The independent news organization of Duke University

If this is a man

esse quam videri

It is now November. Over a month has passed since the first official coverage of The Duke Men’s Project and its origins. As with anything that attempts to change the status quo, reactions were swift and overblown. Disgruntled alums, conservative websites and the depths of the internet were quick to label it as a denouncement of all things masculine. Liberal voices and groups on this campus were quick to rush to its defense and establish that any critics must be oblivious to notions of “toxic masculinity.” All offered quite different perspectives on the issues though clearly none actually captured the true spirit of The Duke Men’s Project.

If you truly want to understand what The Duke Men’s Project does, then I suggest you read their words or even better go talk to its founders. That’s what I did. If you do meet them, you will find not a bunch of liberals ready to shove their “feminazi propaganda” straight down your throats. Instead you will meet a group of educated students who want to have a conversation about the values and roles of gender in our society.

This is the type of conversation that should be the backbone of any liberal arts institution and especially Duke.

Moreover, many of the articles in defense of The Duke Men’s Projects are quick to leap to the obvious but more extreme consequences of the patriarchy including but not limited to, underrepresentation of women, sexual assault and direct violence against women.

These arguments and facts are far from new and have been stated over and over again. Rather than repeat them then, let us take a different approach. Let us start with a simple difference and expand from there.

I am a big fan of video games. As someone who used to play a variety quite frequently and occasionally plays them now, it is incredibly easy to see the gender divide present within these games. In short, there always seemed to me that there were no female gamers. Something especially troubling considering that there are no physical limitations to video games.

Don’t just take me for my word though, check out any number of studies. One study cited over 500 times suggests that based on “established social norms,” video games are perceived to belong in the male domain. Consequently, in an attempt to seek social acceptance and avoid going against this norm, females play video games less frequently, play for fewer hours, and are less likely to enjoy video games in general. In other words, merely by belonging to a gender, males and females were more or less likely to engage in specific actions.

However, this difference does not seem so radical and toxic at first, does it? Yet, this example can show us two things. First, it illustrates a simple and undeniable difference between notions of males and females in our society. Second, it illustrates how these preconceived notions can quite literally influence actions of a gender.

These preconceived notions and actions quickly form the building blocks that lead to societal structures. From such small beginnings, comes the general assumptions and stereotypes about different genders. From that come the myriad of potential consequences.

In the case of gaming, what might start as a simple gender divide escalates into something quite different. To appeal to a generally male audience, games quickly adopted manifestations of prototypical masculine behavior. In doing so, gaming quickly became an all male-space that emphasized both resistance to women and hyper masculinity. Moreover, the lack of alternate perspectives leads such an all male space to quickly normalize this type of aggressive behavior towards women on a societal level.

However, the origins of these consequences do not seem that radical now do they?

The most radical thing about The Duke Men’s Project is that it is in fact not radical at all.

The question then becomes, “How did what was intended as a conversation become such a controversy?” The answer lies in both journalism and rhetoric. It is less a problem of the actual mission of The Duke Men’s Project and more a problem of what happens when other forms of media directly and indirectly misrepresent it. And thus misrepresentation does not just come from right wing extremists either.

There are many different ways in which language can be used to quickly distort an original message. For the purpose of The Duke Men’s Project, I am going to set up the following timeline about the use of the words “safe spaces.” It is my hope that this timeline illustrates how quickly miscommunication can lead to misrepresentation.

On Sept. 26, The Chronicle published the first article about The Duke Men’s Project. It had no mention of the words “safe spaces.” The next closest reference was the mention of a quote from The Duke Men’s Project’s Facebook page that referred to how it hoped to “create a space of brotherhood fellowship dedicated to interrogating male privilege and patriarchy.”

On Sept. 29, The Chronicle’s independent editorial board quickly followed up suggesting that The Duke Men’s Project was “novel because it provides males a space (a safe space even) in which they can discuss their own gender.” This quote is the first and only reference to The Duke Men’s Project being a “safe space.” No doubt it was a convenient way for the Editorial Board to hyperlink their previous editorials in an attempt to appear relevant. However, this use of language started a quick chain reaction that distorted how The Duke Men's Project's structure and goals were being represented.

The next day on Sept. 30, Heat Street, a conservative blog, quickly published an article referencing how The Duke Men’s Project operated “under the banner of a ‘safe space.’” Their reference? The Chronicle’s editorial board.

By Oct. 2, Fox News had picked up the piece by Heat Street and headed it under the title “Duke offers men a ‘safe space’ to contemplate their ‘toxic masculinity.’

The next day, Oct. 3, Fox News had round 2 of their “discussion” of The Duke Men’s Project. This time it was part of the “Campus Craziness” session of On the Record with Brit Hume. Once again The Duke Men’s Project was described as a “safe space” for male students to discuss “toxic masculinity.” Referencing once more what the Editorial Board had started.

On Oct. 7, The Duke Men’s Project finally published their own account of what they were trying to accomplish. At this point, they were able to clarify that “while [they] recognize the value of safe spaces on campus, the Men’s Project is not intended as one.”

By then, certain damage had been done. Certain assumptions had been made. Certain individuals had begun to write off their Project. To some it had become associated with extreme and inaccurate notions of male re-education and feminization camps. This distortion of language had to lead to a widespread misperception about the actual nature of The Duke Men’s Project.

So what then is The Duke’s Men’s Project? From the perspective of this straight, white, moderate male, it is a conversation--one that attempts to address a range of issues. The fact remains that these issues are not initially inherent to all genders; rather they are acquired through an individual’s introduction to various individuals and society. Anyone can see the difference among genders in everyday life. Is it then so ultimately radical to have a conversation about these differences and attempt to address how they come about? Of course it’s not. As any true critical thinking exercise would, it asks men to reflect on their lives so far and how gender might have played a role in it.

Conversations like these represent a middle ground--one that does not demand overnight change but rather helps the participants understand why change might be necessary. The conversation does not in the manner of a stereotypical liberalism proclaim a right of way of thinking but asks its participants to listen and challenge how they view the world. As society continues to question issues related to gender, conversations like these represent the best opportunity for individuals to reflect on themselves and society.

I am not going to talk down to those individuals who disagree with The Duke Men’s Project. Condescending attacks create a visceral reaction and hurt one’s arguments if anything. Rather, I ultimately challenge them to do the research for themselves; to go and meet with those individuals with whom they disagree and be exposed to a different perspective; to leave their comfort zone--dare I even say safe space--of masculinity and challenge what it means to be a man. This is what makes The Duke Men’s Project truly radical: the commitment to having an open conversation while at the same time ultimately pushing the boundaries of the conversation on gender.

George Mellgard is a Trinity senior. His column, “esse quam videri,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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