As a white man, I rank very high on the ladder of privilege. My skin color and my gender are just two aspects of my identity, which have been prioritized by Western society for centuries. I also benefit everyday from my sexual orientation (heterosexual), my nationality (Canadian), my level of education (two university degrees), my mother tongue (English), my lack of disability (whether physical or psychological) and my age (28). It took me some time to understand this but now I know that, in almost every aspect of my identity, I have immense privilege, which many do not. Unfortunately, many people don’t see it that way. Many people with a similar attributes to myself have not realized their privilege and fight against any evidence to that effect.
The two cases examined below show this backlash and are similar for a number of reasons. First, they are social movements fighting inequality in society – one on the basis of race, the other on gender. Second, they both utilize the Internet and social media as tools for communication and organizing, including Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Third, both have been met with criticism from privileged people outside their movements trying to invalidate their message. This point has far-reaching importance as invalidation by outsiders can be found across nearly all social movements and includes acts of denial, shame, ignorance and faux compassion. Fourth, they are largely centered in North America and Europe. Finally, each of the two cases below shows the difference in understanding between outsiders with a cursory understanding of the field they are questions and academics who rebut them.
“Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that…”
Black Lives Matter.
This explanation of what is implied by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement comes from a law professor responding to complaint from a first-year student. The student (or possibly, students) had been so offended by the professor wearing a BLM shirt that they wrote a two-page complaint. The letter said wearing the shirt was “inappropriate” and “highly offensive.” Further, it said “we do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors,” and urged the professor to avoid “mindless actions” that might distract students at a law school where not everyone is passing the bar.
The professor, Patricia Leary of Whittier Law School, responded. She wrote an impassioned and thoughtful response. (The full exchange can be found here.) Professor Leary unpacks many of the student’s premises, such as whether tuition allows students to make demands on their education and institution, in her six-page response. The ones I found helpful specifically addressed the student’s claims that the BLM statement “is racist and anti-law enforcement”. These thoughts, held by many Americans, have resulted in counter movements, the so-called “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) originated in 2013 as a hashtag on social media, campaigning against violence and systemic racism toward black people. It has now grown into a global movement. The BLM movement is addressing the long history of police violence against African Americans and raising consciousness through protests. Law enforcement in the United States has a racial bias, as evidenced by the Guardian’s database on police killings and stories in their series The Counted. Blacks are killed more often than whites. Other minority groups, Native Americans and Latinos, also face higher rates of police violence than whites.
These statistics hide the stories of men and women shot by police and often killed. Stories like the shooting of unarmed people, like Charles Kinsey, who had his hands up and said he was unarmed when Miami police marksmen opened fire this year, or Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 after being shot in the back while lying on the ground face down and handcuffed. These incidents were filmed, preventing the police from disputing the facts. In other cases of death by shooting, like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the police officers who acted were found to have previous incidents of excessive force. Often these police receive little to no punishment, which sparks anger within the American American community.
These recent cases, following the history of slavery and racial segregation, are what many white people, including the anonymous student, are trying to invalidate. As Leary explains,
“Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion.”
This is the core misunderstanding of people, like the anonymous student, who attack social movements. BLM is focusing on a problem. It doesn’t exclude anyone from debating the issue. It is not only Black Lives Matter, but, rather, Black Lives Matter too.
A focus on racial profiling and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system (which I’ve previously written about), in addition to police brutality, are important human rights problems in the U.S. Discussions on police violence often intersect with disability and poverty, which also go ignored by many.
Saying “Blue Lives Matter” does nothing to address police brutality. It is an attempt to deny the claims of the BLM and replace them with equal footing for police officers. In the cases noted above, where they were unarmed, victims were shot regardless of the threat they posed to police officers. This is a serious problem, found across the U.S. and needs to be addressed, not ignored.
Similarly, saying “All Lives Matter” is a denial of the history of racial inequality and its results. Rather than listening to victims and researching their claims, many white people will go on the defensive saying things like “You’re not the only ones.” Yes, white people are killed by police, although at a much lower proportion than minority groups. Rather than addressing this problem, which affects everyone, people who shout “All Lives Matter” are attacking the one actually doing something about it, namely the BLM movement.
