When you spend as much time being morally outraged about false rape accusations, defending #Gamergate, sneering at the concept of social justice, and treating modern feminism as the last refuge of Jim Crow-style bigotry as I do, people tend to assume you’re a men’s rights activist, or MRA.
It’s terribly depressing, although not surprising, that the people making this accusation are so far removed from reality that they can’t imagine a principled conservative, libertarian, or, in my case, conservatarian, holding precisely these same views. Nope, far easier to make the mocking accusation that I belong to a movement unknown except as feminist blogs’ collective Emmanuel Goldstein, and as the object of one of the least funny sketches in “Saturday Night Live” history, due to its small, fringe and almost entirely Internet-driven nature.
I’m not an MRA, and I don’t see much benefit in being associated with the movement. The most obvious reason would be because MRAs are some of the least politically savvy people on the Internet and, having worked in politics, I know how hard it is to live down an association with a paper tiger. The MRA style of discourse, as I learned firsthand when one somehow managed to become a Facebook friend of mine (a mistake I later corrected), is also often paranoid, truculent, and almost willfully ugly.
There are deeper reasons, however.
Why Oppression Is Not a Compelling Complaint
First off, while MRAs have a valid case that current Western society is hostile to men, their historical domination of institutions notwithstanding, these arguments strike me as completely beside the point. In fact, arguments that begin and end with complaints of oppression are generally unpersuasive.
This is probably at least partially a function of ideology. Arnold Kling, in his “Three Languages of Politics,” talks about how people of different political persuasions tend to judge potential policy outcomes along three different axes. Libertarians judge on the axis of “Will this policy lead to freedom or tyranny?” Conservatives judge on the axis of “Will this policy make the world more civilized or more barbarous?” And liberals judge on the axis of “Will this policy make the world or less oppressive?”
The first two of these are the only two that make any sense to me as a means to judge policy, and the second is the main one that appeals to me. This has cost me some friends, particularly within libertarianism. Anarcho-capitalists especially are often incensed that my main argument against their ideal world is not that it’s not really free, but that it leads to such a barbarous state of affairs that it may as well be tyrannical.
This is a fundamentally conservative concern, and one I think is reasonable to have about any policy, unless you want to live in a Hobbesian state of nature with nothing but your guns to protect you, or in a Soviet-style collective with only the commissar to judge you. Both of these systems strike me as not merely un-free, but also as something that we simply are too civilized to accept as a species, and thankfully so. We are people, not animals, whether those animals are lone wolves (in the case of anarcho-capitalism) or sheep (in the case of communism).
Even if I think the liberty concern can lead one to misguided places, however, I can at least somewhat identify with it. The “oppression” concern, on the other hand, strikes me as not merely irrelevant, but also deeply dangerous. Why? Well, let’s consider a group of people who are obviously oppressed, and yet for whom we shed no tears: Pedophiles. For the sake of making this case as black and white as possible, I’ll even leave out ephebophiles (those attracted to teenagers) and confine this group to solely those with an attraction to very young children.
Plenty of people can’t help being pedophiles. Is it unfair to treat them less kindly as a result? A hard core leftist might say yes. But it seems that if society wants to minimize harm, it has to harshly treat those who are hard-wired to victimize others. If harsh treatment isn’t effective, so be it, but that doesn’t change the fact that, if it is, we shouldn’t be upset at being oppressive.
This isn’t motivated by any animus any more than taking a gun into wolf-infested woods is motivated by animus. Rather, just as the wolves are more dangerous than rabbits, pedophiles are more dangerous than normal human beings in a specific, predictable way, and need to be treated differently because they are different.
Some Oppression Is Warranted
I don’t think all men are morally equivalent to pedophiles. That would be extremely stupid, and probably something Andrea Dworkin or Amanda Marcotte actually believes. What I’m trying to illustrate by bringing up the pedophile example is that oppression can be justified in some cases. In fact, it can be highly rational. So we should judge any case where it is alleged on the basis of whether the supposed “oppression” is sufficiently warranted, not simply on the question of whether it is oppression.
My defenses not only of Gamergate but of the people protesting against the Ferguson police were grounded in this simple idea: that their oppressors were behaving irrationally and in a manner that was dangerous to a civilized society. It was not simply that they were being oppressive, and that was automatically bad. Some behaviors, if condemned, would disproportionately cast men in a negative light, yet we’d still agree they ought to be condemned. Rape, which is a mostly (although by no means exclusively) male crime, is a very good example, the current extremist panic over it notwithstanding. Yes, similarly singular behaviors exist among women, blacks, white people, Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, or any other demographic group you can name.
In short, it makes no more difference to my belief in the righteousness of a cause if its members are oppressed than if all of them painted their faces blue. With oppression, as with almost everything else, I tend to defer to Chesterton’s fence. That is, if we’re going to propose reforms, we are obliged to know why we made things the way they are first.
