reading the feminist classics as a white guy business professor

Carl Cederström spent a month reading 13 feminist books to celebrate a year of #MeToo, then wrote a book report in the newspaper here. He deserves some credit for that, but I usually find this style of writing, normal people’s confessions from early in the awakening process, frustrating to read. There’s not enough reflection on why this awakening took so long. I mean, by now he should have a theoretical vocabulary for talking about his socialization into the patriarchy, right?

“He covered my mouth with his hand and introduced his penis. I thought my last hour had arrived. I had the feeling my stomach was turning.”

These are not the words of a woman testifying as part of the #MeToo movement, and they are not the words of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified against the US supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last week – although the hand over the mouth, if not the reference to the penis, mirror her words. (Kavanaugh denies the allegations.) This is, instead, the experience of a young woman as recounted by the French feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her 1949 classic The Second Sex.

I took that book down from the shelf about a month ago; it had sat there, untouched, for years. How many times had I pretended to have read it, nodding knowingly when someone mentioned it at a dinner party, or in a seminar at the Swedish university where I work?

Did his editor put “Kavanaugh denies the allegations” there, or did he? It’s strange that he can trust the reader to know about the hearings and the details of Ford’s story, but he has to be explicit about the denial, which precedes Simone de Beauvoir’s name and the date. Isn’t it profound how little has changed in 70 years? It’s good for him to admit he was just pretending to be familiar with the contents, but why did he behave in that dishonest way? What pressures did he perceive? How did he rationalize dismissing it before? How is that connected to the fact that this is still a problem, 70 years later?

A year after the first revelations about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, I wanted to to sit down and read about women’s experiences, to stay silent for a while, and hopefully learn something. It has been painful to listen to the stories of systematic sexual abuse that have emerged as a result of the #MeToo movement, and also an education; it has forced me to see things I had failed to see in the past. Before, I knew sexual assaults were endemic, but I didn’t realise they were this endemic. I also understood that the blame is often put on the victim. But I had never really seen this, not in such a concrete and shockingly visible way.

This is like a giant gulf separating me from other people. I got bullied a lot (lol autism) and, like most children, I heard all about my dad’s job growing up. It’s just that he was a social worker for the Navy, specializing in domestic violence and child abuse, during the Tailhook era. He was, like, busy at work, so there were obviously a lot of fucked up things happening behind everyone’s doors. I learned other obvious things about the world: the Navy has an incentive to, like, not fire the people it’s trained over some 12 year old lying little bitch. We’re defending America here! It’s actually ok to be a wife-beating child molester, especially if you’re an officer (do normal people even know the difference between officers and enlisted people?).

I’m so not impressed with complaints about how painful it is to hear about things that actually happened to someone else. Welcome to empathy, asshole. There’s the boilerplate rhetoric about staying silent for once, letting women tell their stories and blah blah blah. But it’s all so painful. Can he say more about why it’s painful, what it’s stirring up in him? Is the neutral language about “failing to see” really justified, or was the denial more willful than that? It’s all been written down for 70 years, at least! People bring these things up to him routinely, at dinner parties and seminars. We talk about this stuff literally every time there’s a rape in the news. How can you not have heard someone talk about how you probably know someone who’s been sexually assaulted? If he publishes in The Guardian, he probably reads The Guardian, and they publish feminist essays literally every day.

He should explain how it’s possible to stay so emotionally walled off, to avoid imagining other people’s experiences. David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules makes this point:

A popular exercise among high school creative writing teachers in America, for example, is to ask students to imagine that they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show that they have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Usually, a good proportion of the boys refuse to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear that they have not the slightest conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and are outraged at the suggestion that they should have to think about it.

Nothing I am saying here is particularly new to anyone familiar with Feminist Standpoint Theory or Critical Race Studies.

“I had never really seen this” is far more passive than his actual attitudes must’ve been. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize the questions I’m asking here. He acknowledges them and responds with bullshit:

It has been a late awakening and, over the course of the year, a couple of overdue questions emerged: what can men do to show solidarity with women, and what can we do to address a culture of toxic masculinity and begin examining ourselves?

There is clearly more than one way to do this. The journalist Richard Godwin has described in the Guardian how, in his quest to examine modern manhood, he found groups where men were doing “breathing exercises, talking about their fathers, pretending to be tigers, leaning in on one another, working out which Jungian archetype we vibed with, and trying to articulate why we all felt so defensive and angry and misunderstood so much of the time”.

I opted for a quieter approach, following the advice that, to show solidarity with the movement, you could begin by seriously listening to women. So I decided to spend the month leading up to the first anniversary of the Weinstein revelations reading some feminist classics, which, for inexplicable reasons, I had never got round to. I’m sure there are embarrassing and unflattering underlying reasons for this omission, but I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps it was as depressingly simple as the fact that the works of (white) male authors had always been closer to hand – through reading lists and book reviews and recommendations – than the works of (black) feminist writers.

