What Does The Southern Poverty Law Center Have to Say About “Men’s Rights” Activists?
by Guest Contributor Soraya Chemaly, Special to The Stream
This piece is a companion to our show on Men's Rights activism, featuring Robert O'Hara, David Futrelle, Clare Huntington, Mark Greene, and Brandon Lyons.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit organization whose mission is identifying and revealing bigotry and hatred. Founded in 1971 by Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr., both Civil Rights lawyers, the organization is internationally recognized for researching, writing about and tracking the activities of hate groups.
On its website, the SPLC maps and tracks 939 known hate groups. This number represents a 56% increase since 2000. It includes neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others. In addition to documenting hatred and extremism, the group tracks LGTB rights and issues related to xenophobia and immigration. The SPLC also pursues legal remedies for documented injustices and publishes an award-winning magazine, Intelligence Report, that covers the rise of the radical right in the United States.
Among the people and groups that the SPLC has investigated in recent years are individuals and elements of an increasingly vocal and amorphous “men’s rights activism” movement, members of whom are commonly called MRAs. This catchall phrase includes a wide variety of groups, which make it difficult to track and define. David Futrelle, creator of We Hunted The Mammoth, a site that documents misogyny on-line and reviews MRA websites and activity, publishes a list of words used to define elements of what is broadly called the “manosphere.” Writing last year in The American Prospect, Jaclyn Friedman, described MRA’s growth and impact in recent years. The unifying themes across groups seem to include the belief that men are the greatest victims of modern society, that women are fickle and evil, and that feminists control the planet. The first planned international meeting organized by MRA groups scheduled to take place in Detroit was cancelled, and the venue changed, after protesters petitioned the hotel where it was to be held.
It is not difficult to understand the rise of MRAs in the context of what sociologist Michael Kimmel, in his recently published book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, calls “the era of unquestioned and unchallenged male entitlement.” Kimmel’s analysis resonates with the SPLC’s assessment of why hate groups have grown so quickly in the past decade, a surge they describe as “fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.” That women, as a class, would be targets of anger in this environment should surprise no one. However, the idea of gender-based hate remains difficult for many people to process.
MRAs, and in particular the forum PUAHate, became more visible after public examination of the influence of this online community on Elliot Rodgers. Prior to the shooting, the existence of these communities, and the messages they promulgate, was largely unknown, even while the impact they are bringing to bear on legislation and their engagement in anti-woman protests are notable. Among the reports published by the SPLC, for example, is one debunking often-repeated MRA misinformation regarding the reality of sexual assault. (During an Al-Jazeera interview, an MRA spokesperson described the SPLC as “not a credible organization.”)
In the wake of the Rodgers shooting, and after talking several times with the SPLC about gender-based hatred during the past year, I spoke with Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the organization, about how they view the men’s rights activism movement.
SC: Could you please describe the work that the SPLC has done in the past in regards to MRA and PUAHate sites?
MP: Well, the very first contact we had with that world was a story we wrote two years ago in May of 2012 and at that time this was a world that was essentially unknown to us that we more or less tripped across. We started with a big story about the self-immolation of Thomas Ball in New Hampshire in 2011. It was an incredible case. Ball left behind a manifesto calling on men to rise up against the matriarchy, in particularly by doing things like attacking police stations with Molotov cocktails. That kind of puts this world into the realm of the work we do. Since then we followed up that story with a series of smaller stories.
SC: As far as “the realm of the work” that you do…what criteria are associated with this work? For example, was it his explicitly stated violent intention?
MK: What we study are groups and individuals who target or attack entire groups of human beings based essentially on their class characteristics. For example, “All white people,” “All women,” “All Jews.”
SC: Subsequent to that story, have you worked specifically with any women’s groups or individuals to track explicitly misogynistic violence or expressions of violence?
ML: No, we haven’t. People send us tips and that is very frequent and sometimes the tips are very useful. It’s how we found this so-called world of the “manosphere.” We get input, but we don’t work in any kind of formal alliance to track the men’s rights groups. However, we have kept our eye on that world.
SC: Are you aware of any organization that is looking at gender-based hate specifically?
MP: No. When we discovered this world I was, frankly, amazed. I’ve been doing this work for twenty years now. When you look at the larger society, this was a world that was largely unknown, or at least, was, until the Elliot Rodger’s rampage. The sad truth is that if there is anything positive to come out of Elliot Rodgers’ actions it is that it has quite substantially increased awareness of this world. That’s a small positive in all of this.
When we first began to write about this world, the level of counter attack was really quite amazing. My colleague Josh Glasstetter, the person who found [Elliot Rodgers’ messages on] the PUAHate site, wrote three blog posts. The third got well over 2,000 comments, which for us was absolutely amazing. Those comments were largely dominated by men’s rights people attacking us. We had never had a response like that. This is an angry world and more thickly populated one than we had any idea of. This is very familiar to women in the public eye, especially if you are a feminist.
SC: Mental illness and misogyny aren’t mutually exclusive, although many people would like to portray them as unrelated. Do you think that these sites validated Elliot Rodgers’ distorted view of the world?
MP: Yes. Clearly he was mentally ill, clearly he had developed his own rage. I’m not trying to argue is that the manosphere made him to it. The role of this world in Elliot Rodger’s life was to tell him that he wasn’t an alienated loser, but a smart kid that understood exactly what the problem was.
SC: What is most useful to you when people report incidences of harassment or hate? What can the SPLC do?
MP: These online groups cannot be shut down. They are essentially 100% protected by the 1st Amendment. We are enthusiasts of the 1st Amendment and we are not seeking to shut people down. Our work is really about throwing a light on these groups for the larger public to know what they are and, to the extent possible, shaming the people who run these sites and forums. Which may be significantly less possible in this case.
We went into this world to show how really despicable it is. We have no beef with some men complaining about their treatment in family court and custody battles. Sometimes they are treated unfairly. We also don’t dispute that men are victims of rape. However, this is a world largely peopled not by seekers of justice for men but by people who despise and absolutely vilify women and not just particularly women but women in general. They fit very squarely within the purview of the work that we do. They are there just pushing out enormous amounts of untrammelled hatred.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about feminism, gender and culture. Her work appears in The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, and other media outlets. She is on Twitter as @schemaly.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.