Potential Men

by John Sheirer

I never dreamed I’d write something that would be read aloud by the president of a prestigious New England college before hundreds of people, all sitting on the edge of their seats, occasionally breaking into spontaneous applause and finishing with a standing ovation. 

Of course, no one was applauding for me or even my writing skills. The ovations were for the person I had written about—Catharine MacKinnon, a renowned feminist, attorney, author, and professor—who was receiving an alumni award from Smith College and giving a speech that day. I was merely the college public relations writer who had ghost-written the laudatory words for the president. 

When I was first asked to write about this award recipient, I thought it would be a pretty easy job. After all, I was a professional writer and a liberal who was very sympathetic to her feminist causes. How hard could it be to praise her?

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So I opened her dossier with confidence. Here was a woman who had done many things I found amazing and valuable: arguing in court against sexual discrimination and in favor of women’s reproductive rights, fair trial for victims of sexual crimes, and equality for all women; teaching at several distinguished law schools; authoring groundbreaking books on women’s rights. It was natural for me to admire MacKinnon and the work she had done.

But the more I read of her work and about her work, the more I couldn’t help noticing and alarming trend toward something I was very familiar with as a man working at a women’s college: "men-bashing." The simple definition of men-bashing is this: condemning all men on the basis of the inexcusable actions of some men.

The really disheartening thing about men-bashing in this case was that it was paired so closely with the admirable things MacKinnon had to say. For example, she pointed out that violent pornography is a violation of women’s civil rights, not a matter of obscenity standards. But I had just barely finished thinking "yes!" when she next stated that there is no such thing as honest erotic art and that all men need increasingly violent pornography in order to be sexually excited. 

Where did that come from? I am a man, and I am disgusted and offended -- definitely not aroused by violent pornography.

Then I read some of her writings on rape and was impressed with her work on ensuring fair trial for victims of sexual crimes. But, again, in nearly the next sentence she said that masculinity is defined as a man’s ability to rape women. I was stunned.

So I spent nearly a full week poring over every bit of information I could find on this woman in order to write a simple description of her accomplishments. I ignored a great deal of my other work that was piling up at a remarkable rate, and I talked with nearly every woman in our office trying to figure out why such an obviously intelligent woman would choose to short-circuit most of her many powerfully stated, finely detailed, specific arguments (a preponderance of which I agreed with) by resorting to blatant overgeneralization. 

Why would she say, in effect, "Here is an important point about our world that needs to be made," only to follow it with, "but it should be obvious anyway because all men are inherently evil"?

Eventually, the demands of time made me put aside my philosophical debate and just write what I needed to write. And it all came out well, stirring the audience and providing a good introduction for MacKinnon’s speech.

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Not to my surprise, her speech was another roller coaster ride. Her main point was again an important message concerning the discrimination of women: that the worst thing a woman can do in the face of discrimination is keep silent, something she noted that women have been doing for far too long. My emotions began to swing back in her favor as I felt outrage for the crimes that are committed against women and pride in the women who speak out against these crimes. 

But if the worst thing a woman can do is remain silent, the second worst thing any oppressed person can do is generalize. And that is exactly what MacKinnon did next. She spent most of her speech engaged in a witty, acerbic, uncompromising attack on men -- not specifically on the men who oppress women, but all men. For her, there seemed to be no difference.

Shortly before MacKinnon’s visit to Smith, the word "stop" on a campus stop sign was followed by the spray-painted word "rapists." I was reminded of a similar phrase that I have also seen spray-painted at various locations on other campuses: "All men are potential rapists." 

I’m sure MacKinnon would agree with this statement, but what good does believing it do anyone? It teaches women that they should fear men, and it teaches men that their assistance is not welcome in any effort toward equal treatment of women.

But worse, it implies that the only way to combat rape is to control or get rid of men -- all men. But this ignores the best way to combat rape (and all crimes against women, for that matter). The best way to do that is to find out what makes specific men commit crimes against women. 

Of course, discovering and understanding specifics is much harder than simply generalizing crimes against women as the act of all men. More is needed than just saying "All men are bad; therefore, they commit crimes against women." 

True understanding requires exhaustive investigation of the complex factors leading to such crimes. I have faith that most women will not fall into the trap of generalization that has ensnared Catharine MacKinnon. These are the women who realize that feminism is not a battle of women against men, but women who might support a motto stating that all men are potential allies.

bio:  John Sheirer poetry, essays, and educational materials have been published widely in print and on the internet. His most recent work can be seen on the web at Ethical Oasis, Nights and Weekends, Naked Humorists, and The Irascible Professor. He is the author of 21 small press chapbooks of poetry and a public speaking textbook. He teaches writing, public speaking, and literature at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, CT. 

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