One of the ugliest elements of the social justice movement is that “privileged” groups (especially men, white people, and straight people) are considered acceptable targets for various types of mistreatment that would not be tolerated for sympathy-worthy groups (especially women, racial minorities, and LGBT people). Many people become disillusioned with “social justice” after realizing that inside the movement, acceptable treatment depends less on the action itself and more on which group is targeted.
“Punching bag” here refers to the metaphor of “punching up vs. punching down” used to justify different standards of treatment. Note that these double standards are influential beyond the social justice movement itself; they can be seen in the media more broadly, and even in government policy.
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There’s a long list of actions that are considered much more acceptable to do to certain demographic groups than to others.
- Being afraid of someone for their demographic traits.
- Targeting negative generalizations, hostility, or hatred at a demographic group.
- Dismissing someone’s opinion based on demographic traits.
- Employment discrimination.
- Using slurs and group-targeted negative words.
- Making insulting jokes.
- Taking issue with the demographics of those in power.
The examples and discussion will focus more on gender since that’s what I’m mostly interested in.
1.1 Being afraid of someone for their demographic traits
On the left is a picture from blogger Benjamin Grelle (“The Frogman”) that justifies fear of men by comparing them to a bowl of M&Ms where 10% are poisoned. It was widely-shared and widely defended by people in the social justice movement. On the right is Donald Trump Jr using a similar metaphor involving Syrian refugees and skittles, which Hillary Clinton called “disgusting” and news outlets called “racist”.
Other examples are abundant. See the Geek Feminism Wiki page on “Schrödinger’s Rapist”, which refers to “the experience of women encountering unfamiliar men in a society with rape culture, where any man could potentially be a rapist”. They would not advocate a Muslim ‘Schrödinger’s Terrorist” or a black “Schrödinger’s Thief” or even “Schrödinger’s Rapist” itself applied specifically to minority men.
The EverydayFeminism article “5 Reasons White People Don’t Have to Hate People of Color to Be Racist” calls out the racism of having “subtle, yet constant, fears for your safety around people of color” and laments how local media sensationalizes certain things, like “white people being robbed or murdered by black men” and “black on black crimes”. This article on AlterNet laments the fact that “when blacks violate the law, all members of the race are considered suspect”. In contrast, the FeministCurrent article “It’s time to consider a curfew for men” advocates and justifies a fear of men. It talks about how “male violence can and does happen at all hours” and how “[f]emale students are under constant threat on college campuses — afraid to walk home at night, raped at parties, after the bar, and in their dorms”. Another article by the same person argues for public transit partially excluding men. The XOJane article “35 Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism” tells men to “give women space” for their safety.
(The context is obviously that men commit more violent crime than women, and blacks more than whites. See gender/race trends in gang membership. Some might reply and say that race is different because whites are more likely to be attacked by other whites than by blacks, which is true (USA, 2011). But we’d see the same thing for gender if men were 12% of the population and informally segregated into different communities. In that world, a woman would probably be more likely to experience violence from another woman, but each individual man would still be more likely to harm her than each individual woman. And she might avoid “male neighbourhoods”.)
1.2 Negative generalizations, hostility, or hatred targeted at a demographic group
The article “The Myth of White Fragility and How Social Justice Warriors Fail To Understand Their Critics” (archive) by Ben Morris gives a good overview for race.
Leftist media outlets like Buzzfeed, Salon, Mic, Alternet, Vice, and the Huffington Post continue to publish anti-white articles that creates the aversion. Articles like “21 Things White People Ruined in 2015,” “White People, If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “White America is complicit: Charleston, Dylann Roof and the country’s real race war,” is the kind of crap that has turned non-racists into racists. No legitimate publication would dare write an article that lists the things black people ruined; and the people responsible for writing an article blaming every Latino for the crime of an individual would be fired from their positions so quickly a smoke trail would appear. By looking at any comment section tied to these ridiculous stories, you will see people mentioning the blatant hypocrisy. By searching “White People,” on Vice’s website you will see tags titled, “Fuck White People,” “White People Are Dumb,” and “Why Are White People Terrible,” which perfectly illustrates the problem.