Identity Politics Mean Special Pleading
But even if MRAs could construct an airtight case that their oppression leads to a worse society, I’d be leery of joining a group with “men’s rights” as its official modus operandi.
Question: What’s the difference between abolitionists and civil-rights activists? Answer: There’s no abolitionist equivalent to Al Sharpton. The abolitionists let their movement die after it had won its big fight, rather than trying desperately to hold onto the old spark and eventually degenerating into a dubious “movement” made up of scammers and professional victims.
Why did it do this? Well, many reasons, but there’s one I want to focus on: abolitionists were less concerned with liberating blacks than with making sure slavery denied no one individual rights. Once that threat was gone, there was nothing left to “abolish.”
But civil rights couldn’t do that. For that matter, neither could feminism, and, I believe, neither will the gay-rights movement. When you make preserving a single group’s political interests the focal point of your movement, rather than simply the elimination of an undesirable state of affairs, or the creation of a more desirable one for everyone, your movement inevitably has to give up the moral high ground and start special pleading.
Even if I conceded everything MRAs say about the miserable state of men globally, it doesn’t change the fact that, if they were successful, that miserable state would end. But would they hang up their spurs? I think not. If they behaved anything like previous identitarian movements, they’d go right on protesting in the face of common sense and morality, because men’s political interests wouldn’t cease to exist just because the most morally odious threats to them had been vanquished.
I loathe everything about identity politics. It reduces people to their membership in groups over which they have no control and whose self-appointed representatives they never consented to. It denies individual agency to the point of obscurantism. It assumes you can meaningfully make statements about “the black experience,” or “the female experience,” or “the masculine experience,” or what have you, although these groups are so large that any average would inevitably be completely alien to almost everyone in them.
It doesn’t help that identity-based movements, whether class- or race-based, have been responsible for every genocide in recent history. Even the good ones seem to inevitably outstay their welcome. I’m not going to help entrench another one, especially when it talks about something as meaningless as “men’s rights.” Men face different obstacles, in different places, at different times. Those obstacles should be the point, not just the reflexive defense of men.
Good Alternatives to the Men’s Rights Movement Exist
It’s not even clear what that reflexive defense requires that any number of other groups couldn’t supply.
Say what you like about feminists, but at least they cornered the market on abortion as a signature issue. If they go away, the pro-choice movement would be crippled, if not killed. Gay-rights activists have same-sex marriage as a signature issue. If they went away, the gay marriage momentum would probably stall. Civil-rights activists have criminal-justice reform and voting rights to fight for. Whatever you think of these special interests, they all give their respective identitarian movements a reason to exist. If these causes ever vanish, those movements will surely find new ones, but the point is, a movement needs a signature issue for the sake of comparative advantage.
So this brings up the question. What do men’s rights activists have as their signature issue? Child support? Child-custody reform? Social conservatives are already doing that. Male circumcision? Atheists, and the natural-birth movement. Tightening divorce laws? Social conservatives, again. Educating young men? Everyone from policy wonks at the American Enterprise Institute to Laura Ingraham is worried about that. Military conscription? Ironically, feminists tried to pursue that with the Equal Rights Amendment. False rape accusations? Get in line; every conservative is worried about that now.
On some level, it’s reasonable that MRAs wanted to sound like feminism, which they imitate in more ways than they like to admit. So, naturally, they adopted an oppression/rights framework. But what they missed was that feminism has worked as an ideology because it has a long history of success, and is allowed its excesses because everyone’s afraid of being the villain in a future Susan B. Anthony-style story of inspiration.
Stop Whining and Start Being Effective
However, when you’re starting a movement on behalf of people who actually are oppressed, needless to say, they’re usually oppressed because society already consented to it. This means running around waving your arms and screaming, “Help, help, I’m being repressed” doesn’t make you look like a suffragette with testes. It makes you look like a Monty Python sketch.
The fact is that if MRAs really want to imitate feminists, they should be imitating not the self-indulgent, nattering harridans of today, but rather the actual early suffragettes, who did confront a hostile social climate. They should be marching, organizing, holding rallies, or forcing the media to cover them. It would be silly, since there are readymade movements they can join that already care about their issues, but at least it’d be tactically smart.
A bunch of people who do nothing but invade the comments sections on blogs and YouTube will never become a political force to be reckoned with. If they could, truthers would run the world. Say what you like about Gamergate, but at least they went after their targets’ funding, which shows an elementary understanding of tactics beyond MRAs’ mere “Show up and shout” approach.
The men’s rights movement is less a movement than a group therapy session. It’s a place for a bunch of terribly alienated men with nowhere else to belong. I empathize, but I’m not an angsty 18-year-old anymore and, unlike them, I found someplace to belong that actually has a future and does care about many of the issues MRAs do. Those that it doesn’t, it’s slowly coming around on.
It’s called the conservative movement. You might want to look into it, MRAs. Come on in, the water’s fine.