Friday, December 21, 2012

Dear Good Men Project

Dear Good Men Project,

I'd never heard of you before Jill at Feministe mentioned you in a series of blog posts I linked to here.  Reading those posts and hearing other people's experiences with you in comments, I came up with a cloudy but troubling idea of who you are and what you're about.

Suddenly, it became much more clear.

Jill posted a link to a Twitter conversation involving one of your people, Tom Matlack.  She called him your "head honcho," and I see that he's named on Wikipedia as your founder.

Here's what he says in the middle of that Twitter conversation:
@sjjphd my privilege? I grew up with nothing. My parents didn't have enough money. You have no idea what you are talking about.
He's speaking with feminists in a conversation relevant to gender studies, and he doesn't understand what the word "privilege" means in that context.

I don't think that you can get very far in a progressive conversation without examining your privilege.  I don't think that a feminist man who doesn't understand what privilege is can actually be feminist.

If you haven't examined your privilege, if you haven't put forth some effort to cast a critical eye over the patriarchy and notice how you benefit from it, then you don't genuinely understand the deeply entrenched systems of oppression operating in this culture.  If you don't understand how men benefit from sexism, or how white people benefit from racism, etc., you don't understand the patriarchy.  Flailing around in social justice or gender studies circles without understanding the basics of the conversation generally means that you're hindering more than you're helping.

Someone who doesn't understand what "privilege" means in this context can't participate in the conversation in any meaningful, productive way.

He absolutely cannot lead the conversation.

Yet Tom Matlack is your founder.

As far as I can tell, he's male, white, and currently quite wealthy.  I don't know him very well, but let's say for the sake of argument that he grew up cis and straight.  As a man, he benefits from sexism.  As a white person, he benefits from racism.  As a cis person, he benefits from transphobia.  As a straight person, he benefits from homophobia.  And when a feminist in a conversation on gender says the word "privilege," his immediate response is: I grew up poor.  I wasn't wealthy.  As if the advantage of wealth is the only advantage of importance.  As if the economic class we're born into is the only privilege of relevance.

He has no idea, then, how being white has helped him in life.  How being a man has been a benefit.  How being cis and/or being straight is an advantage in a transphobic, homophobic society.  (That's not even to get into TAB privilege, thin privilege, and the rest.)

If you don't understand privilege, you don't understand oppression.  If you don't understand the kyriarchy, you don't understand what progressives are fighting for, or why.  How can you ask what it is to be a good man if you don't understand what being a man means in the patriarchy?  How far can that conversation among men progress if you don't begin with a fundamental understanding of your own shared privilege?

It's a truth that the patriarchy hurts men, too.  Yet a man who doesn't realize that he benefits from the patriarchy by virtue of his very maleness is ignorant and needs to approach gender studies from the very beginning.  A man who doesn't know how he benefits from sexism doesn't know what sexism is.

Your founder isn't at the "What does it mean to be a good man?" portion of the conversation.  He's at the "What does it mean to be a man?" portion.

What sorts of men is the Good Men Project for?  How can you invite all kinds of men to the conversation if you don't understand the dynamics of oppression?  If Tom Matlack doesn't understand his own white privilege, how does he include men of color?  How does he reach out to them to share their experiences and discuss their issues if he doesn't understand racism?

Let's go back to the tweet I quoted above.  During Tom Matlack's conversation with other feminists, he said something which drew Sarah J. Jackson (@sjjphd) into the discussion.  It does not thrill me to notice that while the other ongoing conversations overlap, his conversation with Sarah J. Jackson involves no one else.  I wish that she didn't have to go it alone, that others had spoken up with her as they supported each other.