Who Needs Feminism?
While studying in the UK last year, I heard about a conference on the issue’s affecting women. As someone new to the area and hoping to help create change, I was hoping to attend. Unfortunately, they were excluding men from applying.
At first, I took offense. Shouldn’t I be able to attend? Don’t my opinions and voice matter? I was wrong on both counts. Men should never dictate what women can discuss, or who can attend such discussions.
Like the case of Professor Leary and the anonymous student above, many men (and women too) will think their voices are being discriminated against in situations where women discuss issues that affect them. This is epitomized by the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) and online debates.
On social media, people have expressed their solidarity with women’s rights and issues with hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #HeForShe. They also posted photos of themselves with statements starting with “I need feminism because …”.
This was countered by people on social media, like Facebook group Women Against Feminism, who wanted to show why they “don’t need feminism”.
Rather than seeing the first group’s grievances and saying, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better”, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, the second group denies their claims and feels feminism is the problem. Many of the anti-feminists claims do not match what is found in reasearch, as Lisa Cumming points out. Men and women don’t have the same rights and opportunities. The suffragette movement, which was the first wave of feminism and led to women’s right to vote, is just one example of this inequality and why feminism matters.
In a large number of cases, these posts attack feminist’s character rather than the issues. When they do discuss issues, the anti-feminists question why men aren’t talked about more by feminists, since they’re 50 percent of the population.
This is exactly what happened when Lauren Southern, an online commentator for The Rebel, a Canadian media platform, posted a “I Don’t Need Feminism” video on YouTube. Lauren argues points familiar to the MRM, including male suicide, sexual assault against men and custody of children. In fact, these are the three issues that are repeated ad infinitum by MRM proponents. These three concerns are, unsurprisingly, discussed by feminist writers as well.
In a reply to Lauren’s video, Jenna Christian addresses each claim in detail. Jenna notes that “feminism helps us understand and confront not only the violences and inequalities facing women, but also the problems facing men.” On whether feminism is sexist, Jenna responds that “there are real and serious inequalities that continue to face women, and it is not unreasonable or sexist for a movement for gender equality to focus primarily on those problems” (emphasis added). This is very much in line with the idea of exclusion that I’ve been talking about and how many outsiders may feel.
On male suicide, male workplace deaths, male combat deaths, and male homicide deaths: “feminists demonstrate how norms of femininity and masculinity entrench ideas about appropriate male and appropriate female behavior, which deeply shape the conditions of these male deaths.” Through many examples and references, Jenna goes on to explain how feminist theories help to explain domestic violence against men, men raped in prison, male privilege, child custody following divorce, and the other critiques by Lauren. In all, it provides a successful rebuttal.
Jenna and Lauren decided to continue their online discussion. Jenna provided a prompt looking at the devaluation of femininity. Lauren provided a second video, adding points on income inequality, which Jenna addressed. The conversation didn’t move any further.
One point which is very telling is that Lauren, in her second video, states that Jenna provided “no proof that feminists speak for men’s issues”. This is strange since Jenna has two posts before filled with citations of feminists speaking on men’s issues. It’s unclear if Lauren even read the critiques of her video. (It’s also important to note that the media platform that Lauren works for and that hosted her video is staunchly anti-feminist. Rebel Media, among other views against basic human rights, denies all claims made by the trans* community and denies that there is anything apart from a men/women binary.)
I find this exchange between Jenna and Lauren interesting for two main reasons. It’s interesting that two women are discussing issues related to men. It’s interesting not because they can’t discuss men’s issues. It’s actually the opposite. Women can research the problems of men. And men can research the problems women. Or more simply, everyone can research gender.
