Saturday, 14 March 2015

When Did Feminism Become a Byword for Intolerance?

I am annoyed with a certain type of feminist right now.

Not all feminists, let me hasten to add. Most of them are reasonable, intelligent people (of both genders) who look at words written on a page or screen and actually think about the possible subtext within them, rather than just adding them up like word-numbers and coming up with some total of infinite chauvinism. If you've been anywhere near Twitter or social media in the last few days you probably already know where I'm going with this. I am of course talking about the Andrew Smith debacle.

For those who don't know, YA author Andrew Smith gave this interview to VICE. In it, he was presented with what was, quite frankly, a loaded question containing the accusation that his stories aren't 'woman-friendly' enough. The response he gave, in that moment and as an attempt to defend himself from a question with distinctively disapproving undertones, was actually two paragraphs long, but it was this first paragraph in particular that kicked everything off:

"I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though."

And lo, the Supreme Feminists of the Movement did descend to vent their wrath on the poor sod. 'Oh, so you're trying to be better, are you? Well that's not good enough, Mister Manly Male Author! How DARE you not be well-versed in the mysterious wonderfulness that is the female entity - you get an F, you rampant misogynist!' And various other comments along that particular train of thought. Within hours Twitter had divided itself into two camps; one attacking Andrew Smith for his inadvertent 'misogyny,' the other attacking the attackers for 'bullying' him.

I'll admit, taking his words at face value, there is a certain dismissive quality to them when it comes to his views about women. But only if that's as far as you choose to think about those words - like I said previously, if you're adding them up like word-numbers instead of looking for the subtext beneath them. So how about we try that? Let's look at it in a little more detail.

"I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all."

I was raised in a family where there was just me and my younger sister, with a father who was in the Navy and so was away from home a lot, often for months at a time. Let me tell you, in families where you get little to no contact with family members of the opposite gender, being clueless about the mind-workings of the gender opposite to your own is a genuine thing. It's not even just clueless - it's clueless and a little bit scared of just how much your cluelessness puts you at a disadvantage with that opposite gender. The fact is, people with both genders present in their family will predominantly - not always, but certainly in the majority of cases - have that extra layer of knowledge and confidence compared to those who don't. It might only be a slight advantage, or it might be huge - but it's there, and to those that have it it'll always be invisible, because it's such an everyday thing they take it completely for granted.

"I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life."

Any first-time parent will tell you, the moment you hold that newborn in your arms and realise that you are completely and utterly responsible for its safety, wellbeing and happiness for... ooh, at least the next eighteen years of its life - when you still feel like you've barely figured out how to keep a handle on your own - is as terrifying as it is momentous. Now factor in the fear from the previous statement on top of that. I heard that fear in the statement Andrew Smith made, because I know I felt it too, when I held my baby boy for the first time. Before then, knowing precisely nada about the care and maintenance of willies, for example, had never seemed like a problem to me. Suddenly I found myself worrying that this very lack of knowledge would make me a neglectful parent, but actively seeking the knowledge to remedy the situation might alternatively earn me a visit from social services on suspicion of child abuse. In case you're wondering, I still don't know much. His daddy has the same equipment, so I feel he's better qualified than me to know what needs doing and when and how often. If that makes me the female equivalent of what everyone's bashing on Andrew Smith for, so be it.

"I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though."

This is the statement that seems to have caused the most outrage - and yet, when you really think about it, it's the one that all those angry feminists should be taking heart from. He uses the word 'ignorant,' for a start. That's not a complimentary word - no-one calls themselves 'ignorant' with any sense of pride, do they? He's being honest and acknowledging it as a personal fault. And then he follows that up with 'I'm trying to be better though.' Not only is he acknowledging the problem, he's acknowledging that it needs to be fixed and he's trying to fix it.

I could've just stopped there when it came to reading between the lines of what he said. But then in this other interview (a more in-depth version of the original) he talked about his childhood, and how he was regularly beaten by his parents (father and mother.) Which added another layer of poignancy to the statements he made and was now getting so vilified for. When you are regularly and repeatedly hurt by the very people you look to for love and to keep you safe... well, from then on, trust is something you don't just hand out willy-nilly to people. Usually because you spend more time looking for clues that you might suddenly be about to get another beating than figuring out how to just, like, totally get where they're coming from. Y'know - priorities and all that...

So, to all those people who jumped on his statement and tore out a definition of 'passive chauvinism' or whatever the heck it was that put those ants in their pants... is this how we're going to play this now? We're just going to scream like harpies at every single man who says anything that isn't utterly pro-women? Jeez, have you people ever even looked at the comments under the average Jezebel article or YouTube video that even discusses women? That's where you go if you want proper, serious misogyny m'dears. How many men have you known in your life who've ever uttered the immortal phrase "Women - I'll never understand them!" (Usually accompanied with a heavy sigh and a sad shake of the head.) Are we going to hunt all of them down too, in our Quest To Eliminate Sexist Man?

If that's truly what modern feminism has come to, we've got a problem. Because they're not the real bad guys. I know that's what makes shouting at them so much easier and puts us at far less risk than going for - ooh, I don't know, the guys that have downright dangerous views, let's say... but it's also hugely counter-productive. You don't attack people who say they don't understand, you offer to educate them, politely and with the intention of making them an ally rather than another moosehead to hang on your wall. Gandhi knew that, and so did Martin Luther King.

When you attack the 'ignorant' (as Andrew Smith openly called himself) you become intolerant. And then you're less than one step away from becoming the very people you claim to be 'fighting against.' You want to know who your real enemies are in the struggle for equality? Go visit their watering-holes. Like big cats looking for dinner, they tend to hang out where their prey gathers - Jezebel, YouTube and the like. Read some of the comments left there. Seriously, read them. They'll make what Andrew Smith said look positively pro-sisterhood.

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