One of the ugliest elements of the social justice left (which has influenced our broader culture, including media norms and even government policies) is a belief in different standards of treatment for different demographic groups. Men, white people, straight people, and other “privileged” groups are seen as acceptable targets for a range of treatment (from insulting jokes to actual discrimination) that would not be considered acceptable for sympathy-worthy groups like women, racial minorities, and LGBT people. Conversely, those sympathy-worthy groups are treated as protected classes, and treatment of them is scrutinized for any small “microaggression”.
Being expected to deal with different standards of treatment is, I believe, a major reason for people in “privileged” groups becoming disillusioned with the social justice left. It also has implications for our perception of the prevalence of bigotry or mistreatment. If the same treatment targeted at women is sexism, targeted at black people is racism, but targeted at men is not sexism, then claims that sexism against men “obviously isn’t common” are (at least partially) artifacts of labeling decisions rather than reality.
(Length: 3,800 words.)
1. Punching bags
Here are examples of the lax standards of treatment for so-called privileged groups, with a focus on gender (the topic of this blog). “Punching bags” is a reference to the metaphor of “punching up vs. punching down” often used to justify the double standard.
1.1 Negative generalizations and claims of inferiority
It’s easy to find negative generalizations or claims of the inferiority of men in influential (and even reputable) publications: “women are superior to men in most ways that will count in the future” (Wall Street Journal), “Are Women Better Decision Makers?” (New York Times), “Evidence of the Superiority of Female Doctors” (The Atlantic), and “Proved at last: Men really are idiots” (Los Angeles Times), “It’s Confirmed: Women are Higher Beings” (VICE). “Barack Obama says women make better leaders—and data shows he’s right” (CNBC). “Obama’s right, women are superior to men. Let me count the ways …” (The Guardian), “It’s time to come clean: All men are awful. Sorry about that” (Metro). “Washington’s biggest problem isn’t gridlock or wasted dollars — it’s men” (Los Angeles Times), “[m]en are pretty terrible people” (also refers to men’s “entitled ignorance”) (The Guardian). Such statements against women or minorities would be unthinkable.
One NPR article asks “Is It Sexist To Say That Women Are Superior To Men?”. In the last sentence the author “take[s] a stab at the question” and offers a yes, but that it was even a question in the first place (and that her answer at the end was so cautious) is telling. That statement, with the genders flipped, is considered the absolute definition of sexism.
One ThinkProgress article is titled “Men Are More Narcissistic And Entitled Than Women, According To Science” (archive). A 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). Don’t expect a title like “Women Are More Moody And Emotionally Volatile, According To Science” from ThinkProgress.
The creator of the Minions characters was reported in The Guardian explaining that they’re all male because they’re “dumb and stupid”. Actress Lena Dunham released a video of her and her father talking positively about the “extinction of white men”. Her father says “[s]traight white men are a big problem, that’s for sure”. Treena Shapiro (editor of the newspaper of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs) wrote an article with 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”. 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”. This Gizmodo article complains that Facebook classified “men are trash” as hate speech.
1.2 Fearing people for demographic traits
The different reaction to “men are violent, we should be afraid of them” and “minorities are violent, we should be afraid of them” is especially stark and telling. 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”.
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”. This article on AlterNet laments 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. See “I’m Done Pretending Men Are Safe (Even My Sons)” from Role Reboot. You’d expect “I’m Done Pretending Minorities Are Safe (Even My Friends)” from white supremacists.
Employment discrimination against so-called privileged groups is widely considered acceptable, in the form of employment equity or affirmative action. The Canadian public service gives preferential treatment in hiring to women, minorities, aboriginals, and the disabled (National Post), e.g. “[s]election may be limited to [minorities and] women”.
Demographic group influences speaking order in some organizations. The “progressive stack” is a method of deciding who gets to speak advocated by many in the social justice movement, and used at e.g. Occupy Wall Street. From Feministing:
A progressive stack encourages women and traditionally marginalized groups speak before men, especially white men. This is something that has been in place since the beginning, it is necessary, and it is important.
