Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hugo Schwyzer, male feminist, publicly self-destructs


The popular and prolific sex-and-gender blogger Hugo Schwyzer has apparently been banned from the feminist pale following his confession that he attempted to kill himself and an ex-girlfriend in 1998. You can read about the controversy here…. 

I have had something of a love/hate relationship with Hugo ever since we virtually met in the course of a debate regarding men’s rights activists on The Good Man Projectin early 2011.  Hugo is routinely accused by men’s rights activists of being a “mangina” in the sense that he almost reflexively takes an orthodox feminist position with regards to any issue. He has also been accused, more than once, of grandstanding: setting himself up as some sort of male “hero of the feminist movement” to which other men should look as a positive role model. My problems with Hugo were originally of a more academic and theoretical nature, as I outlined in my original article in TGMP.

Basically, I feel that Hugo Schwyzer is motivated by a secularized Christian view of social conflict, whereby any situation can be cleanly divided into a dichotic set, with one side being “the good guys” and the other the bad. Such a view of power and social conflict has been obsolete within the social sciences for several decades now, but Hugo apparently hasn’t upgraded his theory booklet since the 1980s. Because of this, he views gender, basically, as an absolute divide with “men” set unquestioningly as Evil Oppressors with “women”  being absolutely blameless and oppressed. The only possible role men can play in deconstructing the sex/gender system, in this view, is to deconstruct themselves, aiding “feminists” (a group Schwyzer never clearly defines) in their goals (which, again, are never defined beyond vague notions such as “destroying patriarchy”).

More troublesome to me is the fact that Hugo simply doesn’t seem able or willing to take an intersectional view of power and oppression, whereby multiple axes of identitary differentiation and their associated privileges interact to create concrete instances of (dis)empowerment.  While he nods his head towards race, class, sexual identity, nationality and other identity constructs, he doesn’t seem to grasp how these create a kyriarchic – rather than a patriarchic – structure. It seems to me that in Hugo’s world view, gender trumps all… and a very conservatively imagined notion of gender, at that.

Throughout 2010 and 2011, Hugo was a prolific blogger and commentator on TGMP and, in the course of his writing, he began to make a series of confessions. He originally started off by commenting that, as a professor, he had had sex with a student. As a university professor myself, this comment was troubling to me, but not excessively so. I think that professors shouldn’t ever mix their role as teacher with sexual/affective roles, but I’ve seen enough good people break this rule to realize that things in the real world are never quite that simple. In Hugo’s case, it didn’t seem that abuse of power was involved (the woman was significantly older than Hugo, for one thing) and the relationship had apparently occurred some time after Hugo had taught the woman in question as a student in class.

Men’s rights activists didn’t take long, however, in attempting to tar-and-feather Hugo, calling him a “professor who sexually abuses his students”. That seemed to me to be over the top and uncalled for and, on several occasions, I stood up for Hugo against his attackers, saying that one relationship with an older, adult, ex-student did not make Schwyzer into some sort of classroom Lothario.

As time went on, however, Hugo began to reveal even more of his past life. Apparently he slept with several students, some while he was teaching them, some who were much younger than he.

I felt a bit of a patsy for having defended Hugo and you can see my reaction to these revelations here.  Now here’s the strange bit: on August 14th, I posted the following commentary in reaction to one of Hugo’s confessional pieces:

The way Hugo is “unfolding” and revealing himself to The Good Men Project’s readers, like some sort weird tropical flower, I’m wondering if we won’t soon be hearing confessions, on his part, to date rape.

Lo and behold, 4 months later, Hugo admitted not to date rape, but to attempted murder  of a female partner.

I guess I must say that I’m not surprised.

Hugo Schwyzer’s  background is deeply religious, with a thin layer of Marxist dialecticism laid down on top. I don’t wonder that the man, who once claimed to be a Trotskyite, now believes that the Christian god is his personal savior. Hugo seems to have grappled, throughout his life, with a powerful impetus to self-destruction that also occasionally takes swipes at the people around him. Many men and women have similar problems with a drive towards thanatos and guilt and Hugo gets full marks, in my book, for being publically honest and forthcoming about his problems. That takes guts and commitment and nobody should look down on the man because he’s taken this stance, even though , as Ozmandius has pointed out, “Hugo has managed to achieve a feat no one thought he could achieve before: MRAs and radfems, masculists and feminists, standing side by side, united in their hatred for Hugo Schwyzer”. 

