A pro-feminist man sent me an email asking how he could soften the effect of his privilege in mixed-sex discussions.
Attending to pro-feminist men isn’t the most important thing about my feminism, so I didn’t want to take too long on this, but I sketched out the following list.
Because it’s a sketch, it’s incomplete and may contain errors and problems. I’ve tried to filter out as many as possible and I hope it’s more-good-than-harm.
Most significantly, while the list appeals to men to consider how their privileges intersect, the rest of the points only particularly speak to male privilege in an environment where there are no other privileges in play, for example, everyone is equally white. So this list, by itself, is insufficient.
That said, here it is.
A few corrective principles for pro-feminist men to follow in mixed-sex conversations/debates/discussions:
Assume you don’t have a right to be in the room or to express your opinion. Chances are, many of the women around the circle don’t. If you don’t either, then you won’t be placing yourself above them.
Assume that the women in the room do have a right to be there, and that their opinions are worth hearing.
Bear in mind that the other men in the room may not be doing (1), and so what you’re hearing when the discussion goes around is a mixture of uninformed and informed opinions from men but primarily only informed opinions from women (and them rarely). So pay more attention to any given opinion from a woman, since her being a woman and daring to speak up is almost certainly an indicator that she’s more confident of that opinion than average.
Don’t appeal to the universal. Note the differences between, “When x happened, I felt y” (completely personal), “x means y” (completely universal) and “I think that x means y” (somewhere in between; it’s a personal statement, but it’s a statement of your views on the universal). Male socialisation emphasises objectivity, female socialisation subjectivity; under patriarchy, objectivity trumps subjectivity, silencing women. Oh, and also, you’re not as objective as you think you are, anyway.
Consider combinations of privileges. If you’re white, some women may be silenced by your whiteness, or by the particular structure of white male privilege. If you only challenge your male privilege in discussions, you are only trying to avoid silencing the most privileged women. And privilege isn’t a neat matrix, where you can figure out male privilege (row 1) and white privilege (column A) then automatically unlock the solution to white male privilege. There are unique silencing mechanisms functioning from white men to racialised women which you have to address directly.
Consider volume. Men often actually SHOUT in discussions. I’ve seen conversations - not pub conversations, or even emotive conversations, just normal conversations - in which the men are bellowing loudly and the women are occasionally saying something quiet.
This one’s more cis-centric, but consider pitch. Men and women are both socialised to expect that lower pitch = more honest/universal. People of all genders will often vary the pitch of their voice based on their confidence/comfort, but obviously some pitches are easier to access for some people than others.
Consider tone. Being abrupt, sarcastic, relaxed, angry, etc. are all modes of power which make statements about the strength of your argument. Hesitating, sounding nervous, looking around, etc., are all modes of weakness. You have easier access to the power modes as a man - consider not using them.
Follow the lead of women when opening up or closing down topics. One way in which men dominate conversations is by deciding what fits in to and what is excluded from the conversation. By controlling the frame, to some extent they control the outcome. A discussion can go through phases, from its start, to an opening-up phase in which new ideas are introduced, some of which are immediately closed down and others which are closed down over time. As opinions change (I may be being optimistic here) and more ideas are closed down, a consensus (if any) emerges. Note when women are trying to open up and bring in new ideas, and support that. Note when men are trying to close down ideas, and don’t let that happen. Note when women are trying to close down ideas, and support that. And note when men are trying to bring up ideas which women don’t, as it may be a derail.
Consensus model / conflict model. In a conflict model, the idea is that the person with the right idea wins over the people who don’t, either by making them look bad, by changing their minds, or by the conversation reaching a point where for some reason the other people are unable to proceed. There are lots of ways for men to unfairly “win” in this model; often the fact itself that the model’s in play will be enough for many women not to even engage. In a consensus model, the idea is for everyone around the table to learn as much as they can from the other people and to create an outcome together which weaves together as much wisdom as possible, with as many people as possible walking away feeling good about it. There are also many ways for men to “win” this model, as described above, but it’s a better approach than conflict.
Be aware that there may be unspoken opinions in the room, and that they are more likely, on average, to belong to women. When you think you’ve heard all the points of view, you probably haven’t. What can you do to make the environment feel safe enough for women to contribute their unspoken opinions?
Consider silence. Especially in a conflict model, time spent speaking is a limited resource which is fought for. When one person finishes (or often before they finish), the next person will already be fighting for the platform to speak. This can be done through words, gestures, expressions, an intake of breath or even apparent disengagement. But some people will often only speak after a certain length of silence has elapsed, varying by person and by the opinion they would express. If there is no silence, or no silence of more than a certain length, some people or opinions may themselves be silenced, including those with less power.
Don’t be awful. This is a bit of a catch-all, but it includes things like, don’t use casual misogyny. Above are specific ways in which male privilege intersects with conversation/debate, but just being straightforwardly awful can also silence women, because while they’re being hit with an oppression hammer, chances are they’re going to be able to give less to the conversation.
Sometimes, just shut up. We don’t need to hear from you about everything, or right away. Especially shut up if you’re talking disproportionately, or first. Divide the time the meeting has to run by the number of people and speak for less than that length of time, in total.
None of these things are universal, especially the statements about women. I’m speaking to you about things you can do to improve the odds of you and other men dominating conversations less.
Please feel free to reblog/edit/correct/criticise as appropriate. :)
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