The provocatively titled I Hate Men‘s explosive bestseller status is in part fueled by public outrage from French government officials (men, naturally) when it was published. But the hype surrounding its publication – amid calls from male bureaucrats for it to be banned — risks it being written off simply as a bit of provocative literary theatre. In fact, the slim, manifesto-like essay in praise of misandry – released in English translation last month – is well worth a read not for the controversy it’s generated but for the clearly-articulated and important arguments that it makes.
Misandry, observes author Pauline Harmange, isn’t just a cathartic response to a deeply frustrating situation – it has a social utility as well. It’s important for women to exercise a sustained suspicion of men to avoid the pitfalls that come from simply trusting men to do the right thing. Harmange argues for a unity of women that is rooted in a shared and mutual suspicion and distrust of men. Ultimately, perhaps, it’s what feminism has always been about. And yet, how often has that unity been disrupted by uncertainty over how to respond to men’s claims that they’ve changed? Or disrupted by arguments – mostly from men – that there are bigger fish than misogyny to fry?
I Hate Men is essentially an argument about the intractable nature of privilege. No matter how much men try to learn to recognize their privilege and do better, it is simply impossible to fully move past the ways one has been socialized into it. Masculine privilege is one of the most deeply rooted and most destructive forms of privilege in human society. Even the most ‘woke’ ‘feminist’-professed man will have days when – for reasons of frustration, exhaustion, ignorance, or self-gain – his privilege will shine through. And we’re talking here about the good men, without even considering the many others who don’t even make an effort.
Harmange’s argument has a broader application than just gender. Part of its importance lies in the fact she’s articulated so clearly a problem that manifests across multiple identity experiences: the intractable nature of privilege. Just as it’s healthy for women to exercise a sustained suspicion of men based on the privileges they are socialized into, so would it be healthy for poorer classes to exercise a similarly sustained suspicion of the wealthy (or even middle class). How often do the oppressed in any sphere fall into the trap of trusting the privileged when they make the slightest gesture hinting at compromise?
Just because one elects a Democrat (in the US) or a Socialist (in Europe) doesn’t mean one can then turn away and trust them to act in the poor’s best interests. Invariably, fighting privilege means a sustained effort to educate and advocate and mobilize, even against those who claim to be your allies. Likewise on the anti-racist front – as
Utegha Uwagba articulates so powerfully in her brilliant essay Whites: On Race and Other Falsehoods (4th Estate, 2020), it’s simply not enough to claim to be an ally to Black communities. Being a true ally means putting yourself on the line and actively surrendering your privileges – while continuing to acknowledge the ever partial and incomplete nature of your effort to rise above that privilege.
Constant suspicion and vigilance on the part of the oppressed, and constant striving and humility on the part of the privileged, are needed to move closer to equality and improve the state of things. Calls for compromise, unity, or ‘coming together’ ought always to be distrusted, as they convey a clear lack of intent to really change on the part of the privileged.
Harmange defines misandry as “a negative feeling towards the entirety of the male sex. This negative feeling might be understood as a spectrum that ranges from simple suspicion to outright loathing…Ultimately, misandry is a principle of precaution.”
Harmange is not categorically opposed to men – she’s married to one, but she mistrusts them for a good reason. The counter-claim often articulated by men that misandry is just as bad as misogyny is absolutely ridiculous, she explains. Misandry is nowhere near as bad – suspicion and hostility toward men are not comparable in the least to the emotional abuse and physical violence – including assault, rape, and murder – that men enact toward women. Misogyny is a far bigger problem in today’s world, and misandry simply one form of defense against it.
Fundamental to this is taking ‘woke’ men – such as Harmange’s husband – with a grain of salt: “his probation period will last forever: nothing against him personally, it’s just that it’s hard to give up privilege…We need to be vigilant, we have to keep our eye on even the genuinely decent ones because anyone can stray off course, and all the more so if he’s cis, white, wealthy, able-bodied and heterosexual. The sum of his privilege is so great that it makes him very resistant to change…We simply can’t afford to let them get away with doing things half-heartedly.”
The false equivalency of misandry and misogyny is fundamental here. Misandry, Harmange explains, is a response to misogyny (much like Black power movements were formed in response to white supremacists, perhaps). Let’s not get lost in abstractions: the hard fact, she observes, is that misogyny is far worse than misandry. Misandry on women’s part is usually expressed in mistrust and skepticism toward men, at most hostile separatism. On the other hand, misogyny coming from men expresses itself in violence – physical assault, sexual assault, murder. Gender-based violence is overwhelmingly a product of the male sphere. Misandry is merely a defensive response.
