Reader Axxr, posting on the “Her 2+2=4 Moment” thread:
I’ve posted under other articles about my career, a little bit. I spent years as a professor in the social sciences, which naturally proceeds from the fact that I was a young social justice warrior. Atheist, member of the communist party in my early youth. Full of righteous indignation at the oppressive forces that lay behind religion, patriarchy, capitalism, and so on.
As I aged and entered my thirties, I mellowed a bit; I was more civil, less urgent in my denunciations and rhetoric. I was more evidence-driven; I believed in research and data and empiricism and logic. But I didn’t question the fundamental rightness of my worldview. I even proposed and was married, over the bemused objections of some others that I knew who suspected marriage as such.
Naturally, being a committed leftist, I married another committed leftist. And being naive, I imagined that all of the rhetoric about capitalists and men and so on was meant not to apply to all capitalists or all men—just to the bad ones, just to the ones that were not serving the ends of “justice” in a broken world. I leave as an exercise for the reader whether I fairly made the same exceptions when I condemned others.
No doubt there are many who would snicker at my naivete, but there it is. I wasn’t one of them; I was on the right side of history, an ally, an activist, even—on my more aspirational days—a technocrat and mentor.
But it soon became clear that all was not well at home. In short order, I went from being a husband and a father (we had conceived quickly) to being a “man,” a pejorative term in the circles I was in, like other men, and bearing the same congenital flaws. Not merely to be suspected and to be kept away from the children, but to be condemned, to be punished, carrying all the patriarchal sins of my fathers. Similarly, the fact that I had a family to support and bills to pay, that I cared about careers and taxes and prices and return rates and some basic forms of propriety made clear that I was also a complicit “capitalist.”
The shift was subtle at first, but in time every discussion on any issue became one about my sex, my metonymy of the patriarchy, and my capitalist complicity. All perceived good actions on my part were dismissed as resulting from the influence and disciplining effect of my wife, feminism, and anti-capitalism as against my nefarious inborn tendencies. All perceived bad actions were, of course, the result of my manhood and my capitalist sympathies, which naturally sought to “oppress,” “dominate,” “pillage,” “exploit,” and so on. It couldn’t just be that I preferred a different dinner, thought that a particular expenditure was a bad one, felt that there was a better way to repair a cracked front door. No, I was man dominating woman, as is my wont, and capitalist exploiting domestic labor for my own benefit, as has happened since time immemorial.
I didn’t start fights, but soon a major fight every day there nonetheless was, and soon after that they turned violent (I was never violent in response). The violence against me was, naturally, justified; it was the violence of the oppressed against their oppressor. If I was really an ally, I would demonstrate that I could at once take a punch nonviolently and empathize with my attacker’s social plight and history of victimhood.
In time, I ran to wit’s end and a divorce resulted. I still wasn’t quite to 2+2 = 4. For me, it was all a tragedy, For her, it was a triumph. The oppressed had emerged victorious; woman had overcome man, all was well, a glorious day somewhere along history’s arc. The lack of any sense of tragedy or loss, and the gleeful triumphalism took me aback. There was no discussion, no human communication to be had; it all took place in activist platitudes as it by then had done for years.
I was taken aback once more when everyone in our circle of friends embraced and justified the triumphalist view. The rationalizations and explanations, given to my face in all seriousness, resulted in an epistemological break for me. For the first time, I opened my eyes and understood. I, naive soul that I am, was the only one in our entire circle that had imagined such things as “love” and “marriage” and “parenthood” to be simple, fundamental qualities. I’d believed I had a “marriage.” They, knowing better than to suppose that such things are anything other than largely defeated forms of slavery, had assumed I’d proposed ironically, or at the very least, with some radical intent.
For the rest, it was all ideology, and if I refused to see that and to be of good cheer about the guerrilla victory of female oppressed against male oppressor then perhaps I really *was* part of the male, white, corporate oppression after all. But come, let’s not be so dark about such things, after all, I had always been an ally, they were sure that underneath a little bruise or two to my ego, I was as edified by the rest that history had taken the proper turn and its implicit teleology had found expression in another particular case. Yes, perhaps I was divorced and my offspring now living with the inevitable “broken home” arrangement, but hey—the right side had won and the man had been vanquished, and kids need to be “liberated” from the nuclear family and to understand about patriarchy and its outcomes anyway.
Years of abuse as merely “the man,” a token, not an individual, culminating in a divorce and custody battle. And not a soul other than myself was troubled by it in the least. Nobody could even see the personal dimension; it was all structural politics. And it was all salutary at the end of the day, right and proper and good. Surely I could move beyond my petty, privileged concerns and see that this was all an instance of the general case of the battle against male oppression (me) by history’s female victims (her) and against capitalist revanchists (me) by those who refuse to be complicit (her).
And off everyone went to continue with their battles in the same terms, let’s all move on and do more good! For everyone but me, it was all about—and had always been about—power. It was then that I realized what had been meant all those years when anti-Marxists from former Soviet-bloc states that I encountered at conferences spoke of the loss of dignity—and even basic awareness of—the individual that occurs in Marxist societies.
