Thursday, 29 May 2014

I'm Not Who You Make Me Out to Be

Reading about misogynist extremist Elliot Rodger's killing spree, I found a lot of people who wanted to attribute his violence to assorted things: wide-spread misogyny, sexual frustration, insanity, poor home life, etc. Some people, of course, blamed women in general because women in general would not sleep with him--and of course what they really mean is women-Elliot-Rodger-found-attractive in general; in response to this deranged attribution, others have rightly critiqued the construction of masculinity which requires men to have sex with women in order to become/remain men. While I think there were a number of factors, this last one strikes me as highly relevant to this particular case but also to a whole plethora of misogynistic violence.

For instance, Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic writes, "To [Rodger], women aren't people; they're markers of who is and who is not a man." The choice women make between men defines which men succeed at musculinity and which fail. Berlatsky argues that this construction of masculinity "creates a version of male identity that is bifurcated, or split in two. There is the man you should be, and then there is the failed, non-man thing you are." So the rejection of the latter, the non-man thing, is central to masculine identity, and at its apotheosis this rejection involves the violence against women, gay people, and "failed" men.

Now, I have no interest in supporting any construction of masculinity whatsoever, but insofar as there is masculinity, this sort of masculinity which is dependent on the attraction of women is always going to be toxic. If men are dependent on women in order to gain the identity they desire, then there is a high incentive to manipulate women's choices. After all, it is certainly possible that women will not make the choice you desire; in order to prevent this threat to identity, some men will try to avoid giving women any choice after all. This might come in the form of manipulative pick-up artist tactics or it might com in the form of rape. Finally, it will involve the sort of violence that Elliot Rodger committed.

I have been using very determinist language. Of course many men will succeed because enough women will make the decisions which give them the identity they want; these men probably won't see any problem with the system as it is. And many others will simply be miserable and conflicted, caught between respecting women's agency and not getting the identity they want from those women. But for those who do not succeed at the masculinity to contest, the incentives are very high to disregard women's agency altogether, and so it is almost inevitable that some men--probably many men--will do so. Those men are certainly culpable for their actions, but the entire system which incentivizes those actions is also culpable.

So there seems to be, for the individual man, three choices: the first is to reject the entire construction of masculinity; the second is to remain trapped in it; and the third is to attempt to override women's agency. Of course I advocate for the first, but I at least suggest we support men who choose the second, even as we try to tear down the whole thing.

Three parting notes:

First, I haven't mentioned other issues which do bear on Rodger's killings and on misogyny in general. For instance, entitlement seems to play a large role in Rodger's video and manifesto: he not only needs women to choose him, but he deserves women to choose to him. It is easy to flip the whole dynamic along gender lines: women, too, need men to choose them in order to really be women, but they do not generally have the same sense of entitlement, which might be one of the reasons women are far less likely to use violence against men. And there are certainly other reasons women are less likely to be violent, too, and I'm sure all of those reasons are due to some cultural construction or another; not one of those reasons is biological or is intrinsic to their biological sex. And I'm sure there are particular psychological factors involved, too; after all, only some men follow through on the incentives I've been talking about. All that is worth talking about, too.

Second, I think this issue might be generalizable in certain ways: any identity which depends on the choice of other people (or another person) will be in constant peril. As a consequence, anyone who constructs their identity in this way will either live with the risk that they might lose or fail to achieve their identity, or must find some means by which to coerce the choice of those other people. If they take the first route and succeed, then they will probably not see that anything is wrong with this way of constructing identity, but if they take the first and fail, they will probably have a destructively low sense of self-worth. If they take the second route and succeed, they will violate another person's agency, possibly with violence. If they take the second route and fail, they will not only violate another person's agency, but they will even more radically jeopardize their whole endeavour. Depending on the context failure or success is probably random, not merited, so this cannot possibly be construed as a fair system, but even if it were fair, it would still incentivize the second route and obscure that fact to those who succeed at the first. Here are some examples I can think of: a parent who depends on their children for their identity as a parent, an employee who depends on their bosses for promotion, a blogger who relies on public acclaim for their sense of self-worth.

Third, this is not a call for independence. Of course we are, and must be, dependent on other people. I am arguing not for isolation but simply for a construction of identity which is not dependent on others. I am not denying the very real sense in which we are emotionally, politically, and materially dependent on other people.

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin