Trayvon Martin and rad-fem bigotry

Name the Problem « You think I just don't understand, but I don't believe you. (also here)

I don’t normally follow American (or any other) radical feminist blogs, but I saw this when a friend I encountered through the ME community flagged it up the other day. The article, by Baltimore lesbian activist Cathy “Bug” Brennan, asserts that the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman should be viewed as an example of “male violence” given that males commit 87% of homicides and 91.3% of homicides involving guns in the USA “suggesting that lethality increases because of the weapons Males choose”:

Given these grim statistics, why have we as a society failed to address the problem of male violence? When a lesbian points out these statistics, she is usually greeted with accusations of “man hater.” When a female points out these statistics, she is sometimes greeted with accusations of “lesbian.” If statistics bear out that males are more violent as a class and more lethal as a class of perpetrators (and they do), why isn’t this the subject of substantial inquiry?

We are averse to acknowledging male violence because we do not want to make the males in our lives uncomfortable. In addition, just as it is uncomfortable for males to acknowledge that they benefit from sexism and male privilege, it is equally uncomfortable for males to take responsibility for the disproportionate violence they commit. Try having this conversation with the significant males and Nigels in your lives and see what happens. Try pointing this out to male (or “formerly” male) GLBT Community members and watch the defensiveness fly!

There are a whole host of offensive and distasteful aspects to this article. First is that she picked an incident of male-on-male violence which was motivated principally by racial and class prejudice to launch a diatribe about “male violence” which might have been better focussed on any one of many other incidents in which gender might have been more relevant — the incident here in the UK in which a man blinded his girlfriend, reported in the news yesterday, is one good example. I mention class because the murderer, George Zimmerman, is part-Hispanic rather than white, although he lived a middle-class lifestyle in a gated development, and saw Trayvon Martin as “trouble” simply because of his skin colour and his clothing. Violent racism is something which disproportionately claims black male victims, and it is much less likely that Zimmerman would have killed a woman walking through his neighbourhood, even if she had been young and wearing clothing that suggested she was of low class. Brennan classifies Zimmerman as a “male adult” and Trayvon Martin as an apparently genderless “child”, even though he was 17 and probably well past puberty. He was killed because his blackness, physical adultness, maleness and low-classness combined so as to lead Zimmerman to regard him as a threat, despite no evidence that he was armed (as he wasn’t), before he had even made a move.

It might be argued at this point that the sex of the victim was unimportant as long as the killer was male, but it’s not — after all, Trayvon was male as well, and had Zimmerman not killed him, he might have gone on to become a robber, or to beat his wife, or to join the armed forces and gone and killed a whole load of people (or helped others to do so). Surely, one source of male violence is gone and another is in jail. Result, surely?

Furthermore, “the weapons males choose” are not always a reflection of their maleness but of the necessity, because if you are running a police force and you are dealing with criminals who are armed with guns, you will not be able to defeat them if you arm your officers with water pistols, and the same is true of anyone who has a firearm to protect their property. In many parts of the USA, women own guns in their own right, and are seen in videos and news reports which promote gun ownership and the rights to carry guns in various public places. She claims that the “stand your ground” state law that Zimmerman relied on was “promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (with an overwhelmingly male board of directors) that ensures that prosecutions in cases where the perpetrator asserts self-defense will decrease”. The law was also voted into existence by legislators (probably mostly male, but not exclusively) who were voted for by men and women, who no doubt rewarded them with more vote.

Besides her attempt to gender a race-based incident to the credit of her own sex, there is a huge element of victim-blaming and erasure of the experience of male victims and survivors of violence, whether by men or women, especially if committed when they were children. Male-on-male violence is normalised in our society in a way that violence by men against women is not, and boys growing up are often subjected to physical violence by older (physically adult) boys during early adolescence, and are often told that if they do not learn to fight, they are going to be victims and will have only themselves to blame. This message is often reinforced by male and female adults, who tell them they have to toughen themselves up because they cannot rely on adults to fight their battles for them. They might even be told that they are wimps, pansies or something similar or that they should keep their heads down and avoid provoking the people who attack them (because the adults can’t protect them or can’t be bothered to do so). Some boys become violent to survive, and others don’t, and if they don’t, I suggest that they deserve some credit, rather than being lumped in with their abusers and being expected to answer along with them for their acts, or crimes. A female victim of male violence (or a female activist who has heard plenty of tales of male violence against women) can identify the abuser as an other, a privilege which male victims do not have.

