In the summer of 2016, award-winning actor Will Smith made an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to promote what was then his new film Suicide Squad. He also briefly shared his thoughts on race relations in the US when Fallon brought up the spectacle of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
“Hearing people say that race relations are worse than they’ve ever been, it doesn’t feel like that to me,” said Smith. “Racism isn’t getting worse—it’s getting filmed.”
Smith touched on a profound aspect of our social reality: that the oppression and indignation experienced by the oppressed, as well as the strife between the oppressed and oppressor, have always existed. The only thing that’s changed is increased public awareness and scrutiny.
No doubt we’re all familiar with the recent high-profile sexual misconduct cases related to Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., and many others. I brought up the Smith quote because there are both subtle and explicit parallels between the normalization and maintenance of racism and patriarchy—including the way those who occupy positions of social power choose to interpret and respond to actions that reinforce these unequal power dynamics.
With the intense swell of men being exposed for predatory behavior, there have been many men who respond with victim-blaming sentiments (“It’s your fault, so it’s your problem,” “why are you only saying something now?” and so on). Others excuse the deluge of revelations as being “witch hunts” (suggesting there is no real problem), or stating these cases are anomalies and that they don’t represent common attitudes or behaviors (#NotAllMen). These kinds of reactions mimic how many white people misidentify root issues of racism and decide that race relations are now “worse than ever” simply because racial injustice is more difficult to ignore.
Ultimately, people are people. Innate to human nature is an aversion to being wrong. This is why we’re instinctively more concerned with trying to place blame elsewhere than with engaging ourselves in self-inventory, culpability, and working towards being better. As well, humans are tribal creatures. Despite what some say, this survival tendency isn’t inherently a bad thing, as it promotes social cohesion. (Also, lest we forget, humanist and atheist communities are products of tribal thinking.)
However, there can be adverse consequences to tribalism. Comedian Kate Willet used humor to illustrate how a manifestation of tribalism—the “us vs. them” mentality—tends to bubble to the surface with men who reflexively defend the honor of random men accused of vile actions as if it were their sworn duty as members of an underground cabal. “Call me old-fashioned,” she wrote in a November 11 Twitter post, “but I want a man who will protect me like I’m the reputation of a guy he’s never met.”
No matter how we choose to rationalize it, there’s something going on here, and it’s something that’s been going on. Something unhealthy, insidious, and pervasive. But the thing about US culture is that it drills into us this reductive and fanciful idea of individualism that, among other things, limits our analysis to the micro or individual level, and obscures a macro or “big picture” assessment.
In other words, the discourse of individualism—a cornerstone of US culture from the colonial period to the present—provides a way for us to deny how inequality is structured into the fabric of society. And denialism is vital so that those from dominant social groups are able to distance themselves from the oppressive legacy of and communal values perpetrated by their social group.
There can be no real change until there is a reckoning. Men must come to grips with the fact that all men are a part of a toxic fraternity. And it’s not like this toxic fraternity hasn’t been called out. We’re familiar with phrases like “men are trash,” often stated by women or femmes who have routinely been on the receiving end of inexcusably despicable and dangerous behavior perpetrated by men.
By understanding that what’s being called out is a systemic issue rather than a personal attack on any one individual, one can appreciate how stating “men are trash,” while hyperbolic, is a valid critique of the vast male collective—what I call the toxic fraternity—and the ubiquity of men perpetuating behaviors that demean, dehumanize, threaten, abuse, or violate women and femmes emotionally, mentally, and physically.
What Does This Mean?
Damon Young, the editor in chief at the daily digital magazine Very Smart Brothas, put it like this:
We are all complicit. We are all agents of patriarchy, and we’ve all benefited from it. We are all active contributors to rape culture. All of us. No one is exempt. We all have investments in and take deposits out of the same bank.
And we all need to accept and reconcile ourselves with the fact that, generally speaking, we are trash.
Feminist writer Ijeoma Oluo (who will accept the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Humanist Award at the AHA’s 2018 conference in Las Vegas) put it this way in an article for The Establishment (a multi-media site run and funded by women):
This society is doing everything it can to create rapists, to enable rapists, and to protect rapists.
This society is broken, abusive, patriarchal (and white supremacist, ableist, hetero-cisnormative) trash. Not just in little pockets. Not just in dark alleys and frat parties. It’s fucking rotten through and through and has been for absofuckinglutelyever.
Translation: Harvey Weinsteins exist in every group and industry. This means humanist communities aren’t precluded.
This means the reports of sexual harassment splashed across national headlines aren’t glitches in the matrix, they’re merely more noticeable, natural byproducts of the system we are all subsumed within.
This means that many of us claiming that we “get it” when it comes to the everyday fruits of this toxic fraternity yet invent ways to appear as though we’re somehow exempt from perpetuating the very ideologies that ensure this toxic fraternity endures.
This means it’s commonplace for us men to be more preoccupied with partitioning ourselves from these problems rather than putting in the work to transform these norms.
This means that some of us can acknowledge that our culture is oppressive and talk about how it prioritizes masculinity while also marginalizing femininity and disregarding the autonomy of women and femmes. Yet, we still conduct ourselves as if we aren’t also submerged and conditioned within this culture. We still act as if we don’t navigate this culture in ways that comply with and reinforce the very things that make it oppressive.
We are the damn culture. This is me. This is us. This is what men do. Every day.
And I don’t say these things because I think I have it all figured out, or because I think I’m an exemplar in “the right way to do all the things.” Neither is the case. I only say these things because they’re true.
We (men) need to do better, but that’s impossible until we better understand ourselves and the extent to which our ingrained and inflated sense of male entitlement influences our assumptions, expectations, and justifications for satiating our sexual impulses when it comes to daily interactions.
What Can We Do?
The performance of masculinity thrives on validation. Therefore, a huge part of tearing down the toxic fraternity would require us to disrupt our allegiance to these ideas in our own lives as well as confront our peers when they speak or act in ways that support it. This means facing family, friends, coworkers, and others we come into contact with on a daily basis.
This may seem simple. Unfortunately, the vast majority of men are unwilling to participate in the in-depth and lifelong process of unlearning, correcting, and confronting mindsets that prop up the toxic fraternity. We may act tough, but underneath all the macho talk, we’re cowards.
We men fear what other men will say or think of us when we speak out against casual sexism. We don’t want to be ridiculed by our peers. We enjoy the comfort of the toxic fraternity, or at least we care more about not going against the grain than we care about the psychic wellbeing and safety of those excluded from this menacing fraternal order.
But that’s what is required of us. Whether it’s your brother, your best friend, your next-door neighbor, or your uncle’s stepsister’s cousin’s mechanic, show that you are committed to standing up to patriarchal beliefs expressed through rape culture, sexual violence, and misogynistic humor by actually stamping it out the moment these ideas are floated in your midst.
There are far too many “not all men” men who act in ways that discount the scope and magnitude of the problem. There are far too few men actually doing something about it.