This question of sexism and more specifically feminism keeps coming up. And then dies down a bit, and then comes up again. Every time there is this back and forth and there never seems to be an answer. Or maybe it is because of the back and forth that there is no answer.
The three faces of the argument
I have noticed that there tends to be three types of arguments regarding this and articles have been written for all three sides: there is the extreme feminists who insist that men and everyone else must drop everything they are doing to not only acknowledge women but also elevate them to positions of power. These extremists come just short of asking that men neuter themselves or at least just lie there and let the women do it to show their willingness for change. The second side is the polar opposite of the first, where men resort to what they do best in conflict; try to win at all costs. These guys will trivialise the feminist agenda, make jokes about it or just completely ignore it – this is when they are not launching full out attacks at women who even hint at feminism and women’s rights. The third type is very rare. This is the argument that is not really an argument, not even a debate, more like a sharing of ideas of how to move things forward collectively. This is different in that it is not the women feeling the responsibility to implement change rests with them solely, or the men feeling that there is no need for change and that they will decide when it becomes necessary, but where both men and women agree on something relating to feminism in its true definition. I got a chance to witness a smidgen of this on twitter the other day.
Men are Obsolete?
A writer for the New York Times posted an article titled ‘Men Are Obsolete’ the other day and a prominent woman in South Africa shared it with her followers on twitter. This woman is recognised both publicly and privately as a very strong and independent woman. (I wasn’t sure whether to use the word independent or not as it has become a cliché, but just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true!). Now I don’t know whether she is or not but we recognise her as being independent.
As you can see from the sensationalist title the article belongs to the first group, that of extremist feminists. Since she shared this article it was only natural to assume that she subscribes to this thinking or supports it. This pleasantly turned out to be far from the truth. One of her followers challenged the article in response to her. He called it the “one of the worst articles he has ever read” and that it was “bordering on being silly”. The exchange that followed fell squarely into the third group of arguments mentioned above. She highlighted the good points of the article and what she thought the author was trying to express. He, on the other hand, pointed out the competitive and almost vindictive nature of the article. In the end they both agreed that in going for sensationalism the author missed her own point, that a more woman focussed title would have sufficed and that resorting to thinly-veiled man-bashing and glorifying the fact that women are now just as capable of aggression and violence was not the way for the author to put her point across, whatever it was. I really enjoyed reading that too-short exchange. I would have enjoyed more seeing other like-minded people join in the conversation but it wasn’t to be.
It’s a competition!
It got me thinking beyond the conversation and I think I understand why the issue of sexism and feminism is still a long way from being resolved. It’s a competition! In sport you do not play for a draw (except that one time that Bafana Bafana did, but we won’t go there for our own sanity). You play to win, and you win by scoring more points than your opponent. In really tough competition it is often necessary to wear your opponent down psychologically and physically to allow you to score points easier or for them to lose points. This is where the man vs. woman fight is currently being fought – we will work hard to wear down the opposition until they give up. The irony here of course is that we are in the same team!
Who are we playing against?
I’ll use rugby to illustrate this point. In a rugby team you have two types of players: forwards and backs. Each group has a very specific job to perform to ensure three things happen: the team keeps possession of the ball; the team goes forward and scores points; and when they don’t have possession of the ball, to make sure that they defend their try line and prevent the other team from scoring.
Well in the feminism battle the backs and forwards are playing against each other, unaware that this is keeping them from moving forward. What makes it difficult is the question, so who are we playing against if not each other? I think as soon as this question is answered we will a drastic change in how the feminism battle is being fought.
If we continue with the rugby analogy for a second more, what we have seen from the most successful teams is that they have managed to change the way the game is played, they have merged the traditional roles of players. A forward is still a forward and still has to perform the basics expected of a forward but now a flanker is just as comfortable playing out on the wing and a centre has no problems in the rucks and mauls. If you’re a soccer fan, think of how left backs are now being used effectively as attacking wingers and how wingers are often found in the box scoring goals. (If you’re not a fan of either, then ask someone who isJ). As times have changed it has become critical for each player to master their role, to have the necessary technical ability to do their basic jobs well. And then only once they have mastered their primary role are they exposed to the sider range of responsibilities. No matter how good a prop is on the wing, if he cannot scrum you have lost the game. At the same time if your prop is not dynamic enough and able to play outside the traditional scope then you’re not likely to win the game either.
But the one thing that sports has that we do not is a common enemy, an opponent.
Survival and Progress
The opponent is right in front of us. It is the same opponent or goal that has always been there: the survival of the species. Not the survival of man or woman but the species. If an alien race were to attack us now would it matter who was shooting at them, man or woman? So why does it matter who the CEO of a company is?
More than survival, lack of progress is what we are fighting against. If the cure for cancer was found, would it matter who discovered it, man or woman? If you suddenly discovered today that the creators of your favourite were women would you enjoy it less?
If this makes sense then why the resistance to change? Because we have built a society that put labels on everything. And the labels are there to set things apart even if they mean nothing. And men are the biggest prisoners of these labels. The word ‘man’ itself has such a fine, narrow definition that people have died trying to live up to it. Although all animals are equal, there must always be animals that are more equal than others.
So what is my conclusion?
Traditionally men built things because they had the strength to build and women gave birth because they had the strength to do that. But we have evolved, haven’t we? Yes men are still doing the physical work of laying bricks and women are still carrying babies for nine months and giving birth. But the idea of providing a home has become so much more than a mere building. The builders have become unknown entities, shadows that are never seen. The provider of the home has become that person who can provide the finances to have the home built. This person no longer need be a man. So inevitably the men have questions of themselves and society: Will I lose my place as a man in society? Will I be made obsolete? The extremist feminists have also reacted out of fear. Upon seeing the resistance from men they have gone on the offensive and all this has done is driven (some) men deeper into their fears and they have dug their heels further into the ground.
Yet, why is it important how society sees me as a man or a woman? Why must I abide by society’s labels and in the process lose my own identity? If I am father to my children and a husband to my wife, what else matters? The fact that I am also a CEO of a company, or a pilot or a captain is incidental. None of these things will make me a better husband, a better father.
This is the battle that as men we need to fight with each other: the realisation that we do not have to live our lives according to society’s labels. That what society expects of us and what we expect of ourselves will always be mutually exclusive. Maybe this is calling it too black and white and maybe there is some grey in there but I don’t think so. After all, society is a fictional place, a fictional group of people who are made up of all the dreams that have been shattered and unfulfilled fantasies (when was the last time you heard of any society being spoken of in a positive light?).
At the same time this is the precaution women should be taking. So that when that moment has arrived, when we look around and we realise that this equality of the genders has been achieved, we don’t find mothers and wives have been casualties of this battle.
If we lose mothers, wives, husbands and fathers we would have lost the war. The progress of our people will be assured but so will its extinction.