interview: hugo schwyzer
I first encountered American gender commentator Hugo Schwyzer by way of his recent piece for Daily Life in which he presents his theory that gender inequality creates ‘half people’ of both sexes – individuals with an inability to fundamentally connect with one another. I found the piece to be insightful and liberating, and I was overjoyed to find a man discussing these issues in a relatively mainstream media space with such a fresh approach.
I had never encountered Schwyzer’s writing, or knew of his past, so I was shocked to follow the provided links within the article, which led me down the rabbit warren of the last year of his very public life. I don’t feel more words need be devoted to the discussion of the deeds themselves, but I do thoroughly recommend reading a number of perspectives on the topic. Those expressed on Feministe and by Schwyzer himself provide a basic overview of the issues.
I found it difficult to wrap my head around the problems posed by Schwyzer’s particular story, not only in relation to feminism, but also concepts of punishment, redemption and the construction of public identity in our confessionist and subsequently scandal-driven media. This same culture that sells intimacy to its consumers brazenly delights in defaming and destroying those individuals, who, willingly or without their explicit consent, provide the content. The ancient symbol of Ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail – comes to mind. It begs the question: what responsibility do we have, as consumers, for driving the narratives which are fed back to us?
After revelations of Schwyzer’s past went viral this year – even though he had provided the information himself some years prior – his presence in feminist spaces became widely discussed and deeply problematic. He resigned from a number of websites, while others chose to have him “banned”. He resigned from paid positions and some feminist organisations in which he was a chief facilitator. Much of this was self-initiated in reaction to commentators who criticised his right to produce content in spaces where women who have experienced abuse congregate. While I do consider seriously the arguments of those wary of privileging the voice of the abuser over the abused, I do not believe that the problems Schwyzer poses can be addressed in the act of silencing him. His narrative offers a perspective which I am always interested in: that of the ‘renouncer,’ the reformed, the one who went to the dark side of humanity and came back to tell the tale of what he found there.
Rather than the perpetual cycle of celebrity worship preceding the crucifixion, a narrative has surfaced, positioned firmly in the grey area of media based morality in the case of Schwyzer. This narrative offers us, the consumers, a chance to expand our ideas around the acknowledgement of human imperfection in our public spaces. It could serve to remind us all that we are not static, “complete” people, and highlight our capacity for change. But what happens when strangers accuse you of “faking” reform for attention? What does true reformation even look like? Are we only allowed to have a public voice if we are perceived to have never made moral missteps? These questions remind me of another recent internet sensation which troubled me deeply: that of Cat Marnell, the conflicted beauty editor turned drug experience columnist, who aptly asked, in reply to critics asking when her reformation was coming, ‘Isn’t a writer allowed to be conflicted?’
If someone’s past is problematic, it seems far more productive to explore it with them, in a dialogue that is open, exploratory and non-judgmental. This makes the interaction of benefit to both the individual and the public as consumers of the individual as an image: when the arena of public dialogue is fair and open to all manner of conversations, even those we may find it difficult to hear, we can begin to offer one another valuable perspectives we could only otherwise imagine. Isn’t that, at its core, the aim of feminism?
A friend of mine, Keith Oakden-Rayner and I had lengthy discussions about these issues over a number of weeks, and we formulated questions based on our conversations. The following are a mix of these questions, as answered by Hugo Schwyzer:
Do you feel there is a space for the redemption narratives of formerly violent or abusive men in the dialogue of feminist public space? What effect do you think its inclusion or exclusion might have?
I think that yes, there is a space. It’s important to understand how feminism can transform the most toxic and destructive behaviours. I do agree these stories ought to come with trigger warnings when they’re published in explicitly feminist places.
I have read a number of perspectives that call for feminist spaces to be for women only. Do you see your appearance in such spaces as inherently political, or as a challenge to this idea? How do you perceive your own story interacting with or altering the microcosm of these online feminist forums?
Do I think that single-sex spaces are often helpful for doing feminist work? Yes, absolutely. There are places where perhaps no men should go, and some places where men with less notorious pasts than my own might be welcome. I believe in safe spaces for healing and honest discussion.
That said, I don’t think major commercial websites (XOJane, Jezebel, The Frisky) constitute “feminist safe spaces” in which men’s voices – even the voices of “problematic” men – are automatically unwelcome. That’s why (and I keep repeating this point) I always disclose my story to new editors before my work is published at a site. These are the gatekeepers who know their communities best; they are in the right position to judge whether my writing will be a good fit or not.
Part of the problem is that too few male feminist allies tell their own stories. Some of that is an ideological choice about not wanting to take up too much space with men’s voices. But some of that is tactical; it’s the fear that if the complex and often messy truth about their personal lives and their pasts came out, they’d be excoriated. Take-down culture is unforgiving of imperfection. That’s one reason why I continue to write personal narrative, despite the uproar, because it’s important to document in detail HOW we live out our principles in our lives.
