Why Mormon Feminism Should Be About Men Too

Anyone who has spent time in a feminist Mormon housewives discussion forum knows how frequently arguments break out over whether a new member has mansplained. So when I saw that the fMh blog had published an article addressed exclusively to wannabe male feminists, I hoped they would publish advice to help new members avoid these miscommunications. Instead, Reese Dixon managed to produce one of the most sexist and narrow-minded articles I’ve yet to see from a contemporary Mormon feminist.

In the article Dixon offers a list of advice for male feminists, most of which boils down to one repeated phrase: it’s not about you. Whether the issue is domestic violence or sexual violence, Dixon argues, it’s not about men. It’s about women. But is that really the message we want to send to new feminists?

Don’t get me wrong – I understand why Dixon wrote the article, and some of her advice is good for anyone who is new to a discussion, especially for a new member whose privilege can blind them to the issues the group is fighting. And I’ve heard unmerited complaints of feminist sexism too. But most of those complaints come from the kind of miscommunication that happens when a person is new to a discussion and doesn’t understand the group dynamics.

So here’s my advice to any new feminist, particularly feminists who happen to be male:

1. First and Foremost, Listen.

When I first encountered the Womanist movement, which focuses on issues that impact women of color, I felt just as hurt as many men feel when they’re new to feminism. Womanist articles seemed to generalize unfairly about white people, and I felt like nothing I said was interpreted the way I meant it. And yeah, it was tempting to storm off and write off womanism altogether. But here’s what I did instead: I listened. I followed womanist blogs and read womanist articles for two years, without commenting. I just read. By the end of those two years, I understood that complaints about “whiteness” weren’t about me as an individual. And I understood why claiming “but I’m color blind; I don’t see race” was a sign of ignorance, not of superiority. And I understood how to enter the conversation.

I’m not saying you should take two years before speaking up online, but just keep in mind that the internet can make even neutral comments sound like rage, so it’s a really good idea to take at least two months to observe the conversation before you jump in.

 

2. Discuss Male Victimhood, with Sincerity.

Some of the best and worst advice from Dixon’s piece shows up in the same paragraph. On the topic of male victimhood, she says:

“So in a conversation about sexual harassment, quell the impulse to relate issues of male victimhood. It can happen, but with no where NEAR the frequency of female victimhood. So stop derailing the conversation.”

The problem with this advice is that men have every right to discuss male victimhood within a feminist setting. In fact, I think we need to spend more time talking about male victimhood.  Why?

  • Because sexual assault is sexual assault, and it’s wrong no matter who it happens to.
  • Because studies show that male victims of sexual assault have trauma that is compounded by the fallacious stereotype that sexual assault only happens to women.
  • Because male victims of sexual assault are more likely to be victimized by other men, and feminists know what it’s like to be victimized by powerful men.
  • Because there is no other movement as widespread as the feminist movement that does address how men are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

When female feminists attempt to shut down discussions of male victimhood, we aggravate a very real problem and only feed into the cult of masculinity, which posits that men are strong and aggressive and rarely victims. Most feminists I know are highly aware of this issue and very willing to champion male victims. To any female feminists who are lagging behind on this one: time to catch up

 

3. Open Conversations, Instead of Closing Them.

One of the most important things to remember if you’re new to a social movement, is that one person’s victimhood does not negate that of another. So before bringing up an example of how men have been victims of women, it’s a good idea to ask yourself, “what am I trying to accomplish?”

Hint: if the answer is, “convince women that their trauma is insignificant,” you should probably just back away from the computer and take a breather. If you’re trying to add to the conversation, however, and open it up further, try to make that clear. Remember, most people in the discussion don’t know you, so they lack context to guess your intentions.

 

4. Pay Attention to Who’s Talking.

There are two pieces of advice in Dixon’s post that I’m 100% behind. The first is that you should never assume that being a feminist gives you the right to touch women without their consent. The second? That it’s a good idea to watch how much you’re talking, and back off a little if men are starting to dominate the discussion.

Why do I agree with Dixon here? Well, numerous studies have found that even when they are the minority in a group, American men have a tendency to start taking over the conversation. It’s not intentional in most cases, and even women don’t usually notice. In fact, if you ask most people who talks more in a group, many will likely say “women” based on stereotypes about so-called chatty Cathy’s. But this problem is easily resolved when men occasionally take stock of how often they’re talking.

