Men’s Rights Activists: A Letter to Marilena
About three months ago, I was discussing Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) with a friend of mine: Marilena, a third-year student in Philosophy at York University. She had been reading about MRA and found a lot of what they were saying to be compelling and significant.
And, let’s be honest: much of it is. Many MRA-brand ideas sound awfully good in theory. But I think there’s a serious and worthwhile critique to make, and she asked me to put it in writing so we could discuss it further.
This is my letter to Marilena.
It must be understood that MRAs have, at their absolute nuclear core, some useful and practical things to say. (Routine circumcision has a questionable moral basis; the sentencing gap deserves further exploration; we don’t do a very good job of handling male rape victims; etc.) Many of their arguments are actually quite strong and cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.
But there are some damn good reasons why you should want nothing to do with these guys.
Bluntly stated, it is absolutely undeniable that many self-identifying Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) simply hate women. Some MRAs have no problem with women whatsoever. Some MRAs merely resent women. (“She belongs in the kitchen” and other trash like that.) But large numbers openly, vocally and explicitly hate women. It shows in the language they use, the culture they consume and promote, in their stated attitudes about women, in their own self-image, and most of all in their politics.
And it’s not just that these men are kind of gross. It’s that the MRA movement provides a means by which they can organize and seek legitimacy. Instead of a bunch of isolated cranks writing nasty anonymous letters to women with blogs and newspaper columns, it’s an echo chamber within which the cranks can organize, spread their vitriol more efficiently, and actively work to dismantle anything which offends their delicate, delicate sensibilities.
Now, let’s not dismiss them unfairly. As I said upthread, MRAs do have some core points worth considering. Could it be the case that the good outweighs the bad? That making progress on these important issues counts for more than the fact that some of these guys are assholes?
Well, maybe. But here’s the key thing: we don’t need MRAs. In fact, more often than not, they do more harm than good.
We don’t need them because the MRA movement is a much bigger political project. Sentencing reform, for example, is a stated goal of the movement—but instead of being an end in itself, many MRAs view it as a component part of “fixing” the strides feminism has made over the last 50 years. These people aren’t going to accomplish sentencing reform and then disappear into the night: they’re going to keep going.
They’re going to go after rape victims and the supports we provide to them. They’re going to go after child support, alimony and the other “benefits” of having your life utterly torn apart by a divorce. They’re going to go after campus Women’s Centres and other safe spaces. They’re going to go after affirmative action, mentorship and other inclusivity schemes. They will not stop until we’re back in the 1950s. Sentencing reform is only one of the most photogenic parts of a plan which, on the whole, is actually extremely nasty.
We don’t need them because they aren’t the only people pursuing these goals. Quite the opposite, in fact: on many of these causes (support for male victims of rape, opposition to routine circumcision, promotion of queer rights, etc.), it’s the feminists (Yes, those very same dirty slut feminist whore shitbags etc. etc. etc.) who do an enormous part of the advocacy. This is an enormous blind spot for MRAs, and it’s one I’ve never heard a self-identifying MRA so much as acknowledge.
We don’t need them because MRAs want to view every problem as one of gender and sex, even when another lens—race, class, economic inequality, geopolitics, social change—would be more appropriate. This makes most MRA activism ineffective and incompatible with the activism other groups do.
Like, the sentencing gap? That’s not really about gender, nor is it really about the act of sentencing. The reason men receive disproportionately large sentences is, in actual fact, because black and aboriginal men receive such large sentences. Which, by extension, means we need to talk about race, ethnicity and aboriginality. Which means talking about K-12 and postsecondary education, literacy rates, the social welfare state, the credibility of police forces, drug and substance dependency, alcoholism, family and social structure, group identity, urban planning and zoning, micro- and macroeconomics, and a whole busload of other things.
MRAs describe and conceive of the issue as if it’s just a matter of judges being unfairly prejudiced against men, and routinely shout down and disrupt discussions to the effect that these other factors are in play. (“All this talk about race is distracting from the REAL issue!”) This approach and behaviour isn’t merely unhelpful, it’s actively destructive—and those who are hurt most of all are the very communities they claim they want to empower.
But most importantly, we don’t need MRAs because the MRAs themselves and the company they keep are so toxic and distasteful (I would even go so far as to say “irredeemable”) that they effectively scorch the earth wherever they go.
As soon as the MRAs begin to establish a presence within a movement or organization, people (especially women and visible minorities) start running for the doors. Other organizations stop returning calls. Splinter groups form. In the long term, movements either fall apart or are taken over by the MRAs. And as a result, any purpose or goal or social space is ruined. Within these spaces, the right to be offensive trumps the need for a civil discourse; the right to demand attention trumps the need to listen to others; the right to have strong emotional reactions to things trumps the need to hear the facts before making decisions.
As a broader movement, they offer nothing but impotent white-boy rage about losing their own entitlements. And as scholars and presenters of factual information, they’re almost always off the mark.
Insofar as the MRAs have points worth making (and, again, they do have a few), these points are almost always being articulated better and more effectively by other organizations: by queer rights groups, by doctors and physicians, by social workers, by scientists, by activists for penal reform, by community organizers, and—yes—by feminists.
That’s where the social justice comes from. That’s where the real change happens. That’s where intersectionality and complexity can be understood and addressed. And if we’re serious about dealing with these situations, that’s where we ourselves need to be.