More Thoughts on the Dangerous Fragility of Men
posted by Mary Anne Franks
First, I want to thank my hosts here at Concurring Opinions for asking me to stay on for another month. One of the things this extended invitation allows me to do is to respond at some length to issues raised in the comments on my last post, “The Dangerous Fragility of Men.” In that post, I highlighted a troubling phenomenon: men with privilege and power characterizing their insecurities and lack of self-control as vulnerability, and using that alleged vulnerability as an excuse or justification for murder, rape, and discrimination (and I would add, though I didn’t discuss it in the post, harassment and intimidation). To demonstrate this phenomenon, I offered a sample of quotations from recent, high-profile cases including Oscar Pistorius‘ shooting of his girlfriend and the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The post suggested that our society should make a greater effort both to marginalize this cowardice and become more attentive to actual vulnerability. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on these ideas and address some of the objections raised in the responses to my post.
I first want to spend a bit more time on the question of perceived v. actual vulnerability. I noted in my original post that one of the perplexing aspects of this form of male vulnerability is that it seems to increase, rather than decrease, with power or privilege. Frequently, the men using weakness as an excuse or justification (or others offering such explanations on their behalf) for harm are people who are objectively less vulnerable than most. They include famous athletes, soldiers, and wealthy businessmen. I think it is worth spelling this out more explicitly: there is a tendency on the part of privileged individuals to overstate their vulnerability. This tendency towards exaggerated sensitivity is important because it stunts what might otherwise be a meaningful process of self-examination. Feeling vulnerable is not the same thing as being vulnerable, and even actual vulnerability might need to yield before (or at least take into consideration) the greater vulnerability of other people.
We are all vulnerable in certain ways. Figuring out the what and why of our vulnerabilities is an important part of psychological awareness and well-being. What is of most interest to me here, however, is determining the conditions under which it is permissible for us to impose our vulnerabilities on other people, especially when that imposition takes the form of violence or discrimination. In determining those conditions, I would suggest we should ask ourselves at least three questions. One, we should question whether our vulnerability is objectively reasonable. Vulnerability that results from personal insecurity or prejudice is not vulnerability that we may rightfully impose on others. It is our own responsibility to correct vulnerabilities of our own creation. Second, we should question the magnitude of our vulnerability, especially when put in perspective with the vulnerabilities of others. Third, even if our vulnerability is both reasonable and of serious magnitude, we should question whether we are imposing it on appropriate parties in a just and proportional way.
I began my previous post with illustrations of “doing vulnerability badly” – the examples I referred to demonstrated errors relating to one or more of these three lines of inquiry. In the Jovan Belcher case, for example, Belcher’s supposed vulnerability had to do with his anger and insecurity about his girlfriend’s social habits. This, I would argue, is an illegitimate vulnerability. A person’s desire to control his intimate partner is never a valid condition for imposition. Even if we assume that there were other, legitimate vulnerabilities in his case, such as the fear that his girlfriend would restrict his access to their child, Belcher should have considered whether his own actions might have helped create his girlfriend’s belief that the child was not safe in his presence (given that Belcher ultimately shot a defenseless woman nine times in front of said child, this was not an unreasonable belief). That is, he should have put his vulnerability in perspective with the vulnerability of others, including his girlfriend. Finally, it should be clear that shooting his girlfriend to death was not an appropriate or proportional way to address his feeling of weakness or fear. To take one of my other original examples, it may be an open question whether the sergeant who expressed personal insecurity about how he might react to women being injured in combat could claim that his vulnerability is reasonable. Using his own weakness as a ground for denying his female comrades equal rights and opportunities, however, is unambiguously illegitimate. If male soldiers struggle to deal effectively with their female comrades’ potential to be wounded or killed, then it is their own behavior that is the source of the problem. Before the military was racially integrated, many white soldiers objected to serving alongside black soldiers, but few would argue that the correct response to this objection would have been to prevent black soldiers from serving. Rather, the expectation that rightly prevailed was that white soldiers must overcome their own prejudice. I won’t walk through all of my examples here, but I hope this elaboration clarifies the phenomenon I am describing.
Several commenters seemed to accept the general premise of dangerous male fragility, but expressed skepticism about its prevalence and/or society’s willingness to tolerate or encourage it. This is where responding gets a bit tricky, because the objection came both from commenters who seemed genuinely unsure about the empirical evidence, and others who apparently reject outright the observation that men’s feelings of harm are often privileged over actual harm to women (I also suggested that the same is true for white people’s feelings of harm being privileged over actual harm to minorities, but this claim does not seem to have troubled commenters as much). I want to make clear that I see an important distinction between the two types of objections even if I do group them together in this response.
