The worst date of my life happened in 2011. I met a lovely feminist woman on a dating site and we hit it off immediately. She was funny and charming. She was an aspiring comedian here in Portland and studying to be a teacher; I was a State of Oregon office drone. Conversation was easy; we were texting for a couple of weeks pretty well from waking up to well past bedtime. She didn’t even seem to mind too much that I was calling myself a libertarian at the time. So we met up at a hipster-y bar called Tiger Too, and I proceeded to make an ass of myself in a way that was so embarrassing, it’s actually a little bit impressive.
Have you ever said something awful to someone? Have you ever said a string of awful things for about an hour and a half while your brain yells THESE THINGS ARE NOT APPROPRIATE IN LIFE MUCH LESS A DATE and been entirely unable to stop yourself? Well I have. I wouldn’t recommend it. Since I was a filthy libertarian at the time, and for some reason I thought that it was best to relate to her journey to becoming an educator by arguing for the privatization of all schools and saying that actually educating people to be teachers is way lame-o and we should just get experts in each field to teach kids because that TOTALLY makes sense, it didn’t go well.
The actual story of the date, though, is relatively unimportant. I’ve told the most overarching points because that’s mostly what I remember – libertarian bullshit tends to just run together after a while. The big takeaway from that story is that for the first time that I can remember, even from the time when I was voting against marriage equality and arguing that maybe Saddam really did have WMDs and unironically using the term “friendzone,” that voice in my head was laying down some REAL TALK.
It wasn’t so much that I was privately questioning my own beliefs; I’d already said goodbye to religion and I was, by this point, at least a libertarian, which is a bit of a nutty step away from right-wing MRA, but is at least a fumbling step in the right direction. It was because, for the first time, that voice wasn’t just saying “you don’t know what you’re talking about”; it was saying “you CAN’T know what you’re talking about”. I hadn’t consciously figured it out yet (that was still a year away), but I was starting to finally understand privilege.
A Portrait of the MRA as a Young Man
I was raised in a tiny town in central Oregon, spending all of my primary and secondary schooling in two buildings. According to the 2000 Census, my hometown is 95.8% white. My graduating class of eighty-five had no more than three non-white students. We also had zero openly gay – really, zero non-heteronormative students – in the class, but that lasted about as long as it took them to get the hell out of that town. In other words, it’s not the best place for a young straight white cis male to learn about privilege, or patriarchy, or rape culture, or transphobia, or racism, or any of the thousand other oppressions that I was never going to personally experience.
I’m not sure if this is true for most young conservatives, but I wasn’t raised in a conservative household. My father’s nominally a Republican, and my mother’s nominally a Democrat, but they’re both generally center-left. They probably voted for Obama. But they came from the same type of whitewashed, privileged background that I did (though my mom was told by the track coach at her high school that she couldn’t run or her uterus would fall out – SCIENCE). They weren’t educated about oppression, and they certainly weren’t shown how to teach their precocious, unusually intellectually curious know-it-all son about oppression.
I actually was to the left of a lot of my classmates in high school. I was too young to vote in 2000, but Al Gore was my guy. I wrote an essay in English class railing against Bill Clinton’s impeachment (I believe I titled it “WJC” because I had a flair for the unoriginally dramatic) – very limited center-left moments, but enough to make me stand out.
Even then, though, there were ominous signs of things to come. What I thought at the time was a pretty outstanding evisceration of the Clinton impeachment was, in retrospect, dripping with misogyny. I actually made the argument that other countries were laughing at us because their leaders have many mistresses so NBD BRO LET THE PREZ CRUSH SOME PUSSY.
Then there was Beth*. Beth was the first girl that I projected my insecurity onto so hard that I used the term “friendzone”. Beth was and is still my actual friend, so the friendzone should have been a good place to be, but I was too busy blasting my self-loathing at the world to notice. There’s not that much to tell, besides the fact that we danced around the idea of a relationship for a while and then it didn’t work out because it’s fucking high school and besides, this story is about my issues, not hers. However, I would like to take this time to personally apologize to anyone that I subjected to Vertical Horizon between 1999 and 2001.
If you’re not familiar with Vertical Horizon, they wrote a series of shitty Nice Guy anthems in the late 1990s. I suppose they’d call themselves rock, but it’s really more like the musical equivalent of a person vomiting directly into your ear canal. Here’s the Nicest Nice Guy anthem of all, Everything You Want:
In case you missed part of that song because you smashed your computer in a fit of justified feminist rage, here are the lyrics that I belted out in my car on more occasions than someone with a working brain and unkicked-in testicles should (violent image, I know, but I really did a lot to deserve it):
I am everything you want, I am everything you need
I am everything inside of you that you wish you could be
I say all the right things at exactly the right time
But I mean nothing to you and I don’t know why
Hint: It’s because you’re a simpering loser that thinks saying pretty words to a girl means VAGINA PARTY FOR ME.
The Sound and the (Impotent) Fury
In 2001, I headed off to Eugene and the University of Oregon. Eugene is an interesting city. It’s got quite a reputation for hippiedom which it absolutely earns, and a reputation for liberalism which is not quite so much earned. It’s a city that loves to think that it’s good and liberal, but really they love taking on causes that don’t force themselves to face their own privilege. There’s nothing wrong with protesting the war in Iraq and holding rallies for LGBTQ rights (they’re not always perfect on the B, T, or Q parts, but the amount of places that are perfect on any of those are effectively nil); those are important fights that need to be fought. But I’m fairly certain that the term “microaggression” gets very little play there, and “intersectionality” isn’t much stronger. Those are the kinds of things that mean acknowledging your own prejudices and privilege and CONSTANT fuck-ups, and Eugene is somewhat lacking in self-awareness.