The cognitive dissonance within the MRM and anti-feminist media is important to note. On the one hand, MRM proponents will deride anyone who undertakes gender studies, saying that they really should have studied in the heavily male-dominated fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) so they can get a job. Then, on the other hand, those same people will criticise gender studies for a (perceived) lack of inclusion of the issues that affect males but not encouraging men to switch from STEM to gender studies to research said issues. It’s as though they want the gears of industry to keep on turning while never questioning the struggles of the people who turn those gears every single day. It’s really hypocritical.
The other reason I find it interesting is that anti-feminists seem to have a small worldview and a short memory. It wasn’t long ago when women, in North America and Europe, couldn’t vote, hold public office, attend university or own land. These victories were just some of the advancements in the process for equality. A process that continues today.
People opposed to feminism and women’s liberation also seem to ignore the news, because there are plenty of countries where it’s needed. Recently, the people of Poland have protested in the streets against the government’s planned reproductive rights laws that would limit abortion. Poland already has extreme laws that force many women to undergo illegal abortions that risk their lives. The protests worked, forcing the government to back down.
Following the release of a damning Human Rights Watch report in July, the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian went viral in Saudi Arabia, with women of all ages tweeting for a change to the system. An unprecedented petition calling for an end to the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia has been put before the kingdom’s government after gaining over 14,000 signatures.
Who needs feminism?
When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Instances of people rallying against BLM or feminism are useful in understanding privilege in society. To understand white privilege, it’s important for whites to unpack their invisible knapsack and understand the historical context of racial inequality. Women and men opposed to feminism should look at what feminists actually say. They might be surprised by what they find (and how much of it agrees with what they are concerned about). These two cases are useful in addressing other social movements and the invalidation that outsiders thrust upon them.
In the fight for marriage equality and adoption for same-sex couples, campaigners have been countered by religious conservatives, who play the victim and say homosexual marriage is an affront to ‘traditional’ marriage. Marriage is a social construct that has changed over time and excluding same-sex couples is hurtful. Religious groups also say that “kids do best with a mom and a dad” while ignoring the plight of orphans or abused children within heterosexual couples. Opponents do not see homosexuals as their equals and seek to punish them for this belief.
Both of these issues for same-sex couples played out in Mexico last month. Thousands of people in Mexico City have protested against a government proposal to legalise same-sex marriage, which they say would undermine traditional families. Opponents to the change in constitution also believe that reforms will make room for same-sex adoption (currently illegal in Mexico). A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City has said that President Peña Nieto’s proposals felt like a “terrible stab in the back” to the Catholic hierarchy with whom he had previously had a good relationship.
A similar backlash occurred in the U.S. before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, where evangelicals needed to hear some hard truths: “No one is going to make you be gay. Preachers will not be forced to marry gay people. It will not become illegal to be a Christian. God isn’t going to destroy America.” I’m sure the same will hold true for Mexico and the rest of the world.
The notion of invalidation can apply to international issues as well. When in comes to global poverty and the obligation of wealthier nations to provide foreign aid, many people will say that politicians should “helping those here” first. Following flooding in the United Kingdom, politicians and the press used the opportunity to attack foreign aid. Similarly, opponents of foreign aid also oppose providing sanctuary for refugees and victims of war on similar grounds. It’s difficult to see why no one has responded by asking: “Why not do both?”
In these cases – All Lives Matter, Men’s Rights, traditional marriage, etc. – there is a trend in defending the status quo. The powerful sections of society – commonly, rich white men – attack anyone who questions their power, rather than addressing the inequality that results from their ingrained privilege. They use conservative elements of media, government, business and religion to help fight their cause. As shown above, people in the public also help fight against their own causes. They push back against racial, gender and sexual equity. They also push back against notions of compassion for the impoverished and victims of war.
Racial justice movements, like BLM, question the police and criminal justice system that has evolved from slavery and racial segregation. Feminists have also campaigned against the violence of police and the military, as well as economic inequality, political representation and reproductive rights. Same-sex marriage is opposed by orthodox religion and also acts to question its moral supremacy. Intersectionality brings these discussions of race, gender and sexuality together, along with age, disability, colonialism, language and more.
Let’s hope that everyone can join together to fight for social justice and equity.
Finally, “All Houses Matter”: