DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My brother is very anti-feminist and I (a feminist woman) hate it. Any attempts that I give to explain feminist issues to him results in him pouting and resolving that men have more disadvantages than women and that feminism is unfairly targeting men.
For example, just today he went on a rant about how extreme feminists were going to put all men in concentration camps if they ever came into power, that everything bad that’s ever happened in the world is men’s fault, that feminism does nothing but reduce all men to nothing more than violent sex-drived beasts who can’t control themselves, and on and on he went.
When I recommended he read about feminism from actual feminists he threw a fit about how he wasn’t going to understand it because men and women can’t possibly relate to each other. When I tried to read some pieces from your website about toxic masculinity to him he got angry and went on a rant about how men are basically useless and they’re easily replaced and his rants are just nasty in general.
I tried to stress to him that while I firmly believe that there are men’s issues that deserve sufficient attention and work (such as the high suicide rate for men) that there are many more female issues that deserve just as much attention and validity (like the high rate of sexual assault and murder, wage gap, lack of representation in politics and science fields, etc). He didn’t want to hear it.
He’s slowly driving me insane and I don’t know how to convey to him the relevance of feminism without having him shut down on me. Can you help me out?
Fed up Feminist
DEAR FED UP FEMINIST: I have a couple questions for you, FuF, and I think my first is “how old is your brother?” His behavior sounds somewhere between somebody throwing a tantrum and being an a
hole for attention rather than somebody who legitimately thinks that feminism is all that’s evil in the world. I’d be curious as to how much of this are things that he honestly believes and how much is somebody trying to be a habitual line-stepper.
I’m also kinda wishing you’d used slightly less loaded language, because if he’s a grown-ass man and throwing literal fits, then I think the problem rises beyond “he’s got s
tty opinions” and more to “are we sure he’s actually in control of his actions or that he’s not a danger to himself or others?”
But let’s assume for the moment that this is more “heated discussion” and not the manosphere equivalent of somebody getting triggered by hearing the words “Niagra Falls”. Let’s further assume that these are genuine beliefs and worries, not his trying to be a troll in real life or that he’s arguing in bad faith. How do you reach somebody who seems to be that unhinged, that irrational about women, about men, about feminism and so forth?
A lot of people will want to debate them or demolish their arguments on a point by point basis. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually change people’s minds. In fact, challenging somebody’s beliefs — especially if they’re beliefs that are central to their identity, their concept of who they are as a person — is more likely to invoke what’s known as the Backfire Effect and make them double-down on what they already believe. When you’re arguing about something that’s central to who they are, what you’re functionally telling them is that you think they’re a bad person. Needless to say, the almost instinctive response to this isn’t to say “you know what, you’re right!”, it’s to get defensive and stop listening. They’re much more likely to get even more vehement about what they believe, if only out of pure stubbornness, than they are to listen to what you have to say.
And even if you did prove the illogic of their beliefs and point out over and over again how wrong they were so skillfully and so carefully that they couldn’t help but be convinced of the correctness of their arguments… then they aren’t going to thank you for it. You haven’t motivated them to be a different and better person, you’ve destroyed a part of who they thought they were. That’s going to leave them bitter and resentful about it.
Just as importantly however, is that you can’t logic someone out of something that they didn’t come to by logic in the first place. It’s pretty clear that your brother’s beliefs have little to do with logic and much more about emotion. The things he says aren’t logical, they’re emotional and they’re reinforced by people who play to his emotions, making arguments that feel convincing because they reinforce what he already believes. You’re not going to argue someone into not feeling things.
If you want to change his mind, if that’s even possible — and that’s a mighty big if — then you can’t argue him out of it. You have to persuade him, coax him and lead him to that conclusion… and let him feel like it was his idea in the first place. But to do that, first he has to be willing to listen.
The easiest way to do that is to ask him to explain things to you first… preferably in his own words. This part is actually surprisingly sneaky, an act of verbal jiu-jitsu. He’s expecting you to get your dander up and to yell and argue. But if you ask him to explain it to you, then you’re yanking the rug out from under him. Where he was expecting resistance, he gets… nothing. This throws him off balance. More importantly though, it forces him out of his usual patterns; now he has to actually think things through instead of throwing up the usual verbal flack, the traditional derailments and distractions. The odds are good that he’s never actually had to think about it in this way; he’s much more used to arguing in soundbites that he got from somebody else.
So the next time he starts one of these rants, ask “ok… so could you explain to me how that works?” “Why would feminists do this?” “What would be the point of it?” “How would this benefit them?” “Why would Mom/I/girl-he-knows-from-school want to go along with this?” Approach this from a position of benign confusion and wanting to have things clarified for you. The more he has to explain the reasoning behind it, the more he’s going to have to confront the fact that much of what he’s saying doesn’t make sense. This helps plant the seed of just how absurd it is without your having to say so.
Just as importantly though, by appearing to take him seriously enough to listen and ask him to explain, you’re setting a framework where you’re validating his humanity and intelligence. This makes it much easier to start establishing a sort of mutual agreement: “I think we can both agree that as a plan, rounding up men into camps would just be more trouble than it’s worth,” That phrase “we can both agree that…” is crucial; by framing things as “we are two reasonable, intelligent people,” you’re establishing this as a dialogue between equals — more partnership than antagonists. This makes him more open to listening and gives him the space to decide to change his mind instead of being told to.
As you listen, ask leading questions. Why would he assume that men and women can’t understand each other? You two seem to understand each other quite well. Why would he say that men are useless or disposable? Yeah, it’s awful that, say, men are more prone to suicide than women are. Why does he think that is? Wouldn’t it feel better if he didn’t have to pretend he was never hurt or scared or upset?
The more he’s willing to answer your questions, the more you’re able to lead him down the directions you want. What does he think the answer would be that would make things better? Why does it seem like the people who’re telling him all of this are more invested in his being angry instead of actually solving the problems? Why does it seem like they believe the worst stereotypes about men?
As the conversation goes on and his positions start to soften, then you can say “you know, I read something about this, you might find this interesting…” and then give him resources to check out as he chooses.
Here’s why this works better than arguing with him: by leading him down these paths, you’re validating a big part of his worldview: being a man can absolutely suck. The traditional ideas of what being a man is supposed to be are restrictive, toxic and have lead to pain, misery and suffering all around and it leads to men being used and exploited by other men. To paraphrase Laurie Penny: patriarchy doesn’t mean rule by men, it means rule by ‘Fathers’… and most men will never be allowed to be Fathers. Validating his world view makes the rest of the conversation less threatening to his identity. That makes it easier for him to decide to change his mind… he’s not changing his identity, just the facts that he believes in. By asking leading questions, you are giving him the space to come to conclusions on his own. It feels like he decided to do these things, instead of being browbeaten into agreement. That makes the new facts more compelling to him and more likely to stick.
Now I need to stress: this isn’t guaranteed to work. Nothing you say is going to make a difference if he’s just saying things to be a s
tty edgelord and provoke a reaction out of people. Nor is it going to lead him to change his mind if he’s having some sort of breakdown or he’s literally throwing fits. If he’s coming to this from a place of genuine pain or anger, you have a chance to help him.
But if he’s just being s
tty for the sake of being s
tty, then the only thing to do is refuse to engage at all. In that case, all you need is “I don’t want to hear about it and I don’t care,” and just shut the entire conversation down.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org