How to disagree with a feminist

This is the only way arguments between men and women can go, right?

I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with men who don't think they can disagree with a women in discussions about feminism or sexism.

I get where they are coming from.  After all, the one thing we don't need in the world is more men telling women that sexism isn't happening.  However, most situations aren't black and white, and if we want to make real change then men and women have to be able to engage in these conversations together.

So how do you talk about it, then, without being a mansplaining, sexist jerk and dismissing their viewpoint, while still voicing your own?

Lucky for us, some hoopla has cropped up in the Vancouver theatre community, providing us with the perfect case study!


There is a play happening in Vancouver right now called Dead Metaphor by George F. Walker.  It's a very, very dark comedy.  I haven't seen it (and probably won't get to), but from what I understand there is a ton of bad language in it, including rape jokes.

It is worth noting that George F. Walker tends to write plays that are very crass with very strong female characters.  He's not known for writing that is safe, nor misogynistic.

The reviews for the play have overall been positive, except for one: a critic named Erika Thorkelson, who writes for the Vancouver Sun, felt the play was sexist and called that out in her review.

Then George F. Walker replied, apparently by email, so I don't know where it's been posted except on a blog post by another local reviewer, Colin Thomas.

In Thomas' blog post, he comments on Thorkelson's review and he largely disagrees with her.  Herein lies our case study: we will compare and contrast Thomas' response to Walker's and see what we can learn from two men who take very different approaches when disagreeing with a woman about a gender-related issue.


You should read Thomas' post, where he includes the full text of Walker's response, as well as his own.  I will provide some excerpts.

Let's start by recognizing that defensiveness is a very normal (if un-helpful) human reaction, and where Walker had something personal to react to, Thomas would not have felt the need to defend himself, so he would have had an easier time being even-handed about the whole thing.  So there is that.

From George F. Walker:

“A guy with frontal lobe dementia calls someone a cunt and you call it ‘gender based profanity’? I guess you know nothing about my work. How women are treated in my work. How they are usually at the centre of my work. The only other critics to bring it up was an on line woman writer roughly your age I think."

"There are many deserving targets for that kind of response. I’m not one of them. My three daughters (one of whom has a degree in Sexual Diversity) and all of whom are feminists are truly saddened and a bit disgusted by your review. Put some of that presumption out of your head before you come anywhere near my work in the future. It’s just idiotic.”

From Colin Thomas:

Thomas analyzes a few aspects of Thorkelson's argument, but I'll focus on the part where he disagrees with her: the issue of the character named Hank calling one of the women in the play a cunt and saying that he'd like to rape her dead body.

"I acknowledge that Hank can be offensive. As a gay man, I go into high alert when I hear cocksucker getting tossed around. (Don’t try to tell me that cocksucker isn’t almost always a homophobic slur.) But, obviously, it would be a mistake to conflate the character’s position with that of the playwright. For all of his left-wing heroics, Hank is also a reactionary old fart on some levels. And I’m okay with that. He’s a character. He gets to be flawed."

"We’ve got to be careful with one another. Analyzing the underlying values of a work is part of that care. For me, Dead Metaphor provides adequate context for the line, “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore!”


What is the difference here?

Where Walker ignores the content of Thorkelson's arguments and calls her names, Thomas addresses what Thorkelson was actually saying and offers his own perspective.

Where Walker holds up his feminist daughters as human shields (without actually giving them the opportunity to say why they agree with their dad), Thomas uses logic, evidence from the play, and his own personal philosophies to engage directly with the issue.

Where Walker hides behind his historical treatment of women in his work as evidence for this current situation, Thomas considers past writing for context but addresses this play on its own merits.

Where Walker writes off Thorkelson because the only other person who agrees with her is a woman of about the same age (he guesses from their pictures?), Thomas listens to her arguments and even engages in further conversation with her to understand them better before drawing his own conclusions.


In this case study, we see one man who reacted in sheer defence (again, understandable, but that doesn't make it right), and one who followed Conversation 101 where you listen, understand, and then respond.  We also see one response that is hurtful and one that is helpful.

So how do you emulate the helpful response?

Listen: Actually listen to the content of what the woman in question is saying.

Understand: Make sure you understand her point and where it is coming from.  Ask questions if you need to flesh anything out.  If she has expertise, take that into account.  (HINT: If you are not a woman, she knows more about what it's like to be a woman and experience sexism than you.)

It doesn't mean she is automatically right; book publishers are sometimes wrong about what books will sell, and women sometimes see sexism where it doesn't exist, but in general, both parties have experience and knowledge behind them that you probably are missing.

(Warning: if you truly seek to learn and understand their point of view, you risk changing your own.  If you are unwilling to do this, it's best to avoid conversing with others.)

Respond: Now that you know what the person is saying and where they are coming from, you can share your view on the issue at hand.  Ideally you will use experience, evidence, or your own personal philosophy to back up your ideas.  Hopefully your goal here is to share your experience to increase understanding on both peoples' parts, not to change her mind.

Warnings: This does not guarantee you will change anyone's mind, and if that is your goal then you probably are missing the first two steps; it is quite possible that if you truly seek to learn and understand, your view of the world will change - if you are unwilling to do this, avoid all conversation with others; resort to name calling and/or telling the other person they are wrong only if your goal is to shut down conversation completely or humiliate them.

NOTE: This is not some newfangled, heavy-handed rule for politically correct conversation.  This is just how respectful conversation works in human life.

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