The Red Pill: A controversial documentary about the men’s rights movement

redpillThe latest documentary by sometime feminist Cassie Jaye has caused no small amount of controversy. More so than previous documentaries such as Daddy I Do, where she criticizes purity balls and father’s attempts to protect their daughter’s virginity. Or The Right to Love, which supports the fight for marriage equality.

The Red Pill looks at the men’s right movement, challenging what we think we know about gender issues. 

Tough questions

The film is controversial because of its positive portrayal of the men’s rights movement. Jaye gives A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam a sympathetic hearing without challenging him on his ranting online persona. Also unquestioned is men’s rights activists (MRAs) failure to take women’s issues seriously while demonizing feminists and blaming them for problems men face. And left unexamined is the claim that society is gynocentric.

But Jaye does ask feminists tough questions. They avoid the issue of paternity fraud and stand firm in their opposition to a legal presumption of shared parenting. On the issue of father’s rights Katherine Spillar from the Feminist Majority Foundation says a man’s choice happens before he has sex. Another feminist in the film says men have a responsibility not to put themselves in these situations. Which would be misogyny if said about women. 

Later in the film feminist Michael Kimmel denies that domestic violence against men is a serious issue despite a Centers for Disease Control report (tables 4.7 and 4.8) showing that 5.066 million men have been pushed or slapped by an intimate partner in the past 12 months compared to 4.322 million women. Even with severe domestic violence the CDC found more male victims than most people would expect – 2.266 million men and 3.163 million women in the past 12 months.

Men and gender: It’s complicated

Since the advent of second wave feminism a half century ago men have struggled to proactively discuss gender issues. Today the Internet is the primary medium for MRAs to vent their concerns and anger, often anonymously. And anti-feminism is their focus.

Meanwhile, male feminists advocate men checking their privilege and acknowledging their collective guilt as oppressors. But feminism is a female perspective on gender where men’s issues are usually discussed in terms of how masculinity affects women. It’s difficult for men to speak genuinely about men’s lived experiences when taking their cues from women.

It’s a complex situation without a clear solution.

A movement is born

The central text of the men’s rights movement is The Myth of Male Power, written in 1993 by former male feminist Warren Farrell. His key point that the male role requires men to devalue their lives in the service of others sparked a movement even if it didn’t become mainstream.

Male disposability garners such little concern that few people have even heard of it. But MRAs present several statistics backed by United States government reports, including men being 93% of workplace deaths, almost four in five suicides, and 98% of combat deaths. They note that Boko Haram kidnapping girls generated an outpouring of international concern while the boys they burned alive were ignored.

Male disposability isn’t just about death. High divorce rates have decreased father involvement in children’s lives, reducing men’s value to a child support check. Yet research shows the essential role of fathers in children’s lives – boys especially. And boys are falling far behind girls in school, but little is being done about it.

Anger

MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized. But feminists feel dehumanized by MRAs. Jaye shows footage of a feminist protest against Farrell without giving the context for why feminists labeled him a rape apologist. In The Myth of Male Power Farrell writes, “before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting.” MRAs respond that this quote must be understood in its larger context. Though Farrell was not advocating rape, flippant comments about rape are always cringeworthy.

Where do we go from here?

Both feminists and MRAs seem passionate about equality and sensitive to gender bias while at other times being anti-equality and promoting gender bias. But this isn’t as inconsistent as it seems. Both feminism and the MRM are primarily about self-interest.

In the end Jaye concludes that she supports gender equality but is neither a feminist nor a men’s rights activist. But she’s not sure what direction that might go in. Despite my criticisms of the documentary, I agree with Jaye’s conclusion.

The Red Pill will be available on Netflix in 2017.

Is everything that happens just?

Seems like a silly question. If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.

But in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes,

If you attend well, you will find that whatever happens, happens justly. I don’t mean only in an exact order and destined connexion, but also according to justice, and from one who distributes according to merit. Go on in observing this, as you have begun: and whatever you do, do it so as you may still remain good, according to the intellectual and true notion of goodness. Observe this in all your actions.

Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona
Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona

This could be used to justify terrible things. Is every murder and rape in accord with justice and distributed by merit?

