When Earl Silverman was found dead, hanging from the rafters of his garage after an apparent suicide, those who knew him best said he had died from indifference. For the last five years, Silverman had owned Canada’s only shelter for men, taking battered husbands and their children into his own house in Calgary so they could escape abusive wives. A soft-spoken man in his late 50s, Silverman was inspired to start his shelter after leaving his own wife, who he claimed abused him physically and emotionally during their 20-year marriage, but he was unable to find a shelter that would admit him. In March, Silverman had closed his shelter, sold his home and filed for bankruptcy. On April 27 his body was found, along with a four-page suicide note—in which he allegedly blamed the federal and provincial governments for indifference toward the suffering of men.
“That note was his final attempt to get his story on the record,” says Karen Straughan, an Edmonton-based writer, activist and friend of Silverman’s. “During his life, he was always silenced, so I think this was one last, desperate attempt to be heard.”
And he was heard. As soon as the details of Silverman’s death were released by Calgary police, the news began to travel swiftly through the Internet. Hundreds of websites and message boards devoted to men’s rights caught onto the story. Popular sites like A Voice for Men and the men’s rights forums on Reddit and 4chan were flooded with messages about Silverman’s struggle and demise. Many of those who commented online had never heard of Silverman while he was alive, but after his death they felt compelled to share their feelings of grief, frustration and anger.
A Reddit user named AgentmrmOrangemra wrote, “This is what happens when we throw men on the garbage heap.” On A Voice for Men, editor Paul Elam said Silverman was a victim of feminism and “misandrist bulls–t.” Harry Crouch, president of the National Coalition for Men, said Silverman was “murdered by suicide by the feminized state of Canada.” One Reddit user commented that, “The vaginocracy has blood on its claws over this.” As the story took off, mainstream media outlets joined the discussion. Salon, the Huffington Post and The Atlantic Wire published articles about Earl Silverman. In Canada, multiple newspapers ran obituaries. Some writers commiserated with Silverman’s troubled life, some discussed abuse against men, but the loudest voices belonged to those looking for someone to blame.
In response to the rhetoric coming from men’s rights groups, Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote an article entitled, “Feminism didn’t kill men’s rights advocate Earl Silverman,” where she sympathized with Silverman’s plight, but called into question the statistics used to measure violence against men. Within a matter of hours the response escalated, quickly degenerating into the kind of interplay that ultimately reinforced the worst stereotypes of the men’s rights’ movement, with its inherent sexism, threats of violence and extreme language. Elam from A Voice for Men responded with an article entitled, “Mary Elizabeth Williams killed Earl Silverman.” Blogger Dean Esmay responded with a list of feminist men, women and organizations he believed were to blame, ranging from Alberta Premier Alison Redford to writers with the feminist blog Jezebel to professional video-gamer Anita Sarkeesian. At the end of his article he added that men’s rights activists would be “coming for them” and all the other “feminists who will be dancing on [Silverman’s] grave” for making all men disposable entities in modern society. Every new article about Silverman’s death was met with angry comments, finger-pointing and another incendiary article. Soon, on any website where Silverman and his death were being discussed, any meaningful consideration of the issues was quickly drowned out by the deafening noise of what was quickly becoming a wall of hate.
The men’s right’s movement, born as an offshoot of feminism, first hit its stride in the 1980s, lobbying for more equity in custody disputes, and greater opportunities in a world which, they felt, had tilted intentionally to favour the women ignored for generations by traditional values. Those early days of boys’ education advocacy and father’s rights eventually spawned a movement that bears little resemblance to the original, one whose demographic is considerably younger, whose focus is more scattershot, and whose anger is considerably more pitched. No longer is it a movement for disenfranchised men. This is now, increasingly, a movement of Angry Young Men.
Paul Elam represents the old guard. At 56, he launched A Voice for Men in 2008 to raise awareness about under-reported male issues including domestic violence, suicide and child custody. It wasn’t long, however, before he found that the primary men’s rights demographic was young, unmarried men between the ages of 18-24. He expanded the site’s content to include issues pertinent to his largest readership: the growing gap between girls and boys in education, men who face false rape accusations, and what he calls “the demonization of male sexuality.” The majority of the blog’s content is about feminism, which the blog calls a “totalitarian, violent, amoral murderous ideology of sexual apartheid and hatred.” Articles on feminism are often accompanied by photos of Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, and one of the most prominent features of the blog are the pictures of dangerous “bigots”—most of whom are young, female university students who have protested at men’s rights events on campuses.
While Elam admits that sometimes the comments and photos on the site are not as measured as he would like, he says the vitriolic headlines are an effective way of gathering traffic. A Voice for Men attracts more visitors than any other men’s issues website, including the Canadian Association for Equality and the Good Men Project. Elam, who himself is the author of a post entitled, “When is it OK to punch your wife?” says he doesn’t “get a rise out of offending people,” but admits anger is the only thing that’s driving the conversation forward. Far from encouraging violence, Elam says that being able to talk about being angry at women, hating women and even beating women on sites like A Voice for Men provides a lot of hurt men the ability to vent emotionally in a supportive environment, so they don’t have to express their anger physically.
“Some of the men on the site have been in abusive relationships, have gone through unfair divorces—they’ve just been savaged by the system. I won’t tell them to stop being angry.” He thinks the rage expressed on his site is a natural and harmless reaction to young men’s uncertain place in modern society. As women pull ahead in education, men are being left behind. As universities raise awareness of sexual assault on campus, men feel as if they are all thought to be potential perpetrators of sexual violence. As women transcend traditional gender roles, young men are increasingly confused about how to behave in a relationship. In a more just world, Elam says, men could at least talk about their problems, but many universities shut down men’s groups before they are even formed. This spring, the Canadian Federation of Students passed a motion encouraging all student unions to reject men’s rights groups, because they promote “hateful views toward women” and justify physical and sexual assault.
