A couple of years ago I encountered a totally bullshit argument for the preservation and even expansion of practices that maintained the patriarchal status quo and buttressed the power of men at the expense of the rights and full citizenship of women. As is standard for an argument so thoroughly by, for and to the patriarchs of the world, it not only advocated for greater rights for men, it absolutely ignored the cost of the whole thing to women--because after all, the general concerns of women are completely secondary in a major social question like whether or not uncloseted gay men should claim what they feel has traditionally been “the exclusive territory of straight men” and marry women in order to knock them up and just be regular dudes who gets to go to Mormon heaven. No, the issue of marriage between men and women isn’t a topic where a gay man needs to think about the general concerns of women in heteronormative relationships (despite the fact that he has a mom, a wife, five sisters and a daughter) while defending his right to claim the same privileges a straight dude gets; it’s a topic where what comes first are his rights as a MAN.
I think most people conversant in gender politics will agree that an argument like that isn’t just patriarchal, it’s misogynist. Which is what I called it, along with the guy who produced it. But turns out this guy didn’t like being called misogynist--with all those sisters and that young daughter, he knew it was BAD to admit to misogyny (though he still hasn’t figured out that it’s also uncool to enact misogyny). For the past year, I learned recently, he has been fretting over the topic, trying to figure out a way to clear himself of the charge. And finally, through intense intellectual struggle and self-reflection, he came up with one! Turns out he’s not a misogynist; he’s just a narcissist! That’s right! As he himself writes, “to be honest, I do all too often think of my needs before I think of [my wife’s]; but it has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman and everything to do with the fact that she's not me.”
Once again, the guy’s inability to imagine just what his arguments reveal about him is breathtaking. What do you do with a statement that can be paraphrased, “I’m often really selfish and insensitive in my relationship with my wife, but it’s not because she’s a woman; it’s because I’m really just a jerk in general”? It’s not as if misogyny and narcissism are mutually exclusive, after all; the profound selfishness and self-importance involved in narcissism might make it much easier for a man to be indifferent to the well-being of women in general, to think that it’s OK to oppress women--or at least wait to empower them--if doing so makes things easier and more convenient for HIM, the one who’s REALLY IMPORTANT.
Now, I’m not going to argue that ALL men are narcissists, because I don’t think they are. I feel I know men who exhibit remarkable compassion and generosity. But I am going to argue that for men who don’t want to do the work of thinking about someone else’s needs simply because those needs are someone else’s and not their own, there are plenty of ways in which they’re allowed to think it’s their god-given right to be narcissists if they want to.
Consider these examples: a friend (who is still quite young) told me that recently, her husband awoke very troubled by a nightmare. “I dreamed I had to put you in a nursing home. It was awful. I didn’t know who was going to take care of me,” he said, visibly shaken. Not, “I was so upset that you were ill. I was heartbroken that we were parted.” No, he said, “I didn’t know who was going to take care of me.” And when my own mother was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness, my father went off and left her alone; my sister found him at home, crying because he didn’t know how he’d care for himself if my mother died. Even now, she’ll have flare-ups of the illness that will one day kill her, and spend a few days absolutely inert in bed. On those days, my father, who is perfectly healthy, still can’t do a lick of work around the house. OK, he’ll drive himself to Wendy’s and buy a cheeseburger and a frosty for himself and the dog, but he won’t put the wrappers in the trash after he finishes eating. And if Mom says, “Can’t you please clean up after yourself?” he gets all indignant and hurt--how dare she try to make him feel bad!
But hey, it’s not that the behavior of my father or my friend’s husband are expressions of misogynist attitudes; it’s just that these guys are narcissists--in all the ways society trains them to be, because they’re men.
Consider the matter not in terms of gender but of race. What if some white person said, “All too often, I fail to consider how certain situations will affect this really important person of color with whom I have a really important relationship, but it’s not because I’m racist; it’s just because I’m a narcissist”?
And really, isn’t that the general defense of most misogyny and racism in this culture? Most men, after all, don’t think of themselves as oppressors of women; they just somehow understand that one of the privileges of being on top of the power hierarchy is that they don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about the people below them, the people who take care of them. In other words, men just sort of know that society doesn’t require them to spend much time worrying about how the status quo protects men’s rights and reinforces women’s social subordination and economic oppression, but this has nothing to do, the argument goes, with the fact that the guys are misogynist and is simply due to the fact that the guys aren’t women. Likewise, most white people don’t think of themselves as oppressors of people of color; they just somehow understand that the privileges of being on top of the power hierarchy is that they don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about the people below them, the people who, by and large, are more likely to do dirty work and manual labor. In other words, white people just sort of know that society doesn’t require them to spend much time worry about how the status quo protects the rights of white people and reinforces the social subordination and economic oppression of people of color, but this has nothing to do, the argument goes, with the fact that the white people are racist and is simply due to the fact that they aren’t brown or black or yellow or red.
