The last 60 years or more have witnessed an enormous amount of activity on behalf of rights that had previously been ignored or violated with impunity. African-Americans in their almost 400 years of struggle for justice made one more push during what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. Women gathered together to talk to each other about their positions in the family, as daughters as well as wives, mothers, or employees. Their protests were raucous and effective.
Women demanding equal rights, equal respect and equal pay challenged established versions of what it meant to be a man. Several different men's movements came into being in response to Second Wave Feminism.
Some men persuaded by the complaints of different feminist groups came together to change the role men played as husbands, fathers, friends or employers. They saw that men had, in the past, taken gross advantage of the physical labor as well as the emotional generosity of their mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends and determined to mend their ways by doing their share of the housework and the childcare and surrendering their previous assumption that they were, in all respects, superior to the women whose services they demanded.
From the complaints of women about the emotional poverty of many men, their inability to be warm and just make friends, their inability to share their inner lives openly with others, another men's movement came to be that brought men together in groups to talk openly about much of what had before been hidden by each man or perhaps had even been unnoticed and certainly unexpressed. Men came together to cultivate their friendships, to learn to be expressive and share each other's inner lives with others. They learned to be more independent of the social skills and emotional availabilities of the women in their lives.
This second sort of men's movement did, at times have a misogynist edge. But that was certainly not the essence of it.
In recent years, a third men's movement has come to the fore and received a great deal of attention on various social media – a movement often referred to as the Men's Rights Movement. This movement is more often than not openly misogynist. It adapts the language of many feminist groups that complained about being oppressed by men by claiming that, instead, men are today being oppressed by women.
Those complaints are raised by different groups of men. One of those groups consists of divorced men whom the Courts compel to pay for the support of their former wives and the children who now live with their mother. Those complaints arise in different situations. If a family barely gets by to the end of the month without falling into debt, once it splits up as a consequence of divorce, there is not going to be enough money to go around. After the divorce the income that previously barely supported one family now has to pay for two households and that means rent on two different houses or apartments, at least two cars to get everyone to and from work, etc.. But getting divorced does not provide a better paying job and in many families the divorce brings with it serious economic deprivations. Many men believe that the legal compulsion to support their former wives and their children are a profound injustice. They feel oppressed, exploited and complain about violations of their rights.
A very different group of members of the Men's Rights Movement are the people who refer to themselves as "incel" or involuntarily celibate. These are men who cannot find a permanent girlfriend. Women are not interested in them. They regard them as odd and not material for serious relationships. They may be physically unattractive, incapable of listening to anyone else, excessively needy or unable to be supportive of other persons. Perhaps not surprisingly such men do not find the fault in themselves but blame women for not wannting to sleep with them.
Other men, for what ever reason, do not like women. They profess to be unable to understand women. They are afraid of them, they are afraid that women will make fun of them; they are excessively preoccupied with gender. Most likely they are not very sure of themselves and unskilled in establishing pleasant friendships to women or to men.
These different versions of men's rights makes sense for men for whom their gender is central to their identity. In relations to other men they talk about their sexual prowess and the ways they humiliate women. Much of this talk is just pretense. They are simply trying to impress other men with their powerful masculinity where being masculine means dominating women.
Instead of warm and enjoyable friendships, these men think of relationships as forms of competition in which domination is the goal. It is not surprising that women hesitate to be friends with them since being friends is a skill they lack. Nor is it surprising that women appeared to be mysterious since, more often than not, they are not interested in playing domination games. Since they think of relationships as competitions for power, they have difficulties understanding why their marriages don't last. Their ex-wives' demands for financial support is misinterpreted as part of a power struggle. At every turn they see illegitimate attempts at domination. They do not understand any other kind of relationships.
We could write these men and their claims about their rights off as pitiable failures, as rare human beings who did not learn elementary social skills while they were growing up. But these men who are fixated on their masculinity and their ability to dominate other men and especially women are not just unusual failures, exceptions to what most men are like in this is most obvious in business this society. Instead the men's rights movement is the product of important themes and tendencies in our society.
The desire to dominate, to be stronger, more violent, to make every situation into a competition, to praise men who are good competitors and who often win is a widespread attitude in this society. This is most obvious in business where winning out over the other party – putting them out of business – is the goal of competition. Cooperation is an option only where it makes money for both parties. Concern for a competitor is completely wrongheaded. The greatest admiration and praise goals to the people who get very rich at the expense of other businesses. Similarly, violent sports draw huge crowds of spectators every weekend. Boys, even quite young, are taught to play football or ice hockey – sports that require among other skills the willingness to cause pain to others. They are taught that winning is all important, that they should not be held back by physical pain, that being gentle and caring about the pains of others is not manly and should therefore be avoided at all cost. Members of the men's rights movement adhere to similar values centered on competition and winning at all costs in their relationships, especially to women.
The Men's Rights Movement holds up a mirror to American men and shows them the distorted and inhumane version of masculinity that they widely hold and respect. It shows how impoverished and pitiful that concept of masculinity really is.