“Men’s rights” and the political uses of victimhood

By Dave Oswald Mitchell

May 2007

This is written in the night.

In war the dark is on nobody’s

side, in love the dark confirms

that we are together.


RESEARCH FOR, AND feedback from, the last issue of Briarpatch (“Feminism 3.1” March/April 2007) found me grappling with the claims and ideas of “masculists” and “men’s rights groups.” The experience of wading into a worldview at once so familiar and so fundamentally different from my own was both disorienting and deeply challenging “” and it forced me to think long and hard about the concept of victimhood, and how we relate to the suffering of others.

Masculism and men’s rights groups arose in the last couple of decades as a backlash to the gains fought for and won by the feminist movement “” a sort of rearguard action in defence of male privilege. Dr. Michael Flood, a pro-feminist sociologist of men’s studies, defines the masculist worldview thus:

“Men’s rights men focus on the costs and destructiveness to men of masculine roles. They dispute the feminist idea that men (or some men) gain power and privilege in society, claiming that both women and men are equally oppressed or limited or even that men are oppressed by women. Men are “˜success objects’ (like women are “˜sex objects’) and burdened as providers, violence against men (through war, work and by women) is endemic and socially tolerated, and men are discriminated against in divorce and child custody proceedings” (“Responding to men’s rights groups” www.xyonline.net).

There is, of course, more than a grain of truth to this mountain of grievance. As I wrote in the introduction to the last issue’s “sexism self-exam” men suffer from the social and emotional constraints of masculinity, even as we benefit from patriarchy. I never suggested, though, that men were the only ones to suffer, or that we suffer more than women, or that because we also suffer, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the suffering of women.

What I find most troubling about the masculist approach is how it deploys the concept of victimhood in a way that seeks to close men’s minds to the suffering of women, while shifting responsibility for harmful gender dynamics onto women, especially feminists. You can see the same tactic, race-wise, among white people who complain of being victimized by “reverse discrimination.” Both cases represent attempts by those with privilege to defend the status quo.

I received an email recently that argued quite seriously that the mass slaughter of men in the trench warfare of World War I represented gendered violence on a scale beyond anything women have ever experienced. “Could it be” the writer of the email asked, “that men are victimized in this society on a level that would be simply incomprehensible to most women? There has never been a woman alive or in history that has been the victim of gendered violence the way that young men have.”

Leaving aside the dubious claim that warfare’s toll on men outweighs any and all instances of gendered violence against women, past or present, what truly baffles me about such claims (and they are common in masculist literature) is the notion that the real problem in gender relations lies in the failure or inability of women to appreciate or respond to men’s suffering.

Surely, any number of women (and men, too) would respond that women are victimized in this society on a level that would simply be incomprehensible to most men. But arguing with masculinists (or anyone else) over who has suffered more is a dead-end. The point should be that no one group’s suffering so vastly outdistances all others that they should be free of the ethical constraints that rule us all. If we allow ourselves to be divided into armed and hostile camps, stoking the fires of our own private grievances, we soon find ourselves reduced to an archipelago of victim-islands, our suffering incomprehensible to anyone different from us.

The tragic danger of such a worldview “” one rooted in victimhood and bereft of compassion and empathy “” should be readily apparent. A group that can be convinced of its own incomparable victimhood is capable of unimaginable cruelty against both the perceived perpetrators of their suffering and other perceived victims. (For examples of the crimes against humanity that manipulated victimhood can motivate or justify, think of the German public and the Jewish Holocaust of 1933-45; the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda in 1994; the US and its “war on terror” since 2001; or, perhaps most controversially, Israel and the Palestinians since 1948. Victimhood, as countless despots and war criminals have discovered, is a powerful force for mobilizing public opinion and silencing dissent.)

But whatever our own history of violence or suffering, we need not fall into the victimhood trap. People who work on issues of rape and domestic violence often speak of the importance of shifting the perspective of sufferers of violence from victim to survivor, and I think this principle holds generally. When we identify as victims, we see ourselves as essentially powerless to change our circumstances. We can then deny responsibility for our own acts and for any injustices from which we derive (or have derived) benefit.

When we see ourselves as survivors, however, we can take responsibility for our own healing. We can reach out to others whose suffering is different from ours, but whose liberation is tied up with our own. This is the very meaning of solidarity. There is simply no other way to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, reckless environmental destruction, or any other destructive system than to start from a place of compassion and move forward in solidarity with others “” others whose suffering is different from our suffering, perhaps even whose suffering has come at the hands of people like ourselves, but with whom we share some common goal.

Looking out upon the world, there is indeed much darkness. Looking out upon the world with love and compassion, however, this darkness, in John Berger’s beautiful formulation, does indeed confirm that we are together.

— Dave Oswald Mitchell

Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.