I don’t think I’m entitled to an audience. No writer, no activist is. In overtly feminist spaces (as opposed to online magazines) it’s important for men to take a back seat, to defer. But that stepping back doesn’t mean going away altogether, nor does it mean not writing about painful, complicated issues.
As was the case for you, greater levels of dysfunction can force sudden and radical change. Should feminism be trying to reach dysfunctional men first (i.e. those most damaged by patriarchy)?
Well, I think feminist MEN should be trying to work with these men. Though we can and should work with women, our primary responsibility should be to work with other guys – it’s not easy, but it’s the most useful way we can leverage the male privilege we have.
Much of the criticism around you involves a belief that you have not really redeemed yourself for your past. What do you feel is your responsibility, as an individual who has crafted a public persona, to prove you are “reformed”? And is this even possible within the concept of the constructed identity necessary to facilitate fame?
Here’s the problem: there’s no way to “prove” it online. I can’t prove I’ve made amends without naming those people to whom I’ve made them – which would just compound the harm I’ve done. What I ask is that people watch my present behaviour, hold me accountable for what I do. Friends can do that. But can internet culture do it? No, absolutely not. Trying to prove a negative (that I’m not engaged in old behaviour) is impossible; the more men protest the label “creepy,” the creepier they appear. Better to listen to criticism from the people who know us in real life and who have really seen us up close – and as for the rest, just do our work happily with the certainty that we will be loathed and mistrusted by many no matter WHAT we do.
How do you think punishment is currently operating as spectacle? What are its parameters in the media, particularly the internet with its wealth of ‘commentary.’ How do you see it operating in contemporary feminist space?
We live in takedown culture. It’s the bread and circuses of our time, feeding our desire to see the mighty or the pretentious laid low; to see the hypocrite (we are all hypocrites to one degree or another) exposed; to feel smug and superior for having “exposed” a fraud. We know how to tear people down, not build them up. Feminism isn’t the only offender, but online feminism is as guilty of this tendency as any other space.
Do you believe feminist online spaces should implement a new approach to conversation that subverts or avoids takedown culture? Comments sections can become completely toxic and it can at times derail otherwise constructive dialogue. Feminist spaces are in no way alone in this regard but as a movement centred at its core on equality, freedom of expression and the promotion of love, it feels particularly challenging. Can you imagine a way web space might be re-organised to avoid this trap?
I wish I knew! I often don’t read the comments on my pieces or those of my co-writers, simply because they’re so ugly and toxic. The policing, the credential checking, the relentless games of gotcha – it is awful. I do think sites need a clear comments policy and an aggressive moderation team.
How can society improve while success and power are the foundations of male attractiveness? What motivation do “powerful” men have to change?
We have the motivation to be trusted. To be seen as kind, accessible human beings rather than as remote, inaccessible, predatory men who must be placated. In Margaret Atwood’s famous Handmaid’s Tale, the Commander longs for a woman to kiss him “like she means it.” He has all this power but he’s miserable because he knows he’s feared, not loved. He can’t bring himself to relinquish his power, sadly. The reality is, if we want intimate relationships, if we want to connect, we have to give up this privilege.
Your writing is occasionally centred around a re-telling of your personal experiences, with names changed, but places and experiences unaltered. This has been heavily criticised as exploitative. Why continue to present narratives based on your own experience when it has resulted in a damaged reception of your academic ideas?
I do it because the personal is political – because documenting that men can change, that our lives can be transformed, that sexism and other addictions can be overcome – this is important. I’m not writing for an academic audience; I’m writing for a broader public. Memoir matters. The ethics of memoir centre on protecting people to the best of one’s ability, but also remembering that we have the right to tell the stories of our lives. That right to tell one’s story belongs to all of us. Storytelling is part of what makes us human; it’s perhaps the oldest uniquely human activity. I think it’s central to justice work.
How can men embrace feminism without role models demonstrating how to redeem, and make peace with, their past behaviour?
I don’t know that they can. If our only feminist men are either silent about their pasts or have pasts that are lily white, we’re missing a chance to hear how transformation happens. That’s a mistake, I think. I don’t want to be the only male feminist ally talking about this – but I worry that other men look at my example and say, ‘Gosh, I definitely won’t tell the truth about what I used to do, lest I end up like Schwyzer.’ I know that’s the takeaway that many of my male mentees have reached.
What is your advice to those who are currently frustrated with the way gender operates in Western society? How can an individual recognise that they are operating as you propose, as a ‘half person,’ and what can they do to bring about change within themselves?
The number one thing we can do is cultivate friendships with all sexes. Listen to each other. Look for role models in the other sex as well as your own, and provide those role models to one’s children. Separatism is a disaster; the way forward comes in recognising our common humanity. We need each other, not in a complementary way, but because we need to see how fundamentally alike we are.
By Audrey K. Hulm
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