Book Review of Rebecca Solnit’s “Men explain things to me” and what that has to do with Anti-Racism

Today I’d like to share a book review of Rebecca Solnit’s Men explain things to me (2,5h audiobook). I expected to hear about mansplaining for 2.5 hours from the person after whose text the term ‘mansplaining’ was coined. However, Men explain things to me turned out to be a very good and concise text on feminism and why we need it in general. It’s totally suitable as an introduction too. It shows very well how sexism is not an individual problem – it’s systemic.

 

Sexism and Racism share the traits of systemic oppression

Like with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, larger portions of society now have realized that it’s hard to acknowledge one’s privilege. To acknowledge that you’re one of the bad guys because you indirectly but actively profit from an opressive system, even though you always thought you were nice and not racist. I think these insights are very important not only for the question of racism. They hold true for all sorts of systemic oppression. It’s the same thing with sexism. “Bad men” are the problem, of course. But the probably even bigger problem is the fact that all the “good men” refuse to acknowledge that they too are part of sexism and discrimination of womxn. And that the only way of undoing this is by pro-feminist activism and giving up some of their own privilege. Being nice just doesn’t cut it. Actually, it’s a bad thing because it keeps up the facade that nothing’s wrong and you’re not responsible. Even though things are seriously wrong and you are, in fact, highly responsible for it.

 

“Not all men” is a lot like #AllLivesMatter in my opinion

I have recently had this discussion with a man who was annoyed about my “aggressive feminism” because “you have to see the individuals. Not every man… blablaba.” However, exactly that is the problem: Pointing out the few individuals who seem to be nice is pretending that there is no systemic problem. Does not actively hurting womxn count enough to be perceived as an ally even when your whole career builds on the fact that you were privileged and womxn were discriminated in the process? Does it make you not part of a racist system only because you haven’t uttered racist insults (in public) but you still probably got your job because they preferred a white person to an immigrant or black person? To give an extreme example (that I feel often shows better what I mean): Would you count someone as not-Nazi who has part of the Third Reich, profiting from the fact that Jews were pushed out of the society, criminalized and killed, only because they directly didn’t kill or threaten a Jew? To me it’s obvious that they still are Nazis as long as they don’t risk anything for activism to abolish the system via the Resistance.

As an excuse not to do anything actively against sexism, people like to say: “Things are getting better anyway. The old creeps are dying out anyway.” But no, sadly that’s not enough. Sadly, that’s not how it works. Because you don’t get that you yourself are a sexist creep or at least you have some sexism in you by complying with (and profiting from) a patriarchal sexist system.

 

You can’t be “not sexist” when you’re not anti-sexism

By saying to focus on the indiviuals, you deny that sexism is a system. It doesn’t have all that much to do with individual actions, or – at least – individuals not actively committing acts of sexism doesn’t mean womxn are not still suffering from sexism.

Like Paula Stone Williams expressed in “What I realized about men — after I transitioned genders”, the only way of actually dismantling male privilege is when men who have it give up part of it. No man can actually pretend to be “one of the good ones” only because they don’t actively engage in acts of aggressive sexism or that they’re not sexist and not part of an oppressive patriarchal system. Like you can’t be just “not racist”, you can only be anti-racist. I highly recommend reading (or listening to) Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (2019).

Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, Penguin: NY 2019.

Because saying that you’re not racist tries to put the issue on an individual basis, disregarding that it’s actually a system of oppression. And with systems, either you’re part of it or you’re against it. You can’t happily live in it and participate in it or profit from it without being part of it. The same goes for sexism. You’re either actively anti-sexist or you’re sexist. There is no such thing as being “not sexist” as an invididual.

Especially as, in my experience, many who think of themselves as “the good ones” actually do make tons of sexist comments on a regular basis… But of course, “it’s the behaviour that counts”. And then it doesn’t matter what words you’re using… Right. Not really, I think. Words and jokes and what’s being shown on social media all indirectly socialize us. So words do matter and it’s not ok to make sexist jokes, just like it’s not ok to make racist or anti-semitic jokes. And that’s not because I’m a feminist killjoy (even though I am and I am proud). It’s because on a subconscious basis, you can’t truly respect and honour a group which is being victimized by another while you’re comfortable making jokes about them and their oppression/suffering.

You can’t say anything anymore these days? Well, should you be allowed to say whatever you want?

To all those saying “You can’t say anything anymore these days” I want to reply: Can you have a fun conversation and make jokes without any party being insulted or made to look bad in the course of it? Because if you can’t, then no, you probably shouldn’t say anything at all. The world really doesn’t need to hear what you have to say because apparently, it’s not going to be very witty.

I myself even have a hard time believing just how often I hear sentences like: “If people are so sensitive when it comes to words, you can’t say anything anymore, can you? Womxn can’t expect that much.” Thank you, benevolent sexists. That’s what we needed to hear. So can we please stop pretending that you are actually on our side?

Why optical allyship is so detrimental

In #BlackLivesMatter, we have seen the problem of optical allies (i.e. allies who are only allies when it makes them look good and as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them). Let me name just one concrete example how they can be detrimental to gender equality.

Image you are in a group of people and there’s an optical ally and people kind of know about them (that they’re saying they’re feminist). Then, some sexist incident happens and the resident feminist throws a tantrum about it. Maybe it was actually justified but no one really cares. The sexists (pretending to be the good guys) are in the majority and we know it’s such a well-working established technique to just ignore those annoying womxn who say things that you don’t want to hear. Then, because it would inconvenience them and possibly make them look like an asshole to the majority, the optical ally doesn’t defend you and pretends like nothing wrong happend. Then the feminist looks even more like an idiot “because even the pro-feminist man doesn’t agree with you”. In this case, the optical allyship has actually made geneder-non-equality worse by making women look like “crazy, angry women”. Remeber hysteria?

 

Well, these are a few things I wanted to say. Many of them are my own thoughts, inspired by the book. I highly recommend you get and read it. It’s short but rich. A must-read in my opinion.

It was one of the best books I have had the pleasure to read (or rather: listen to as an audiobook) in a long time! Highly recommended if you haven’t read it already. Don’t put it off (like I did)!

 

Best,
S


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