Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
I’ve been hesitant to say anything about the Hugo Schwyzer situation. It’s so contentious, so continually-on-the-boil, and so tedious. It also brings up a lot of difficult issues regarding the place of allies in liberation movements, and white men particularly, that I feel I need to come to better terms with before commenting. But I find my reactions to it call into question my own understanding of myself as a male feminist, and what I expect or perceive of my place – such as it is – in that movement, and that creates an entirely different can of worms for me.
I would not have written about it all, since the things that have been written in so many places, by people with much more authentic activist credentials than mine, and more skin in the game (i.e., feminist women), have covered so much of the territory and with such great insight, passion, and theoretical power. But one thing kept coming back to me as I watched the situation unfold. It was this: my first, surface-level reaction to the situation was to feel that it had been somewhat overblown, that people were using it as an opportunity to grind axes or work out resentments, and that Schwyzer was so evidently a decent and well-intentioned guy that, whatever his past, the current outrage roiling around him was not only counterproductive but indicative of emotions or resentments for which the facts of the situation were only a convenient release.
I didn’t know that much about that Schwyzer, but had read some of his writing, including some of his confessions of his wilder, younger days. My impressions were that he was a skilled writer with a tendency toward romantic over-dramatization, he had a somewhat off-putting tendency to dwell on himself and his own experiences, he had a kind of clammy bourgeois perspective that he seemed ready to acknowledge but not to rise above, and that he was an insightful, well-intentioned, sincere feminist with a lot of good things to say. The slight bragging I heard in his confessions of past misbehavior was not attractive, but I also believed that he had come to terms with his past and put it behind him. It was unsettling that such confessions seemed to surface so often, and their impact never seemed to reach a final cumulative value. The “sinner’s testimony” so beloved of born-again Christians and recovering addicts (of which he is both) never seemed to end, in Schwyzer’s case, and that raised questions, but by and large he seemed to me as he seemed to many others, then and now: someone who was both knowledgeable about and deeply committed to feminism, and was also honestly grappling with its implications for himself as a man of privilege. As a feminist man with much less history of either writing or activism (or sleeping with my students, or murder), I thought of Schwyzer as being in (only) some ways what I felt I should be.
The revelation that finally touched off the current controversy – that, acting on a drug-addled emotional impulse, he had once actually made a considered effort to kill himself and his ex-girlfriend that was in fact the equivalent of an attempted murder – broke his previous record for confessions of irresponsibility, but, in light of his self-advertised past, in some way seemed just more of the same. The outrage it provoked, quickly rising to the level of personal vendetta, seemed unnecessary in response to an event thirteen years in the past, committed by someone whose current bona fides seemed believable and even admirable. I found myself taking Schweitzer’s part in some of these arguments, either in thought or even to a small degree online.
That reaction, one of sympathy and even protectiveness toward Schwyzer – was what began nagging at me in regard to this situation. I had to ask myself why I felt so sympathetic to someone so clearly open to well-deserved criticism. You can argue that Schwyzer had rehabilitated himself, that he had done extensive work on his own behavior and beliefs, that his current professed attitudes and his history of teaching and activism were authentic and creditable. He has many supporters who do make such arguments, and they are not unreasonable on their face. You could also argue that he still bears responsibility for his many transgressions, and some of them are of such magnitude that it will be impossible for anyone to have done sufficient penance whether or not he had truly changed the attitudes that had prompted that behavior in the past. There are also questions of the role of individuals of such great privilege in movements targeting the oppression of underprivileged groups; in that light, Schwyzer’s reprehensible past makes him particularly suspect as a figure of respect or prominence even, again, if it were acknowledged that he had rehabilitated himself. These arguments are also reasonable. It is partly a question of values or priorities which perspective – condemning acknowledged transgressions, or praising apparent enlightenment – one takes on the situation.
So I don’t think it’s impossible to believe in Schwyzer’s redemption, or to support him as a prominent or influential figure in the feminist movement. But why would anyone choose to take that perspective on the issue, in distinction to the opposite one? What should determine the degree of one’s willingness to accept professed penance as authentic or sufficient?