That’s a cheap move. He acknowledges society’s white male bias, but it’s like a fact of nature personally unconnected to him. He just reads what people talk about in book reviews. He’s a victim, too, having been denied women’s perspectives for so long! He’s listening when it’s convenient and sidestepping responsibility.

It’s interesting that he puts “showing solidarity with women” in front of “examining ourselves.” How would we ever examine ourselves?

In early September, I started reading. Halfway through De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I came across a passage that seemed to sum up the shocking insight of #MeToo. De Beauvoir writes that almost all young women, including what she calls “well-protected” ones, have been exposed to “regrettable incidents”, which, in conventional circles, are “hushed up by common agreement”.

This reminded me of last autumn, and the experience of watching the evening news with my wife and eight-year-old daughter as the welter of #MeToo allegations began. The news anchor read out some of the testimonies that had been shared on social media. Usually, when horrible things are reported, we could, as a well-protected family, who previously lived in Wales, now in Sweden, calm my daughter down by saying that these things hardly ever happen in our neighbourhood. But we couldn’t do that now. These regrettable incidents could not be hushed up by common agreement.

De Beauvoir tells the story in her book of a young girl, no more than 10 years old, who is molested by her grandfather. She cannot find the courage to tell her parents. De Beauvoir writes: “Such incidents are usually endured in silence for the little girl because of the shame they cause. Moreover, if she does reveal them to her parents, their reaction is often to reprimand her. ‘Don’t say such stupid things … you’ve got an evil mind.’”

“These things hardly ever happen in our neighborhood.” In other words, he’s raising his daughter to take privilege for granted and feel like anything bad she hears about is someone else’s problem, beneath her.

Yes, can we talk more about women siding with their abusive partners over their own children, and how common that is? These are your neighbors.

After describing Jean-Claude Arnault’s sex scandal, which is a lot like Weinstein’s:

Only four of the women who testified against him showed their faces. They were the ones who had rejected him outright when he had tried to grope them in bars and elsewhere. Never before had I quite grasped the shame of being the victim as I did when reading this line, from one of the women who had been raped and did not show her face: “I was ashamed I was one of those he chose as victim, to be one of the ‘damaged’ women.” Worse than simply being the victim, he had chosen her as his victim, because she was “damaged” and too weak to say no.

Never before had he grasped the shame of being a victim? Isn’t it amazing that he’s never simply been the victim of something to feel it for himself? That’s only for other people to go through, in other neighborhoods. He really went through school without ever getting physically overpowered in front of people? He never got humiliated and had everyone laugh at him? Must be nice.

The shame of being the victim is one way of framing this topic, but can we talk about how bullies and abusers have a sixth sense for already-traumatized people? Can we talk about how commonplace sadism is in any context other than celebrations of BDSM?

Before #MeToo, I had not really understood the connection between power and sexual abuse. I had seen it, of course. But again, only really in theory, as an abstraction.

ARGH! You’ve never been bullied by someone who’s smug about the fact that they’re going to get away with it, that you’ll get in trouble if you fight back? You didn’t already know that the people in power are middle school bullies on the inside?

“Dead men don’t rape”, read a poster that used to hang over Dworkin’s desk. By the time I’d read a third of the books on the list, I didn’t blame her. In the acerbic pages of Woman Hating, Dworkin writes that, as a woman, you have to ask yourself a number of pressing questions: “Why everywhere the oppression of women throughout recorded history? How could the Inquisitors torture and burn women as witches? How could men idealise the bound feet of crippled women? How and why?”

There were books on my list that were not quite as brutal; books less concerned with rape and sexual oppression than with the cultural pressure on women and how to be a woman. At the end of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she sets out a future “experiment”, by which women would share with men “the advantages of education and government”. In The Female Eunuch, Greer argues that women need to stop seeing themselves as wives and mothers because, confined to these roles, their “horizon shrinks to the house, the shopping centre and the telly”. By 2013, Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, was writing from a business perspective about the need for more women in leadership roles. Her advice to women, expressed in the title of her book, is to lean in – to do what you would do if you weren’t afraid.

Andrea Dworkin was, of course, the most honest feminist writer. He’s not engaging with it. Notice how he distances himself with “Dworkin writes that, as a woman, you have to ask yourself…” Isn’t it rather that, as a man reading Dworkin, he should ask himself the same fucking questions instead of complaining about how “acerbic” and “brutal” it is to read a woman’s description of things men do.

He’s a lecturer in “Human Resource Management”, so of course he changes the topic to Sandberg’s corporate BS and the impression that things are so much more enlightened now.

I nodded my way through these books, recalling the discussions that started at my university about a year ago when, emboldened by what seemed like a revolutionary moment, we discussed a range of radical ideas to facilitate the career possibilities for women, from offering significant research time to women to recruiting women to senior academic positions. One year later, these initiatives have boiled down to a not-so-radical mentoring programme.

Again written as if he wasn’t a participant. So who weakened the proposals? What happened? What were the conversations about it like?

We need to “create a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about feminism”, hooks writes in Feminism Is for Everybody, and I can’t stop thinking that this is what #MeToo is.

