It's a movement that really needs no name or introduction.
In a move designed both to taunt and advertise, men's rights activists (MRAs) recently laughed in the face of their feminist foes, forging through numerous protests and a swarm of negative mainstream media coverage in order to assemble and devise their next big move at the International Conference on Men's Issues.
But, while the conference drew several mentions by the mainstream media, in fact, the majority of MRAs weren't even in Detroit. The far more insidious truth about this movement is that its operatives are virtually omnipresent in America's social and political landscape, and most people don't even recognize them.
As recent events have demonstrated, ranging from the Supreme Court's ruling against reproductive freedoms to Eliott Rodgers' suicidal shooting spree in Isla Vista, Calif., this is a very deadly game — and in order to play, you don't even have to call yourself a men's rights activist.
But of course, that didn't stop the publishers of foremost avowed MRA publication A Voice for Men (AVfM) from organizing what was billed a first-of-its-kind conference. Despite the hyperbolic billing, only an estimated 150 people gathered at a relatively remote VFW hall in suburban Michigan, the group's alternate location chosen after many feminists successfully pressured the Detroit Doubletree Hotel to banish the gathering from its premises.
Image Credit: A Voice For Men via YouTube
On one level, the conference, as well as the often-violent online trolling, doxxing, as well as rape and death threats associated with MRAs, perhaps functions as something of a distraction for many gender equality advocates. And while these kinds of threats and rhetoric should never be taken lightly, they're indicative of a fringe political faction desperately grasping for attention in the mainstream.
Indeed, some MRAs are starting to find the rhetoric prohibitively negative, spurring efforts to walkback such statements in order to portray a more palatable and friendly MRA front for the general public. At least, that's what the organizers of the conference, the editors of AVfM, alerted attendees to prior to the Detroit-area meeting in late June. They even threatening to dismiss any overly-controversial conference-goers.
To a small extent, this worked. Somewhere in the sea of stinging rhetoric, there were actually some illuminating points to be made about men's and gender equity issues that need to be elevated into mainstream conversations.
Those issues, which merit close attention rather than the scorn sometimes directed at avowed MRAs, included from the impact of fatherhood and fathers' rights during child custody battles, how television tropes of men reinforce harmful stereotypes about masculinity and manhood, and the incredibly disproportionate rate of male suicides in America. If those issues can be framed, and they have been, within a feminist and gender equity lens, then perhaps there's room for collaboration and unity across the movements.
Despite those opportunities, any progressive factions inside the larger MRA movement have been stymied by one key impediment: MRAs have a messaging and strategy problem.
Image Credit: Getty
MRAs going into the conference had no conversation about a united message, theme or goals for the gathering. "Other than warning those attending that anything they said might be taken out of context ... there really was none," said Dean Esmay, AVfM managing editor, who also leads their operations team, in a statement to Mic. "Speakers were asked to speak on certain topics they wanted and none had their speeches vetted in advance." He noted no forthcoming dialogues to get people on the same page.
Furthermore, according to Esmay, there were many key issues that the conference "did not have time to get to," including some of the aforementioned areas where they may share the most common ground with their feminist detractors.
Those issues, to name a few, included creating spaces for men on college campuses to discuss their experiences with manhood and masculinity, and especially male victims of sexual assault — which is perhaps the foremost issue MRAs have been highly vocal about while rejecting feminism for not giving it enough air time. And although sexual assault is disproportionately targeted at women, MRAs missed a key opportunity to underscore that no person, regardless of gender, should be left behind in progress being made on the matter.
Instead of fully capitalizing on the shared space and multiple $300 tickets sold for the conference, many of the topics discussed that weekend — in a room filled with mostly white, male activists — were less than encouraging.
In one mind-bogglingly offensive address, "The Myth of Male Power," author Dr. Warren Farrell delivered a keynote address and workshop during which he discussed the unlikely culprit for men who commit suicidal mass murders. Farrell, who has previously glorified incest and child sexual abuse, did not emphasize accountability for the perpetrators themselves or the lack of political will for meaningful gun control reforms. The fault, according to Farrell, first lies with their mothers.
At the end of the day, most observers fail to understand that the success — or perhaps the lack thereof — of the Michigan conference wasn't key to the success of the broader MRA message. In fact, while those folks may not be ready for prime-time, their ideology already is. Even with a disappointing display of organizing strength, it'd be foolish to believe that the newly-amplified voices and alarmingly hyperbolic rhetoric of some men's rights activists were confined to a small gathering hall in a midwestern suburb.
Gender equality advocates might be better served by redoubling their efforts against the even bigger and badder MRAs, all of whom are unattached to the moniker: Congressional leaders, court judges, state legislators and corporate executives who actively undermine gender equality and reproductive freedoms.
Including the recent Hobby Lobby decision at the Supreme Court, politicians in recent years such as current Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock said that pregnancy from rape is something "God intended to happen." Despite federal statutes on equal pay for equal work, a gendered pay gap still persists in the American workforce. Then there's the issue of a disproportionately high rate of anti-transgender hate crimes and their association with the murders of trans women, especially women of color, which gets precious little media attention or meticulous police investigation whatsoever. It's all part of what's been called a "War On Women," an open season on the reproductive, sexual and civil freedoms aimed at promoting equity between the genders.
The difference between that and these so-called MRAs? The people who already have the power don't need media attention or a self-aggrandizing conference to assert their limited view of gender equity onto everyone else.
If Americans are truly committed to rooting out the types of misogynistic rhetoric that has become such a hallmark of the MRA community, perhaps they must take care not to devote too much time and effort to flashy, yet relatively unnoteworthy events such as the Michigan men's rights conference.
Because you don't have to go to Michigan to find men's rights activists. Just ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg — they might be your next door neighbors.