The false equivalency perspective is demonstrated by arguments like that of UK law professor Andrew Tettenborn, who argues in The Critic against designating misogyny as a hate crime: “There is no social problem of sex hatred equivalent to that of racial or religious hatred,” he writes, admitting that women may be discriminated against, and may “still end up short-changed.”
It’s typical of a man to brush off the scale of gender-based violence, given that it’s overwhelmingly women who are on the receiving end of it. The World Health Organization estimates that around the globe, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lives; male intimate partners commit nearly 40 percent of all murders of women. It is estimated that 137 women are killed by a family member every day. The statistics go on – Harmange shares a few but doesn’t get bogged down in the crisis’ statistical dimension. Her response to the problem is to articulate the need for a broader, more paradigmatic shift in the way women relate to men as a precautionary measure, if nothing else.
And yet it can be more than just precautionary, she observes, offering a heartfelt paean to women’s relationships and friendships. Insofar as women-only gatherings are still treated by many men with derision at best, and suspicion at worst, she notes that “female solidarity is never frivolous; it’s always political” and urges women to, if not cut off their relationships with men, at least prioritise their relationships with women. Even the socialization of compulsory heterosexuality in childhood, she observes, is rooted not just in homophobia but also in convincing young women and girls that they cannot be happy or successful without men’s presence in their lives.
After all, men have plenty of their own spaces, which still include many of the professional spaces that have proven so resistant to equity measures. On the topic of professionalism, Harmange offers homage to Sarah Hagi’s acclaimed ” Daily Prayer to Combat Imposter Syndrome” — “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude” – in a chapter emphasizing the propensity of men to grab for positions and roles for which they are unqualified. The lesson, she writes, is not just for women to exercise greater confidence but also to learn to be kinder to themselves in the face of adversity or setbacks.
I would be interested in hearing from Harmange how to respond to those who argue that positive messaging is better than negative messaging. This is a popular idea right now, at least in liberal activist circles. Cathartic though blunt hostility can be, many activists argue that retaining positive messaging can help achieve social change (“love is love”, and all that). Harmange does address this briefly – “if our misandry alienates us from men who can’t cope with our anger, are they really worth our time? Do they deserve our efforts?” she writes. ‘Good’ men who get it will try to listen and work to deconstruct their privilege; do we actually need the approval of men who shut off at the sound of an angry woman?
Unfortunately, political power is disproportionately vested in such men. In a quasi-democracy such as ours, we even find women allying with these men (witness the contradiction of any woman in America who votes Republican, so clearly undermining her own interests). On a certain level, I think Harmange is right – far too much time and energy are wasted on seeking the approval of men who will never really get it, and often don’t even want to. The fact that even activist circles shy away from negative attitudes in fighting for change reinforces, in a very clear sense, Harmange’s point that society still operates with a conviction that women should not express anger or hostility.
Megan Rapinoe makes a similar point in her excellent memoir One Life, which has helped me personally to rethink when and how I speak critically: “When I say something ‘rude,’ I think about who I am saying it for, not who I am saying it to,” Rapinoe writes. Still, the notion that you achieve more by being nice than being nasty has undeniably taken hold in many activist circles, and I’m sure there’s an essay or book to be written analyzing the causes and implications of this rejection of anger and hostility.
There are organizations that are not afraid to express their anger. When the Toronto branch of No One Is Illegal – which conducts activism in support of refugees and immigrants and is not afraid to use hostile and negative messaging in calling out governments and institutions – unexpectedly won a Toronto Now people’s choice award for Best Activist Group in 2012, the organization issued a statement awkwardly rejecting the notion there was any such thing. But the fact that the organization’s predominantly middle-class supporters acknowledged the effectiveness of the group’s in-your-face, aggressive tactics over those of ‘nicer’ groups that collaborate politely with the establishment reveals that perhaps there’s a greater appetite for targeted hostility in the pursuit of justice than we’d like to admit. Perhaps, that is the topic for another book (which I dearly hope Harmange will write).
Harmange’s argument in this book is refreshing: clear, straightforward, without the common prevarications produced by other feminist writing that struggles to critique men without offending them. Some have criticized the manifesto for its brevity and for re-hashing arguments laid out in greater depth elsewhere. Indeed, it was originally a blog post before Harmange was commissioned to expand it into book form. But this criticism is unfair – there’s a need for short, succinct, to-the-point manifestos and think-pieces like this, accessible and easily digestible in a single sitting.
The fact that it sparked such national controversy in France is evidence enough that it offers a perspective that has yet to filter through intellectual and public discourse on a broad scale. There’s a need for books like this, and for clear thinkers like Harmange to speak the words we need to hear, and consider.