Lindy West wants white men to stick up for her. In her debut column for the New York Times, feminist West answers the question she gets asked a lot by well-meaning dudes: How can we support people like you?
West’s response is eloquent: “Just stick up for us.” She writes: “[Guys] want to know what people like me, for instance (fat, female, feminist) need from people like them (plausible extras in a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial). It’s sweet and, I think, encouraging.” To avoid an argument “that could turn academic fast, replete with all the jargon that the sneering class finds so tedious: intersectionality, emotional labor, systemic oppression, the dreaded ‘privilege,” she offers this: “When I sat down with my friends, only one question sprang to mind, and it was personal, not pedantic. ‘Do you ever stick up for me?’”
West is calling for a return to a culture of honor. Before the culture wars became all-encompassing, with nothing off limits, we had guard rails that kept people, and especially men, aware that they are supposed to act with honor. It was OK to fight. It was expected that there would sometimes be verbal and even physical conflicts in life, but there was also a certain ethic that was followed by honorable men. A primary virtue was mercy; there was no need to destroy with personal insults.
Of course, you hoped to get the same good treatment in return. The contagion of modern abuse flows heavily from places like Jezebel.com, the feminist website where West used to appear as a writer. It’s become too easy to use snark, sarcasm and the most reductive observations instead of well-reasoned argument to make your case. It’s what Christopher Lasch observed decades ago in The Culture of Narcissism when he described how a lack of proper socialization led to a culture unable to accept limits and a “war of all against all.”
At the all-boys Jesuit high school I attended in the 1980s, the atmosphere was heavy with insults and put-downs, most of them aimed at each other. But, surrounded by good and honorable men, there was also peer pressure that kicked in when the group sensed someone taking an insult too far. Angry that a girl put you down or dumped you? That’s fine, yell and scream and kick the dirt. But don’t start calling her vulgar names; don’t make graphic sexual observations. If someone went too far, there was usually push-back: “Ease up, man!” was the common refrain. All of this was part of learning how to become a man.
Also central to the honor code was sticking up for outsiders like West, who refers to herself as “shrill” and “loud” and who has had public struggles with her weight.
As West writes, “Our society has engineered robust consequences for squeaky wheels, a verdant pantheon from eye-rolls all the way up to physical violence. One of the subtlest and most pervasive is social ostracism—coding empathy as the fun killer, consideration for others as an embarrassing weakness and dissenting voices as out-of-touch, bleeding-heart dweebs (at best). Coolness is a fierce disciplinarian.”
It is indeed. But these days the cool kids are as often as not the transgenders and radicals, not the white men whose aid West solicits. She might be surprised to learn that a lot of us have had struggles just like her. Sadly, we have an entire population of the aggrieved and angry, looking for any reason to attack the other side.
So, yes, as West suggests: Enough with the insults. But that honorable behavior should flow both ways. I say to West: I’m a white male and I’ve got your back. Do you have mine?
Image: By Faruk Ateş from San Francisco (Photo taken by Dot Richards) (Hero Lindy West.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons