The Second Sexism by David Benatar
Earlier this month, a book was published in the UK that met with the good fortune of so few of its kind. Before it had even hit the shelves, it had already spawned countless op-eds, talkback discussions and conversations around the water cooler. A rare privilege indeed – and perhaps ironic, given author David Benatar’s central concerns. Namely, that men and boys suffer from innate disadvantage and discrimination, and that the silencing of this is leading to a new form of hidden prejudice – The Second Sexism, to be more specific.
Before you laugh yourself into a coma at the desk where you’re no doubt earning two thirds of your male counterpart’s salary, Benatar isn’t your run-of-the-mill Men’s Rights Activist. While it’s tempting to lambast him as some kind of delusional whinger in the grips of one of science’s most potent acid trips, he has not been elected to lead the poor, oppressed men through a wilderness so ungodly the only rainfall it experiences is that of Mother Nature’s tears. Rather, Benatar is a philosopher – the head of the Philosophy Department at Cape Town University to be precise.
Benatar’s thesis therefore attempts philosophically to address the ways in which men ALSO experience discrimination in a rigidly patriarchal society. He cites the fact that men are more likely to be conscripted into the military, to die in wars, be incarcerated, to have to give up their lifeboat seats to women and children, or to suffer violence (usually at the hands of other men, but that’s apparently beside the point). Most controversially, he suggests that while men certainly enjoy greater privilege at the top levels of society, they also wallow in greater numbers in its swamps. (Evidently, this is supposed to cancel out discrimination against women by invoking the rules of the world’s most logically unsound game of Rock, Paper, *Headdesk*.)
But it would be folly to write Benatar off as some kind of mad troll suddenly lumped with a megaphone and a mission. Unlike some of the more fervently frothing men’s advocates barking up trees they can’t see the wood for, Benatar doesn’t seem to elevate male oppression above that of women’s (although it would surely make for a comical text). He doesn’t seek a return to the structural discrimination that unquestioningly rewarded men for whom class battles were mitigated by their God-given dominion over women, and then confused them when feminist activism took it away.
Unfortunately, so used have we gotten to deflecting the spittle that shoots forth from these self fancying modern day slaves that Benatar’s argument will likely (and perhaps understandably) be met by exhausted ranting and cynical eyerolls. Consider the rates of men being killed in wars. While we could argue that the price of men starting wars is that they have to fight them, is that really the answer? ‘Men’ don’t start wars – governments do. Governments are typically overrun by men and structures of power that favour masculinity. And the people who start wars very rarely actually fight in them.
So is it sexism against men that leads to their lives being considered, in this example, more expendable? In part, yes – but unlike the discrimination experienced by women, sexism against men occurs in a counterintuitive fashion. People don’t bristle at the thought of women being sent home in body bags because women’s lives are inherently given more value; thousands of years of history has a pretty solid company line on this. They bristle because women aren’t considered naturally capable of Getting The Job Done – because, in an obscure twist of logic, they lack the natural masculine attributes of strength that apparently help men both protect their fellow humans, and kill them.
Indeed, there’s no question that men suffer oppression and discrimination – but it’s entirely at the hands of the rigid notions of masculinity under which they also enjoy success and power.
If women are excluded from the gilded halls of masculinity’s castle, what of the men who fail to live up to its expectations, or simply want a little more fluidity in the social roles available to them? What of the homosexuals, the nurturing, the artistic, the flamboyant, the girlish, the timid, the poor, the just-not-quite-manly, or those for whom the tenets of Real Masculinity mean that they’re not even supposed to complain? Sure, they are not oppressed in the same way as women. Their manhood still affords them a base level of privilege that is, on the whole, denied to women the world over (if Benatar wants to argue extremes of discrimination in men’s education and economics, he can begin by addressing the fact that women make up 66% of the world’s illiterate adults; 3 out of 4 fatalities in war are women and children; gender based violence is the biggest cause of death of women aged between 15 and 44; and that even while men may be being sent to war, tens of thousands of women are being raped as a weapon of it.)
But it’s not a competition. There’s no harm to be had in saying that, while women undoubtedly suffer the lion’s share of patriarchal oppression, they are not the exclusive victims; that patriarchy is, on the whole, a bad thing for everybody – even many of the men who are privileged by it. While I certainly wouldn’t suggest feminists put down our placards just yet and redirect our attention to ensuring men survive the revolution (for, if it’s true that women and children get the lifeboats first, it’s also true that women and girls in famine tend to eat last), I don’t think we gain any benefit from working against them either.
Besides, men are great. I’d rather have them standing with me on the ramparts, caught up in the desperately romantic thrill of Fighting For Good, than three castles away, missing out on all my dirty jokes.