In addition, depending on their class and racial background, a young man may face tremendous pressure not to have the discipline to get an education but to drop out and make fast money by fair means or foul, or to join a gang. They may be accused of acting white or acting like a girl if they attempt to stay out of trouble and do their school work. I do not know Brennan’s exact background or where she grew up, but she is obviously female and is not black (picture here), so is unlikely to have had experiences of the pressures young men face in these circumstances. In addition, they face harassment from the police, in some places on a regular basis and from an early age (early teens or younger), because there is a culture within the police in many western cities that black boys and men are trouble. In short, males experience more aggression from others at an early age than females, and violence breeds violence. (Although the victim in this particular case was black, a mention of violence by black men is justified here because Brennan has thrown the accusation of violence at men as a group.)

The victim blaming on display is a sickening irony given that feminists are often very quick to allege this, sometimes in response to perfectly sensible advice regarding personal safety, such as the campaign by the transport authority in London not to use unlicensed minicabs (taxis, although this term is reserved in London for the “black cabs” which charge a premium fare). The posters often emphasise the risk of rape, although there are a number of other risks, including being robbed or the vehicle being unroadworthy (taxis and official private hire vehicles are regulated and the drivers checked for criminal records; unlicensed cabs are subject to none of this). The adverts did not say it was stupid to get raped (or get your neck broken in a car accident); they were aimed at those who are not victims who presumably do not want to become victims. Yet, here we see a feminist characterising males as a more violent class than females, demanding that women should hold their men accountable for it, ignoring the fact that they are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators.

Further on, she brings in the matter of females’ “responsibility” for “male violence”:

Of course, it doesn’t help the conversation around violence that males are viewed as the default Human. This phenomenon makes “violence” a human problem rather than a male problem, thus placing the burden on males and females equally to address such violence.

So what do females do? We shoulder the blame. We accept individual responsibility for violence that we don’t commit and haven’t committed. We participate in the obfuscation of male violence. We fail to confront what is so glaringly obvious that it has become invisible – males as a class are violent. Your dad, brother or boyfriend may not be violent, but males as a class are more violent than females.

Although every person is responsible for their own deeds, others around them are responsible for the climate in which their deeds were committed, and people share responsibility for those deeds they foster, encourage or reward. Earlier examples were given of the women who voted for the politicians who vote veiled racist legislation into existence; women also sometimes approve of men’s and male adolescents’ violence against other males, or praise them knowing they are violent, or fail to protect someone in their care who is a victim of violence (or tell them to just retaliate, which is in fact illegal and could result in them ending up in court, particularly if they carry such behaviour on into adulthood), or tell that person to toughen up and be a man, or applaud or look on approvingly when a man (particularly a family member) threatens another man, or a boy, with violence for their ‘protection’ (the deputy head at my special school did this, and his wife was also a teacher and openly approved). Women need to make their disapproval known when men close to them display violence against anyone, not just females, otherwise they do share in the blame for their male friends’ and relatives’ violence. As for expecting women to confront their “Nigels” about violence they personally do not commit, I fail to see what this would achieve, and she does not give them any suggestions as to what they might ask (for example, “is any of your friends a thug?”). As with Nirpal Dhaliwal’s demand for black activists to answer for gangsters (published in the London Evening Standard last month, in response to a shooting that left a young girl of Asian origin paralysed, which I covered a few entries back), it is a case of expecting the innocent to answer for the guilty, a common tactic of bigots.

