How sexist towards men! How dare they imply all men are horrid and can’t cook! That’s awful. And while we’re at it, those stereotypes of fat useless beer-drinking dads you get in sitcoms, what a joke! And not a good joke! It just reinforces sexist stereotypes against me.
If you’ve been on, well, the internet at any point you’ve probably see the above in some form or another. Perhaps its even a thought that’s crossed your own mind. Perhaps you’re the one that wrote it on a forum somewhere. In which case, you’ll also be familiar with the following retort:
You can’t be sexist towards men.
And you may have seen similar things, like “you can’t be racist towards white people” or “there’s no such thing as heterophobia” – although to be honest, even by the terms I’m about to outline below, that’s definitely true, there really is no such thing as heterophobia, get over the whole “straight pride” thing already… anyway. Perhaps its even a thought that’s crossed your own mind. Perhaps you’re the one that wrote it on a forum somewhere. In which case, you’ll be familiar with… well, the inevitable fight that ensues.
The fight ensues because this is how one particular “side” reads this phrase:
These acts that demean a single group of people don’t actually exist. Or, at least, I don’t care that they exist. They don’t affect me personally, so fuck you. I don’t care about you. You do nothing but whine. Your complaints aren’t valid so shut up. I want to talk about my oppression, your views can suck it smelly white boy!
While someone else reads it as:
Okay, but those don’t represent a form of oppression or control at a social or cultural level. They don’t pose a systematic problem that prevents, say, men getting certain high-paid jobs, and while the stereotypes are a problem they don’t pose an ongoing threat. Besides, if you are already born with certain hidden advantages the marginal impact of a negative stereotype is much less.
See where I’m going here, yet? It’s yet another lost-in-translation argumentum ad dictionarium thing. I.e., whether something “is” or “is not” sexist depends not on its properties itself, but whether your definition of “sexist” allows it. With one definition, we focus only on individual acts, hurtful comments, prejudices and stereotypes, and with another definition we focus only on systematic biases, cultural expectations or established power dynamics.
With the former, an -ism can swing both ways. With the latter, well, to put it frankly if you think men are discriminated against systematically on average, or that white people suffer a cultural and social bias that keeps them down, you simply haven’t visited the western world recently (because we’re all about the First World Problems here, let’s keep it Anglo-centric for now).
The real sad part is that anyone who really knows what they’re talking about and has a modicum of sense has room for both definitions. It’s called “levels of analysis“. At one particular level we can look at sexism as individual acts – the fat drunken slob of a sitcom father, to someone shouting “cracker!” (a word that has zero cultural salience to me, though) to a manager slapping his secretary on the ass. We can then go up a level and see how those individual acts create a larger system. For instance, how at least 90% of people reading this would have automatically assumed that the manager was male the secretary was female in that set of examples. Those are things like gender roles, where the wife does A, B and C, and the husband does X, Y, and Z and never the twain shall meet. Or they focus on how names, accents, and skin colour affect someone’s job prospects and the level of respect they’re afforded by others even if base insults aren’t being thrown about. It is about where women are expected to take the lower paid cleaning jobs and still stay at home to look after the children. The higher level looks at cultural expectations, which are difficult to spot because people are so used to them, and even more difficult to break apart. That’s why people say “privilege” is a myth even though we can experimentally verify it, actually.
These are the cases not where a sleazy idiot slaps his secretary’s arse and says “nice tits, pet”, but where someone throws out a man’s CV when sifting through job applications because “why would a man want to be a secretary?” – although I like that example (which is based on a true story, by the way) because it hits both levels. It is individually damaging to the one man who had his job application thrown out in an individual act of sexism, and it is systematically sexist towards women by reinforcing the idea that this job is their role and no one else’s.
But why should you – if you are one of those social justice warr… erm… enthusiasts – not say something like “you can’t be sexist towards men”? Particularly if you mean it in the technically true way as outlined above?
You shouldn’t use it precisely because of one word in that sentence: “technically”. If something is “technically” true, it relies on your definition being right. It relies on everyone agreeing on that definition. And as thrown around like that, it’s just jargon. You might understand it, I might understand it, but does everyone? No. You are actively courting confusing, and intentionally obfuscating a point by sticking to this rigid concept that you own the term “sexism” or “racism”, and that it can only ever mean “prejudice + power”. Not everyone has your college-educated feminist enlightenment behind them.
This is not helpful.
And secondly, let’s be brutally honest here: practice what you gods-damned preach. If your mantra is to avoid stereotypes, avoid generalisation (which all people do) and be treat people as individuals with feelings and histories and personalities and real experiences, actually do that. Don’t throw all men under the bus and all white people there too simply because it suits your narrative at the time. Don’t dismiss someone’s personal concerns and genuine feelings because they don’t agree with you – engage with them instead. Going straight to the dismal soundbites will get you nowhere. The aim should be to convince people, and that often requires explanation. It requires frequent explanation, yes, and sometimes it will fall on deaf ears – but you are treating the very people you need to get on to your side with utter contempt by refusing to engage and explain your actual position. Those ears remain deaf precisely because so many people skip straight ahead to the lazy soundbites.
It’s a good point that unfair stereotypes of men and white people exist. But you have to understand that these are harmful in a qualitatively different way and not oppressive at a cultural or social level. As a rule in the western world men aren’t restricted from job applications or taunted by society or treated lowly because people assume they’re expected to conform to a stereotype, especially not a stereotype imposed on them by women and minorities. Our conversation right now isn’t focused on that, but let’s set aside some time to air it out anyway because it is interesting and as society evolves we need to focus on stereotypes as a wider concept, rather than just based on who is targeted.
Or anything, really. Have a stock explanation. Find a decent cutesy webcomic that explains it if such a thing exists. Or pick the other quote from further up. Just stop with the damn soundbites already and retire the idea that it is impossible to be sexist towards men and embrace a wide range of use-cases for that one lone word – because if your aim is only to shore up people who already agree with you, you will never be the change you need to be.