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The War Against Men

Looking behind gender politics

Copyright © 1997 by David Shackleton

This aricle first appeared in Issue #28 (Nov-Dec 1997) of
EverymaN: A Men's Journal


  We are approaching once again the grim anniversary of Marc Lepine’s murder of 14 female engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. Last year, here in Ottawa, women held a candlelight vigil (men were not welcome) at the city’s monument to women murdered by men, at which words and tears of grief and rage at men were expressed. It is a strange ritual, an annual re-opening of a wound and an almost exultant display of anger, like Jews visiting Auschwitz to rekindle their outrage (which, to their credit, I have never heard of them doing). Such passionate public rituals are deep windows into our culture, and what they reveal is not always what we expect.

In 1993 I read a library book in which were transcribed the conversations between a popular radio talk show host (I can’t remember which one) and his listeners, in the weeks following the ‘Montreal Massacre’. For an eager student and detective of gender culture like me, it was fascinating reading. Many callers took the feminist position that Lepine’s murders were representative of general male misogyny; some (mainly men) insisted that he was a lone madman, representing no one but himself. It was only after I finished the book that I realized that in all the hundreds of exchanges, a fundamental question had never been asked. In this article I propose to ask and to answer that question.

First, something often overlooked. Marc Lepine wasn’t trying to kill women. He was trying to kill feminists. Before he opened fire, he said to the female engineering students, “You’re all feminists. I hate feminists!” And in his suicide note, Lepine wrote, “Feminists have wrecked my life.” In the vast subsequent discussion and analysis of his motives and circumstances, isn’t it curious that no one, to my knowledge, has yet taken him seriously and tried to discover why he believed that feminists had wrecked his life.

The reason, of course, is that we assume we already know. Feminists, we believe, are seeking equality for women, and insecure, patriarchal men like Lepine resent sharing their male privileges, hence their anger and hate. But this explanation is built on an assumption and a stereotype: let’s check them out. In particular, let’s ask the basic question that was never asked in all the Montreal Massacre debate: are there ways in which feminism is damaging, even wrecking, the lives of men? And—why wasn’t it asked?

Before I continue, I need to confess to you that I hate what I must do here. I, like most men, have been conditioned to protect women, to see them as more delicate and fragile, more pure and valuable. I learned to see them as morally superior, above the dirty, grubbing impulses of sexual and materialistic need that I knew were part of my makeup. I didn’t like that, but I could live with it because I also had areas of superiority: I was stronger and more competent in the work world, more mechanical and more rational. I couldn’t have articulated these things then as I have now, but at some level I knew them, and they felt right. I knew that a good man, in an emergency, would sacrifice his life to save that of a woman, as so many men have before, and that also felt right to me. And, I confess to you, I have not yet removed this brainwashing from my soul. Despite years of awareness of my conditioning and active personal work to dismantle it, there is still a part of me that likes things this way, that knows no way to find redemption from my personal unworthiness except in the approving, affirming eyes of a loving woman. This part of me knows that my honour comes from having the power to abuse her, but choosing not to, and instead protecting and cherishing her.

This historical, archetypal, unwhole part of me is clear that men’s and women’s roles are different, and that it does not fall to me, a man, to correct women on moral issues. That is their purview, their jurisdiction. But it’s bigger than that. It’s not just their jurisdiction, but their right, and I am unworthy to do it, lacking their purity. And so when necessity drives me, finally, to speak out and say to women, “But that’s not true, not right,” I feel, at a deep level, shame. I feel I have abused women and lost my route to redemption, I feel fundamentally unworthy. Is this why men who in desperation murder women, perhaps their wife (or ex-wife) and children, frequently then turn their gun, as Marc Lepine did, on themselves? I think so. It fits.

And so I wish, as I prepare to criticise feminism, to acknowledge my fear at my presumption in stepping onto women’s turf. And yet, it is necessary, for things have gone terribly wrong. And I can handle what it brings up for me, for that old, conditioned, patriarchal part of me is no longer all, or even most, of who I am today (and for that feminism deserves some of the credit).

Modern feminist analysis is built on one conceptual foundation: that men as a gender have more power than women. Not just different power, but greater power. Liberal, socialist, radical, eco - all brands of feminism share this one founding assumption. All the theories and policies, the institutions and accomplishments of feminism (e.g. cultural beliefs and legislation on date rape, sexual harrassment, employment equity, domestic violence; women’s shelters and crisis lines, programs for abused women and abusive men and against male violence against women), are founded on and justified by this one belief. I will argue that this founding notion of feminism is false, that power between men and women is balanced and has been so throughout recorded history, and that feminism is actually destroying that balance, with potentially grave consequences.

