Saturday, January 06, 2018

MRAs and their Honey Badgers: the "documentary"

Another exercise in evaluating a claim when you don't have the time or specialized knowledge to research it in detail yourself. Which is, after all, how most claims about most anything come to us.

I decided to click on a YouTube selection because I was thinking, oh, it's been a while since I listened to a TED talk. It was MEETING THE ENEMY A feminist comes to terms with the Men's Rights movement, presentation by filmmaker Cassie Jaye for TEDxMarin 10/18/2017. The title is more of a marketing hook than a good description of the talk, because at the end she says she no longer considers herself a feminist:

Jaye made a documentary called The Red Pill, released last year. She describes it in the talk as starting out as being an expose of the notoriously anti-feminist and generally hard right "Men's Rights Movement" (MRM), whose adherent like to call themselves "men's rights activists," or MRAs. They are most known in the US political scene as part of the so-called "alt-right" movement, particular via the crassless misogynistic Gamergate bruhaha. And for disparaging liberal, left or feminist women online as SJW's, or "social justice warriors," which in their view is clearly a bad thing to be. (Geez, back in the day even fascist-minded Catholic rightwingers claimed to stand for a warped version of "social justice.")

What Jaye presents in this 15-minute talk is a conversion experience, although she shrinks from claiming to be an advocate for the MRM, picturing herself instead as an open-minded seeker of truth who learned to listened to the misunderstood whiny white guys that the dogmatic, close-minded feminists say mean things about. She describes her documentary work as traveling North America - apparently meaning she did one shoot in Canada - "meeting the leaeers and followers of the men's rights movement.

My initial take on this was that she actually was advocating for the MRM, if in a passive way. Why did my (apparently hopelessly closed) mins think that? Well, for one things it's because I know about Gamergate and at least a fair amount about the Radical Right in the US. I also grew up in Mississippi, so I have a lifetime's experience in listening to whiny white guys whine about how they're bein' picked on. Then there's the fact that she cites some statistics used by the MRM to illustrate about how us pore persecuted white guys are bein' oppressed by wimmin, without any indication that she had verified or analyzed the factual claims. And her self-presentation of her film project sounded an awful lot like the endless stream of reports we've had from journalists and the occasional scholar on their bold forays into Trump country to listen to the Trump supporters who are tired of them thar Mean Libruls from the Coasts lookin' down on them.

It also sounded discouragingly similar to the much-cited and much-quoted study by UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), about how she learned to sympathetically listen to white folks in a deeply Republican section of Louisiana gripe about how the blacks and the gubment were messin' them over and the Mean Libruls just don't want to listen to salt-of-the-earth white folks like them. Hochschild was doing serious scholarly work, despite its faults, much more so than anything I've heard about Jaye's foray among MRM fanboys, so I don't want to put them in the same category. But I suspected from her TED talk that she might have fallen into the same trap I've criticized Hochschild for falling into, of implicitly treating claims from her target study population at face value on how they acquired the attitudes they did, without sufficiently investigating how soundly rooted they were in reality.

Her talk left me with the strong impression that she's marketing herself as a young, pretty, blonde women who is willingly giving validation to the MRM and their ideas. Around 4:15, she explains the insight into her formerly intolerant feminist ways by saying that in interviewing the MRAs, "I would often hear an innocent and valid point that a men's rights activist would make, but in my head I would add on to their statement a sexist or anti-woman spin, assuming that's what they wanted to say, but didn't."

That's a red flag in itself. Politics 101: political advocates try to make their messages sound reasonable to their audiences. (Actually, that's more like Politics Kindergarten.) But different political currents often develop their own particular vocabulary, sometimes in a way that is almost cult-like, so that they are using familiar words, but using it to mean something different than what most people hear. That's especially true of more militant and extreme groups. And someone investigating them seriously needs to be aware of what are coded meanings. If you're talking to, say, a Christian Right activist who says that defending freedom of religion is one of their main priorities in their politics, there's a 95% or better chance that what they mean is not that they want to see Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and rival Christian denominations have full freedom to practice their religion. It's more likely they mean, "Store owners shouldn't have to serve no queers 'cause our religion says thay're perverts who are all goin' to Hail."

It's not just a matter of words. It means having a nuanced and realistic understanding of the social milieu of the activists. The New York Times recently took some very well-deserved criticism for its sloppy and uncritical report on an Ohio Nazi activist. The Times' response by Marc Lacey (Readers Accuse Us of Normalizing a Nazi Sympathizer; We Respond 11/26/2017) very grudgingly conceded that they told the story "imperfectly," which is about the mildest imaginable kind of self-criticism. But the paragraph containing that sentence starts with, "We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers." Also a sentence that may require some translation. It's common meaning in American English is "We regret that some people were such pathetic jerks that our wonderful story offended them, get over it, you wimps!" Kind of like the Southern, "Bless your heart!" Which also requires some translation.

Jaye presents as a lesson in her enlightenment fielding the rhetorical question from an MRA, "Where is justice for the man who was falsely accused of raping a woman?" And the feminists or politicians or political groups out there who are advocating imprisoning men on false accusations of rape include ...? [Crickets]

I'm giving her TED talk probably more attention than it deserves. But I'm describing my initial judgment of her presentation from the kinds of indicators I've described.

So I watched the documentary itself, which is currently available on YouTube with Spanish subtitles, The Red Pill Subtitulado Español 12/06/2017.

