I, like most people I know, am indignant at the very idea of men's rights activists. A semi-organised group of men who believe the sinister spectre of feminism has inveigled itself into the fabric of culture, society and media. A shadowy illuminati who have succeeded in making men an oppressed majority. If you've ever had a friend with some, ah, unusual ideas about Jews, then just imagine them talking about women rather than the chosen people and you get the tone.
The idea of a bunch of little man babies screaming about the evil militant feminists stealing their rights feels galling. Acting as if the Ghosts Of Radical Feminists Past swoop into their homes while they sleep soundly under The Matrix Reloaded bedsheets and magically castrate them while they dream of a Doc Marten stamping on a man's face – forever.
Feminism's reaction to MRAs has not been temperate and, as in all things, those on the edge tend to scream loudest. Theodore Roosevelt once said "every reform movement has a lunatic fringe" and it feels like the internet has been handed to two warring fringes. MRAs on one side, radical feminists on each other. An amplification abetted by the media – ignoring people doesn't get you clicks. I felt there was so much noise and so little signal that all I could hear was screaming. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in a room with MRAs. To try and understand something about them outside of their din of blog posts and YouTube videos.
I found a thread started by a Sydney-based group on the most prominent MRA forum on the internet, A Voice for Men, advertising a meetup in Melbourne. An invitation to, "meet in a pub or somewhere similar, have a meal & a maybe a few drinks, & get to know each other a bit" and to "discuss the possibility of setting up of a Men's Rights Group in Melbourne". Under an assumed name and burner email address, I contacted them, representing myself as a lurker on the forums who was curious to learn more about the movement.
They are tremendously concerned about not being identified. (I've omitted identifying details in an acknowledgement of this desire.) The meeting place and time wasn't published on the forum and people were asked to "please wear normal street clothes, no men's rights T-Shirts, etc. or anything that would identify you as an MRA". Because many people would be meeting in real life for the first time, the group was identified by a Rubik's Cube placed on the pub table. A nod, perhaps, to constant claims of being the voice of rationality and logic.
For the period of time I was there (I wasn't able to stay for the duration) there were three acts to the meeting. First, awkward chit chat as you'd find anywhere people — especially people accustomed to haunting online message boards — meet for the first time. A lot of "you probably know me by better my screen name" and feeling people out. For example, my weird, geographically indistinct manner of speech was brought up. This was charming in its own way. I could almost convince myself I was amongst people who were into a particularly controversial set of D&D rules they were passionate about and were just super excited to hang out with people of like mind.
Then, it took the feel of an AA meeting like any you've seen in a Hollywood film. People went around in a circle introducing themselves, how they came to the movement and their place within it. This is where things got unsettling. It became immediately clear the vast majority of these men were deeply wounded. There were stories of schizophrenic mothers, abusive wives, lost or estranged children. It's hard not to imagine their point of view as a way of dealing with this trauma. It's, perhaps, easier to rail against institutions they feel prosecute and punish their shared manhood than deal with the idea that they suffered an injustice — but that injustice may have been meted out capriciously or through the failure of individuals rather than large-scale systems. I, last man to speak, mumbled something about feminism going too far and being just there to learn. Which seemed to suffice.
Then, it became organisational. Feeling like a group of first-year uni students gathering to figure out practical ways to make political change. There was much bloviating about the impossibility of doing this through the Labor Party (infested with feminists, you see) and the small amount of highly organised people it would take to sway or appoint a sympathiser to government. Feminism was frequently compared to communism. They acknowledged the more rabid, troublesome edge of the movement but – worryingly – they did not condemn them. Rather, discussed how to direct their energy towards their goals. The script was largely stuck to: this is a fight for an equality lost, 50/50 custody of children is an overarching goal, sexual violence against men exists. There was talk of how to replicate the success (depending on how you define 'success') of the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) and how to replicate it in Australia. An attempt at Skyping a prominent MRA on a monstrous gaming laptop failed. It was a rambling, unfocused discussion made less clear in my head because of the riot of anxiety generated by my deceit.
Through this haze I do clearly remember an attendee leaning in towards me when fedoras somehow came up in conversation. Knowing I was new to all this he asked whether I was surprised I didn't see the hat which has become a symbol for nice-guys-always-finish-last sexual frustration. It's what finding feminism as a personal affront to your own gentlemanliness looks like if it were a hat. #notallmen if it were an ugly piece of felt a couple of inches from your ponytail. "See, we don't look like that at all" he said. Or something similar. Except, looking around the table, they looked exactly how I thought they would. Self-awareness has its limits, I guess.
Eventually I had to excuse myself. I shook some hands, took an email address, promised to reach people on the forum. I left shaken. My opinions hadn't been changed but I was disturbed by how easily anti-feminist rhetoric came out of my mouth, how easy it was to lock into a hateful groove – even if it's a groove you want to be out of as quickly as possible. How the inertia of feeling accepted into something can start to make any opinion sound credible. How the subterfuge came easy, how simple it is and furrow a brow and listen to someone share their pain. How real twinges of empathy stirred within yourself. Which makes me think these men need a support group more than they need a movement.
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