Beth E. Bukoski
October 17, 2016
I was un-friended on Facebook (FB) this past weekend by a young man, now in his early twenties, whom I taught once a week in a small discussion section when he was a first-year undergraduate – I’ll call him Bob. The class was about race during the Obama presidency and we discussed a variety of topics, touching on racial inequity most prominently but also gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, immigration, ablism, etc.
I was a second-year doctoral student and many of my graduate student colleagues were really nervous about teaching. While I didn’t know exactly what the class would bring, I knew I could handle it, having taught high school for several years prior. I do not remember specifics about this young man other than he was generally a good student whose presence I enjoyed in class. He was thoughtful and critical in a way many first-years were not. He was willing to play devil’s advocate, he was a solid writer, and I appreciated that he had ideas and opinions, and was willing to discuss those opinions in class. We did not always agree, but he would listen to the perspective I gave and think about it, and we had good discussions.
This weekend I posted a link to my Facebook where Vox reported a recent study on the gender gap. Bob replied with a link to a video from Vox (ironically, you’ll notice the exact same video on the article I linked, it just doesn’t have the article and additional charts), claiming it “debunked” the gender gap. It did not, and I replied a bit forcefully about what the video was actually claiming; I also asserted I was unhappy with his claims that the gender gap is basically just women making choices (blaming the victim, in essence). Interestingly, this paralleled an exchange we had on FB a month or two ago.
In both instances, I left FB for several hours to do other things and, when I returned, other former and current students had rallied to continue the discussion with Bob. Both threads played out quite similarly. Bob used some shoddy reasoning, blamed the victim, claimed women aren’t oppressed (we just make bad decisions), used a meritocracy argument, and demanded my defenders post links about their claims (putting the burden of education on others, not himself).
In short, he did all the things I try to teach my current students (who are all graduate students) not to do. When I came back online, both times, he expected me to defend him against the other posters, but the truth is I agreed with them. I was irritated at his trolling, his hard-headedness, his inability to recognize his own privilege or to acknowledge there were experiences he would never have and that just because he didn’t have them didn’t make them invalid. He insulted me; he insulted the other posters, in part, because I’m sure he felt attacked. Ultimately, I said I might have to un-friend him if he continued trolling my feed and insulting my other FB friends. He replied that would save me the trouble, and then he disappeared from my feed.
While I am relieved not to have to engage with him again on FB, I also worry that he has one less voice of opposition; one less person telling him “yes, sexism and patriarchy are a thing.” I worry he will drift even further from reason and research, which tell us in myriad ways that these oppressions and microaggressions are real and harmful.
But as a human being, I need my sanity – FB is not a professional space for me, it’s personal. Yet as an educator (I have a lot of students who have friended me on FB), I feel like I failed a bit. I wonder what he was really after and why he chose such tactics. I believe strongly in trying to be a life-long educator and learner. I do not friend ex-students, but they are welcome to friend me. So at some time he reached out to me. Was this a form of reaching out I couldn’t hear?
Perhaps. But he also did exactly as patriarchy dictates. He listened only to himself and devalued the voices of those with relevant lived experiences. When he apologized for a comment where he unintentionally insulted me, he did it privately on messenger, not in the thread, likely to save face and/or maintain pride. And when it was clear he was losing the argument, he reverted to what was an ad hominem attack in his mind: calling the women feminists (because only to the patriarchy is feminist a bad word).
The whole exchange bothered me for a few days. I continue to wonder – how do we engage in discussion about heterosexism and patriarchy with people who do not believe they exist? How do we, as educators, prepare our students to be thoughtful consumers of all the internet and news channels have to offer (some of which is pure trash)? And more personally, how do I engage young men in discussions about gender and patriarchy when their privilege and patriarchal norms reify their rightness and my unfitness to teach them anything or have a voice of reason? Who can get through to the people that are often beyond feminist role models and early childhood exposure to feminist relatives such as sisters, mothers, and aunts?
In my 16 years of teaching, the first fissure in the patriarchal armor of these young adults usually comes from one of three places – a woman they know and love being severely hurt (i.e., assaulted), a woman they know and love finally presenting enough “evidence” that they cannot ignore the inequity anymore, or other men they respect and see as “Men” (capital M for they have earned a masculine man card) help them see the system and challenge their assumptions. Notice that “feminist teacher” isn’t one of those. That’s because feminist (read: women) teachers – in my experience – get dismissed pretty early on (usually as soon as I say the F word).
So where does this leave me? I truly appreciate men who support, amplify, and help my voice be heard. However, I appreciate even more the men who interrupt and then defer. Because here’s the thing: Men, I do not want to need you. It saddens me to think about a world wherein my ideas and perspectives need validation from a man to be heard. I shouldn’t have to deal with that at work, or on the bus, or in the doctor’s office, or on my Facebook feed. There are times when I really appreciate your voice, but mostly … please just sit down and be humble and learn. It’s actually a really great space to inhabit; I do it everyday.
However, just because I don’t want to need men doesn’t mean men have no role to play. Quite the opposite - I think men can do a lot of good and valueable work by modeling how to engage in discussion in anti-sexist (and anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, anti-abilist, etc.) ways. You can do it by interrupting those same -isms in everyday life (like Facebook and other online venues) and normalizing the interruption. You can do it by ceding the floor to those whose life experiences matter to the topic and by supporting them when they courageously speak.
So what’s next? Let’s all be thought partners. Let’s really listen, recognize when we are speaking from a place of privilege, when we suck up too much air, when others’ voices are not being recognized, and when we need to just sit quietly in discomfort. In conversations where that happens, where we are all thought partners and we can sweep patriarchy out of the room and breathe the fresh air of respectful discourse – it’s amazing what we can accomplish together.
I work hard at being a good thought partner, but when that olive branch is rejected there is little I can do. It takes all of us, and I welcome the possibilities inherent in the MMKC. Let’s make this community one that is a thoughtful space.
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