The film does come off as more-or-less a propaganda pitch for the MRM, presented as a more-or-less disinterested account. In fact, her TED talk uses the same basic framing as the film, in which she started off as an earnest feminist who, in talking to those nice folks in the MRM, renounced her feminist delusions. At the end, she says, "There are so many perspectives on gender. And I believe they're all worthy of listening to. However, the conversation is being silenced. [Presumably by Mean Librul feminists.] ... I don't know where I'm headed. But I know what I left behind. I no longer call myself a feminist."

I can't promise that anyone not already inclined to enthusiasm for the arguments of the MRM will find it particularly interesting. In the world of propaganda films, this is a long way from Leni Riefenstahl levels of quality.

Jaye says in the TED talk filmed 44 MRAs total. But the interviews she includes in the film are heavily focused on prominent leaders in the MRM, i.e., people who are skilled and experienced advocates for their cause. She sets up a large part of the context to be framed by Paul Elam (founder of A Voice For Men) Fred Hayward (Men's Rights PAC), grief counselor Tom Golden, Dean Esmay, and Harry Crouch (President of the National Coalition for Men). The leader who comes off as the least dubious of this group is Warren Ferrell.

Elam's persona in the film features what can reasonably be described as a bug-eyed stare, which I suppose is a congenial look for some people:

The pro-MRM speakers are partially "balanced" by much shorter segments showingscholarly critics of the movement, who are mostly shown making mostly general, carefully qualified comments, contrasted to the relentless advocacy of the MRM spokespeople.

The film is replete with unchallenged slams at the women's movement. "Feminists have spent the last 50 years demonizing men," says Paul Elam (1:35:00). "Stop pretending that you're oppressed and that men are you oppressors. It's a lie. And it's a hurtful lie, and it's a hateful lie, and it's wrong," insists Esmay, with his eyes closed in what is a apparently an attempt at a deep-thinking pose. (31:00)

The film itself is structured into sections, one presenting spokespeople presenting the general case for the MRM, which among other things features what sound to me like labor issues (working long hours) as discrimination against men to the benefit of women. Then there are sections focusing on custody issues in divorce battle, wrongful paternity claims ("paternity fraud"), domestic violence, a general comparison of how the women's movement is much more prominent that the MRM, and a concluding summary section in which Jaye unveils her conversion experience at the end.

The section dealing with men's grievances over child custody may be the most interesting, beginning around 41:00. It begins with a 7-minute segment of Fred Hayward telling an emotional story about what he describes as a 14-year custody battle for his son after a divorce. The film allows Hayward to tell his story with no indication that Jaye attempted to independently verify anything about it. I would say that it plays like something his divorce attorney might have put together, except that he tells a story that sounds suspiciously like manipulating his son against his mother in an unethical way that an attorney might not have preferred to have described that way.

Warren Ferrell (43:40) provides what might be described as a tell: "Many men's rights activists come into being men's rights activists as the result of getting a divorce, wanting to be equally involved with the children and realizing that women have the right to children and men have to fight for children."

In other words, a lot of middle-aged men get divorced and are not pleased to discover that their wives have legal rights enforceable by the courts. And so they seek out narratives, including those provided by divorce attorneys, about how women are selfish bitches who have all the rights.

At just after 53:00, Jaye interviews Michael Messner, a professor of gender studies. I would say that this is the closest the film comes to providing any kind of realistic critical perspective. He addresses some entirely sensible and plausible reasons why women generally do better in child custody fights. But it's a brief presentation, and a general one, compared to the much lengthier presentations by MRM leaders that prominently feature anecdotes of individual cases for which the film doesn't provide any independent validation. It's no secret that anecdotes have a greater emotional appear than statistics. So that's exactly what someone making an explicitly advocacy movie might be tempted to do in presenting that case, i.e., putting guys passionately telling anecdotes up against a shorter segment of a professor carefully presenting his (more informative) side of the story.

That section segues into one on "paternity fraud," featuring what to an unsympathetic observer might be inclined to describes as some fairly blatant woman-hating with a generous mixture of white racist contempt for black women in particular. But Jaye would probably write such an interpretation off as an unwillingness to listen on the part of Mean Libruls influenced by deceptive feminist propaganda.

Don't miss the segment featuring, Karen Straughan, a strangely androgynous "Honey Badger" (female supporter of the MRM) at 1:23:00 who makes an obviously confused defense of the Boko Haram terrorist group kidnapping girls. She repeatedly says that "they" wanted attention, but "they" for her seems to be a vague mixture of feminists, terrorists, Muslims, Nigerians and black people. People who have listened to Republicans complain about people who "just want attention" will detect a familiar sound in her comments. She also describes Boko Haram as "chivalrous." (?!?)

I suspect that among the many people that Jaye reports interviewing for this project, she probably gathered quite a bit of footage from MRAs and Honey Badgers who displayed the kind of garbling narrative that we see in the Straughan segment. Because even though most of her MRM adherents in the film who are experienced spokespeople at least seem to be making a coherently logical (if factually challenged) argument, even they display some fairly obvious signs of dogmatic rigidity.

One of the strangest moments comes near the end, after 1:45:00, when the viewer is apparently meant to believe that infant male circumcision may make it impossible for the circumcised boy to have kids later on. Jaye describes anti-circumcision as a very common position among MRAs. Someone with a little more familiarity with the far right might have wanted to dig into that aspect a bit deeper, given the Jewish ritual of circumcision. You have to pay attention to threads like that when dealing with Radical Right groups.

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