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Echoes and Mirrors» Blog Archive » No Transaction, No Sacrifice

No Transaction, No Sacrifice

One of the most bizarrely accurate notions I’ve seen in recent years is that of the “white knight”—the guy who defends women in order to gain approval or affection. As opposed to doing so simply because it is the right thing to do—it is a transactional act with an expected reward, with a debt incurred. There is an eerie and powerful resonance between Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and the notion of “nice guys,” in fact. It shares a distinct similarity to the “spiritual (or imaginary) revenge” of the put-out and downtrodden who, according to Nietzsche, seek repayment for humiliations and injuries, even those that are imagined. Who can be blamed for sexual failure more acutely than the desired that rejects you? And what better revenge—in the imaginary sense—is there than making them indebted to you? The problem is that this sense of a debt does not remain imaginary if it goes unpaid. Like anyone who feels that they’ve been cheated but cannot call on the renege, this translates into anger. In this case, misogyny.

So one of my issues then, is not men standing up for feminism—everyone, I think, ought to, given the circumstances—it’s men self-righteously decrying misogyny. (I admit to that I cannot know anyone’s intentions, so I will qualify my entire argument right now: every situation is different; the rule of thumb applies: “if the shoe fits, wear it.”) Because what I hear when a man says, “we men need to do something about misogyny,” is that women need a man to protect them from other men. In other words, what I sense is not a genuine stand against misogyny; instead, I see a covert misogyny disguising itself in the trappings of feminism.

They are attempting the same sort of manipulation that the so-called “pick-up artists” do. But the PUAs, in a sense, view women as adversaries (a fucked up worldview, let’s be honest) which also, as odd as it may seem, actually connotes autonomy and capability; the “white knights” fighting the battle against misogyny do not, casting women as helpless and weak, needing help to succeed. That help is certainly worthy of a reward, isn’t it? (“A reward? You’re friend is quite the mercenary.”)

And this, if I am going to be honest, is more insidious and vile than open-faced hatred; the open-faced hatred does not ask for a reward for condescending to you, it does not help you while harboring secret motives. It ought to go without saying that open hatred is no more noble or venerable —it is too despicable and ugly—but the fact that it operates so openly makes it easier to identify and critique; that is the real horror of this secretive misogyny. The “white knight” says, “yes, of course you can do whatever you like; yes, you are strong; yes, you are a full and capable human being endowed with all of the rights and abilities that comes with being a human being” but it has an unuttered, unimplied (but not uninferred) addendum: “but you need me to help you express it.” It is extant, transparent, and hovering in the periphery regardless.

Worse, I fear that the intentions are good; but they’re so unable to strip away the patriarchal tendency of believing that women need to defended by men—there is a very deeply buried sexist logic at play. This of course is produced in part by the very language we use in any such discourse (and how could it not be? Even attempting to evade the language produces problems of unintelligibility). The fact is that we are limited to either using bipolar terms like “man” and “woman” (which not only produces, but deepens a false dichotomy) or using gender-neutral language that all but strips the argument of any weight. Using “them,” “they,” “one” or any other “neutral” terminology disassociates the argument from the, albeit constructed, social norms that we use to navigate socially. To attempt to use language that does not share some commonality with our social constructs is too alien to be useful.

And so what I sense happening is an appropriation of feminist ideology in a way that reaffirms the patriarchal ideology of women needing to be dependent on men. I suspect that it is unconscious, that the men who determine that it is noble to take a stand against misogyny (which I cannot and would not argue with in any logical way as it seems both too true and too obvious) are not, ultimately doing so. Instead, they are developing an even more frightening and sublimated misogyny; for when a woman does succeed, these men can, secretly of course, clap themselves on the back: it was the men that made it possible for women to succeed. Which is nonsense, of course. This brings up two questions for me.

One, if women do not know that the men secretly take credit does it injure feminism? I would say unequivocally. It undermines the entire project.