Such attitudes were common in ancient times, though. Elsewhere, Marcus says we should welcome whatever happens to us, even if it’s cruel, because it’s for the benefit of the universe (5.8).

His viewpoint is consistent with the ancient Stoic belief in Logos – that divine reason orders the universe, that it’s providential, and what follows from it is our fate.

In 1759 Voltaire made fun of the idea that everything is for the best in his short book Candide. Despite a series of tragedies, Dr. Pangloss comically denies reality and remains childishly optimistic. Before the movie Pollyanna, a naive person with rose colored glasses was called Pangloss.

Many modern Stoics don’t agree with Logos in the ancient sense. But this greatly alters Stoicism. No longer is the universe ruled by reason, though the exercise of reason is still a human ability that is central to Stoic philosophy.

And there is no providence. In my view, if Logos is even a useful concept in the modern world it must be brought in line with science. The laws of nature, as we currently understand them, follow from four forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces, the gravitational force, and electromagnetism. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” that will bring these together to reveal the underlying principle of the universe.

But this will not be a conscious, providential principle like Logos. Instead, the universe is indifferent to our existence and is unaware of whether we suffer or not.

Natural disasters, then, are not unjust because there’s no intention behind it. Justice and injustice are human products, the result of the actions of billions of people. And this is where Stoicism is still relevant. The only thing one controls is one’s deliberate thoughts and opinions, and virtuous actions can only follow from virtuous thoughts and opinions. So everyone has a responsibility to contribute to justice and avoid injustice.

Why don’t people like me?

img_1026
Pima Canyon, South Mountain Phoenix, Arizona

It’s an often heard lament, especially from children. But the sentiment usually doesn’t fade with age. Instead it becomes more specific. Why didn’t I get the promotion? Why won’t he call me?

Our desire for approval (and fear of disapproval) is really a desire for social status.

 

 

True harm is failing to respond ethically

Epictetus was born a slave who learned at a young age that social status wasn’t up to him – and maybe not all it’s cracked up to be. Though freed later he didn’t try to climb the social ladder.

In his handbook (24.1), Epictetus points out that we “cannot be in a bad state as a result of someone else’s actions.” Other people may cause us pain, but that’s their shame. Only a poor response on our part brings us shame.

Besides, we don’t control whether someone likes us, praises us, agrees to a date, or makes a job offer. We do have some influence, but the final outcome isn’t up to us.

Self-worth can’t be given or taken away

If our self-worth is based on external validation and can be destroyed by other people’s disapproval then it’s actually we who are the destroyer. We’re destroying our power over something that’s under our control – which self-worth based on the kind of person we choose to be.

Is it better to be an honest and nurturing person who is despised by others, or to be a destructive person who nonetheless is admired by many? The dynamics of political power and wealth create dilemmas like this.

Epictetus warns against blaming others or blaming circumstances – or even blaming ourselves. Shit happens. Shit happens to us. But we don’t control other people or external circumstances. We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is choose how we think about the situation, and what we choose to do about it. And it’s here that we can act ethically or egotistically.

Peace of mind

And that’s Epictetus’s formula for peace of mind. Let go of external circumstances that are beyond our control, and ask ourselves – before we act – what’s the right thing to do knowing that ultimately I must live with myself?

Doing the right thing has made some people into outcasts. For others acting ethically has led to a loss of reputation, or a loss of material goods that others wanted and pretended to admire us to obtain. But what does it say about us if we desire the approval of people like that?

The bigger picture

This doesn’t mean we should despise others or point a finger at them. After all, disapproval from others most often takes the form of moralistic finger pointing, so we’d be acting no differently from them.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes our shared humanity. Other people wrong us because of their errors of judgment or ignorance, but most things are minor in the grand scheme of things. Only we can harm ourselves by responding in kind. The best way to overcome the disapproval of others is not retaliation, but setting a better example.

Seneca’s letters

img_1045Seneca was criticized in his own day (and in the 2,000 years since) for his hypocrisy. Maintaining his wealth and elite political status meant not always practicing what he preached.

Does this means his words are empty? Well, who am I to judge Seneca? Am I better than him? Am I less of a hypocrite than him? No. And neither are you.

 

Anger

Whatever his faults were, Seneca was an insightful man. Penguin Classics publishes an edited collection of letters he wrote to a friend in the days before Emperor Nero told Seneca to go kill himself. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.

