I Was a Men’s Rights Activist
As Told to MEL

Very interesting piece, man. Scrolling through the comments, I am constantly confronted with how problematic the term “feminism” is, and how its very invocation seems to create a fog of war. MRA goons are concerned about literalist interpretations of the term, and to be frank, there is some reason for them to be—it’s the only “ism” that demands its own set of rules.

No reasonable black person requires you to call yourself an Afrocentrist simply to mean that you’re not racist against them. No reasonable gay person demands you call yourself a Homosexualist to mean that you support LGBTQ rights. You can be very aware of structural inequality, and fight against it, without calling yourself anything in particular. Yet, somehow, the word “feminism”, either by accident or by design, imposes its a singular emphasis—the concerns of women, regardless of what kind of women—on every subject it touches. On one level, I get it; its usage is inextricably linked to our lopsided history of gender relations. And inherent in its continued usage is a sense of urgency and vigilance. Yet not many white feminists labor to identify as Afrocentrist; not many black feminists do, either. Common sense prevails there, as we rightfully understand that this would be an awkward and needlessly divisive way to combat white supremacy.

Feminism means social programs created to boost the esteem and opportunities of women and girls are things to be lauded; but feminism also seems to mean that boys and men (again, regardless of what kind) need to figure their own shit out. If it were about including them with equal emphasis in all endeavors, affording them the same openness of mind and freedom from prejudice, holding them to the same ethical standards, and offering them the same degree of encouragement throughout their lifelong development, it would no longer be feminism, it would be egalitarianism.

Which brings us to that term. No term is perfect, but how is “egalitarian” not actually a much better one than “feminist”? I stress that this isn’t mere semantic nitpicking; how one thinks and acts is in part sculpted by the language they use. Public speakers know this well, as do politicians and dictators. Scientists know this as well, as there have been plenty of studies on the power of suggestion, and language plays a very big part in that. For reasons which I find telling, many feminists appear to find the word “egalitarian” insufficient; one recently defined the term as being akin to giving both a homeless man and a billionaire $100 and calling it equal. When I told her that my natural conception of egalitarianism adjusted for structural inequality, and that an alternative definition hadn’t even crossed my mind, she quickly changed the subject.

Even if we concede that this girl’s analogy is sound (it’s not but let’s roll with it), we’re looking at a profoundly cynical interpretation of a word that has no other widely-used definition other than “of, relating to, or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.” Somehow, this gets twisted to mean that “equal rights and opportunities” is still too vague, as it leaves the door open for one to disavow preexisting structural inequalities and in effect miss the entire point of the fucking word. Of course it’s possible to interpret “egalitarian” or ”equal” in this weirdly ahistorical sense, but it’s a hell of a lot easier for people of any gender to interpret the word “feminism” completely literally.
The MRA contingent’s basic conclusions about feminism, which are literalist in nature, are not solely relegated to the realm of dejected dude delusions; it’s actually what distinguishes radical feminists from moderate ones. I’m sure many people will argue that a literal interpretation of the word “feminist” is not an accurate one. I hope they are right. Some people also argue that a literal interpretation of the Hadith doesn’t lead to ISIS, but I don’t think they have formulated much of a compelling argument yet. I truly wish they would. I am not making a moral equivalency between feminists and a terrorist group that would like nothing more than to incinerate them all. I am illustrating that literalist interpretations do happen in any group, and that is where language matters. At worst, you’ll get Valerie Solanis. At best, you’ll get a nice, normal, non-fucked up person who just happens not to be sexist. I would say that person is not a feminist, but an egalitarian.

I have met many unpleasant, arrogant, broad-brush wielding feminists who clearly take the exact wording of their denomination seriously. How much of the statistical pie slice is my anecdotal evidence representative of? It doesn’t really matter; even if I’m completely mistaken about the nature of my experience, which I allow as a possibility, I’ve met at least as many feminists who are nuanced and malice-free people. I want to believe that these people represent the core values of feminism. As it stands, though, I just feel ambivalence about the movement, because I truthfully have no fucking clue what it actually is in 2016, and I don’t think most women do either.

How many avowed feminists actually are in tune with its core principles—which, again, by all means should be interchangeable with “egalitarian,” adjusting for the ravages of structural inequality, and does not in the least imply tolerance of sexism—I truly have no idea. What’s clear is that the term itself needs to either be retired, or altered to describe something that does not rhetorically place one gender’ss concerns over the other. At least in the West.

By one definition (the most mainstream one), I am absolutely a feminist. I acknowledge that gender inequality is real, that women face unique challenges and setbacks in society, and that base misogyny persists and needs to be taken down. I bristle at the same injustices most (reasonable) feminists do. I do not believe men and women differ significantly in their faculties, and whatever differences may exist round out to “equal” when you consider that where one may excel at a task, another may recede and vice versa for a different, equally valid task. I could go on, but my point is that I don’t think I have to call myself a feminist to simply mean that I’m not an asshole. And ironically, anyone who demands I call myself a feminist to mean “I am not an asshole” is, in fact, an asshole.

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