I changed how I taught in the classroom. Not the data, but some of the implications. Some of the pat judgments and assurances about history’s telos. In time, I was called in to answer for my sins—for not sufficiently asserting certain self-evident social justice truths. I was not doing my part to bend the arc of history. I was sticking to data and method, but that wasn’t good enough; data and method have sources, and some of these—indeed most of them—are white and male. To cite a study without an extended critique of its while, male author was “uncritical” at best, “ideological” at worst (irony of ironies). No, data and method as such simply would not do. As this played out, it became clear to me that I would either comply or leave; no other choices presented themselves.
It suddenly seemed a small thing to leave my career behind as well. It all came together. 2 + 2 = 4 is a simple truth, not an assertion of power. I had been so wrong about so much. This equation doesn’t merit examination by “sociology of science” professionals, with an eye toward understanding its social construction and structural power implications. It simply is. 2 + 2 = 4. And some people will forever refuse to see it, not because they are inept or idiotic, but because there are other, more conscious agendas to which simple arithmetic doesn’t hold a candle and must be sacrificed.
It’s been a number of years now, but from those final weeks as a professor onward, I have been neither a man of the political left or the right. It’s been years for me, but after an entire lifetime and a Ph.D. and identity and publication record and so on, it’s taking some time to figure things out. My life has gone off the rails, but my soul is at peace. I’ll repeat what “The Other Side” said above, because it’s very apropos:
“I feel like I’m in a very strange liminal flux where I’m trying to figure out how being traditionally religious and culturally educated became the ultimate rebellion, and doing more charity work and donating than I used to. And to use a Jordan Petersonism, slowly but surely cleaning my room.”
UPDATE: Reader The Other Side comments:
I find a TON to relate to in this. I don’t see that Axxr is blaming this whole thing on the left or his ex at all. He’s quite clear that he was naïve and sees that now. My story has some parallels including it taking a while even after the divorce to understand just what the hell happened.
My ex-wife and I were best friends for a decade before we started dating. Though we may not have been around a particular leftist group or academia we were immersed in that mindset. After 6 great years with this person who had always been the absolute girl of my dreams we got married. I too thought that meant something transcendent.
Now, all was not well the last six months before the big day. You see, she had found this new writing platform called Tumblr. She always liked to write and blog but this thing sucked up a ridiculous amount of time. She became the most popular moderator on the entire platform according to her(all free labor of course). It was all people spilling their guts, their pain, their truth, and sharing their experiences with all the monsters of society that hurt them. There was this weird ego feeding phenomena of people liking each others stuff almost as a competitive sport. She became a minor internet celebrity. She would read me letters of people who told me she was courageous, outspoken, an inspiration, so when I complained about her quitting her job so she could sit and chain smoke in front of the computer 20 hours a day, ( and this was after a previous computer game addiction. I should have seen it coming…) I was the problem. How could I not see the importance? This was real life. Not the ashtrays and rotting take out and soda bottles and refusal to go outdoors. That wasn’t important. The likes, the feels, the brokenness, the abyss… That was what was real to her. I was a monster for not being more compassionate. To even suggest therapy or that getting better would be a good thing was to not understand of empathize. How I dare I try to fix her? And really, she was absolutely 100% correct. I should have left.
It’s rough when someone you know and trusted for almost two decades goes mad though. And it wasn’t all her fault. I was somewhat pathetic. It’s the frog slowly boiling in a pot situation. You make excuses, you think they would never treat you this way, that this must be a temporary problem, you allow yourself to become weak, and you don’t speak the truth that’s tearing at your soul because that truth seems so horrible that to say it must mean you’re the crazy one. That slow rotting spiritual death that happens in bedrooms and offices spills out and spreads like an unseen cancer. We’re finally seeing it, but like many patients, we’re not catching it early enough.
And yeah, you can laugh and say you get what you deserve, and it’s true that sin is its own reward, but people should hear stories like this and see it as a warning. We can all smile smugly at people who do dumb things but that doesn’t really help anything. The point is if you stop speaking the truth, if you don’t bring up the darkness and incongruous parts of you, it will come and bite you, in the form of the people you love the most, and have chosen to keep around you. The flood will come.
I also can’t feel totally angry at these people. They have real stories of pain and suffering. There are many reasons to not trust the institutions and structures we are now tasked with carrying on into the future. It’s a mess. The thing is though, you don’t get a choice in the matter. You can lie to yourself and say you get to sit out of the game but you don’t. But don’t enjoy the smugness too much either. In the same way you learn you can’t sit out of reality no matter how much you want to, you have to understand that at some point these broken people will wake up too and anyone functional is going to have to be ready to take in the wounded. They’re going to be hurt. Then the question is going to be will they learn to take up their crosses and can you help them or are they going to light themselves on fire and everything else around them?