It's time for progressive thinkers to expand the public conversation about men and masculinity and embrace International Men's Day (19th November) argues a former critic of the day, Joseph Gelfer.
As a researcher of men and masculinities, I have always been interested in reading about International Men's Day (IMD), even if I have never been particularly fond of it as a concept. Each year a flurry of articles are published in which IMD spokespeople advocate for its importance, while others counter this with a standard “it’s international men’s day 365 days per year” argument.
In short, critics of IMD highlight the unfair parallel drawn between it and International Women’s Day, noting how the latter is about a disempowered minority when IMD is clearly not. Critics also highlight that certain organisations that align themselves with IMD have a darker agenda than merely being “pro-men” and are, in fact, “anti-women”. Numerous feminist researchers and activists who I respect have spoken out against IMD and for a long time this was the position I too held on the matter.
My assumptions about IMD began to be challenged some years ago when a member of the Australian IMD community (where I lived at the time), contacted me to try and gain my support. Of course, I chose not to give that support, but we nevertheless entered an exchange of communications over an extended period of time. In those conversations I shared my concerns about IMD and these were met with some very reasonable responses.
A blind spot in feminist thinking
Further still, my correspondent revealed to me a blind spot in feminist thinking that I had genuinely never considered: critical studies of men and masculinities continually demands the acknowledgement of differing and nuanced masculine experiences, yet does not do a great job of acknowledging such difference and nuance among those groups—such as IMD—it identifies as regressive. In short, critics tend to paint a caricature of IMD that does not bear witness to the diversity within its ranks.
While these conversations did not succeed in converting me to the IMD cause, they nevertheless required me to think more carefully as my opinions continued to evolve. I began to more actively interrogate progressive political strategies to see if their intentions were appropriately aligned with their effects.
Within progressive gender politics there is a goal of all people being treated fairly, regardless of their gender. The work of feminist organisations is crucial in this regard, rightly identifying the gendered experiences of women that stops them from enjoying the wellbeing they clearly deserve. But there is a reluctance within progressive gender politics to provide equal support to organisations that identify the gendered experiences of men.
Beyond the false binary of men's rights versus feminism
With some exceptions, what then happens is that those organisations that do refer to men’s experiences find it difficult to be accepted in the progressive domain, which in turn consolidates a tired and often false men’s rights versus feminism binary. Those who are naturally progressive but who also have concerns about “men’s issues” are then faced with the anxiety of being labelled as a men’s rights advocate and consequently often remain silent. This has an unfortunate two-fold effect. First, is stops progressives talking sympathetically about men’s issues. Second, it reinforces the authoritarian caricature painted of feminism by men’s rights advocates.
Such is the anxiety around having anything to do with anyone who might be identified as a men’s rights advocate, many progressives will not engage with initiatives such as IMD even though they may share substantial common ground, such as how gendered experience impacts the wellbeing of all people.
My own shift in strategy therefore now moves towards a “big tent” approach. If progressives only work alongside people with whom they have seamless ideological ties, they may find that not only do they have increasingly few allies, but they may fatally undermine the achievability of their own goals.
In conclusion, there are still things I am not keen on about IMD, particularly the anti-women rhetoric of some of the individuals who align with it. However, I am more interested in the growth of conversations about men and masculinities and IMD plays an important role in this. I would rather take the good with the bad than reject IMD in totality.
Joseph Gelfer is a researcher of men and masculinities. His most recent book is Masculinities in a Global Era (Springer Science+Business Media, 2014) and he is currently working on a new project, The Five Stages of Masculinity. For more information visit: www.