A man can read in the Wall Street Journal that “women are superior to men in most ways that will count in the future”. He can also see articles like “Are Women Better Decision Makers?” (New York Times), “Evidence of the Superiority of Female Doctors” in The Atlantic, and “Proved at last: Men really are idiots” (Los Angeles Times), “The Outdoor Industry Has Too Many White Dudes” (Outside), “Trump Reflects White Male Fragility” (New York Times), “It’s Confirmed: Women are Higher Beings” (VICE), and “Memo to men: Your groping days are over” (CBC)—all of those would be considered unacceptable if targeted at other groups (e.g. “Memo to women: Your gold-digging days are over”, “Clinton Reflects White Female Entitlement”).
See “Men Are More Narcissistic And Entitled Than Women, According To Science” (archive) in ThinkProgress. One quick sentence notes that “interestingly” the gap in narcissism wasn’t as large as the gender gaps in risk-taking, neuroticism, and self-esteem. Note that for the headline they picked the finding that was unfavourable to men, not the larger difference in neuroticism that’s unfavourable to women (they didn’t even mention which gender was higher in neuroticism).
More examples of negative generalizations, hostility, or hatred that are considered uniquely acceptable because they’re targeted at men, white people, or straight people:
Joe Biden said that whites becoming a minority in the U.S. is a “good thing” (as opposed to the alternative: skin colour doesn’t matter).
Yusra Khogali, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, tweeted “Plz Allah give me strength to not cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today. Plz plz plz”. An article in the Toronto Star defended her.
Treena Shapiro (editor of the newspaper of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs) wrote an article that included statements like “I do want to be able to explain to a 9-year-old boy in terms he will understand why I think it’s OK for girls to wear shirts that revel in their superiority over boys”.
American actress Lena Dunham released a video of her and her father talking positively about the “extinction of white men”. Her father says “[w]ell white men are a problem. Straight white men are a big problem, that’s for sure.”
Suzanne Moore (British feminist journalist) in The New Statesman wrote an article called “Why I was wrong about men” with the subtitle “You can’t hate them all, can you? Actually, I can”, noting that “There are very few problems in the world that don’t have, at the root of them, male violence and woman-hating”.
1.3 Dismissing someone’s opinion based on demographic traits
People in groups deemed privileged are often expected to defer to others on questions of judgment and experience in identity politics. The XOJane article “35 Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism” says “[w]hen a woman tells you something is sexist, believe her”. In contrast, here is a tweet saying “i think you’re a misogynist bc in an insta thread full of women telling you you were wrong, you defended yrself RELENTLESSLY” (in response to a man saying that the term “mansplain” is sexist, which many women disagreed with him on). The idea there isn’t just to “trust each group to identify sexism against their own group” (which is more understandable, though still not ideal), because the second example is a man expected to defer to women on sexism against men.
The executive director of Idaho’s Democratic Party has said: “[w]e have to teach [our volunteers] how to […] shut their mouths if they are white”.
1.4 Employment discrimination
The Canadian public service gives preferential treatment in hiring to women, minorities, aboriginals, and the disabled. This 2010 article in the National Post gives an example of an “Ottawa-area mother who was shocked to discover that she could not apply for a job with Citizenship and Immigration because she was white”. The article also mentions that women are 55% of federal public employees and 57% of recent hires despite being 51% of the population (this over-representation wouldn’t be concerning except for the preferential treatment contributing to it). Here’s a Huffington Post article arguing in favour of this policy.
1.5 Using gendered slurs and gendered negative words
In the 2016 American election campaign, some people have used the word “bitch” (which originally referred to a female dog) on Hillary Clinton, to great controversy. An EverydayFeminism article objects to the term, since it attempts to use the target’s femaleness as a weapon. More generally, a BBC article quotes a slang expert: “[s]lurs that are specifically directed at certain groups of people are seen as unacceptable”.
