Tuesday, February 06, 2007

My Final MRA Post

Are you sick of these? A couple of commenters in the earlier posts wanted to know why I'd go on the MRA sites and suspected that I just want to bathe in misogyny. Now, misogyny is of course one of my very favorite things in this world, but that is not the reason why I went there. This time I ended there quite accidentally, but then I remembered an earlier commenter accusing me of not looking at what the opposition is saying, and this seemed a good opportunity to do so. Also, if I go there you, my sweet readers, don't have to. Unless you want to check on my impressions.

My two earlier posts on this topic have discussed emotions and misconceptions, respectively. This one addresses the topics which I found contained at least a gist of truth in them, in the sense that what is being described can cause anger, pain and frustration in some men, and their roots are in the arrangements of patriarchy. But in some cases it is the intermediate stage in which we live, neither patriarchy nor something egalitarian, that causes the grief. Before I discuss the topics I picked for closer analysis, I want to dispense with one more topic which is very common in the MRA sites and which doesn't have anything to do with gender roles as such.

This is that individual people can be really horrible and that it is quite possible that a particular man's ex-wife or current wife or colleague is a pretty vile person. That this is true, of both women and men, does not tell us anything at all about women or men in general or about feminism. In a similar manner, the court system can fail and produce results which are unfair towards one of the people involved in it. This could happen in the most heavenly of societies, as long as information is partial and humans prone to error. In short, anecdotal evidence is anecdotal.

Now let's attack the meat of the story.

The first concern of some relevance on MRA sites has to do with male military conscription. In most countries where conscription is used it is only men who have to physically go to war and to risk death as a consequence. I think this is a legal unfairness to men.

But note that it is not feminists who had anything to do with this arrangement; it is pure patriarchy (in the sense of the old men in power sending the young men off to fight), and based on the past where most able-bodied women where too often pregnant or breast-feeding to be of much use on long war-campaigns and where fighting was based on physical body power much more than it is today. Also, the maternal mortality rates were very high in those days (and still are in Afghanistan, say), so that women usually died at earlier ages than men, even with all the warmaking.

The feminist writings on this topic I am familiar with apply to the United States. They tend to take one of two possible stances: either women and men should be treated the same and conscripted at the same terms or neither women nor men should be forced to wage wars at all. I don't know of any feminist writings that argue that men should be conscripted and women not, though such writings may well exist. But the usual argument is for equal treatment, though some feminists point out that war is a particularly male business and that perhaps women shouldn't be forced to fight in wars unless they have more of a say on when to start a war in the first place.

The military conscription argument is currently not terribly valid in the U.S., given the professional military forces and no draft, but the argument has validity in general, I think. What should be remembered here, too, is that it is the anti-feminists who fight against women in direct combat roles, not feminists.

I don't think I got the whole flavor of the MRA arguments about war here, because many on those sites also believe that women can't do war and so don't really want equality in this sphere but special rights to counteract the need for men to die in wars. An excuse for patriarchy, perhaps.

The second general MRA argument that has some validity has to do with men's reproductive rights. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I'm not sure if anyone has the right to become a parent as such, but we usually argue that people should have the right not to become parents if they so wish. For both men and women contraception is what one uses in that case (or should use), but what happens if contraception fails?

It is then quite possible for a man to be in a situation where he can no longer refuse parenthood even though the woman still can, through abortion. If she decides not to abort the pregnancy, he is going to be a dad whether he wants it or not. And this means child maintenance payments for two decades, even if he decides not to have anything else to do with the child.

I think this is an unfairness, of a sort. Of a sort, because it is caused by avoiding an even greater unfairness: having someone outside the woman's body dictate its uses. The unfairness is created by the fact that pregnancy takes place inside a woman's body. If we had uterine replicators I could easily see the rules being different. But we don't have uterine replicators, and I can't see another solution to this unfairness that wouldn't bring in something even more horrible.

Many MRA sites argue that a man in this situation shouldn't have to pay child maintenance. He didn't want to be a parent in the first place. I actually have sympathy with this view. Where things get complicated is when the baby is born, because from that point onwards we have three people to consider in the equation, and the child maintenance is not because of some victory points for the woman but because the child needs food, clothing and so on. It is a mess, though.

