he supports.
Nice guys do not finish last. They finish whenever they meet someone else who makes the autonomous, sovereign decision to afford them time and attention. It often takes longer for the “nice guy” precisely because so many of them are misogynists in nice guy clothing. It requires far more vetting on the part of the woman.
While we are here, the “friend zone” is also a fabrication. What one refers to is friendship. This is not a platonic holding area where women relegate beta males who lack sufficient sexuality, it is where people hold others in their heart who they like and do not want a romantic relationship. Men and women can be friends, but, and this also seems much to do with gender expectations, men view women through such a sexualised lens that a platonic closeness seems unfathomable.
To be bitter that someone one likes does not return the interest in a sexual way is to reduce that person to a sexual object. It places their value squarely on sexual availability. “If I cannot have sex with this person, then what is the point of having a relationship with them at all?” If one does not have an adequate answer for that question, then either one needs to step away from the other person altogether or find someone who consents to a more anonymous sexual relationship. I disagree with the latter, but I won’t take that away from willing participants.
This is the sort of failure in the social contract that leads to my near-constant state of mental exhaustion and existential crisis.
It’s a personal investment in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that lacks empathy sufficient to consider where that harms another human being. It’s one revelling in their right to punch something and complaining that the other person, bruised and bloodied, objects too much at their being punched.
“Why do I have to respect her right to tell me to go away, but she does not have to respect my right to offer her an opinion?”
Personal autonomy. That is the hard line between what one can do and what one cannot do. She has the right to tell you to go away because what you are doing is infringing on her autonomy. If you observe her request, you retain your autonomy away from her. Contrariwise, if society compels her to respect your opinion, we take away her autonomy while not affecting yours. The arithmetic on this is quite simple.
This does not mean that everyone gets left to their own devices. In this gendered sense, men, you do not have to leave women to fight battles alone. Misogynists do not respect or listen to women, and when that becomes evident it becomes right to interject and call out the behaviour in support of the person harassed. What one should not do is strip away the autonomy of someone handling things quite well as though they cannot do it without one’s support.
Defending/protecting is not supporting. The distinction between those concepts is autonomy. Only in the most dire situations does a person need defending or protecting – people regularly need support.
Another way of framing this is the “white knight complex”. Those who ride in to defend and protect are practising a form of sexism often referred to as the white knight complex. They do not view women as fellow humans and equals, they view them as damsels who require saving and seize opportunities to strip their autonomy in the name of “protecting” them. It can come with good intentions, but it serves the same unfortunate end. (“White knight” itself is not a derogatory term though, as sexists will often wield the term the discourage people who are offering support.)
Autonomy – that is the line for all things in the social contract. Are they hurting anyone else? No? Then who cares, let them enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is hurting someone? Then we need to examine the behaviour and modify it until it becomes acceptable.
The philosophy does not stop at gender equality – it extends across all things. Gay rights? Completely on board. Two men getting married does not affect anyone else. I understand your religion may not permit it, but we are not subjecting everyone to the tenets of your religion. You have the autonomy to practice that religion, just as everyone else has the right not to practice it. They have the right to get married. You have the right not to marry someone of the same sex. Autonomy.
Every single thing about how people co-exist comes down to these principles.
Here’s a non-gender equality example:
Am I a Marxist who wants to destroy capitalism? No, I think a true market is the best economic system. However, I also believe we have ample evidence that what we have is not a true free market. A minority of our population who controls the wealth uses that to control the legislation and rig the system for their benefit at the expense of everyone else.
Do I care if someone is a millionaire? No. Acquiring wealth is not an unethical thing. Theft is though. And if one becomes a millionaire by profiting from others, that is an unethical thing. Profit is revenue minus cost. If the reason one is a millionaire is that their revenue is high from putting that much into society, then great. If one is taking more from society than ones contributes, then that person is hurting others and I object on principle.
We have the recent story of a 26-year-old man who raped a 14-year-old girl. The judge released the man on probation and subject to the sex offender registry, but without prison time because “he had no prior offences and it was only one victim.” Rape, a violent crime overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women (though not exclusively, and I despise that I must make that conspicuous distinction), resulted in no prison time on those grounds.
Name another violent crime in which a judge would conclude, “The defendant has no prior offences and it was one victim. I do not see prison time as necessary.” Arson? Murder? Assault and battery?
This is not even a case of “innocent until proven guilty” – this was a case of convicted felon. Even in cases where a rape victim finds the courage to report, subjects themselves to the repeated trauma of the proceedings, and sees the conviction of their attacker, they may still see them walk free on grounds like, “It was the only victim.”
So, no, I am not sorry for being a man or for being white, but I do recognise that I live in a society that will readily snatch the autonomy from a person for failing to be both of those things, for being something other than heterosexual, cis, able-bodied, or countless other ridiculous criteria that do affect how people view the situation while having no actual bearing on the situation itself.
It’s a society, and always has been, in which a dominant group will seize an advantage in personal autonomy not by correcting deficiencies in social institutions but be seizing the autonomy of less privileged groups.
This is also why people say things like “one cannot be racist against whites” or “cannot be sexist against men”. Obviously one can hate someone for being white or being a man, but it lacks the institutional inoculation from accountability that it does in the opposite direction. Programs that explicitly target a group of people will succeed if the targeted group is not already in a position of adequate power in that society. This is why suffrage is important. This is why representation is important.
We do not conclude that white people and men do not struggle in this country – they do. They struggle in the same ways as everyone else, and they struggle in unique ways because they belong to these groups in a society that, from its inception, did things based on group membership. Even as a liberal/snowflake/SJW, as a white man I can say that I empathise with your fear and struggles, too.
What I cannot condone is remedying that by stripping the autonomy from members of these other groups. Yes, much of this is in place because of that group membership, but the solution does not actually appeal to those memberships. This is not identity politics, it is the recognition that the application of institutions, laws, folkways, and mores in our society affects everyone differently, and historically it has a foundation in those memberships.
We want to move away from them, to maximise autonomy for everyone so they may pursue life, liberty, and happiness to the greatest extent possible. People will find varying levels of success with that, but it should come on the basis of their character and effort. Currently, we do not see that and that is not opinion – the lazy and wicked can succeed, the industrious and conscientious can struggle and fall. We are born into a lottery system the doles out advantages, disadvantages, rewards, and punishments unequally and unfairly. One might be able to square with that if it reflected something naturally occurring, but the lottery system is one manufactured, implemented, and maintained by people.
We have chosen to do these things to ourselves and to others. We must be the ones who chose to undo them.
Post Script on the Gender Items
I brought forth these ideas on gender equality not as a flawless ally of the cause, but as a humble citizen. My personal attitudes toward gender equality are a work in progress as I learn to identify privilege and gender expectation in my life, things that I took for granted that might cause harm to others.