The Myth of Collective Male Guilt

Legal Principles
Enya Leger
March 22, 2018
“We prefer a meaningless collective guilt to a meaningful individual responsibility.” ~ Thomas Szasz

In response to the #MeToo movement, male “allies” have come up with some hashtags of their own. One of the earliest was #HowIWillChange, created by Australian journalist Benjamin Law. Law pledged to do all sorts of noble things, like donating to local women’s shelters and calling out sexist behaviour, but one tweet was particularly surprising:

“#HowIWillChange: Recognise I don’t need to be a perpetrator to be a bad guy. Questioning harassment, not doing anything about it—all as bad.”

According to Benjamin Law, you don’t have to be guilty of sexual assault to be a “bad guy” – you’re a bad guy by default if you’re not doing anything about the actions of other people.

This sentiment is echoed by a more recent hashtag invention: #AskMoreOfHim. The hashtag is part of a larger campaign called The Representation Project, which aims to fight sexism in Hollywood. The campaign’s website provides a list of things that men can do to help combat sexual assault, the first suggestion being to:

“Approach sexual harrassment and forms of gender violence as a MEN’S issue involving men of all ages and socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. View men not only as perpetrators or possible offenders, but as empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers.”

The hearts of the men who are voicing support for victims of sexual assault are mostly in the right place. It is a worthy cause. However, it is unacceptable for us as a society to encourage or allow the self-flagellation of men who have committed no crimes.

In an open letter, signed by David Schwimmer and other Hollywood actors, it is claimed that men have a “special responsibility to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.” But on what basis do men have such a responsibility?

In any case, this is an impossible objective. Rapists will continue raping, no matter how many workshops we force men to attend. The overwhelming media attention and support for the #MeToo movement is proof that, as a society, we condemn sexual assault.

But rapists aren’t looking for approval.

A rapist is not an ordinary guy with a confused sexuality or distorted understanding of consent. They are angry, or suffering from some emotional pathology. Rape is an act of violence, not a sexual act. Treating all men as potential rapists not only trivializes the crime of rape, but is also an expression of contempt for men.

It is a sloppy generalization that is inconsistent with the dominant narrative that gender and sexual expression are fluid and multi-faceted. To vilify male sexuality as possessive, aggressive and oppressive is to deny that male sexuality exists on a spectrum just as female sexuality does. Not all men are into being in control, as your local dominatrixes could confirm.

If women as a class contend with sexual assault on a daily basis, and men as a class are perpetrators and/or enablers of sexual assault, the resulting definition of sexual assault must be broad enough to cover all cases. Consequently, we are being encouraged to regard sexual assault as a spectrum of behaviours ranging from catcalling to penetrative rape. It is an insult to actual rape victims to regard catcalling or even a bad date (such as the events detailed in the Aziz Ansari allegation) as a lesser form of the same crime.

Any women who genuinely believe that their male partners, friends, and family members are to be feared as potential assailants on the basis of their gender are suffering from a delusion – one that is, unfortunately, being promoted in universities and by the media.

Sexual assault is a heinous crime, not an ignored fact of life for the average women. In fact, it is so universally frowned upon in our society that those incarcerated for sexual assault are at greater risk of harm from other prisoners. No one thinks assaulting or raping a woman is a demonstration of macho masculinity. It is a display of power, yes, but one that is viewed as pathetic and disgusting.

Men compete for consensual sexual partners. Having to take sex from the unwilling is not praise-worthy, even in the locker room.

In January, CBC Radio hosted a panel of men to discuss the role of men in the #MeToo movement. Two of the panelists, Globe and Mail columnist David Eddie and SFU criminology professor Neil Boyd, voiced concerns about the lack of due process in many publicized accusations of sexual assault and the loss of livelihood for those accused in the absence of a conviction in a criminal court. Jordan Veira, a support worker and the third panelist, had a differing opinion:

“So long as we’re focusing on our careers, or on consequences, we’re sort of missing the point here, because it’s not about money. It’s about safety, it’s about humanity.”

Veira argued that “Men’s primary role should be to listen … This is an opportunity for us to understand the nuance and specific ways that we can participate in various forms of violence.”

This seems to be a common attitude about men’s part in the #MeToo conversation: shut up, listen, and change. But why don’t we hold all women responsible for instances of female violence and abusive behaviour? When a female teacher is convicted of assaulting a male student, why doesn’t the media regard it as an opportunity for all women to reflect on the ways in which they too are perpetrators of sexual violence?

It does not matter whether we are talking about male or female assaulters – it is ridiculous to hold an entire group of people responsible for the actions of a minority within that group. Yet this idea seems to be gaining traction.

Any individualist, someone who upholds individual freedom and personal responsibility, should be vehemently opposed to the notion that a group can be held accountable for something as a collective.

The feature of male perpetrators that makes them criminals cannot be that they are male, as females can be violent and can be guilty of sexually assault too. It must be some other factor that connects assaulters – perhaps emotional trauma, being a survivor of abuse themselves, or anger. It makes no sense to speak of a whole group as having intentionality as a group on this scale.

The male population is far too large to be mobilized in the pursuit of a common end in the sense that they are made out to be by social justice ideologues. To give another example, it has been said that white people are collectively trying to maintain white supremacy at the expense of racial minorities. So too are men supposedly trying to hold on to male dominance, or “patriarchy.”

That’s what the concept of “privilege” is trying to address. The argument is that someone, as part of a collective, is morally culpable if their membership to that collective gives them an unfair benefit over others. The individual is held responsible even if they have not acted in a blameworthy way towards members of disadvantaged groups. But this sort of thinking goes against the notion of fairness, rightfully defined.

When proponents of social justice speak of fairness, they apply it to the outcome for classes or groups of people rather than for individuals. This they call “equity.” It makes sense to them to hold whole groups accountable for the outcomes of other groups. This in large part explains the outrage when men are acquitted in sexual assault trials – it is deemed a victory of perpetrators (men) over victims (women).

To give an example, after Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted there was  an outcry that victims of sexual assault would be deterred from coming forward.

For the purposes of ideology, verdicts in individual cases of allegations of sexual assault are expected to right the injustice of male violence against women, not to determine whether an injustice has actually occurred with regards to one particular man’s behaviour towards one particular woman (or group of women).

Why can’t we hold collectives of people responsible?

In the age of identity politics, a new generation of activists is being taught that it is their group identities that matter most – not their personal identity. Having recently taken sociology courses in my undergrad, it was a common exercise for students to identify their group memberships and assess how they have contributed to their personal privilege and/or oppression in society.

Sociology, like gender studies (and an increasing number of fields in the social sciences and humanities) is currently dominated by social justice theory. The group is the unit of study, as opposed to the psychological subject of the individual.

I was often required for assignments to situate myself within society by disclosing my group memberships. This practice is intended to give the reader an understanding of what experiences might have shaped the author’s viewpoint, but quite often it is used to determine who does or does not have authority (i.e. the relevant “lived experiences”) to make judgments on certain topics.

Academia is increasingly assuming a collectivist ethic – one that is creating an increased distrust in the way our legal system handles sexual assault. This is the rationale for creating a more “survivor-centred” approach.

The justice system currently operates on a premise of individual responsibility and, for the sake of due process and the presumption of innocence, we cannot allow the shift to focus on group status of those accused, convicting them for being born into a category of people.

Guilt serves a social purpose, in regulating personal behaviour and correcting or preventing harmful actions. Collective guilt has only one social purpose: to humiliate and wrongfully punish the innocent.