My argument begins with violence. Consider that in prehistoric tribes there was a need, at times, for either aggressive or defensive fighting. Such needs arise naturally from the competition between tribes for resources, or for any number of more complex reasons. (The modern notion that primitive societies were peaceful and harmonious is a nostalgic fantasy: most, like the Native Americans, were warlike long before they encountered Europeans.) Given the biological differences between men and women which lead naturally to women being engaged in child rearing and men in hunting (a division of labour also common in the animal kingdom), this task of waging war naturally fell to men. And that would create a problem. For once men organized themselves as warriors, what would prevent them from taking over the society in a prehistoric military coup, enslaving women and taking what they wish from them? Indeed, why hasn’t this become the basic pattern of society?

The answer is that nature always finds a balance. The balance in this case was provided by the invention of an honour code. This worked in elegantly simple fashion: men held the physical power and women the moral power. Each had a power over the other, and each had something the other needed. Men had the physical power but needed and competed for the moral affirmation of women in order to achieve self-worth and social status, not to mention a wife and children. Women had the moral power but needed the physical protection and perhaps also food and shelter from men. Perhaps at first there were tribes where the men did enslave the women. What must have happened is that such tribes were less effective, less efficient than those where the power was balanced and where men and women worked cooperatively together, so that over time evolution favoured those with an honour code which restrained the warrior men. And we are their descendents.

This honour code has taken many forms over time, from the ritual chivalry of the middle ages to the formal moralizing of the Victorians, but it has always been focused on and held by women. Women have been the bestowers and withholders of men’s honour. The deepest root of this female power is, of course, women’s ability to grant or withhold sexual favours, and so to cut off a ‘dishonourable’ man from the right to progeny and a normal life. (Incidentally, this is the reason why the sexual revolution of the fifties failed to deliver sexual equality, but instead resulted in the rise of feminism in the sixties, which restored sexual control by women under the guise of equality — but that’s another article.) This honour code is deeply and fundamentally alive in men today, and it is still society’s greatest defense against both individual and collective male violence. Despite appearnces to the contrary, women are in fact the primary socializers of men. And this is where the urgency of our present situation is apparent, for feminism has, for the first time in history, turned women and society from shaming individual men who are judged dishonourable, to shaming men and masculinity in general. And the very real danger in this is that if men come to believe that there is no way for them to achieve individual honour, to be recognized publicly and privately as ‘good’ men, then they may sense that they have little to lose by simply taking what they want, since they have little to gain by restraining themselves. I very much fear that if we do not turn aside from our still-growing, wholesale shaming of men and all things male, our future may contain civil violence of a degree never before seen. There has been no ‘War Against Women’—when men make war, as Donna Laframboise observed, they don’t fool around—but feminism is waging a propaganda war against men. So far, to their credit, most men have not retaliated.

I will not attempt to prove my thesis about feminism to you in this article. That is the task of a future book, and anyway, all the evidence of women’s power and men’s powerlessness denied by feminism is available to those who look for it—not least in the pages of this magazine. And, reassuringly, more and more books are now being published, written by women, which point penetratingly and powerfully to the fallacies of the feminist position. But let us not underestimate the power that feminism holds. The deepest, most deadly power given to women by tribal evolution is the power to shame, to remove men’s honour. It had to be powerful, because it balanced the most deadly power given to men—the power to kill. Today feminism is using that deep power to shame the souls of men to silence the men who would otherwise shout its errors and lies aloud. As I confessed earlier, it is not easy for a man to grow out of his dependence on women for his essential honour. This is deep masculine stuff: “death before dishonour” is not a trivial male cry. Men have charged from trenches directly into machine gun fire rather than face their terror of shame and dishonour. But our recovery as men begins with telling the truth about ourselves and naming our oppressions. I hope that I and Everyman can help lead men toward real emancipation.

And I ask for the help of women in this. As you cease to identify with feminism for the power and control it seems to offer you, and begin instead to welcome and affirm the men in your lives who try to stand their own ground and describe honestly how feminist analysis does not tell the truth about their lives, so you will help create an environment in which men can more easily speak their truth. And in this way you will create greater honesty between men and women. That is the direction we must go, as swiftly as we can, if we are to lessen the tensions that are still growing between men and women, and avoid the possibility of civil violence that could erupt if weak men, like Marc Lepine, are shamed beyond their limits. This, to my mind, is the most important message that Lepine has for us. Does he, perhaps, point to a possible future, one in which more and more men, shamed beyond endurance by a male-hating feminist establishment, strike out in desperation at those they judge responsible? I most earnestly hope not.

David Shackleton is a writer and thinker on gender issues, and editor and publisher of Everyman. Reach him at (613) 832-2284.

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