Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Speaking from experience

I'm not an expert on popular culture so maybe you can help me out here. There is a recent film -- maybe a Seth Rogen title, maybe not; but something in that vein -- which opens with a young woman asking for help in a guitar store. What she gets isn't so much the help she requested, but rather a demonstration of the advanced guitar knowledge of the two male employees assisting her. The woman isn't really interested, but that doesn't matter: the two men are either convinced that she is or that she should be, so they proceed to compete with each other over who, in effect, can be the most irrelevant to her concerns. Engaged by neither, she departs just as soon as her routine request is fulfilled.

This pattern of behavior is as common in activist circles as it is in guitar stores or other workplaces: men assume an expert position vis-a-vis women and proceed to "impress" them as they believe women should be impressed. Sometimes this works, but most of the time it just alienates the intended audience -- so they leave. Within activist organizations as I have experienced them, lots of women are leaving, all the time, if not because of scenarios as specific as this, then because their concerns are not being acknowledged in a more general way.

I've thought a lot about how assuming an "expert" role has impacted my own relationships, particularly with women. What I notice amongst my healthiest relationships is that while I am sometimes asked for an opinion on one topic or another because of my background or interests, most of the time I'm not occupying any expert-type position at all, but am instead engaged in a dialogue where expert roles are being exchanged depending on the context. This seems to be the norm amongst family and friends, for example.

One of the great advantages of talking about feminism as a man is that it puts you in a position where you can't be an expert on many things. I think for men this is an important experience to have, since we've been socialized to believe that our self-worth comes from occupying a greater position of certainty than the next guy. For feminism to work best, men should feel comfortable not having all the answers or even feeling like they need to have any particularly good ideas. We should be very interested in listening to others, in order to formulate what could become a good idea. But we can't know what we need to know without first acknowledging the concerns of the women around us.

I have to believe that the dearth of male-initiated feminism within activist circles relates to this expectation on the part of men to feel like they need to be experts before they can speak with confidence on these subjects. And yet they will never be able to approach this standard as compared with women. Subsequently, it's not something men pursue in an open, active way.

But you don't have to be an expert on feminism to care about injustice as women experience it. Practicing feminism as a man doesn't mean speaking for women, but speaking for yourself about your relations with women. We all have relationships with women which are informed by political considerations, so why not talk about them? We are all experts when it comes to our own experiences.

Being an expert on everything is rarely all it's cracked up to be. In many ways it's just a lot easier to admit we don't have all the answers, namely because it's true! Why try to bear some impossible burden, when the work can be shared? A public endorsement of not knowing can be very reassuring to others who feel the same way.

Ideally, we should want to offer leadership in places where our skills are useful, but the flip side should be encouraging others to do the same. Feminist practice for men may even mean taking feminist rhetoric down a notch, or refraining from "taking action" on everything without first thinking about how this impacts the group. I think this is something I am struggling with at present.


Ethan said...

Wonderful! I think too that some of the best "progress," if I can use that awful word, can be made by admitting what we don't know, and by discussing why we don't know it and how we can change that.

JRB said...

Thanks, Ethan. I think what interests me most right now is how "admitting what you don't know" informs political activism.

It helps me that you see value in this as well.