The ‘silencing’ of Matt Haig

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‘If you judge words on the gender of the person saying them you are, by definition, a bit prejudiced.’ Matt Haig, on Twitter

‘We have to shout to even have the remotest chance to be heard, men can whisper and everyone leans in to hear.’ Rose (@hernamewaselrod), on Twitter.

For a few months now I’ve been researching a book about gender, based partly on my own personal experiences as a man. So I have followed with interest this week’s Twitter row over Matt Haig’s plan to write a similar sounding book.

I can relate a little to what Matt has gone through, although not for the reasons that a lot of people might expect. In my view, the consensus forming around how this row has played out, and in particular the way the story was told in the Guardian and the Independent, should trouble any man who wants to help feminism, including Matt.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasise that I like and respect Matt a lot. This year I began working with him as part of my job with the Mental Health Foundation, and I want that productive relationship to continue. Matt has become a fantastic, high profile spokesperson in the battle against mental health stigma, and has written brilliantly about the stigmatising media coverage of this year’s Germanwings crash and pilot Andreas Lubitz’s depression. (I should also add that everything I say here is my personal opinion; I am not speaking on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation – I cannot emphasise this enough, in fact.)

But here’s the thing. I find myself in general agreement with the feminist voices who have been most critical of Matt over the past few couple of days on Twitter, such as @tillyjean_, @hernamewaselrod and @pastachips. If you want to understand why some feminists are so angry and frustrated about this whole episode, these women’s Twitter timelines are a good place to start. I’d be very happy if you went there right now instead of reading the rest of this blog – they have already said much of what I’m about to say, and the last thing I want to do is mansplain on their behalf.

Researching gender has been a challenging process. My starting point was a personal blog about gender stereotypes that had a very positive response from both men and women, and at first I thought it would be straightforward, and “inclusive” – as Matt described the aspiration for his book – to expand it into something longer. Except that gender, once you explore it in any depth, is one of the most divisive subjects of our time. Writing anything substantial on this subject with the well-intentioned but essentially naive aim of “helping” men, women or both is deeply problematic – particularly when, like me, you’re a white, heterosexual, middle class man, trying to “help” from a position of many layers of privilege, often unacknowledged.

For example, until quite recently I hadn’t appreciated the complexity of the ways in which women’s voices are still marginalised in political debate. The more I learn (from writers like Debbie Cameron, in particular), the more I find myself in support of things like women-only shortlists, but I also understand how bitterly divided people are on that subject – a majority of women are against them, as well as a majority of men. What is the most helpful position on this issue, for a man? It is very difficult to say, and after a week of reading writers like Hanna Rosin, I’m less sure than ever.

I also hadn’t appreciated the complexity of the arguments between trans women and some feminists (Julie Bindel being the most high profile example). I had thought this had been consigned to the past, but the visibility and influence of trans women like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox has brought an old argument back into the public arena, in which accusations of transphobia are countered by claims that trans women are undermining feminism. I still don’t know quite where I stand on it all, or whether I should even have a position on it (if I do, it’s probably just to echo this Laurie Penny piece on moving towards solidarity).

I chose these two examples because they were the ones where I have felt most lost in the woods, but they represent only a small part of what I’ve been exploring. I have also learned about how men use body language to assert power, how the suggestion that men are now objectified in the media as much as women is being used as a tool to silence women, and I’ve learned much more than I ever knew before about gaslighting, mansplaining, and intersectionality, not to mention my own frequently unacknowledged sexism.

In short, I have listened to women. A lot. Throughout all this it has been illuminating to discover how often male privilege and institutional sexism skews my interpretation of events, often in ways it takes me a while fully to understand. Masculinity itself is fraught with difficulty. Those addressing what has come to be known as the “crisis of masculinity” with what they believe are good feminist intentions often come dangerously close to defending privilege in much the same way as the men’s rights movement that Matt is keen, quite rightly, to distance himself from. A few weeks ago I almost gave up on the whole enterprise, having concluded that various women had already said pretty much everything I wanted to say, that the only fresh thing I’d have to offer is essentially to repeat these things but with the addition of a male perspective, and that – in a world where men almost always get more credit for saying things than women do, even when a woman has already said it – I would probably get more credit for this than I deserved. And that, if this happened, whatever positive attention the book received would be a disappointment to me.

