Dear feminist heroes: please don’t hate me if sometimes I disagree slightly

Update: Following some discussions on Twitter (ironically), I regret some of my wording choices in this post. In particular:

  • The title conjures an image of feminists sniping at me if I disagree.
  • The “head above the parapet” phrase implies that I’m taking some sort of risk both here and in any possible disagreement in comments. The only risk involved is really to my ego, whereas I acknowledge that many brave women face awful harassment for posting their views online.
  • Likewise my use of “safe space” at the end implies a lack of safety (for me) in disagreement otherwise. Again, this is inappropriate compared with the need for real safe spaces.

In addition, where the tone is patronizing – any implication of “I’ll be the level-headed chap to bring common sense, balance and reason to the feminist orthodoxy” – I apologise.

None of this was my conscious intention, but I definitely need to think about why I chose to express myself this way in the first place.

With all that said, I haven’t changed the text beyond fixing typos – I’m not keen on revisionism, and if I don’t own the words I use, it makes it too easy to make the same mistakes again.

Jon, the bad feminist

I have a deep, dark secret. Sometimes when I’m reading an article – most commonly on rape culture, but not always – I say “not all men!” to myself, very quietly. I don’t say it out loud. I would certainly not post it in the comments section – I’m aware of its ability to derail the conversation, whether deliberately or not – but I think it.

This is just one example, and it’s mostly a reaction to the writing style rather than the points raised. (Personally I find that the more compassion for all that is shown in an article, the more thought-provoking it is – but I understand that a smidge of hyperbole can be helpful in getting an article noticed.)

In other cases, I find myself disagreeing with the some of the actual points raised by the article. Importantly, this is usually within the context of strongly agreeing with the primary thrust of the piece. Time for another concrete example, with the risk of raising my head above the parapet here… but I’ll put it all in one paragraph, to try to avoid it dominating the comments. (This piece is not about this particular issue. It’s just an example.)

I don’t think it’s a good idea to knowingly put yourself in a situation where you’re at risk, where it’s reasonably easily avoidable. If you do, and if you are assaulted, that is not your fault. It’s not your responsibility. You are not “asking for it”. But I’d still suggest avoiding the situation in the first place, where possible. When they’re older, I’ll be happy to tell my sons that if they go out clubbing, it might be a good idea for them to sort out leaving with their friends, to avoid being on their own, potentially after drinking, late at night. They should be able to walk the streets (whether in town or closer to home) in safety – but I know that we don’t live in a totally safe world, and I’ll encourage them to take safety precautions. I don’t believe that’s encouraging muggers. I don’t believe that the posters at train stations saying “Pick-pockets are known to operate in this area – be careful with your possessions” are encouraging theft. So when it comes to advice given to women to avoid being assaulted, including rape, I don’t have a problem with there being such advice. I think there are good and bad ways of doing it – that it can be done in a terrible way which is victim-blaming a slut-shaming – but there’s room for it to be done well, too.

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about here.

Space for disagreement

I’ve been thinking about avenues for minor disagreement for a while – and procrastinating writing this post, basically – but Louise O’Neill’s piece in the Irish Examiner last week gave me cause for optimism, and spurred me on (with only another six days of dithering) to write this. Three quotes from it – out of context, so please read the whole thing:

It felt to me as if we were trying to say that there was a ‘right’ type of woman, or a ‘right’ type of feminist and that feels antithetical to the movement itself.

Feminism is about inclusion. Feminism is for everyone.
I think the most important thing to retain when discussing political issues like these is a sense of nuance.
My own sense of feminism is constantly evolving and incidents such as this help to further develop my political ideologies – I would never be as quick to judge as I would have been only two short years ago.

Robust discourse and debate are crucial for the health of any social movement but infighting and tearing each other apart for daring to hold different opinions is not.

Hooray! So that means it’s time for me to start adding comments, right? Maybe not.

I see four broad reasons why I might disagree with something written by (say) Louise O’Neill, Sophie Walker, Catherine Mayer, Emer O’Toole or Roe McDermott.