And yet “bro” is starting to be used in a similar pejorative way, like “Berniebro” in reference to Clinton’s Democratic primary challenger (from Wikipedia: “pejorative label that has been applied to male supporters of 2016 U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders”). One New York Times article explains and supports the “deployment of ‘bro’ as a means of disparagement” because it’s “part of a generalized expression of fatigue with the wielding of white-male power”.
Beyond those gendered slurs, consider what the reaction would be if a major outlet used gendered negative words like “female narcissism”, “female solipsism”, “female entitlement”, “woman-nagging”, and being “femotional”. Now, consider these terms used by many feminists: “mansplaining”, “manspreading”, “male entitlement”, “toxic masculinity”, “male narcissism”, “manslamming”, “manterrupting”, “manstanding”, and “bropropriating” (from FAQ Section 11.5).
1.6 Making insulting jokes
Here’s a Huffington Post article called “No Kidding: Sexist Jokes Aren’t Funny, They’re Hostile”. Here’s an article called “‘It’s just a joke’: two scientists showed how sexist jokes can have an impact, even if that was not the speaker’s intent”.
Contrast that with the ThoughtCatalog article “30 Hilarious Jokes For Feminists Because Women Are Awesome”, which includes jokes like “What’s the fastest way to a man’s heart? Through his chest with a sharp knife” and “How is a man like a gun? Keep one around long enough, and you’ll definitely want to shoot him”. Or the time Michelle Obama quipped that “women are smarter than men”.
Additionally, 85% of black homicide victims are male. The last time I brought this up in a conversation, a white feminist scoffed and said “well that’s their fault,” which implied that victims of gang violence somehow deserved it. That’s similar to the victim-blaming we see with reference to rape.
1.8 Taking issue with the demographics of those in power
Someone complaining about the “influence and over-representation” of Jewish people in government, business, and media is seen as a hateful bigot, while someone doing the same but for men is seen as progressive.
The basic justification for the double standard is that the “acceptable target” groups are in higher, powerful, privileged positions in society, and so the practices in the previous section can’t have as much of an effect on them. A common metaphor for this that it’s ok to “punch up” but not to “punch down”. The Geek Feminism Wiki applies this double standard to snarkiness, while the article “Check my what?” makes a similar point about discrimination.
In her article “Feminists don’t hate men. But it wouldn’t matter if we did”, Jessica Valenti unenthusiastically assures the reader that she doesn’t hate men, saying it’s not “a wise use of one’s time” (though adding “to each her own”). She then explains why it wouldn’t matter if feminists did. Straight white men “still hold the majority of political, economic and social power in the world, and everyone else struggles to make their lives work with less”, and if “the worst thing that happens to a man is that a woman doesn’t like him …well, he has it pretty damn good”. In addition, she says “when women hate men, we hurt their feelings. When men hate women, they kill us: mass shootings have been attributed to misogyny, and sexual and domestic violence against women is often fuelled by a hatred for women.”
Some go beyond saying that attacks on “privileged groups” don’t hurt them much and instead say that they’re useful or necessary to put them “in their place”. In her article “Making fun of boys totally fair”, Treena Shapiro justifies her position for “why I think it’s OK for girls to wear shirts that revel in their superiority over boys” as “trying to put boys in their place”. (The context is her son saying that boys are smarter. Challenging that is no problem, but she goes much further.) She explains that “men still dominate when it comes to high-level and highly-paid positions”, and then suggests that these attacks can help tomorrow’s women succeed in areas like math and science: “This ‘boys are stupid’ thinking could lead to the obvious conclusion: Girls are smart”. The Toronto Star article defending the Black Lives Matter tweet “give me strength to not cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today” gives a type of thinking along these lines and says that that the person behind the tweet is “truly fighting against oppression”.
Some go even further and argue that these privileged groups are bad in some way, and that makes them acceptable targets. Robin Morgan, co-founder of the Women’s Media Center (alongside activist Gloria Steinem and actress Jane Fonda), has said “I feel that ‘man-hating’ is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them”. She uses the oppressor/oppressed gender dichotomy to justify her hatred.
There were multiple different points made in support of a double standard, and many different examples of actions that the double standard has been applied to. It’s difficult to address them all specifically, but I’ll make some key points.