I do not believe there is a single answer as to why some men are violent or why more violence is committed by men than by women, but everyone is a product of their upbringing and some were conditioned to be violent and some were not, and some are more capable of controlling their aggression and anger than others. Of course, men are responsible for the violence they indvidually commit when they are adults, but not for anyone else’s violence unless they let it happen or encouraged it. Brennan’s article displays a common fault of modern feminism: an emphasis on women’s victimhood and a complete denial of women’s responsibility for their own choices and for the effect their behaviour has on other people. The perception of oppression and victimhood is also used as a means of gaining a “free pass” for bigotry, as in the use of derogatory language like “Nigels”, whatever they are, and the demand for the victims (as long as they are not women) to account along with the perpetrators. Women are not so oppressed (as a group) to merit an allowance for bigotry. Most of my friends are women as are most of the relatives I see regularly, and I’ve campaigned on some issues that mostly affect women (ME, for example), but I could never classify myself as a feminist because I associate it too much with selfishness, responsibility denial and bigoted nonsense like this.

I was in an all-male special school from age 12 to 16, a place where public violence by pupils and staff was a regular occurrence. I was a victim of some of it and was personally offended by this article. I was at the bottom of the heap and was told to just keep my mouth shut and not complain or give others a pretext to attack me. The violence mostly came from male peers and teachers (besides the female teacher with the violent deputy head for a husband that I mentioned earlier, there was also a female teacher who was violent to boys, including me), but there were also women who were meant to protect me and knowingly let the violence happen and told me it was my fault. None of the attackers ever faced criminal sanction and nobody lost their job. I did not become a thug or a vigilante and have never been violent to a woman (or anyone else) as an adult. I am not responsible for my abusers’ actions or those of any other violent person.

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  • http://twitter.com/Julaybib Yakoub Islam

    I think the article’s central point, that gender justice needs to focus on men (i.e. masculinities), is valid. She is also correct in drawing attention to the strong relationship between rape and power. Violence may take place for all sorts of reasons, but there is little doubt in my mind that most violence is highly gendered and committed by men.

    I’m pleased to see that Laurie Penny is now talking about “masculinity” (masculinities is better, since it acknowledges the cultural diversity of the same) – no doubt in response to this article. Muslim/Islamic masculinities is a vibrant topic in gender studies and well worth exploring IMHO.

  • http://www.blogistan.co.uk/blog/ Matthew Smith

    Laurie Penny wouldn’t be the first person to write about what effect perceptions of masculinity and what constitutes it contributes to violent behaviour by men. That’s perfectly valid and constructive — the kind of “blame men for everything” feminism promoted by Brennan is totally different. It’s a dead-end, because men who aren’t violent can say, with perfect justification, “well, take it up with the violent men, don’t blame me”. 

  • http://liberationislife.wordpress.com/ Ginny Brown

    My response to Matthew’s piece, in which I regret that he did not read Cathy Brennan’s article links, and save us all some trouble : http://liberationislife.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/violence-by-men-addressing-the-problem-or-blaming-mean-feminists/

  • Ms Vanilla Rose

    I think “Nigels” are the male partners or friends of non-radical feminists, also known to rad fems as “fun fems”. Because, in accordance with rad fem ideology, everything is binary. Eg, people are either male or female. (Yes, indeed, what about intersex people? They just say that hardly anyone is intersex, which misses the point. In the same way that arguing what percentage of the population is gay is irrelevant to the question of gay rights. The point being that if even one in a million people is intersex, that still means that not everyone fits the neat binary system.)

    If you aren’t a rad fem, you’re deemed to be not a feminist at all, but you might be a “fun fem” who thinks she is a feminist. In rad fem terms, there is no middle ground between them and the utterly superficial fun fems. In rad fem terms, the poor, deluded fun fems say, “But my Nigel would never do something like that”. You are right, it is derogatory.

    Even if it were (to take a ridiculously hypothetical example) proved that 95% of women named Trixie-Marie were rad fems, it would still be unfair on the other 5% to use their given name as a derogatory term for rad fems.

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