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One of my closest friends—let’s call him Sal—worries about how the angry Reddit dudes are doing. Nonstop aggression, violation, transphobia, misogyny, and rape apologism are problematic, he explained to me on a search for the perfect afternoon snack, but they grow out of the loneliness of the marginalized: the computer geek, the socially awkward teen who finds it easier to talk online than in person, yearning for acceptance. I was skeptical. Approaching sexism empathetically would be excusing the inexcusable, right? Isn’t such hate undeserving of our consideration?
Then, on the same day Reddit moderator Violentacrez was outed, I finished certified genius Junot Díaz’s most recent collection of stories, This is How You Lose Her, and I’ve been rethinking Sal’s theory ever since. Díaz’s book follows protagonist Yunior from his early immigration from the Dominican Republic to his Harvard professorship, charting his troubled and troubling relationship with his own gender. Masculinity defined by mistreatment of women seems to be an inescapable fate: Yunior’s father and brother were, in his description, “sucios,” and while “you had hoped the gene missed you… clearly you were kidding yourself.” Yet Yunior also recognizes that masculinity is not some simple genetic inheritance but an external standard that he is pressured to emulate. He jokes about missing a memo “during boy training” about the pleasure of external ejaculation, and is haunted by the chorus of “the boys,” consistently judging his behavior from afar, noting how he falls short of a masculine ideal.
As a reader, it’s so frustrating to watch Yunior slip into sexism because we know he knows how destructive this behavior is; he’s seen the psychological turmoil wrought by his father and brother on their partners. Yet Yunior can’t seem to resist his own misogynistic impulses: compulsively lying, pressuring girlfriends for sex, and referring to every woman but his mother as a “slut.” His first words in the book insist that he’s “not a bad guy,” just one who has made mistakes, and who seems baffled by his own mistreatment of his lovers. Yunior’s search for an explanation—“You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy”—always comes up short. Structural sexism certainly deserves some blame, but how do we understand an individual’s choices within this context?
Like the boys behind the screens, if for very different reasons and from a very different point of disadvantage, Yunior is alone. From his first winter in America, locked away from neighborhood children in his apartment, to his post-break up depression, in very white Boston, Yunior is alienated from society and the intimacy he desires—but when he joins other men in objectifying a woman, Yunior fleetingly belongs to a group. When he pressures a new girlfriend to have sex, he proves his manly, aggressive libido to “the boys”; by imitating his absent father and late brother’s destructive behavior, he connects with men who have abandoned him. Similarly, the Redditors come together for friendship, creating a community of the community-less, and lash out at a common enemy (in their case not lovers or mothers but women as a group—as well as people of color, the LGBT*Q community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups) to bind themselves together. The harm done by Yunior and by misogynistic Reddit users is undeniable, but so is the isolation that leads them to misogyny.
Recognizing this causality leads me to the same conundrum I refused to face when confronted with Sal’s Reddit theory: how can I come to terms with the occasionally complex, personal motives that encourage some men to act misogynistically? Loneliness doesn’t excuse hate. However, while I feared that acknowledging sympathetic motives would undermine moral condemnation of anonymous Redditors’ speech, Díaz’s stories have inspired in me a new empathy for the lonely man. If I’m honest, I find that pretty scary. As a woman I am expected to be kind to men, to forgive their trespasses, and so I don’t trust the new empathy for them. Is it my own, to do with what I will, or is it simply the tool of my conformity to the rules of “good womanhood”? This is so much of what my gender means to me: to look in the mirror and wonder what that I see is mine.
But this empathy may have tactical value. I don’t believe it’s a woman’s responsibility to convince bigots not to hate her, but this is the first time I’ve given misogynists’ experiences and motivations enough thought to wonder if that change might be possible with sufficient understanding. If I can wield it with control, never wavering in my criticism, perhaps empathy for my enemy could make me a better activist. The Violentacrezes of the world might be lost causes, but I bet Yunior and a couple Redditor friends could be swayed.