I began thinking about other transgressors, ones I would be much slower to forgive or to accept as peers, let alone role models. I began thinking about the terrible crimes of so many right-wing figures: their embrace of death squads, torture, and concentration camps; their economic rapaciousness, and the vast suffering it causes; their unremitting assault on personal autonomy, most especially of women and their reproductive autonomy; and on and on. I think of the names of figures associated with these campaigns of oppression and terror: Falwell, Robertson, Reagan, Bush, Cheney, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, so many criminal lackeys of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and so many more. I would find it impossible to credit the redemption of any of these figures, even were they to espouse more reasonable attitudes and policies today. I would find it impossible to overcome the revulsion they generate in me. Even though they all are guilty of far more destruction and misery, fully reckoned, than Schwyzer, none of them to my knowledge has made a direct and deliberate attempt to kill another person by their own hand. Yet it seems natural to me to accept Schwyzer on his own terms, when I find it unimaginable to believe in the (hypothetical) redemption of any of these other figures.
Partly, I think it’s because Schwyzer was first established in my mind as a positive figure. I first knew about his feminist work, and read some of his writings on the issues, before I learned of his shady past, and long before the most recent revelations. The newest controversies work against an established impression that I had already developed which perhaps makes it harder to weigh the two sides of the issue in a perfectly even balance. In contrast, the murderers, torturers, and perverts of the right wing have always been perfectly visible to me in their true colors.
However, I think there may be a more personal process at work here. Although Schwyzer and I are not very much alike in personality, history, or career trajectory, there’s an obvious basis of fellow-feeling toward him. We’re both educated white men from at least moderately affluent backgrounds, with connections to academia. We both self-identify as feminists and sympathizers with the oppressed, but both obviously came to that perspective from positions of considerable privilege which we cannot renounce. We both – like almost all male feminists – had to work our way toward feminism from anti-feminist backgrounds which we had to acknowledge and overcome. Like all feminists, we have particular perspectives on the various internal divisions and conflicts of the feminist movement, and like all male feminists must defend the particular positions we take against other (mostly female) feminists who may see our stances as not merely collegial disagreement but another form of privilege.
And so, when I see Schwyzer attacked for aspects of his pre-feminist or proto-feminist life, I can’t help feeling that those attacks are to some degree aimed at me, or could be. I wonder how other feminists would view me if I confessed all the (far less lurid) details of my past, or the things I’ve done wrong, particularly involving or against women. I want to think that the feminist movement can be not merely welcoming but in some ways forgiving of men and their imperfect pasts. And, in a way that surprises even me, when I regard Schwyzer and his difficulties, I feel a bit of the same defensiveness that I feel when my own shortcomings are called to account: I want to put it behind me; I want to say “yes, yes, I’ll do better” and let the matter drop; I hope my accusers will let me slide as long as I promise to do better, and not keep probing and publicizing my faults.
Schwyzer, whatever his guilt for his past behavior, has been admirably open in the face of the current controversy, and has indicated he will consider and likely accept the many calls for his retreat to a less prominent position within the feminist movement. I don’t know how I would behave in a similar situation (I take comfort in thinking that I will never have to explain away the kinds of behavior that Schwyzer does). And I think some of the sympathy that the situation evokes in me is in part an unexplored sense of a need to atone for myself – the fabled “liberal guilt” – and the hope that my own failures could if necessary be absolved and overlooked. I want this cup to pass away from Schwyzer because I hope that, if such a fateful day were to come, it would pass away from me as well.
It is easy for me to consign right-wing criminals to permanent condemnation. I feel nothing in common with them, and can’t imagine I would even if they repented. Hugo Schwyzer, in his best parts, is the kind of person I want to be, inescapably privileged but using the tools of privilege – intellect and learning – for good. I know that I, in my worst parts, fall short of that. If he – who has done more overt work for feminism than I have – has no place in the movement, perhaps I have none, too.
But Schwyzer’s place in the movement ought to be determined on the basis of the needs and dynamics of that movement, and his own nature and history (hopefully, if not probably, considered objectively). My reflexive willingness to absolve him is more about my needs than his, and thus less about the needs of the movement than either of those. Which is another form of distraction for male feminists (or, at least, for me), and another stumbling block to seeing clearly and acting forthrightly and effectively.
That’s the lesson I take for myself from this, and, like so many lessons learned in growth as a feminist and humanist, particularly as a man of privilege, it is not an easy one to recognize, still less absorb.
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