I understand the temptation to view the examples I offered as exceptions to the general rule rather than the mere tip of the iceberg. It is very hard to confront the possibility that the world we live in is more unjust than just, especially if we ourselves benefit (however unintentionally or even unwillingly) from some of the structures of its injustice. I also believe, however, that even the most sincere form of this skepticism is in part a product of privilege. Some of us have the luxury of being ignorant or indifferent to the pervasiveness of a certain form of harm (and by pervasiveness I also mean implied and sometime express tolerance), but that does not make the harm any less pervasive. When I claim that “society” tolerates and sometimes encourages dangerous male fragility, I of course do not mean that every individual in society, or even a majority of individuals, thinks that “such murders and rapes were good ideas,” as one commenter put it. The most pernicious ideologies are never that explicit. The empirical evidence is not just in what people say, but what they do. And what a considerable segment of society does, according to indisputable crime and harassment statistics, is engage in violence and discrimination against women, and an even larger segment provides them with tacit encouragement and excuse when they do so. If this is news to anyone reading this post, that is not because the evidence is not freely available. In a blog post, I can’t do much more than point those interested in this evidence to the vast wealth of information available on this subject (and I provided numerous sources in my original post); to those individuals whose intuition is that violence and discrimination against women is either rare or widely disapproved, please consider researching the subject before asserting that intuition as empirical reality. There are many, many people who have devoted their careers to researching and documenting the incidence, causes, and responses to violence and discrimination against women, and we are fortunate enough to live in a time when such information is easily accessible.
I am perplexed by those commenters who don’t seem to think there is a link between the high prevalence of a phenomenon and society’s tolerance or encouragement of that phenomenon. High rates of violence and discrimination are not inevitable, and they do not happen in a vacuum. They call out for an explanation. What exactly are the other plausible explanations for the high rate of male violence against women? What is the explanation for why 1 in 4 women in the U.S. has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime? Or why women account for 84% of victims of intimate partner violence while men account for 83% of all spouse murderers? Or why nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped? Or why men account for 99% of all rapists? Or why more than half of all rapes go unreported? Or why the arrest rate for reported rapes is 24%? Or why a very vocal segment of the population still reacts to violence and discrimination against women by blaming the victims rather than examining the root causes of men’s aggression towards women – a segment of the population that is by no means limited to defense lawyers in high-profile cases, but includes judges (who are sometimes former sex crimes prosecutors), police officers, politicians, journalists, football coaches, and higher education officials? Or why on this very blog and in response to the very post in which I described this phenomenon, at least one (anonymous, of course) commenter feels comfortable repeatedly spewing the most blatant myths of “misandry,” myths that have been debunked by every credible authority on intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and sex discrimination, and unwittingly provides a case study of the very logic that the original post critiques (e.g., treating fictional violence by women against men as equivalent to actual violence by men against women (while also conveniently ignoring the fact that this supposed glorification of female violence in popular culture is primarily the creation of male directors and writers for male audiences); suggesting that rape allegations are as or more harmful than rapes themselves (despite the fact that the majority of rapes go unreported, as noted above); and derisively referring to victim-blaming as a “catchphrase”: one could hardly ask for a better example of male fear, delusion, and privilege in action).
If our society does not tolerate or at least excuse the dangerous fragility of men, how do we explain why a group of teenagers would take pictures, tweet descriptions, and make jokes while they watched high school athletes repeatedly rape an unconscious 16-year-old girl (sample commentary: “is it really rape if you don’t know if she wanted to or not? She might have wanted it. That might have been her final wish”). How do we explain why a 17-year-old sexual assault victim would be threatened with jail time for naming the boys who admitted they had assaulted her because doing so “ruined their reputations,” or why a college rape victim faces potential expulsion for “intimidating” her rapist because she spoke to the media (without naming her attacker) about her experience? How are we to believe, as one commenter suggested, that the NRA is really interested in promoting the right of self-defense for those who need it most when it fights to keep guns in the hands of violent domestic abusers and ignores the fact that owning a gun increases, rather than decreases, a woman’s chance of being killed? How are we to respect male soldiers’ alleged solicitude for the welfare of their female comrades when the latter are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire and military officials have done everything they could to cover up sexual assaults instead of addressing them?
In my original post, I picked six recent examples of dangerous male fragility to frame the issue, but there are literally thousands of other examples I could have chosen. It takes an extraordinarily constrained version of the world to point to the criminal prosecutions of some high-profile killers and rapists of women as evidence that society actually condemns violence against women or racism against young black men. It takes a remarkable amount of privilege to find reassurance of the world’s justness in the fact that people do not often explicitly advocate for injustice in so many words. The people whose very lives are made precarious by the often unspoken prejudice and weakness of others do not have this privilege. I do not doubt the fact that it is a struggle for some people to see such injustice. What is regrettable is the failure to take up this struggle simply because the injustice happens not to be aimed at them.