 

5. Please, do not Mansplain.

What exactly is mansplaining? It is not, as some feminists (male and female) occasionally think, simply speaking up on gender while you happen to be male. It’s coming into a conversation about gender and trying to correct all the silly feminists who have everything wrong and only need to “hear things from a man’s perspective.” I’ve seen all sorts of men do it, and they usually have awesome intentions, but here’s the thing: feminists are generally much more familiar with that generic “man’s perspective” which the mansplainer is offering than he is with theirs. So, please don’t mansplain.

 

6. Clarify when Criticized.

No matter how well you put the last five tips into action, there will come a time when someone will think you’re derailing a conversation, or mansplaining, or ignorant, etc. etc. The same goes for me when I’m in a conversation about womanism. And on the occasion when that happens, the best thing to do is clarify and perhaps apologize for the misunderstanding. Not necessarily because you’re at fault while the other person is blameless – just because saying, “Sorry for the confusion. What I meant with that last comment…” does a lot more to open the conversation than blowing up ever will.

 

Bottom line: come to the feminist conversation, listen carefully, and join in thoughtfully.

 

 

 

On Science, Faith, and Evidence

There is perhaps no idea I hear at church that I find more wrong, or more dangerously wrong, than that faith is a will to believe in the absence of evidence. I understand where the idea comes from, of course. Religious belief is not simply dictated by logic and observation. To get from even the strongest evidence to the acceptance of any particular creed requires an act of interpretation; ultimately, in some sense, it requires a choice.

But the choice–take note–is not a choice between faith and rationality, between believing something without evidence and simply following the facts where they lead. Instead, an act of interpretation is necessary to arrive at any beliefs, whether religious or scientific. [Read more...]

LL Cool J, Accidental Mormon?

Last week, I logged onto facebook to see my newsfeed crowded with excited links from various Mormon friends to hip hop pioneer LL Cool J’s twitter feed. Confused, I clicked over to discover that the man best known for the early 1990s hits “I Need Love” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” had tweeted to his 3.8 million followers the following:

That quote comes from a 1994 farewell address to recently-deceased church president Ezra Taft Benson from his longtime confidant and counselor Gordon B. Hinckley, and was published in the Church’s monthly magazine The Ensign. [Read more...]

The “Turning of Hearts”: On Family, History, and Faith

A few weeks ago, during an unusually long summer excursion away from home, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a few days staying with my paternal grandparents. It turned out to be a nice time with them in their quiet, settled home. In part, this was an opportunity simply to be in their company; as they advance in age, and we continue to live at a distance, there’s no guarantee of when we’ll see them next. But our week-long visit also had more focused and deliberate purpose. As much as an extended visit, it was a self-commissioned project to capture the essence of their life experiences for posterity. [Read more...]

Mantra

The past several months, I’ve been trying to cultivate a practice of personal meditation (with halting success). After being introduced through a podcast to centering prayer (as taught by Catholic Thomas Keating, who draws on traditions of the Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing, and others), and wandering tentatively into westernized Buddhist thought, I felt I’d arrived at a refreshing oasis.

Perhaps part of the reason for my relief at this new practice stemmed from over familiarity with my own religious landscape, which had begun to blur. The prayer, the scripture studying, the lay callings, the ordinances, the Sunday School lessons, the fasting; at some point, those sources of spiritual growth seemed to dry up, leaving me with a dull thirst. The community, with its ever-unfolding kindnesses and vulnerabilities and surprises, gave life to my church activity, but my personal practice seemed to be withering. My spiritual landscape was feeling like “stony ground,” where “the word of the Kingdom” was getting scorched away in the dry, thin air. [Read more...]

Be a Man

Every summer, our family spends some time at a cabin in rural Utah and attend church nearby. Many of the men in the local ward earn a living through physical labor. They are strong; they are big; they have masculine presence. And then they speak, and they cry, and every member of the congregation sees that manly men, even those who won a medal in last night’s rodeo, cry and love.