More recently, a controversy over a campaign at the University of Alberta fed national headlines. The “Don’t Be That Girl” campaign, by Men’s Rights Edmonton, suggests some women lie about being raped and that rape is over-reported. Posters depict attractive young women drinking in the company of young men with the caption, “Just because you regret a one-night stand doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.”
The University of Alberta ordered the posters be taken down, saying that while free speech is respected, the posters violated the school’s posting policies. Men’s Rights Edmonton says the poster was meant to provoke discussion about double standards.
Warren Farrell, a prominent gender activist councillor, and author of The Myth of Male Power, is not surprised that young men today are angry. “In our society, the sound of men complaining is like nails on a chalkboard,” he says. But their angst, he says, stems from larger feelings of powerlessness. Farrell, 69, is considered the grandfather of the men’s rights movement. He has been writing about boys and men since the 1980s, but only recently have his books begun to do well commercially. In light of this new success, he admits that he is cautiously optimistic about where the men’s rights movement is headed. He drew a sold-out crow—and protests—when he spoke at the University of Toronto last November.
James McCarthy, a 21-year-old student at the University of Toronto, says he was shocked to see so many people protesting the event and labelling it as a hate group. McCarthy says that, while he has never faced any discrimination because he is a man, he does believe that women are unfairly privileged due to the expectation of chivalry and receiving privileges over men because men are sexually attracted to them. “Feminists often claim that chivalry is a product of the patriarchy that they are trying to change, but I doubt that many are interested in challenging the status quo.”
The Farrell event at U of T was organized by the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE)—a men’s rights group that was founded in Toronto in 2011. In March, the group was banned from forming a chapter at Ryerson University after the student council ruled that CAFE was a hate group. Iain Dwyer, a 28-year-old IT specialist and spokesman for the group, says the strong opposition to men’s rights has been frustrating because “no reasonable person” could argue there is a disparity in society that benefits men. In spite of the opposition, in under two years the group has grown to include affiliated groups at university campuses in Guelph, Montreal, Ottawa and Peterborough, as well as off-campus groups in Ottawa and Vancouver, with thousands of young supporters in Canada and the United States. “I understand why a lot of them are angry,” says Dwyer. “I’ve felt anger myself.”
Mark Harris, 24, also learned about the men’s rights movement during the protests at the University of Toronto against Farrell. He sees the growing movement as part of Gen Y’s failure to launch: “Men my age are struggling, they’re doing poorly in school and unemployment is high,” he says. “A lot of young men are frustrated and looking for someone to blame.”
In a time where there is little class consciousness, Harris says, he’s not surprised that women have become a target for angry men. A lot of young men are frustrated by romantic expectations and afraid of being rejected, but it’s more likely to do with how women seem better prepared for the workplace than men. “Women just seem to have a better work ethic, they tend to be more organized, more meticulous,” he says. “Maybe it’s because girls are brought up to believe that the world is a hard place for women. Boys aren’t brought up that way, so women tend to be better prepared to meet the expectations of the world.”
At the protest against Farrell at U of T, where protesters called the attending men misogynists and pigs, what McCarthy remembers best is one sign, which said, “Sorry about your Man-Feels.”
“Sure, it was funny,” he says. “But it was also offensive.”
After a similar men’s rights event, organized by CAFE in April, there was a similar clash of protesters, and afterwards A Voice for Men posted a video from the event. In the clip, a red-haired woman is reading an article about the shared goals of feminism and men’s rights, while swearing at those who interrupted her. The video quickly reached over 100,000 views; hundreds of comments flooded in from men’s rights activists, threatening to beat, rape and murder the woman in the video. The woman, Charlotte (who is using a pseudonym for safety reasons) says that men’s rights activists disseminated her personal information, including what they believed to be her home address, and sent her hundreds of violent, graphic and sexualized threats, which included personal details such as her dog’s name and her favourite karaoke bar. In one Facebook message, the sender promised that he would not sleep until her “unholy blood was spilt.” She contacted police and did not hear from them until 17 days later. After speaking with them a second time, Charlotte says they never contacted her again, and she thinks they did not investigate because the threats did not specifically imply she was in immediate danger.
“I was terrified by the messages,” she says, “but it’s more terrifying when the cops tell you it’s not necessarily illegal. What’s ironic is that most men’s rights activists decry that society treats all men like potential rapists,” she says. “But the first thing they do when a woman speaks out against them is send her rape threats.”
Elam from A Voice for Men and CAFE’s Dwyer insist that the heated conversations and questioning of feminism following Silverman’s death will ultimately do more good than harm. A Voice for Men has already announced they are raising money for a men’s shelter in Montreal, and CAFE will be announcing a project later in the year.
Beyond the legacy of his shelter and his public claims of spousal abuse, very little has been said about Earl Silverman. Comments from those who knew him reveal only a few details about his life beyond his work—he liked to chat with friends over Skype, he had no children, he owned a cat. Memories of Silverman’s personality and day-to-day life are all but lost in the swirl of vitriol that has dominated all conversations surrounding his death.
Warren Farrell does not deny that the Internet culture surrounding men’s rights can be toxic, but it doesn’t worry him. “Every movement has radicals,” he says. “But the important thing is that the radicals are not the leaders.”