The obvious lesson from all this to learn is that nobody should trust another person to take care of the contraception, and that it might be a good idea not to go to bed with people whose motivations you don't know. But I can see the MRA point in this case.

The third general complaint on the MRA sites has to do with divorce, the awarding of custody and the treatment of fathers in divorce courts. This is linked to the previous topic in that many of the comments argue that once a man is divorced he should no longer have to pay anything towards his children. This viewpoint is present as often as the viewpoint that men should have custody more often than they do. Other versions of the anger divorced fathers feel have to do with ex-wives stopping them from seeing their children often enough and with the question of how the child maintenance payments are used.

It's useful here to take a step back from these arguments and to look at what is going on in these cases from a more neutral seat. Note, first, that these cases are not just about a man and a woman getting divorced. There are children involved, too, and the courts usually consider the children first in deciding on custody and child maintenance. If one parent gets custody, that parent then becomes the custodial parent and has different rights and responsibilities than the non-custodial parent.

And this is the crux of the complaints which are all from non-custodial parents. It is not that these people are fathers that matters here: it is that they are non-custodial parents. A mother without custody rights to her children is in the very same position.

So what makes this a Men's Right topic? The fact that custody is usually awarded to the mother. In most cases this is done without any challenge from the father, but in the cases where the father challenges the mother for custody his odds of winning it are quite good. Still, most non-custodial parents are fathers, and what they are angry and hurt by are the opportunities that this system offers for exploiting the non-custodial parent. As I mentioned earlier, it is the custodial parent who decides how the child maintenance money is used. Assume a nasty divorce and a lot of grudges on both sides, and you can see how this can be an unpleasant situation for the non-custodial parent. Games could be played to turn the children against you and your hard-earned money might go towards buying fancy clothes for your ex. Or your ex might make it hard for you to see the children. And so on.

Of course very similar stories can be told by the custodial parent: child maintenance not being paid for years, the non-custodial parent badmouthing you when he or she meets the children, the children not being picked up when agreed, and even worse stuff, stuff about abuse and the custodial parent's inability to stop visitation rights by an abusive non-custodial parent. And so on.

How does this all relate to feminism? The usual argument is that feminism made divorce easier and that feminism gave women more rights in the case of a divorce. But note that the problems these men discuss are not related to their sex directly but to the patriarchy-based tradition that it is the women who have more to do with children and the court rule that custody is usually awarded to the parent who did more hands-on care of the children, to keep the children's lives as constant as possible. A stay-at-home father would get custody under these rules, and feminists have certainly advocated for a greater role for fathers in the day-to-day care of their children.

It is painful, divorce and losing daily contact with your children, or divorce and ending up a single parent. Painful and horribly hard in many cases. But the causes and remedies are not in some return to patriarchy where children are automatically the father's property. Imagine a very bad marriage that you can't escape at all and then imagine what that does to the children and to the fighting parents.

The final point on which I found the MRA arguments to have some merit has to do with the possibility that a man might meet a woman who is not a feminist or a woman who is a feminist, and that these two might have quite different ideas of the man's proper gender roles. How should he behave then? What if he thinks he married a feminist and ends up with a wife who expects him to work two jobs so that she can stay at home with the children? Or what if it is the reverse? Confusing. Of course, the very same confusion faces women meeting men who run the gamut of Rush Limbaugh types to radical feminists.

The point I'm making is that when societal norms are changing it can be hard to know what is expected of you, and I sympathize with the frustrations. Communication might help to make things clearer, too.

A related and perhaps more important point was made by one commenter who stated that the public sector is increasingly open for women but that the private sphere of the family and the children may not be equally open for men. Not only are traditional norms still pretty much focused on men as breadwinners but there are women who don't want to share direct parenting with their partners. And there are, I might point out, many men who want nothing to do with childcare or household chores.

This commenter has a point, I think. The feminist wave of the 1960s and 1970s addressed mostly the problem of how to let women access to the labor markets and societal decision-making positions in general. Many of the feminists also wanted to tackle the reverse problem of how to get men access to wider household roles in general, but the revolution slowed down before much progress there took place. This is the job for the next wave, a wave which must consist of both men and women.