Men and Empathy

A complex and important dialogue has emerged in the wake of the UCSB shootings, including the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter. I have many thoughts on the hashtag and the issues to which it gives voice. Today I wanted to focus briefly on a narrow issue: why I think that men who speak out against sexism and misogyny are valuable and important allies, and why men who sit silent are part of the problem.

Men who speak out on these issues deserve credit for their willingness to stand up for something that they haven’t directly experienced and that doesn’t directly benefit them. (I say not directly because I believe that a society in which men and women are equal is a better society for everyone, but that benefit is not an immediate one.) My point isn’t that men deserve special praise for vocally supporting gender equality. Everyone should support gender equality as a matter of principle. My point is a somewhat different one: that empathy is difficult no matter who you are and with whom you’re empathizing. It’s hard to understand what it’s like to be a woman if you’re not a woman. It’s hard to understand what it’s like to be gay if you’re not gay. It’s hard to understand what it’s like to have a particular disability if you don’t have that disability. Empathy is hard work, and men who undertake that work — and then undertake the further work of speaking out against sexism and misogyny — should be commended.

Moreover, men are valuable as allies because the reality is that in some circumstances, and with some people, men will be more effective at advancing gender equality than will women. This, too, is about empathy. People often find it easier to empathize with those who share some of their identity characteristics — that is, straight, white, upper-middle-class men often find it easier to hear certain ideas coming from other straight, white, upper-middle-class men. Frankly, I wish this were not so. I wish that good arguments would always stand on their own merits, to everyone, regardless of who communicates them. But in our society today, listeners are not oblivious to the identity of the speaker. Thousands of studies on implicit bias have shown this to be true. Men who speak out against sexism and misogyny sometimes have more success at reaching certain groups — in particular, other men.

I have seen various comments chastising men who are attempting to support #YesAllWomen for taking up too much discursive space in the #YesAllWomen hashtag, or for offering insufficiently nuanced views, or for “mansplaining” feminism to feminists who have studied the subject for decades. Those are absolutely valid critiques of some advocacy by men. But if the man in question is trying in good faith to be a good ally, yet is doing so imperfectly, the best response is usually not to disparage but rather to educate.

Conversely, if you are a man who doesn’t speak out against sexism and misogyny, then yes, you are part of the problem. It’s quite cliché to say that if you aren’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem, but here it’s also true. So if you’re a man: When you see a guy catcalling or following a woman on the street, if you don’t say something, you’re part of the problem. When you run a website that deteriorates into a cesspool of sexist and misogynistic comments, if you don’t intervene, you’re part of the problem. When your office buddy won’t stop calling a female colleague “sweetheart” or “babe” after she repeatedly asks him to stop, if you don’t call him out, you’re part of the problem. When you do absolutely nothing to educate yourself about reproductive rights, revenge porn, cyberharassment, violence against women, gender discrimination in the workplace, and other issues that profoundly and intimately affect day-to-day life for the half of the population to which you don’t belong, you are indeed part of the problem.

The reason you’re part of the problem, in all of these circumstances, is not only that you’re not doing anything to actually stop the behavior or change the discourse.  It’s that by not doing anything, you’re also sending the message that what’s happening is socially acceptable. You’re tacitly approving the conduct, even if you silently disagree with it. Of course I’m not saying that to be a good ally you have to speak out against sexism and misogyny literally every single time you see it happen. No one has that much bandwidth. Everyone has to choose battles. But if you never speak up? Yes. You are part of the problem.

Here and here are some examples of men speaking out against sexism and misogyny. There are many others, but I chose these two because I don’t think that the men in question would describe their primary job as advocating for gender equality. Nevertheless, in the wake of the UCSB shooting and the ensuing discourse about misogyny, they used their platforms to appropriately reinforce the message of the many women who fight these battles every day.

Finally, I acknowledge that this post — like the #YesAllWomen hashtag — adopts a gender binary that is artificial and that excludes some who identify neither as men nor as women. I hope that there will be future conversations that focus specifically on this dynamic. I regret that in a single blog post I was not able to do so.