Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why do smart women defend schmucks?

I've been reading all this stuff over at Feministe about this Hugo Schwyzer person (with whom I wasn't familiar before this), and my first reaction was annoyance and dismay at seeing several women (feminists, even!) defend someone who, to me, comes across as a narcissistic schmuck. To be fair, most people there are *not* defending him, but I was unhappy that some still were. Why would women do this? I asked myself.

And then I had to admit, I've done it too. Not online, but in "real life," which is arguably worse. I've known some narcissistic schmucks in my time, and some of them immediately disgusted me, while others I befriended and defended. They could be such nice guys, you see. They were in a lot of pain, you see. But most of all, if I am to be completely honest, it was about how much they seemed to like me. Using flattery to charm people is a really basic charmer tactic which should be obvious, but I have certainly had blind spots in this area when I was the one being flattered. It seems Mr. Schwyzer does help some feminist women promote their own work, and I could see how after receiving that kind of assistance could make one less able to see Mr. Schwyzer's flaws. [It is important to note the huge heap of privilege that put Mr. Schwyzer in such a position to "help" others, because, no, I don't think it's just luck or brilliance that gave him such a relatively big platform.]

There's also the fact that Mr. Schwyzer claims to have reformed from a past that included womanizing and addiction. And I will say that forgiveness is a big part of my personal value system, so I don't think he should necessarily be written off for his past. The problem, as I see it, is that although he may be sober, he is still locked in this dynamic of trying to get adoring female attention and causing harm while doing so. Which is not very feminist.

So, while my first instinct was to join the chorus of "he sucks and you suck if you defend him," I'm trying instead to find a lesson in this (blame it on that Dalai Lama book I just read!). Here are some things I think are helpful, at least for me, in the quest to NOT be a schmuck-defender:

1) Take praise graciously, but with a grain of salt. Humans are social creatures, and if feels good when we or are work is admired by others, and that's fine. It can help give us the confidence to keep moving forward. But it isn't everything. Constructive criticism can be more helpful in terms of actual improvement. And consider the motives of the person giving the praise.

2) Forgive when possible, but don't excuse or forget. And if you want others' forgiveness, know that simply admitting the wrongs you did and feeling ashamed are not heroic acts you deserve a medal for. You don't even "deserve" the forgiveness of those you wronged. That is their decision. And then, regardless of whether you are forgiven, making amends is an active, ongoing process that doesn't end with the confession. If someone keeps apologizing while continuing their harmful behavior, call them on it, and/or remove them from your life, depending on the situation. People CAN change, and they probably need the feedback of caring but firm people to help them continue to grow. They do not need ego-stroking or to be placed in situations that will tempt them to revert to old behavior patterns (like Mr. Schwyzer's job teaching young women).

3) Examine your own internalized misogyny. This is a big one for me. I can definitely not claim to be free of the desire for male approval. I need to actively remind myself that a compliment from a man is not more valuable than a compliment from a woman. It's OK for certain men not to like me. Men don't deserve "extra credit points." It sounds ridiculous, but it's old programming I still have to fight.

4) Avoid being a schmuck by working to eliminate defensiveness. This is a huge, huge one for me. When I'm criticized, I sometimes catch myself forming my rebuttal even before the other person gets through a sentence. My husband has called me on this before. Most of the narcissistic schmucks I've known had very well constructed walls of denial built around themselves, so not even the tiniest reproach could get through. I don't want to be like this. So I think it's key to listen to criticism from people who care about me. Not random jerks or abusive people or whatever. But people who care about me have an outside perspective on me, which I can never have. I don't always have to think they're 100% correct, but I should at least listen and give it some thought.

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