3.1 No bad tactics, only bad targets?
The idea that the morality of an action depends not on the action itself but on the person it’s done to is really scary. This is necessary in some cases—people convicted of crimes are subject to different treatment (e.g. incarceration) than the rest of us. But punishment for an individual’s own actions is very different from bad treatment applied to people for being in a certain group (like an outgroup).
3.2 Simplistic understanding of power dynamics
Even if we assume that punching up is acceptable and punching down is unacceptable, the idea that men are necessarily “up” and women necessarily “down” is extraordinarily simplistic for two main reasons. First, gender is not the only factor in power dynamics. A mother trying to “put him in his place” and encourage “‘boys are stupid’ thinking” with her 9-year old son is not punching up, and she’s at a very real chance of giving him self-esteem problems and a negative view of his gender.
Second, maleness itself is specifically linked to powerlessness in various situations. Men are a lot more likely to be murdered, and so victim-blaming murdered men is an attack on an especially vulnerable group. And employment discrimination against men? Statistics vary, but in Canada men have had higher unemployment every year since 1990 (data to 2007), and the delicate nature of many male-dominated industries (manufacturing because of automation and globalization, oil and gas because of low oil prices) means that the future is worrisome. The Great Recession of 2008 was called the “man-cesssion” because men bore 78% of job losses overall, and even hard larger job losses within the same industry (U.S. data). Affirmative action is scarier in this context.
3.3 Less impact doesn’t mean no impact, or no moral issues
Race is different from gender. Maleness is linked to powerlessness in certain situations, but we can’t say the same about whiteness—there are few (if any) areas where white people are doing worse than black people. But even supposedly “punching up” can do real damage, like when anti-cop, anti-white rhetoric contributed to the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas.
And while employment discrimination against blacks is more impactful than against whites (it’s more common, and black unemployment is much higher), a less impactful injustice is still an injustice, and having your race override your qualifications can reasonably be called an injustice.
3.4 “When women hate men, we hurt their feelings. When men hate women, they kill us.”
So as long as a man doesn’t engage in violence, he can feel free to hate women? Maybe not, because he can contribute to negative attitudes towards women in the broader culture, which can negatively affect women. However, the same point applies to hating men (whether it’s a woman or a man doing the hating). Of course, to recognize this we have to accept that men can be vulnerable. Hatred of men and negative attitudes toward them more broadly can contribute to not caring about men’s higher rates of homelessness, the discrimination against them in the justice system, etc. It can also contribute to the greater level of social acceptability surrounding violence against men.
3.5 Assumptions that identity rather than ideology is what matters in power dynamics
It’s easy to dismiss the mental impact on men of being the target of insulting jokes, negative generalizations, and hatred by pointing out that most people in power are men and so even regular men feel some level of invulnurability knowing that society is on their side. But we need to look not just at the identity of the people in power but also their ideology when we determine whose side they’re on. Do men really have society on their side when society accepts things like hatred against them much more readily? If a young boy hears Michelle Obama joke that women are better than men with essentially no social backlash, when her husband making the opposite joke would be a major controversy, is he going to feel like he has society on his side?
A similar point can be made for material discrimination. We can say that discrimination against groups like men isn’t backed by institutional power because most people in power are men, but (with a certain ideology) men in power can harness institutions to discriminate against men. The preferential hiring for women by the Canadian government is institutional discrimination, despite the government being mostly men.
3.6 Up for interpretation
The idea that “punching up” is acceptable while “punching down” isn’t acceptable could be used to make various conclusions that people in the social justice movement wouldn’t like. As this post explains, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re punching up: “Swedish racists have convinced themselves that immigrants is [sic] a privileged group that enjoy special benefits and are being cuddled [coddled?] and protected by the powerful ‘PC establishment’, so in their mind they are punching up when they make sarcastic comments about for example how a [sic] young white feminists need to be ‘culturally enriched’ (i.e. raped) by some ‘sand niggers'”.
Also, one of the favourite points raised by anti-Semitic white nationalists is that Jews are “overrepresented” in various areas of power and influence like the media, politics, and banks. Does this excuse anti-Semitism? Are they just “punching up”?