  • I’m just ignorant. There’s no way round it – I’m not a woman. I don’t know how I would feel about various issues if they’d affected me more personally. When I was mugged early in the morning a few years ago, that affected me more than I hoped it would. So maybe I’m just wrong.
  • It’s just possible that I’m objectively right (without evidence so far) and they’re objectively wrong. There are definitely some aspects where evidence of policy decisions could be available and maybe even is available. Things like the gender pay gap have had a lot of research effort put into them, for example. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to be the areas where I disagree least.
  • Maybe the view I inferred from the piece isn’t the one they intended to put across, or it may be exaggerated for effect, and actually we don’t disagree at all, or at least not significantly.
  • Maybe it’s just something where we’d have to agree to disagree, where there is no objective truth. That’s not to say discourse would be fruitless – it’s always good to understand someone else’s views better – but we shouldn’t expect to change each other’s minds.

It’s important to note that I don’t believe any of these make me a bad person. I don’t feel guilty for disagreeing. (Maybe a little guilty when that disagreement is in the form of a mental “not all men!” – darn that feminist social conditioning! ;) Given that I think all of the authors are fabulous people, I suspect none of them would think I’m a bad person for disagreeing, either. So why am I holding back?

Unity first

I think it’s important that men support feminism. I think it’s important that they do so full-throatedly. I think it’s important that they’re seen to do so. And that’s why I’m limiting my concerns to this little corner of the internet, where I can lay it all out and put significant effort into not being misunderstood.

Imagine I write a well-crafted response to an article I disagree with. To be careful, maybe the first paragraph is in broad agreement, then three paragraphs of respectful challenge, then a summary paragraph reiterating the broad agreement and demarcating the area of disagreement. To start with, that’s a much longer comment than many people will read properly, and obviously on Twitter any chance of nuance is pretty much shot. But even for a diligent reader, it ends up as 60%+ disagreement – and I suspect that hurts the cause of feminism more than it helps.

To put it bluntly: I think a man registering disagreement can easily look like a dismissal of the whole feminist movement, whereas a woman is in a better position to explore nuance in comments. It’s a shame that that’s the case, but I believe it is. (If you disagree, please comment here, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman – or whether you don’t self-identify in such a binary way.)

I hope it won’t be this way forever. I hope that when more battles have been won, when “openly, actively feminist” men are more commonplace, that there won’t be such a risk in my participation in nuanced debate. Until then, I’ve made my peace with mostly staying silent where I can’t be loudly supportive.

To be clear – this is really around public debate. I very much hope to one day meet at least some of these heroes in person. (I’m actively trying to make that happen, too. We often host great speakers at Google, and I see no reason not to try to make self-interest align with office culture.) I would love to have a long, drawn-out coffee with lively debate, with no risk of my counterpart coming away with the impression that I’m a misogynist. I could listen and become less ignorant. I could ask dumb questions and make dumb comparisons without making it sound like I think I’m actually making a clever point. We could take a point of disagreement and work out which of those four broad buckets from earlier that point lay in, or whether it deserves a new bucket to itself.

The more I describe it, the more I think I’m talking about a “safe space” for respectful critical discussion on feminist issues, where men are included equally. But I’m not asking for it yet. I think we have rather more important things to fight for first.

So I’ll continue to self-censor – unless comments persuade me otherwise. I think it’s for the greater good. (And it feels so good just to have finally written all of this down…)

Known unknowns: feminism, intersectionality and humility

In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld made the following comment:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Compared with many Rumsfeld quotes of the same era, this actually makes an awful lot of sense… but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of feminism until just recently. I’ve been thinking a lot about how not just feminism in general, but my own experience of it – particularly in terms of how, when and whether it makes sense to challenge some views of some feminists, whilst agreeing with their outlook. That’s going to be the subject of a whole other (and more difficult) blog post, but while thinking about it, I’ve had to acknowledge the fundamentally ignorant position from which I approach all of this. That leads me to the topic of humility.

I suspect that if you ask a random person in the street (of any gender) for words they associate with feminism, most probably wouldn’t include “humble”. The image conjured in my head is that of women standing up to be counted, proclaiming “This isn’t good enough – we deserve better!” That doesn’t sound terribly humble, does it? Indeed, there are may be many people who would find a call to humility to be insulting – but that’s certainly not my intention. (Nor is it my intention to try to shut those confident voices down in any way. I want to be very clear about that.) Maybe it would be helpful to go back to why I feel humble – or at least understand that I should be.