I was talked out of this decision by two feminist friends. “Stop it!” was one’s succinct response. “Everyone is allowed an opinion on everything. Men are allowed to talk about feminism. Men are allowed to disagree with women about feminism. The idea that feminists want only women to have voices fits right in with the Feminazi propaganda from the bloody Men’s Movement!” The other friend expressed her exasperation that the novelist Alan Bissett was attacked recently on Twitter for criticising Alex Salmond’s “behave yourself woman” comment as sexist, on the grounds that Alan should have stepped aside and let women do the criticising. “For goodness’ sake,” she said, “I want all kinds of human beings to shout about sexism when they see it. And let’s have all kinds of people writing about gender politics, especially those who will question themselves and what they’re doing as they go.” So I’m carrying on, hesitantly and humbly, revising my opinions constantly as I go (and I might even change my mind again and abandon the project, we’ll see).

Since I’m not a best-selling author, this whole process has taken place entirely under the radar – no more publicly than a few low-key discussions between friends on Facebook. But I can’t help wondering how it would have gone if it had started with a pronouncement on Twitter that was read by thousands of people, with all my initial assumptions aired in public. It would have been painful, I imagine – as it was for Alan Bissett in 2013, when he started making a show about feminism and decided to air a few early opinions on Twitter.

From where I’m sitting, then, Matt’s surprise at the negative reaction from some feminists to his announcement seems naïve – especially after saying things like this to 76,000 Twitter followers:

1. “I think this idea that being male or western or whatever automatically makes you privileged needs challenging.”

Matt, male privilege has been thoroughly documented. It is a real, evidenced thing. If you want to challenge it, go right ahead, but your main allies in this will be the same men’s rights activists to whom you say you’re in absolute opposition. There is lots of great reading on this subject; I recommend this trans man’s compelling account of waking up to male privilege.

2. “I thought it was standard practice, if someone abuses you online, to RT that abuse, no, at least to give a cross section of the debate?”

Matt, to describe the response to your comments from feminists as “abuse” was insensitive, given the horrifying levels of abuse that women endure online on a daily basis – threats of rape, violence, or death. Ask Laurie Penny. Or notice how many of the women who responded negatively to you have ‘protected’ Twitter accounts; there is a good reason for this. I’ve read the “abuse” you retweeted, and some more that you didn’t. The comments weren’t very nice, granted, but it is not comparable. Your use of the word ‘silenced’ was also insensitive. In this context that word is incredibly loaded, as illustrated by this article by Mary Beard (hence some of the anger directed towards you – decades of being silenced does that) and any man should think very, very carefully before using it. And you were not silenced. No feminist with a small Twitter following could ever silence a famous male author. If anyone is likely to be silenced, it is women whose criticism of you – in the current climate of cyberbullying of women – was retweeted to your 76,000 followers. I know none of this was intentional, but we men cannot afford to be naive about these things.

3. “Oh fuck. Some men’s rights people are now on my timeline. I am not you. I am saying the opposite of you.”

I am very happy to hear that, but this claim is undermined by your subsequent retweet – again to an audience of 76,000 people – of a supportive comment by Stephen Beard, a man whose Twitter timeline reads like a relentless list of attacks on feminists.

4. “Seems there is a certain kind of hardcore feminist (the kind who’d be Clarkson if they’d been born male) who think men CAN’T be feminist.”

This is a dispiritingly dismissive comment. It is completely valid to argue that men cannot be feminists –and the argument has been made by men as well as women. It is arguable on the grounds that men being active feminists is open to abuse, and because men sometimes use calling themselves feminists as a smokescreen for sexist behaviour. My own view is that, while I want to support feminism, I wouldn’t presume to call myself a feminist. I am well aware that an increasing number of women do support the idea of men calling themselves feminists, but to dismiss those who don’t as “hardcore” or liken them to someone as obviously sexist as Jeremy Clarkson…. can you not see why this might provoke anger?

