Men, Sexism and Faux Oppression

'Iconscollection - Men' photo (c) 2007, Simon Adriaensen - license:

I was up very late last night talking to a friend about oppression.  The conversation that we engaged in, is one that I often have with my male friends.  There seems to be this disconnect about how power and oppression really function in the life of men.  I got the standard argument that I couldn’t tell him that they’re not oppressed, because of course, I am a woman, and have not lived a day as a man.  To me, this argument reminds me of the way in which White people love to assert that they are oppressed, because they are White, and that they face racism too.

Men are not oppressed because they are men.  This has been true throughout history, and it is true in our time.  One of the examples that was brought up last night,  was the ever popular grey flannel suit guy.  This guy, is the one who  went to work in the 50’s and 60’s to support his family. He worked long hours and generally speaking was unhappy with his life, and died early of a stroke or a heart attack.  Was the model harmful to men? Absolutely, but it certainly is not sexism.  The grey flannel suit guy, was in the position he was, not because of gender, but because of class.  He simply lacked the class power to be able to personally decide how to spend his time, and were a shift in class to occur, the very same man would find himself in a very different situation. This man faced class based oppression, because anyone who must sell their labour and does not own the means of production is unfairly disadvantaged, however, the moment he returned home to the private sphere, he was the oppressor and not the oppressed.  Even though he sold and in fact continues to sell his labour at an unfair price in the present day, the labour that occurs in the private sphere, which is largely done by women, continues to be devalued and performed without pay. 

The common argument is that not all men have the same benefit as the top one percent, however, once again, this does not make them oppressed because they are men.  The social stratification occurs because of other sites of oppression.  If one is trans, gay, of colour, disabled, poor, fat, or even a senior, these identities greatly impact the degree to which one is able to profit from male privilege.  It is the stratification or the other identities that impact men, and most certainly not their gender. This argument holds true for other forms of privilege as well.  If one is White, one of course exists with White privilege however, once again, class, age, gender, ability and sexuality, effect the degree to which one can benefit from Whiteness.  Isms may effect people’s lives differently, but the power behind how privilege works, is exactly the same.

For an ism to even become an ism, it must have an institutional factor, and as we are all aware, every single social institution is run by men. This tells me that the real problem isn’t gender, but the group to which these men who claim to be oppressed belong.  If anything, the false charges of sexism read like a complaint about an inability to profit from their male privilege to the same degree as the top 1 percentile. When these discussion occur, all other isms are factored out, in favour of uplifting gender as a site of oppression. It is wrong when women do it, and ridiculous when men do so in an attempt to claim sexist oppression.  The reality is that all of us will at some point negotiate some form of oppression throughout our lifetimes, and to erase these in an effort to claim that gender is a site of oppression for men, is not only reductive, but ignores the harm that occurs with “othering”  Creating a false oppression makes absolutely no sense, in a world that is already loaded with real oppressions.

None of this is to say that the gender binary does not hurt men.  Obviously, boys who are raised to believe that it is not manly to show any form of emotion are being hurt however,  the obvious reason for this form of discipline is specifically because it is perceived as feminine, and therefore weak.  The negative in this situation is not masculinity, but femininity.  Anything associated with femininity is nearly universally reviled, but such is not the case with masculinity.  In a society in which fetching water for instance, is largely done by women, it is seen as lesser than, but if this same activity is moved to a different culture, and the task is performed by men — the exact same task will be seen as necessary and important.

I find these types of conversations so frustrating.  Among privileged groups there seems to be this desire to claim an oppressed status  It’s almost like there’s a belief that there is something cool or wonderful about being oppressed, or that there is an understanding that they are missing out on something special.  The most convoluted explanations are given in order to justify claiming an oppressed status.   Privilege and power are large concepts to both understand and negotiate, but denying their existence, does not move us forward socially. In the case of men who insist on claiming gender based oppression, they are ignoring the other sites of their oppression to focus on a false negative.  This is a form of collusion, and like most people who collude, they cannot see the nose in front of their faces.  This claiming of a false oppression and investing energy to combat it, means that the man in question has been misdirected from dealing with the isms that they actually face.  In short, I don’t believe that gender is a site of oppression for men, or will I ever consider this as a rational argument.  I see it as a misunderstanding of how power and isms operate.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

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