Sure, #MeToo is many things, and some feminists, including Greer, have openly criticised the movement. It has been suggested that many of the incidents are too minor to warrant serious attention, and that women should be better at saying no and reacting immediately if assaulted.

I’m reminded of this when I speak to a female friend, a few days before finishing this article. When she says she is surprised to learn I am “pro-#MeToo”, I find myself responding defensively, assuring her that I do recognise some unfortunate potential side-effects. As if to avoid the broader questions of #MeToo and feminism, we end up discussing the tragic case of a man who killed himself after allegations of sexual abuse that later proved false.

Alright, a normal white guy needs to work on his empathy for more than a month before wading into issues like conservative women, Uncle Toms, and Log Cabin Republicans. He just realized it sucks to be victim-shamed. How could he possibly have insight into internalized prejudice? Won’t somebody think of the men?

A lot of these arguments about due process are made in bad faith. What’s really at issue is whether we’ll admit how bad it is out there. If you acknowledge the true extent of the problem, then women are alleging that something ordinary happened. Christine Blasey Ford’s story is extremely ordinary, which is why men are afraid of #MeToo. Yes, male behavior is really so bad that normal men behaving normally have something to fear from an actual moral accounting. People crying about due process aren’t really afraid that tons of men will face accusations are false. They’re afraid because tons of men would face accusations that are true. Tons of men. Your brothers, husbands, friends, and coworkers. Not nice people, a lot of the time.

Only 7% of Britons consider themselves feminists, according to a 2016 Fawcett Society survey, which seems strange to me after reading these books, because the definitions I come across are open, simple, obvious – such as wanting to end sexism or supporting the “social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. In We Should All Be Feminists, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes that when she started describing herself as a feminist, she was told feminists were angry, so she called herself a Happy Feminist. Then she was told that feminism was unAfrican, so she called herself a Happy African Feminist. She continued to make amendments until, at some point, she was a “Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not for Men”.

We hold feminism to an unreasonable standard, Gay writes, as though both feminists and feminism must be flawless. She says she is not very well versed in feminist history. She has a wardrobe full of shoes and bags. She listens to sexist rap and reads Vogue. But so what? She is full of contradictions, like everyone else.

“I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all,” she writes, and on reading this line, I see an opening, an invitation to me and all the other men who wish to be supportive. I think: if she can be a feminist, then maybe we can, too.

Even though, of course, I’m sure I’ll be a much worse feminist than she is.

It shouldn’t seem strange to him at all. How many people are anarchists, who simply believe that social relations should be consensual? The reason he thinks it’s fine that he lives in a “good neighborhood” is the reason people aren’t feminists. People don’t want freedom, equality, treating everyone with dignity, all the nice things. People are mean. They’re socialized to be mean.

Notice the feminists he really seems to vibe with: Sheryl Sandberg and weak Third Wave bullshit that demands nothing. How the fuck is a social movement premised on “hypocrisy is acceptable” supposed to accomplish anything without getting laughed out of the room? If sexist rap and Vogue are ok, feminism is a waste of time. From Dworkin’s Right Wing Women:

The sex-class system cannot be undone when those whom it exploits and humiliates are unable to face it for what it is, for what it takes from them, for what it does to them. Feminism requires precisely what misogyny destroys in women: unimpeachable bravery in confronting male power. Despite the impossibility of it, there is such bravery: there are such women, in some periods millions upon millions of them. If male supremacy survives every effort of women to overthrow it, it will not be because of biology or God; nor will it be because of the force and power of men per se. It will be because the will to liberation was contaminated, undermined, rendered ineffectual and meaningless, by antifeminism: by specious concepts of equality based on an evasion of what the sex-class system really is…

The sentimental acceptance of a double standard of human rights, responsibilities, and freedom is also the triumph of antifeminism over the will to liberation; no sexual dichotomy is compatible with real liberation. And, most important, the refusal to demand (with no compromise being possible) one absolute standard of human dignity is the greatest triumph of antifeminism over the will to liberation. Without that one absolute standard, liberation is mush; feminism is frivolous and utterly self-indulgent. Without that one absolute standard as the keystone of revolutionary justice, feminism has no claim to being a liberation movement; it has no revolutionary stance, goal, or potential; it has no basis for a radical reconstruction of society; it has no criteria for action or organization; it has no moral necessity; it has no inescapable claim on the conscience of “mankind”; it has no philosophical seriousness; it has no authentic stature as a human-rights movement; it has nothing to teach. Also, without that one absolute standard, feminism has no chance whatsoever of actually liberating women or destroying the sex-class system…

No liberation movement can accept the degradation of those whom it seeks to liberate by accepting a different definition of dignity for them and stay a movement for their freedom at the same time (Apologists for pornography: take note). A universal standard of human dignity is the only principle that completely repudiates sex-class exploitation and also propels all of us into a future where the fundamental political question is the quality of life for all human beings. Are women being subordinated to men? There is insufficient dignity in that. Are men being prostituted too? What is human dignity?