5. “Twitter burns. It’s harsh. Guess vulnerable men who suffer mental health problems due to gender constraints have to stay vulnerable. Sad.”

You are now playing the victim – a tactic that those men’s rights activists you don’t like use constantly in arguments. In this case you are implying that feminists shouldn’t criticise you because of your depression. Surely it must have occurred to you that many of the women who criticised you are also vulnerable, and also suffering from depression? As you rightly pointed out in one exchange, suffering is not a competitive sport. But if you think that, please, please don’t use your depression as a weapon in an argument.

I don’t want to be too hard on  you, Matt. I too have battled depression for years, and understand its impact on self-esteem. I hope you still write your book, for all the reasons highlighted by my feminist friends. But I also hope you understand the effect of statements like the ones above (I could list others, as @tillyjean_, @hernamewaselrod and @pastachips did, to a response that suggested you weren’t fully engaging with what they were saying).

In the end, though, this isn’t about one male author. If it was, I wouldn’t bother writing this; it would be petty, pointless and divisive to attack a political ally personally. It’s about the narratives that emerge from these episodes, even in progressive newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent. Look at the angle each newspaper took. Matt Haig forced to defend proposed book about masculinity, went the Independent’s headline. ‘Forced to defend‘ immediately places Matt in the role of the victim and his critics in the role of aggressors. As @hernamewaselrod put it, bluntly but not inaccurately, “Men can wade in on feminist discussions, and no matter how much BS they say, they ALWAYS come out looking great and we’re labelled bullies”. This is exactly how the Independent piece comes across. Told entirely from Matt’s point of view, it dismisses the criticism as “unhelpful comments” and only quotes the most infuriated ones –  “feminism doesn’t exist to help males”, “stop talking about feminism”, “do better dude” – which are meaningless when taken out of context.

The Guardian piece – a news story – takes the same tack, again painting Matt as a victim in the headline by claiming he was ‘crucified’ (a word Matt says he didn’t use, but at time of writing it has not been corrected) and again including only the most infuriated responses from his critics, out of context so that all nuance is lost. Matt, the piece says, “found himself quickly flooded with condemnation from those telling him to ‘stop talking about feminism now’, that he ‘has been mansplaining feminism.'” Except that Matt then mansplains feminism in the same article, by saying “I think men and women alike would benefit from men having a more fluid idea of what being a man is”, something Andrea Dworkin said over 30 years ago and which has been echoed, in different ways, by numerous feminists since – and he is not challenged on it.

(And this is the Guardian and the Independent. Imagine, for a moment, how the Daily Mail would report this debate. At time of writing it hasn’t; here’s hoping it doesn’t.)

This is male privilege in action. It is everywhere, and if men want to write supportively about feminism, or call ourselves feminists, we need to challenge it at every opportunity – or, ideally, just help to give the women who are challenging it a higher profile. I’m trying. I often fail. If I’ve managed to do the right thing here I expect no thanks from @tillyjean_, @hernamewaselrod or @pastachips for it. That, too, would be male privilege in action.

Please write your book, Matt, but as your feminist critics have urged you to do over the past few days, I hope you spend a lot of time listening first (and ideally not on a public forum where every statement you make has a public impact). Some of your Twitter comments suggest you’ll do exactly that, such as this one: “A book ends up different to how it starts. You have an idea and you follow the idea and learn things and get wiser and it ends up different”. Good man. We all need to get wiser.

But it’s been a shaky start, and not because Twitter is a “bubbling cauldron” (and by the way, Matt, a phrase that evokes images of evil witches is not the most tactful choice of words when describing an argument with women). It’s because – just like me – you’re out of your depth, man.

(UPDATE: Tuesday 16 June, 7.30pm. In light of a couple of conversations on Twitter today, I have amended the paragraph about transphobia. I’m still not sure I’ve got the wording quite right, or whether it’s even possible to be ‘neutral’ on this, but I felt a revision was needed. It’s a long process of learning, this.)

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