THE BLOG
06/30/2014 09:52 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

What I Learned at the First International Men's Issues Conference

I am going to be on HuffPost Live this afternoon to talk about the First International Mens Issues Conference, which I covered for the Southern Poverty Law Center (you can find my posts here and here). After that, I would love to retire from commenting on or even thinking about that world.

Not that men don't have issues to deal with-any group that comprises half of humanity is going to have a host of them. When I hear the horror stories about divorce courts, I'm as appalled as anyone (though I also understand that the vast majority of divorces aren't like the most contentious ones; millions of estranged couples do manage to rear their children together). As a father and husband, I get a little tired of seeing clueless husbands and bumbling dads on TV commercials too, though I don't think it rises to the level of misandry (the term that Men's Rights Advocates use to signify the obverse of misogyny). Beyond that, I will even concede that you can find actual examples of misandry, if you look for them in the writings and chatrooms of the most extreme man-haters (who do, of course, exist). Seek and ye shall find. It's a big world out there.

But defining feminism by the writings of Valerie Solanas is exactly like what a white supremacist does when he takes a white-hating passage from the manifestos of a group like the Nation of Islam or the New Black Panthers and presents it as the normative attitude of blacks, or what an anti-Semite does when he culls one of those Jewish supremacist passages from the Talmud and presents it as the normative view of everyone whose mother or father was Jewish. Defining your adversary as evil incarnate virtually guarantees that you will never be able to make an accommodation with them-which of course is exactly the point. Zionists who believe that not only the Palestinians themselves but anyone who expresses sympathy towards them are Amalek aren't going to be particularly effective peace makers. Men who believe that all women want to geld them aren't going to understand why women raise such a fuss about reproductive rights. Extremism perpetuates and exacerbates extremism.

I talk a lot about cognitive dissonance, but I think it provides a pretty useful frame for this particular theater of the gender wars. A lot of the debate is as heated as it is because the people who are engaging in it know how un-factual most of their premises are. Men aren't a persecuted minority; neither is "violation...a synonym for intercourse" (a quote from Andrea Dworkin, as I'm sure every MRA knows).

When it comes to the fringes, neither side is really fighting about what they say they are -- they're projecting and acting out much deeper hurts: sexual and familial disappointments and dysfunction; the sense of inadequacy and emasculation that accompany economic and status struggles; and so on. The 150 or so attendees of the convention I went to weren't all monsters by any stretch of the imagination. I didn't fear for my personal safety. But I daresay most of them weren't very happy people either.

So I come home from Detroit with two broad theorems and a corollary conclusion:

1) That when the personal is the political, the politics are going to be pretty distorted and the ideology somewhat incoherent;

2) That extremism breeds extremism. If you're a hammer, all you're ever going to see are nails.

If you really care about gender equity and empowerment, then the Andrea Dworkins and Paul Elams of the world are mostly a distraction. It's easy to demonize MRAs, but they don't do anywhere near the damage to women that, say, the Hobby Lobby is trying to do, or the GOP. They're easy to hate, but engaging with them is about as useful as it is for LGBT activists to fight with the Westboro Baptist Church.

Arthur Goldwag's latest book is The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right.