Feminists have much more power and influence (in universities, media, and government) than men’s rights activists (MRAs). Should we excuse mistreatment targeted at feminists because, as long as it comes from a less powerful ideological group, it’s “punching up”?
Also, what if we decide to judge “punching up” vs. “punching down” according to an individual’s actual power, rather than the power one might assume from a quick look at their demographic group memberships? Just as we consider specific attacks on male politicians and business executives to be punching up, we could consider specific attacks on female politicians and business executives as punching up too, as long as it comes from a regular man (who’s under them in power dynamics).
4. Reaction & Backlash
Even if you aren’t convinced that treating certain demographic groups as punching bags is wrong on its own merits, consider that this double standard has contributed to the rise of the Alt-Right and TheRedPill, which are (from the feminist or social justice perspective) two of the most repugnant groups on the internet. This is not to say that these are justified reactions, but they are (in part) reactions.
4.1 Race: the Alt-Right
White nationalism and white identity politics seem to be on the rise in the United States, as seen by the birth and growth of the Alt-Right (which has been in the spotlight in the 2016 election). Some are part of the “old guard” of white nationalists, but what about the newcomers? A common theme I’ve seen from people who’ve turned to the Alt-Right is that the social justice movement made aggressive racial identity politics mainstream and legitimate for non-whites, and they as white people felt attacked, so they responded by embracing similar racial identity politics for their own race.
Alt-Righter Vox Day says that “white Americans are starting to learn that they have to play the game just like everyone else” (video “What Is The Alt-Right?”). The Brietbart article “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right” describes it as a reaction to the fact that “[t]he politics of identity, when it comes from women, LGBT people, blacks and other non-white, non-straight, non-male demographics is seen as acceptable — even when it descends into outright hatred”. Journalist Cathy Young (a libertarian who opposes the Alt-Right) also acknowledges this factor: “[t]he modern cultural left with its polarizing, ‘privileged’-bashing identity politics breeds bigotry in several different ways … it normalizes not only demographic tribalism but differential treatment and even overt hostility on the basis of race, gender and other group characteristics, as long as it’s ‘punching up'”.
4.2 Gender: TheRedPill
One of the most controversial subreddits on reddit is /r/TheRedPill. There you can see all sorts of extremely negative things said about women like “women are shit”, “women are children”, etc. I’ve questioned and pushed RedPillers on the actual truth of such statements and many—not all, but many—say that they see them as not strictly speaking true but useful to “shock” men and knock them out of the practice of putting women on a pedestal, which happens after hearing feminist messages about how bad men are and how great women are. (They’re also a reaction against what they see as bad feminist-inspired dating advice for men being mainstream.)
4.3 Politics: Donald Trump
A desire to push back against the culture of political correctness (which includes these double standards of treatment) is evident from a lot of supporters of Donald Trump’s attempt at the U.S. presidency in 2016. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is quoted in an article called “The Anti-P.C. Vote” in The New York Times:
I would say that decades of political correctness, with its focus on “straight white men” as the villains and oppressors — now extended to “straight white cis-gendered men” — has caused some degree of reactance in many and perhaps most white men.
[In both the workplace and academia] the accusatory and vindictive approach of many social justice activists and diversity trainers may actually have increased the desire and willingness of some white men to say and do un-PC things.
Trump comes along and punches political correctness in the face. Anyone feeling some degree of anti-PC reactance is going to feel a thrill in their heart, and will want to stand up and applaud. And because feelings drive reasoning, these feelings of gratitude will make it hard for anyone to present arguments to them about the downsides of a Trump presidency.
If after all of this you still believe that it’s acceptable to treat certain supposedly “privileged” demographic groups poorly then that’s your decision. But at least I hope you understand better why so many are unwilling to identify with your causes.
And to reiterate, the main point here is to identify and question double standards, not to argue whether each action should or shouldn’t be acceptable, although the decision doesn’t have to be the same for all of them. I’d say no to employment discrimination but (in the right contexts) yes to insulting jokes, for example.