Allies, Where are You?

What happened to Brittney Cooper made me sad and angry, emotions that alternated with the question: What would I have done in that situation? 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen instance after instance of male aggression on college campuses and in other spaces, often by men who were clearly not stable — angry (often at women), impulsive, not entirely coherent. I’ve heard women (graduate students and faculty) say that they feel unsafe on campus. I’ve seen people I considered allies back away, some because they were scared, others because they never really were allies in any meaningful sense of the word. 

There was an incident at UO not so long ago that I think is instructive. A (male) adjunct faculty member in the Law School started harassing immigration rights activists near the student union. In this case, a male student — clearly putting into practice training in nonviolent resistance — effectively intervened.

I wonder if we might not start thinking about some kind of training for those of us who run events like these so that we can handle aggressive incidents more effectively? My tendency as a moderator is to be very clear at the outset what the rules of engagement are and call people on violations as soon as they begin to happen. By asking people to think about what they’re going to say and not to monopolize conversation beforehand, I can invoke the rules when I have to close down rants. I’ve also not been afraid to call security in the past, especially when I know that there’s a person who routinely attends feminist events, is disruptive, and clearly out to bully.

What’s so consistent with my own experience at a couple of institutions is that the person at the Brecht Forum was a known problem.  This has been happening for a long time at institutions around the country, where mental illness and male aggression combine in unstable and sometimes deadly ways (I find myself being worried about even writing about this online — I appreciate Dr. Cooper’s going public with her experience). 

I think my failing has been looking to institutions to address this. Perhaps it’s time to have some training sessions at NWSA or some of our national conventions to establish advice for those of us struggling with these situations on campuses and other institutions around the country. 

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2 responses to “Allies, Where are You?

  1. From an ally whilst standing on his tip-toes…

    As a man who likes to change the tenor of conversation to one of reason and tolerance from one of misunderstanding and aggression, I put myself forward as a male ally to a feminist cause.

    Hmm, that sounds like a nice opening statement. Unfortunately, we men, even as allies, have a hard time engaging in feminist dialogue. During my time here at the University of Oregon, I have slowly accumulated my friend base, which is largely female – and feminist. Often over coffee or beer we find ourselves discussing gender issues which have become grossly complicated over the past two decades. As an unusually sensitive person, it is easy for me to find challenges to my thinking as “attacks” on my character, so I often have to think first about why an acquaintance’s statement makes me feel the way it does before I speak. And if I am challenged, then I must present my “counterpoint” as an honest inquiry, and not fall into this tendency towards “male aggressiveness.”

    I should say that this is not so difficult for me as I really enjoy challenging conversation, however I must ask myself why I get a slight sour feeling in my stomach when I hear words like “male aggressiveness.” I further want to know why some men would respond with aggression in response to this criticized male tendency.

    I think we need two angles of approach for the problem of male and female equality and mutual understanding. The first approach is purely scientific and asks the question, “What is the true source of male aggressiveness?” Is it a disease? Is it hormonal? Is it due simply to lack of understanding? Or, is it some combination of the above. The second approach is the exact approach often taken, which is based on discussion between men and women addressing how men and women should comport themselves in a post-feminist world. (Post-feminist probably has a very specific and academically acceptable definition. However, I’m using it in my own way to describe an end goal – one where feminism has accomplished its goals.

    I think the biggest challenge to feminism, even among educated and/or passive males, is what a man’s role should be in a post-feminist world. I’m not sure men or women understand this. I do see on television a continued illustration of socially constructed gender roles. If this was not a problem in and of itself, it becomes a bigger problem when men are cast as buffoons who cannot function properly when performing traditionally female tasks. I have seen television commercials that used men’s inability to change a baby’s diaper as an advertisement for a “better” diaper. While television’s values have changed considerably since the 1990s when Elen DeGeneres lost her ratings after coming out of the closet (since then we have become considerably more tolerant on the issue of homosexuality), I still can’t help but to have horrible memories of the sitcom “Home Improvement.” In this show there was a husband who not only could not perform household duties to the satisfaction of his wife, but he was even incompetent in his roles that he saw as a “man’s place.” While his wife was a powerful and intelligent character, her source of power was in the household, rather than outside of it. (My mother was a housewife, and for a long time she was very good at it. This is what she wanted above all else, so this is not to devalue one’s homemaking skill set.)

    This show illustrates perfectly what a few of my friends have expressed to me in our conversations. I have been told that men seem to seek above all else to peacock ourselves in a struggle for an alpha role. And while men pretend to be the head of their households, it is truly a woman who yields the power.

    Well, that’s like saying “behind every great man is a great woman,” a statement that begs the question: why can’t this statement be inverted? The truth for me is that men have not found their place in a post-feminist world. When I do my housework, cook dinner, make my wife a cup of coffee, tailor my clothes, stitch my Halloween costume, style my hair, etc. I am seen as having a “feminine side.” While this is celebrated, I simply do not understand how assigning a gender to these tasks helps the feminist cause.

    My hope is that our end goal is true equality. A man needs to know that his wife can be the primary bread-winner and not be challenged by this. A man needs to know that creative pursuits can be met with the interest of the man, be it his work in his workshop (or “mancave”), his kitchen, or his sewing machine. Finally, women must understand this too. There is a fight to fight against male aggression and female suppression, but a fight is a fight, and it makes human emotional sense to meet anger with anger, as I often see in discussions of gender. Somehow, there needs to be a discussion that invites men to know themselves, and to be that self without feeling that his “masculinity” is being challenged.

    There is no shame in an honest pursuit of interests. Gender designation of societal roles are largely unnecessary in a world with infrastructure as vast as ours. I think, for me, that this is a healthy tenor for my own discussions as your ally.

  2. I sympathize with much of what you say here, since in most situations I am an ally also. And as an ally, I also know a lot about being on the receiving end of anger and frustration. I know that as a white person, throughout my life, I’ve had all kinds of advantages that people of color typically don’t. I know that as a straight but queer loving person, I also get perks because of my heterosexuality, especially the safety to express my love openly and without fear. I guess that my approach has been to understand the righteousness of certain kinds of anger and to do my best to be a decent and reliable ally. Not always successfully, but alliances take a lot of time and work.

    Funny, in my course tomorrow, we’re talking about feminist science fiction and why anger is always seen as a shortcoming in women and people of color . . . Thanks for giving me more to think about.

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