Stepping briefly out of my self-imposed book editing exile (it’s more fun than you’d think!) to say a few words on the latest Hugo Schwyzer controversy. Probably not anything that will come as a great revelation to anyone on Tumblr, but comments I feel a need to make nonetheless, because they fly in the face of much of what has been said in mainstream forums about his “retirement” from the internet.
Specifically: Hugo Schwyzer was not controversial in the feminist blogosphere because he is a man. He was controversial in the feminist blogosphere because he was Hugo Schwyzer. That is to say, because he was a particular type of man, with a particular combination of traits: one with a history of gendered violence and sexual exploitation; one whose recent commercial writings have been marketed primarily at young women (rather than at men); and one whose presence and promotion in mainstream feminism made many women feel uncomfortable, violated, and angry.
I say all this as someone who has been a quiet supporter of Schwyzer’s. I’ve never hired him and I haven’t shouted his praises from the rooftops, but I have tweeted him, emailed with him, quoted him and met with him for coffee last year in LA. And at times I will admit I have felt uncomfortable doing so, just as I feel uncomfortable writing this paragraph now.
Bloggers whose work I enjoyed and respected – Flavia Dzodan, for one – had written multiple posts against him. People I knew “IRL” had tweeted about what a douche he was. What were they seeing that I wasn’t? But I discovered Hugo’s work back in 2009 or so, when he was just another person blogging about what I thought were insightful ideas on sex and gender; before he was either a pariah or a feminist posterboy. And that was the Hugo I couldn’t bring myself to turn on – the one who was more human than he was Professor Feminism.
But my professional relationship with Hugo Schwyzer isn’t really the point of this post. The point is that despite that relationship, I think that stepping away from the internet, and from feminism more generally – if he can manage it, which he hasn’t yet – is exactly the right thing for Hugo to do right now. Not just for his own mental health, but for the movement at large. (The wrong thing to do? To give interviews to major internet outlets and continue posting to your blog after you’ve said you’re quitting the internet.)
Here’s why. It goes without saying that if you position yourself as a public figure – particularly one who talks about politics – there are going to be people out there who do not like you. Hugo has acknowledged this himself: he may be a target of continued derision, but he hasn’t been threatened with rape, for example, the way that many female feminists have.
But there is a difference between being attacked by people who are your political opponents and being attacked by people who you perceive to be your comrades. The latter is a more bitter rejection, I would argue. I know I’ve felt it: “Can’t they see that we’re on the same side???”
But if it happens over and over and over, as it has for Schwyzer over the past year and a half, it’s a good indication that maybe you’re on the wrong track. If the people you profess to be speaking for – if not in the sense of “on behalf of,” then at least in the sense of “in service of” – keeping telling you that you don’t represent them, maybe you should take that as a sign that you don’t represent them. Maybe you should find new people to talk to; people who do want to hear what you have to say, and to whom your words can be useful.
There is a certain (read: strong) strand of narcissism to commercial internet feminism, as there is to all internet celebrity. And there is a lot of repetition of ideas. It’s not that the ideas themselves doesn’t matter – of course they do, and in sum they matter a lot – but that, particularly in the churn of online debate, a lot of us are just recycling the same ones, because the emphasis is on being heard, rather than on saying anything useful. But this emphasis on being seen and heard above all else leaves us ultimately replaceable. Remove one voice, be it Hugo’s or anyone else’s, and the void will quickly be filled with another.
All this is to say that I don’t think the Hugo Schwyzer story is the story of a man run off the internet by some angry feminists who don’t want men in their movement. I think it’s the story of a man who had particular traits that were abhorrent to many women within the movement, who persisted in writing nonetheless, and whose contributions eventually became more about the shoring up of ego than about the sharing of ideas. (Which to be fair, is the case for many writers.)
I’m a feminist because I care about women’s experiences, of course, but I’m even more so a feminist because I care about the effects of gender on experience. And gender isn’t the sole provenance of women. It’s something that impacts men as well. I suspect this is a position many modern feminists share, and I think that if Hugo had been a different man, he would have been received differently.
So, I absolutely think there is a place for men in the feminist movement. I want men in my feminist movement, reflecting on the role that gender plays in their lives. I don’t want men in my feminist movement telling women what to do. And when Hugo Schwyzer does return to the internet – which I hope for his sake won’t be for a while – I hope that the former is the role he chooses to play. Helping to popularise gender politics in the male sphere, rather than writing for women who have indicated loud and clear that he does not speak for them.