For context, she's a woman of color who describes herself on Twitter as an "Asst. Prof. Researching & Teaching about Media Narratives of Race, Gender & Political Protest."  Here's the comment she replied to and their ensuing conversation.
@hugoschwyzer do you assume all black people are felons since they commit more crimes on average than white people?
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 08:20:33 AM PST 
@TMatlack This analogy is SO spurious. Please don't use it tom argue ur point if u want POC to have any part in what ur doing. @hugoschwyzer
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 09:36:51 AM PST 
@sjjphd @hugoschwyzer groups aren't guilty. Individuals are.
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:13:18 AM PST 
@TMatlack men=historically privileged, POC=historically oppressed. Comparing stereotypes 2 make point=inaccurate, unproductive, & ingnorant.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:22:56 AM PST 
@TMatlack It's cool 2 get caught up in a heated debate but using false racial hyperbole in it? Your privilege is showing & I know ur better.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:25:04 AM PST 
@TMatlack And that's with all due respect to the arc of what you're doing at GMP. Sensational & spurious discourse helps nothing.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:26:56 AM PST 
@sjjphd calling all men rapists or all POC criminals equally sexist/racist IMO. I am a white man. Does that make me guilty ?
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:27:36 AM PST 
@TMatlack It is NOT equal because -isms have 2 do w/ the structural power grps historically & contemporarily have over others.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:30:16 AM PST 
@sjjphd my privilege? I grew up with nothing. My parents didn't have enough money. You have no idea what you are talking about.
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:32:50 AM PST 
@TMatlack Last time I checked men weren't continuously structurally disenfranchised. You're def guilty of is a lack of racial sensitivity.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:33:13 AM PST 
@TMatlack I was talking about white privilege Tom, it exists and even poor white people can experience it.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:34:17 AM PST 
@sjjphd btw if you actually look at my writing I have been the taking most on GMP about race and sex tracking, the real stuff not judgement
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:35:07 AM PST 
@TMatlack As a POC who wants 2 support what ur doing at GMP I was simply requesting u not use racially insensitive language to make a point.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:36:10 AM PST 
@sjjphd read my work on race, prison etc before you go calling me racist please.
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:37:08 AM PST 
@TMatlack I know! Which is why I was suprised u made the comparison u did. I know u know better. Why the defensiveness?
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:37:33 AM PST 
@TMatlack HOLY SHIT I DID NOT CALL YOU A RACIST. I said the racial comparison is spurious, which it is. Your defensiveness is shocking me.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:39:06 AM PST
@TMatlack & it is possible 4 ppl not 2 be racist & still be capable of saying less than accurate/sensitive things re race. #thoughtyoudcare
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:43:44 AM PST 
@sjjphd I was being sensitive to the many black men in prison who feel they were a victim of racism.
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:47:52 AM PST 
@TMatlack Um? That's not how it came across. It seemed u were comparing black oppression 2 stereotyping of men. Not the same but #Igiveup
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:50:49 AM PST 
@TMatlack 4 the record I greatly respect what u do. Sad u can't hear from a POC & some1 who studies race that ur comparison was problematic.
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 10:53:58 AM PST 
@sjjphd I don't believe I ever criticized *you*. You tried to educate me on race/gender which I find demeaning since I have my own views.
TMatlack 15/Dec/2011 10:58:29 AM PST 
@TMatlack U find fact men aren't oppressed grp & black ppl are, & my trying 2 alert u in good conscience abt prob w/ comparison demeaning?
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 11:42:43 AM PST 
@TMatlack #Icantanymore but hope ppl read ur friend Steve's & my pieces on having convos abt race:
sjjphd 15/Dec/2011 11:44:27 AM PST
The entire back-and-forth echoes countless conversations playing out all across the sphere of feminism and social justice.  She points out that his language is harmful to a marginalized population.  She takes pains to compliment him, to soften her critique, to make it a point to acknowledge his efforts.  He replies with ignorant statements.  She tries to educate him and explain what she means (all knowledge he should already have).  He doesn't thank her, doesn't agree with her, but instead explains that he's already got all of this stuff down pat and has been doing the real work on these issues all along ("the real stuff not judgement").  He plays the "I'm not racist" game.  He continues to insist that he's done nothing wrong, that he's entirely in the right, and that he can't be educated.  She continues to try to explain while still offering compliments.  He refuses to listen ("I have my own views").  She gets tired.  He stops responding.  She gives up.

She shouldn't have to work this hard to communicate with someone who considers himself a feminist ("@jennpozner I didn't take it personally. I consider myself a feminist. But apparently that word has many meanings.") and a tireless worker on issues of racism.  He should be her ally.  She starts off with "please" and spends the entire conversation offering him cookies.  She points out, for the record, that she's a person of color who studies race.  She explains all of her points in a way that anyone who's written about race should easily grasp.  Yet he doesn't seem to hear a word she says.  He has his "own views," and he clings to them until he exhausts her and she gives up.

He doesn't know what privilege is, and he doesn't seem to care.  When a member of a marginalized population asks him to reconsider his analogies, he defends himself and argues back without seeming to accept anything she says.  Not once does he agree with any of her points.  Instead, he implies that he's doing the real work while she's not ("the real stuff not judgment" in a conversation where he clearly feels judged), he directs her twice to read his work (when she's already praised his project), he calls her comments "demeaning," and he says, literally, "You have no idea what you are talking about."

He doesn't know the basics of gender studies.  He doesn't know the basics of racism.  He doesn't know what "privilege" is (either the word itself or the general concept).  He doesn't respond well to criticism.

How can the Good Men Project progress when the man at the top thinks that he knows it all already and isn't open to learning?

As I said earlier, if you want talk about what it means to be a good man, you need to start by talking about what it means to be a man.  Part of being a man in a patriarchy means benefiting from sexism.  Understanding how you benefit from sexism means understanding privilege.  You have to start somewhere; try these two posts by Liss at Shakesville.

A final tweet from Tom Matlack:
it's the good "mens" project. women are welcome but the point is to inspire men to be good.
Like many others, I would be very happy to have more good men around.  Most of us would be glad to help.  Many of us have been trying to help.  And when we try, bringing our experience and expertise and years of study to the table, we're told things like, "You have no idea what you're talking about."  Is that really what a "good man" would say?

With love,
Frank Lee

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