Are insulting jokes OK? Compare “No Kidding: Sexist Jokes Aren’t Funny, They’re Hostile” and “‘It’s just a joke’: two scientists showed how sexist jokes can have an impact, even if that was not the speaker’s intent” to “30 Hilarious Jokes For Feminists Because Women Are Awesome” (“What’s the fastest way to a man’s heart? Through his chest with a sharp knife”), 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.
1.4 Race and sexual orientation
The article “The Myth of White Fragility and How Social Justice Warriors Fail To Understand Their Critics” (archive) 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.
Also for race, Joe Biden said that whites becoming a minority in the U.S. is a “good thing” (a betrayal of the idea that race 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. 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”.
For sexual orientation, an article from ShortList Magazine: “Straight men are officially the worst people in the world at sex”.
2. Protected classes
In the last section we saw insulting jokes, negative generalizations, fear, and hostility targeted at so-called privileged groups. They came from reputable media outlets, public figures, and feminist websites, suggesting a level of social acceptability. Compare and contrast all of that with the strict standards of treatment for women and minorities in the social justice movement and to a large extent in our society more broadly.
2.1 Insulting individuals
While a negative generalization about men as a group often isn’t enough to get accused of sexism, even a negative comment about an individual woman often is enough.
In the 2016 election Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman”. It was widely denounced as plainly sexist. He “made his gendered condescension toward her crystal clear”, according to one article. “Trump’s sexism was obvious”, according to another.
Not that I like defending Donald Trump, but the sexism here really is not actually clear. I don’t think “nasty woman” implies that he thinks she’s nasty because she’s a woman, or that all women are nasty. If it does, what did he mean when he used the male equivalent (“nasty guy”) on Republican rival Ted Cruz, or on evangelical Russell D. Moore? (He likes the word “nasty”. He even said the New York Times covers him with a “nasty tone”.)
He was also accused of sexism for negatively commenting on Carly Fiorina’s looks (which he’s also done to men, like Rand Paul) and for calling Clinton “weak” (a word he’s also used on: Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, the Republican National Committee, the United States, etc.).
Here we have him using the same insults on his male and female rivals. If this stands out to us as sexism against women, it’s hard to trust people’s subjective claims of sexism.
2.2 Denying sexism
According to influential feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, “[d]enying or dismissing the sexism that permeates our culture is, in and of itself, a form of sexism” (Twitter).
Presumably she’s only talking about denying sexism against women, because she herself denies sexism against men: “[t]here’s no such thing as sexism against men” (Twitter).
The University of California defines microaggressions as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (2015 article). Racist microaggressions include statements that downplay the importance of race (“there is only one race, the human race”) or promote the “myth of meritocracy” (“I believe the most qualified person should get the job”, “America is the land of opportunity”).
If these are even to be considered hostile, derogatory, or negative, they are immensely more mild than the attacks seen in the last section on so-called privileged groups.
Why does insulting an individual woman get treated as “crystal clear” sexism, but we have to ask whether it’s even sexist to say that men are inferior? Why are articles like “Fuck White People” socially acceptable but “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” is a racist microaggression against minorities?
The basic justification for laxer standards of treatment for certain groups than others is that the acceptable target groups are in higher, powerful, privileged positions in society, and so the attacks can’t have as much of an effect on them. In other words, it’s OK to “punch up” but not “punch down”. The Geek Feminism Wiki applies this to snarkiness, while the article “Check my what?” makes a similar point about discrimination.
In a 2015 article, Jessica Valenti says that feminists don’t hate men (she is half-hearted in her rejection of misandry, saying it’s not a “wise use of one’s time, but to each her own”). However, she says it wouldn’t matter if they did, due to the “political, economic, and social power” of straight white men, while “everyone else struggles to make their lives work with less”. Also, “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.”