Arguments like that are what allows misogyny and racism to remain invisible to most of the people who are guilty of them. Ethical, intelligent people in positions of privilege DO NOT let themselves off the hook with rationalizations like “I’m not a misogynist or a racist, because I’m an equal-opportunity asshole,” or “the reason I am not genuinely concerned with achieving the political empowerment of women and people of color isn’t because I’m a misogynist and/or racist, but because I’m not a woman and/or a person a color, and therefore not really confronted by the situation in a really personal way.”
And the other thing is, women and people of color do not get to cultivate narcissism as easily as men and white people; racial minorities have to learn about the dominant cultures often at the expense of studying, in any systematic or thorough way, their own. Likewise, women do not get to be indifferent to men; women do not get to ignore men’s needs and defend doing so by saying, “Oh, I’m just a narcissist.” Women are trained to put men’s needs ahead of their own in more ways than anyone can count, in everything from making out with other girls because it’s a turn-on for the guys watching rather than the girls performing, to throwing away a the wrapper of a Wendy’s cheeseburger purchased for a dog because the man who owns the dog has better things to do with his time than throw away his own trash.
The other thing the guy had to do to mitigate my charge of misogyny was to accuse me of misandry.... funny, my spell-checker recognizes misogyny, but it can’t make sense of misandry. OK, the OED’s earliest citation for “misandry” is 1909, while the earliest citation for “misogyny” is 1656. But no matter what a dictionary says, the fact is, in the current world, misandry is impossible as a political reality. Misogyny, after all, is not just the culturally sanctioned hatred of women but the general oppression that derives from that omnipresent societal hatred. There is no omnipresent societal hatred of men, so misandry is not a charge equal to misogyny, because it just doesn’t matter how much an individual woman hates or loves men in general. As a group, women can’t oppress men, just as slaves cannot oppress their masters and the employees of some major corporation cannot oppress the CEO and board. The disempowered cannot oppress the dominant power. They can harass, resist, frustrate and talk back (and they should), but that ain’t the same.
And the fact of the matter is, there’s a way in which I feel no need to dodge that charge. If by misandry someone means that I despise men who use their maleness as justification for why they should retain certain privileges women don’t have, then I am guilty of misandry. If by misandry someone means that I am SICK TO DEATH of men who would rather rationalize mistreatment of the women closest to them than actually stand up, step up, grow up and be an ethical adult, then I am guilty of misandry. If by misandry someone means that I have no compunction whatsoever about telling some asshole he’s being an asshole, then I am guilty of misandry.
Furthermore, I have my flaws, but narcissism is not one of them. Not only do I work to consider the wants and needs of others DESPITE the fact that they’re not me, I work to consider the wants and needs of others BECAUSE they’re not me. That’s the whole point of an ethos of compassion, which I think we should all subscribe to: you care about people BECAUSE they’re not you, because that’s the only way we all get to be happy and whole. I am SICK of this “I hold these really offensive attitudes, but it’s not because I’m a homophobe or a misogynist or a racist pig, it’s because I’m just lacking in compassion, imagination and spiritual maturity,” particularly when it comes in a religious context.
I’m reminded of when I guy I know really wanted to avoid the charge of homophobe, despite the fact that he worried that society’s tolerance of homosexuality would bring about the fall of civilization, a specious and ridiculous argument if there ever was one: just how many gay-friendly societies has the history of the world even produced? Seems like rampant heterosexuality (aka patriarchy) has been much more destructive--the Nazis didn’t tolerate homosexuality, and look how well that turned out; same goes for the Spanish Inquisition. Frankly thinking about this is starting to make me a bit heterophobic, when I consider how a really dogmatic adherence to conservative gender roles heralds some kind of social upheaval.... Anyway, the point is, the guy eventually just sucked it up and admitted he was a homophobe, albeit one who didn’t want to oppress individual gay people, because they might be reasonably nice. It was their collective rather than individual immorality that troubled him, but even still, he wanted to be kind to people, even when he disapproved of them. And while his stance on homosexuality didn’t really thrill me, really, what could I say about the other stuff? He was trying to be as grown up and decent as his religious beliefs would let him.
I think Mr. Narcissism could benefit a lot from that example.