Two, what is the final outcome to such a reinscription of patriarchal values into something that, at very least, appears to be motivated to promote feminism and help women? A swift return to the original patriarchal values, once the fears and anxieties that originally produced it return, once women have advanced themselves sufficiently to be perceived as a threat. Because the belief that something is owed will linger and then explode when no payment is to be found.

This meditation, if that’s what it might be called, for example, is not a gift, as it were. In the same way Derrida was decidedly against the notion of unconditional forgiveness, I too am against it. And what is forgiveness but a gift? A gift always has a condition, even if that condition is merely the context for its having been given. What could I possibly be offering as a gift, if that’s what it is? An honest evaluation of my own stake in the situation, perhaps. Because I do have a stake in the situation, and from my perspective, where I am positioned in the center of my own universe (where else could I be? I am limited to one set of senses, to one mind, after all) I can do little else but perceive and react to stimuli; threats, of course, are a major part of it. And I’ve already (briefly) touched on one aspect of this threat: that intersection of gender and economics produces an (admittedly irrational) anxiety.

But it also produces a second sort of anxiety, one I think is much more troubling: marginalization. After all, I enjoy the privilege of being a white heterosexual male; there’s no getting around it, even if it seems to me that all of my success is strictly the result of my own hard work (that transparency again, even after admitting that I know it exists, I cannot recall it ever being observable from my perspective; I am simply unable to grasp it). But the threat of marginalization is very real: it is in the perception of this very threat that I even recognize my privilege. Why else would I feel threatened if I had nothing to lose? The anxiety over losing something that I cannot articulate is frustrating, yes, but it is even worse because I recognize how fragile and artificial it is: I do not possess any “essence” of being “male”—I recognize the social constructs of gender. I simply cannot escape masculinity, whatever that means; I revel in dozens of stereotypical “masculine” things, and I feel no guilt for it. Nor should I. But more importantly, I need to not associate the fact that I like guns, hockey and sex with being male. These are simply things subject to taste. I am actually afraid of a threat to something that is not only intangible, but is little more than a fantasy.

So we must avoid any notion of transaction: I’ve already mentioned the sense that, socially, we are bound together, to some degree, in a zero-sum game (due to the nature of the pseudo-capitalism we conduct our lives in daily). To conflate that with our beings is a mistake, of course, but one we are bound to make, regardless of our attempts to do otherwise (we would, as I’ve mentioned before, become unintelligible, become unable to communicate without a radical revaluation of all values and the creation of a society that would not merely be foreign but terrifyingly alien to us in our present condition). Of course, we can observe our problems and recognize them for what they are; we can resist their influence as much as we possibly can, by negotiating new language and new discourse. Which is, to say the least, far different from merely shifting the focus of the discourse in such a way that its original purpose is undermined and reduced to a secondary issue. Please do not take this to mean that attacking misogyny is pointless, as I hope that I am doing exactly that, but consider instead the direction of treatment: misogyny is merely a symptom, which treated alone may exacerbate the actual disease. And that disease is the belief that gender is a thing that possesses something we can exchange, something we can feel is owed to us (and this, of course, can apply across the gender spectrum). The worst thing anyone could do—and I am purposely resorting to a gender-neutral pronoun, as it’s quite likely that this is not restricted to any gender—is to reduce a situation in which one party is owed something by another. It is a matter of standing next to, not taking charge.

The goal, then, even if it is impossible (which makes it no less worthy of a goal), is to make an attempt at altruism—the reward of which can simply be feeling good about having done the right thing: a self-affirmation without a sense of being owed something in return. Self-affirmation does not ask for anything in return; the reward comes from ourselves, it is inherent in the act. A second consequence of self-affirmation is a defense against the anxiety about and fear of marginalization, a defense against the loss of privilege—if I truly believe in myself, I should not fear this loss. In this sense, it becomes not an act of coming to the defense of feminism, but providing support to those who we believe not only should, but are entirely capable of not only defending but advancing themselves; it becomes about equality, not a shifting of power from one gender to another. It must not be under some misguided banner of sacrifice. There is no such transaction necessary.