What bothers me about all this, however, is how many feminists and feminist-supportive men seemed to have voted Hugo Schwyzer, sight unseen, as feminist man of the year, before the revelations about his past started surfacing.  Also troublesome is how after the man has been pilloried as “insufficiently feminist” now that his past has been revealed.

I was always chary of Hugo’s repeated attempts to use his own, admittedly extreme, experiences as some sort of guide to normative male behavior. I am a university professor and I have never slept with students or even been attracted to the idea and Hugo’s views that all university professors feel the same way he does are, to me, ridiculous. Likewise, Hugo’s repeated experiences with substance abuse, abusive relationships,  serial marriages and divorce are all beyond most men’s experiences. Simply put, most men’s lives are nowhere near as dramatic as Hugo claims his has been.

It often seemed to me that Hugo was unquestioningly accepted as “the voice of the feminist male” by a significant portion of the feminist blogosphere precisely because of his checkered past. Here was a man who admitted to doing many of the things certain feminists feel are normative among men: suicidal tendencies, violence, sexual abuse, emotional dependence, drug and alcohol abuse… it was all there. Everything except a confession to actual violence against a woman. But, as I intimidated in my August comments on TGMP, realistically speaking, how could we expect a man who admitted to doing all these things to have never taken a crack at his partner?

And now people claim to be surprised and say that they have been “taken in”…?

To me, that indicates that there are a lot of people out there in the gender blogosphere who have a very unrealistic understanding of human nature and whose view of good and evil is even more simplistic and extreme than Hugo Schwyzer’s.

Look: if you want to believe that (wo)men are the root of all evil, go ahead. But when you start hearing someone talk about how they’ve routinely fucked up their life, abused themselves and acted totally irresponsibly towards others, then don’t presume that said person’s  loudly declaimed ideology somehow makes things all OK.

What’s sad is that anyone with a rooted, reality-based notion of human behavior could easily see what kind of person Hugo Schwyzer is and where he was going with his confessions months ago, and yet he was still presumed by many in the feminist blogosphere to be “one of the good guys” because he was, after all, a feminist.

Likewise, now that Hugo has been “outted” as  having victimized women (somehow all the other violence he was doing in his life was essentially acceptable as long as it didn’t directly and physically target women), a significant portion of the gender blogosphere seems to want to believe that nothing he says or ever has said could have any validity whatsoever. Hugo’s articles are now being taken down by sites and blogs such as Feministe and Scarleteen where they were once routinely praised.

The controversy around Hugo Schwyzer reveals an unsavory side of the debate regarding gender in the Anglophonic blogosphere. As Raphael Magarik points out “The details of [Hugo’s] fall are telling. ‘Severing ties’ (or, in the case of Feministe, denying links) is not about ideological critique, but social ostracism.” Many people apparently thought – and still think – that debates regarding gender should not be based on ideas, but rather upon the popularity of the debaters.

If Hugo Schwyzer is who he says he is – a man who has had a very rocky past and who has come to a measure of peace with himself and the world through feminist introspection – then he should be a very welcome member of the debates  regarding gender now ongoing in our society. If, on the other hand, Hugo Schwyzer is an opportunist asshole, a victimizer and manipulator who will always be such, then why, for heaven’s sake, did significant portions of the feminist blogosphere champion him as a “sane male voice”, even as he admitted to his past history of abuse ?

Either we accept that men can change or we don’t. Holding someone up as a paragon of masculinity when his past problems with abuse, violence and manipulation are only too obvious, then ostracizing him because of those problems, is hypocritical and ridiculous. Certain people were happy to give Hugo a voice when he admitted to being a self-destructive, addictive, irresponsible asshole because all these traits were supposedly in his past: feminism had allowed him to overcome them.  Now when we find out, quite predictably, that “past Hugo” was also violent to women, we’re supposed to pretend that the man has never said a single damned useful thing about gender?

In the words of the immortal Bob Gideon, “Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.”