Shared humility

I suspect that many readers of “Everyday Sexism” have a reaction of “Phew! It’s not just me! But I never knew how bad it was…” My reaction was more one of astonishment… whilst being aware of sexism in general, many of the examples really left me stunned. They’re simply outside my realm of experience. But what has been taking longer to sink in is the aspects of intersectionality – something which has been present in my reading list right from the start (with bell hooks and Feminism is for Everybody). The interplay of race and class in sexism (both in terms of the struggles of those involved, and the politics within feminist movements) was new to me, and I still feel like I’m only starting to grope round the edges of it. There’s a lot of “I hear what you’re saying, and I have to trust it’s correct, but I don’t really understand it yet.” For a guy who spends most of his time in an environment where he’s reasonably competent and experienced, this is pretty challenging.

One thing I am finding about intersectionality, however, is that I’m not alone. Sure, a white woman probably knows more about what the type of prejudice that a black woman faces than I do – but they wouldn’t know everything. A black man and a white woman getting together to talk about their experiences still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be both black and a woman, facing attitudes that are specific to that context. The only way to find out what challenges black women face is to ask… black women. It doesn’t stop there, of course – I’ve used those two aspects of identity for simplicity, but obviously there are many others, and many different points on each spectrum of race, gender, sex, religion, disability, class etc1.

In that sense, surely we should all be humble – not about whether or not we all deserve respect, equal opportunities or a safe environment, but about how little we know about the lives of others. Going back to Donald Rumsfeld, think about the categories he talked about, in this context:

  • Known knowns: I have a pretty good idea of how someone just like me gets treated (in my area, anyway).
  • Known unknowns: I’m aware of some of the challenges faced by some people who are different to me. I’m trying to learn more – but really, I still need to be listening. Even when I gain knowledge, that’s a long way from understanding – it takes a lot to go from knowing there’s a problem to being able to reason about solutions and predict consequences.
  • Unknown unknowns: there are countless situations I haven’t even heard about, let alone pursued, considered and devoted time to.

Inclusive ignorance

Clearly the set “known knowns” is pretty tiny compared with the others… just as I’m sure it is for everyone. I’d even argue that it’s somewhat relevant that less privileged sets of people don’t know what it’s like for more privileged sets. This isn’t a matter of claiming that I’m due any sympathy as a straight white cis male – just that the more we all understand each other’s experiences, the more likely we are to come to a common vision for a brighter future.

I’ve been finding that articles and speeches taking this sort of humble view to intersectional feminism are inspiring and inclusive. I’ve been trying to find a way of expressing this that doesn’t make me sound life a self-centred jerk, but I’ve failed – so I’ll just express it as honestly as I can instead. When I find myself in an environment of women complaining – with good cause, mind you – about how men are treating them unfairly, I find that daunting and depressing, not only for the awful experiences recounted, but because I feel alone in my ignorance. When I find myself in an environment of women still recounting their experiences but also asking others for theirs in the expectation of learning something new – that’s a room I feel comfortable taking a seat in…. where I won’t feel that any question is too dumb to ask. My personal comfort level should be pretty far down the list of anyone’s priorities, of course – but it feels to me like it’s a sign of the whole atmosphere being a constructive one2.


I’ve mostly added this heading to force myself to draw this to a close. It’s all somewhat rambling, because my thought process is somewhat rambling – this is like a condensed version of the last 18 months or so in my brain.

The TL;DR is that I still find myself overwhelmed by how much I don’t understand. Indeed, the more I learn, the more I’m aware of how much more there is to learn. I find it empowering when I hear that others – including powerful, confident voices in feminist movements – are also constantly learning, and don’t expect to have all the answers.

If any of this sounds like mansplaining, I apologise. Please let me know in the comments – I probably won’t edit the content (to avoid revisionism), but I’ll try to take it on board for future writing. It would be an interesting symptom of the exact ignorance I find myself mired in.

1 I don’t want to imply that we can be reduced to a simple set of points on multiple axes either, of course. The idea that (for example) every straight white cis woman faces the same set of prejudices or challenges in life is nonsense, of course. I hope this doesn’t really need to be spelled out to anyone, but I wanted to make it crystal clear just in case.

2 Sometimes, it’s really good just to vent. That’s not to make the world a better place in general, it’s to make you feel better. That’s still a benefit, and not one that should be underestimated. It can also have the positive side-effect of letting others know that they’re not alone if they’ve had similar experiences. I don’t want those benefits to be lost – I guess I just don’t want that to be the only sort of experience.