One of their talks in particular has stayed with me. The speaker was a construction worker and a High Councilman –“Brother Bill Jones.” Brother Jones spoke about growing up in the ward, and how much he had loved one of his leaders in the young men’s organization. That leader, “Tony,” was only 19 years old himself one summer when he saved Bill’s life. During a camping trip, the young men were fishing and Bill became caught in the river. The river’s loud current prevented anyone from hearing his cries for help. But Tony felt a strong prompting to check on Bill, and his acting on the prompting saved Bill from drowning. The spirituality and caretaking in this episode bound these young men together. But there’s more.

After the trip, Tony took Bill home. Bill’s dad, the Bishop, was waiting with devastating news. “Tony, your parents were killed in a car accident this weekend,” he told him. Tony was the oldest child in a large family and he spent the next decades raising his parents’ children.

At the pulpit, years later, Bill wept as he described the sacrifices Tony made to care for his brothers and sisters. Tony sacrificed for them; he exercised compassion; he postponed his own marriage until his youngest sibling had graduated from high school. In Bill’s eyes, Tony was a matchless man.

My husband has taken to using the expression “woman up.” He gives presentations with relative frequency and often finds space, while encouraging audience members to act in ways that will correct hard realities, to woman up. “Why not?” he says. “I don’t want them to posture, to fight. I want them to exercise the resilience, courage, and resourcefulness that I see in women.“ Women in his audiences have been known to applaud. I applaud. I have also begun to yearn for a reimagined cultural understanding of what it means to be a man.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom—the filmmaker behind the documentary Miss Representation—and her team are finishing a new film project exploring masculinity. Its poignant working title is, The Mask You Live in. (They have launched a kickstarter campaign for funds to complete the film. Go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jensiebelnewsom/the-mask-you-live-in to see a preview and learn more.) Specialists in the film describe the consequences of today’s culture of masculinity in the U.S. as disconnection and loneliness. For example, psychologist and educator Dr. Judy Chu says of boys, “Each of them is posturing in relation to the ways the other boys are posturing and they end up missing what it is they each really want, which is . . . closeness.” Here boys don’t have intimate relationships with one another because they never feel able to let down their guard for genuine encounters.

Another expert interviewed in the film, Dr. Niobe Way, explains “lack of closeness” to be the result of defining masculinity as the antithesis of femininity. When masculinity means the opposite of femininity, “[Men and boys] begin to devalue their relational parts to each other, their relational desires. If we’re in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boys and girls, men and women, go crazy.”

That tendency to define masculinity in contrast to femininity poses a real lexical difficulty. The expression, “The opposite of man isn’t woman; the opposite of man is boy,” simultaneously reminds us to avoid the devaluation of “feminine” attributes while it emphasizes the entrenchment of notions about masculinity. Whether someone believes that outside of culture and physical difference men and women would share personality and character—or, in other words, that beyond culture masculinity and femininity could cease to exist—no one can deny the strong impact these notions wield in the real world. One of my favorite disruptions to thinking of masculinity and femininity as opposites is a scene near the end of Disney’s Mulan. To save their Emperor, male Chinese soldiers sneak into the palace dressed as women. As the music swells, they sing:
We must be swift as the coursing river
(To be a man)
With all the force of a great typhoon
(To be a man)
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon

I am thrilled that Newsom and others at MissRepresentation.org are making their film. I want men and boys to experience a more ennobling and fulfilling vision of masculinity. I also believe that society as a whole will never be a wholesome place for women until we have worked through more salutary perspectives on men and manhood. Harvey Mansfields’ Manliness (2006), for example, argues for manliness defined as political courage, the courage to challenge conventional beliefs, to replace belief in manliness as aggression.

The Mask You Live In’s focus on men needing to feel and receive empathy and connection reminds me of the beauty I see in LDS testimony meetings. When LDS men speak in church, they often cry and they express their deep love for their families and ward members, including close male friends.

The first counselor to the stake president was in my last ward. When he bore his testimony, he often had trouble speaking because he cried so passionately as he spoke of his love for his children and the joy he had found through being a father. What an antidote to the problems Newsom’s work has helped to identify. The LDS men I see at church are American, and they negotiate definitions and stereotypes of masculinity just as other Americans must. But I suspect that testimony meetings, elders’ quorum, home teaching, and other callings give them a head start in experiencing a more emotional and connected masculinity. As Jackson Katz says in The Mask You Live In, “We need to redefine strength in men not as the power over other people but as forces for justice. We’re giving men a great gift when we teach them how to integrate caring and compassion into strength.”