I previously wrote about Seneca’s book On Anger.  Seneca said that anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Anger is about the desire to punish someone for real or imagined harm.

But what about righteous anger over oppression and exploitation? The logical conclusion is that the more inclined to anger someone is the more decent that person must be. But was Socrates an angry man? What about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr? When we think of a wise person, we think of someone who is calm is the face of evil. Reason seeks fairness, but anger seeks only the appearance of fairness as a justification for lashing out.

Emotional independence

Seneca’s letters add to this line of thought. He writes that Stoicism doesn’t mean being emotionless. Instead, the goal of Stoicism is to feel your troubles without being overwhelmed. A sage doesn’t want to lose anything but also doesn’t pine for what’s been lost. A sage wants to have friends but can survive alone (#9).

Taking criticism while keeping your ego at bay is also important. Besides, someone’s criticism might be an uncomfortable truth, and listening could make you a better person.

But the flipside to this is handing out compliments sparingly. Flattery is manipulation. It’s better to praise people (without being patronizing) for what can neither be given nor taken away from them – which is their character. (#41).

Egotism

Stoicism helps keep egotism in check. Seneca observers that “We’re born unequal, we die equal” – much like Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” because “a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

Seneca’s ego deflating views may be a hard pill to swallow in the 21st century when so many seem eager to tell their tale of struggle and woe as if their suffering is unlike anyone else’s.

But Seneca says, look, everyone has to deal with life’s troubles. So why do we think our struggles are unique? We’re not as special as we think.

That’s only depressing if you think it is. Reminding yourself that life is a struggle for everyone, regardless of the face they put forward, puts it in perspective. And that leads to equanimity (#91).

You are what you think

It really is all about the way you frame it. Thinking that moving, travelling, finding a new romantic partner, being richer, etc. will make you happier avoids the real issue, which is that you need an attitude adjustment.

Someone once complained to Socrates that travelling abroad never did him any good. Socrates replied, “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?” (#104).

“The Fall” and the pedestal

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Gillian Anderson’s The Fall keeps generating controversy. Political columnist Cathy Young calls the TV show “fauxminist,” disagreeing with some who call it the most feminist show on TV.

Almost every male character being bad or useless is a tradition of films with female heroes such as Thelma & Louise and Maleficent. But Young notes that even some feminists have wondered if The Fall is misandrist (man hating).

Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post that The Fall suggests “all men are capable of terrible things. That’s the sort of sentiment that anti-feminists accuse feminists of using to smear innocent men, and that most U.S. feminists would aggressively deny believing.”

That it’s almost exclusively men who abuse and sexually exploit others is unquestioned. But is that true?

Society puts women on a pedestal. Traditionally, God is a man and Satan is a man. But as former feminist Warren Farrell notes, feminists say God could be a woman but Satan is a man. My take is that that men’s rights activists think God is a man and Satan is a feminist.

Or maybe both God and Satan can be either male or female.

The media, however, often ignore stories that challenge the notion that women are angels and men are devils. The Justice Department found that a significant number of boys in juvenile detention are sexually abused by staff. But it didn’t make headlines. Does the fact that 95% of the perpetrators are women (despite women being a minority of the staff) have anything to do with burying the story?

The Department of Health and Human Services found that a slight majority of child abusers are women. The Centers for Disease Control found that men are almost as likely as women to be emotionally abused by an intimate partner (Tables 4.9 & 4.10). And while 1 in 4 women have experienced severe domestic violence, so have 1 in 7 men  – making men about a third of the victims. And despite an almost exclusive focus on teen girls as victims of dating violence, it turns out that boys are almost as likely to be experience dating violence.

The CDC also found that 1.27 million women have been raped by an intimate partner (Table 2.1) while the figure for men is almost non-existent. But that’s because  a woman forcing a man to have sex isn’t considered rape. However, 1.267 million men have been “made to penetrate” (Table 2.2), and 79.2% of the perpetrators are women (page 24).

None of this means we should vilify women. But we shouldn’t vilify men either. Almost every human being, man or woman, has the potential to be violent in certain circumstances – particularly with their significant other. But acknowledging this means departing from the view of gender dynamics that dominates academia and pop culture today.