Others go further, saying that attacks on privileged groups aren’t just trivial matters, they’re actually important to put those groups “in their place”. Treena Shapiro’s previously cited article on girls “revel[ling] in their superiority over boys” says “I support a girl’s right to put boys in their place”. (To be fair, her son did say that boys are smarter. Challenging that is warranted, but she goes much further.) She 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”.
An even more extreme form of this comes from Robin Morgan, co-founder of the Women’s Media Center (alongside activist Gloria Steinem and actress Jane Fonda). She 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”.
Here are a few key points about why this double standard is a problem.
4.1 Skews our perception of bigotry and mistreatment
We have a very low tolerance for hostility, negativity, and bigotry against women, while these things targeted at men generally fly under the radar. In light of that, it doesn’t matter how much hostility, negativity, and bigotry men experience—less than women, the same, or more—because in all of those cases it will seem like women experience those things more often because that’s what catches our attention and strikes us as bad.
4.2 No bad tactics, only bad targets?
The idea that the morality of an action depends less on the action itself and more on who it’s done to is really scary. It’s 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 still different from collective punishment.
4.3 Simplistic understanding of power dynamics
Let’s assume that punching up is acceptable and punching down is unacceptable. The idea that men are necessarily up and women down is extraordinarily simplistic. First, gender is not the only factor in power dynamics. A mother trying to encourage “boys are stupid” thinking and put her 9-year-old son “in his place” is not punching up. She’s at a very real chance of giving him self-esteem problems and a negative view of his gender.
Second, maleness itself is linked to powerlessness in many 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 is scarier in light of the bleak future for many male-dominated industries (due to trade and automation).
4.4 Less impact doesn’t mean no impact (or no moral qualms)
Maleness is linked to powerlessness in many situations, but there are few (if any) areas where white people are doing worse than black people. Still, “punching up” for race 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.
4.5 “When women hate men, we hurt their feelings. When men hate women, they kill us.”
As long as a man doesn’t engage in violence, he should 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. But the same point would apply to hating men (whether done by women or men). Negative attitudes towards men in broader culture can negatively affect men: how we react to the abuse of men, how we react when they’re down and out (e.g., homeless or in prison), etc.
4.6 Is identity or ideology more relevant for power dynamics?
It’s easy to dismiss the mental impact on men of being targeted (by insulting jokes, generalizations, or even hatred) by pointing out that most people in power are men, and so even regular men feel some level of invulnerability knowing society is on their side. But we need to look not just at the identity of people in power but also their ideology. 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 no backlash, while Barack Obama making the opposite joke would be a major controversy, will he really feel like he has society on his side?
And discrimination against men isn’t backed by institutional power because most people in power are men? 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.
4.7 Up for interpretation!
The “punching down vs. punching up” logic could lead to various conclusions that the social justice movement wouldn’t like. As this post explains, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re punching up—Swedish racists see immigrants as a privileged group protected and coddled by a powerful “PC establishment”, so in their mind they’re punching up.
Also, one of the favourite points raised by anti-Semitic white nationalists is that Jews are “over-represented” in various areas of power and influence like the media, politics, and banking. Does this excuse anti-Semitism? Are they just “punching up”?
Feminists have much more power (in academia, the media, and government) than men’s rights activists. Should mistreatment of feminists be excused as punching up, as long as it comes from a less powerful ideological group?
We could also judge people’s level based on their actual power as an individual, rather than the power one might assume from a quick look at their demographics. If attacks on male politicians and business executives is punching up, should attacks on female politicians and business executives also be, as long as it comes from regular men?
5. 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 (particularly 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.
5.1 Race: the Alt-Right
White nationalism and white identity politics seem to be on the rise in the United States, as seen by the growth of the Alt-Right. 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.
Vox Day says that “white Americans are starting to learn that they have to play the game just like everyone else” (“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 (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'”.
5.2 Gender: TheRedPill
On /r/TheRedPill 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.