HOWEVER…for an 18-year-old me, I was privileged, intelligent enough to articulate any bullshit I decided on, and worst of all, incredibly entitled. So this was a major culture shock, and hearing terms like “rape culture” and “patriarchy” really intimidated me, and at the time I didn’t know why and wasn’t particularly interested in finding out why. In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious. I didn’t understand them and what I did understand was a direct attack on my entitlement. I heard terms like “rape culture” and I thought to myself, “I would never rape anyone! HOW DARE YOU, MISS!”
This is, of course, stupid. Not just because rape culture is not “all men are rapists,” but because I wasn’t even correct. As an 18-year-old, I was absolutely capable of raping another person. I’m fairly sure that I’ve never raped anyone, but I’ve had drunken hookups with people that probably at least skirted that gray area of “maybe that wasn’t a great idea.” This is why when someone mocks the idea of “teaching boys and men not to rape,” it makes my blood boil. We NEED to teach boys and men what rape is, what REAL consent is, and when to keep their fucking hands off.
So I rebelled in the worst possible way against the things I didn’t understand and found a home that would never tell me that my viewpoint as a straight white cis male was wrong or invalid or irrelevant: the right wing. I was raised as a Lutheran (Missouri Synod – the assholes) and while I never followed the teachings closely myself, it sure made me feel better to expect everyone else too, especially those pesky gays. In 2004, I cast a vote for George Bush and a vote for Measure 36. I cast a vote to enshrine in the state Constitution that marriage is between one man and one woman. Of all the shitbird things that I did in my time as a conservative, that’s the thing that I’m most ashamed of.
The Incredible Journey
I think Penn & Teller deserve a lot of credit. “Bullshit” put those first cracks in the dam. I devoured that series and it still holds a spot in my heart (as long as I skip certain episodes), but damn if it didn’t put the right-wing Lutheran thinking on blast. My natural intellectual curiosity never lent itself well to right-wing thinking, and by this point I was ready to actually do some self-examination. Libertarianism was a natural landing spot for me. It allowed me to drop the hate and blood-lust of the right-wing without actually requiring me to be self-critical. I was a libertarian now, and it gave me a lot of opportunities to pat myself on the back without sacrificing anything. I tried to read Atlas Shrugged – I actually found my copy of the book yesterday and I think I got fifteen pages in (fuck, that book sucks). It wasn’t…good, but it was an improvement, I guess?
That’s what I was happy to be for years. As recently as the beginning of last year, I was still calling myself a libertarian, even though I’d given up the ghost on that one long before. I noticed that more and more libertarian ideas just didn’t ring true, and I really noticed that libertarians are made up of almost entirely white males, and that struck me. I tried to figure out what was nagging at the back of my mind, what was telling me that I may not be in the right place.
Then I went on that terrible date. And the voice was clear. YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. Privilege in a nutshell. Once I saw that, it was game over. It’s a simple idea, really: If I am to accept libertarian ideology as legitimate, then logic dictates that I believe that women, people of color, etc., make less money than white men for the same jobs because there is something inherently lesser about them. This is, quite obviously, bullshit, and abhorrently so. As I’m not a monstrous human, even my feeble libertarian ego saw that it was bullshit and that was the end of libertarianism for all intents and purposes.
The last piece of the puzzle, for me, at least, was Twitter. As much as I hate/love Facebook, that’s really just the online version of the Max. You’re hanging out with your high school and college friends on the internet. Twitter, used correctly, connects you with people that you would never meet otherwise. And Anna Kendrick may be great (seriously guys, she is a delight), but I’ve learned so much about the shit that goes on every single day from people that the general public wouldn’t know from Eve (or Adam). Seriously, the number of men that I’ve directed to #endstreetharassment makes me cringe. It’s helping make me a better feminist, a better man, a better human.
Remembrance of Things Past
So what really led me here? I listed a couple of influences, but there are some other factors that definitely contributed to my transition from misogynist, homophobic, right-wing MRA to raging intersectional feminist atheist leftist. First, while my parents never may have taught me about privilege, they taught me a voracious hunger for knowledge. They taught me not to be satisfied with the things that make me comfortable. They also taught me to be respectful of people I disagree with (the aforementioned date notwithstanding) and I’ve had hundreds of honest, pitched (but always respectful) debates with people that rightly found my views disgusting and I learned something from almost all of them, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
The other thing I’ve had: patient friends. Since I was 21 and living in Eugene I was surrounded by liberal friends that accepted me even when they couldn’t accept my views. We’ve had many a five-hour conversation on porches strewn with empty beer cans and stubbed-out cigarettes and they never belittled me or called me an asshole (even when evidence pointed to the contrary). Many of them may find this article and if you do, I love you all and appreciate it.
I’m not perfect; I’ll never be. I fuck up feminism and intersectionality literally every day. I spend half my time being smugly self-satisfied for being such a good straight white cis male, and the other half questioning everything I do, or feeling guilty. Not guilt for being who I am; that’s not constructive for anyone. But some days I get burnt out thinking about and fighting about these horrible things that are going on everywhere every day. So I take a few hours and go to Powell’s or eat brunch and drink a beer and don’t even think about it. That’s what I feel guilty for. I can literally, at any time, stop dealing with oppression. Those being oppressed don’t get to do that.
But it’s not reasonable. I have to just do the best I can every day, accept that I’m going to screw it up, and just try to do more right than wrong each day. I think that, usually, I succeed.