Mark Greene believes our male cultural history, the steps we took to get here, make ignoring boys and men as victims a likely outcome.
Over the last few days, a few of us have been in dialogue over the following question: Is Brutality Toward Women Getting Worse? I wrote this quick post in response to the story of a child bride victimized in Afghanistan, who recently received justice from an Afghanistan court of law.
There were many comments on the post from folks who wanted to know why I was highlighting “women’s issues” yet again, presumably at the expense of men and boys. Their argument, which is valid on many levels, goes as follows: We have over the last fifty years focused huge amounts of our global resources on women’s issues. Legislation, funding, scholarly work, media discourse and more have focused on the challenges faced by women both in the US and abroad. A lot of substantive progress has been made.
But has this ongoing focus on women’s issues come at the expense of men’s rights as fathers, husbands, workers and as victims of violent crimes and rape, as perpetrated both men and women? Furthermore, are we continuing to feed a cultural dialogue that puts boys and men at a disadvantage in every stage of our societal discourse?
For example: CDC statistics show that women are just as likely to be physically abusive in relationships as they are to be abused. Is this fact shared openly by the mass media or shunted aside in favor of narratives that define men as abusers and women as victims?
Sometimes the emotions can run pretty high on the question of men’s rights. It has been suggested that my posting of the story about this child bride is part or an orchestrated effort to “hype up” articles about women being abused while the boys who suffer abuse, rape and untimely death in Afghanistan receive little or no gender specific attention.
It is clear to me that we live in a world full of angry, binary discourses. As such, there are ample reasons why people do everything they can to tilt focus to their issues. In the case of women’s issues, some percentage of people may have done so in ways that are ultimately harmful to men.
Here’s an obvious example. In our culture, if a man strikes his wife and she reports it, the consequences can be immediate and catastrophic for that man. If a women strikes her husband, and he reports it, are the results as significant? Or is he viewed culturally by the cop on the beat, as somehow lacking something integral to being a man? Is he viewed as weak? And are weak men viewed as less deserving of legal recourse than a women who, by definition, is defenseless? In a nutshell, the cops (as representatives of our culture’s most blunt social priorities ) may have very clear training and orders on how to deal with a husband beating his wife. But, by virtue of our system’s lumbering bureaucratic priorities, what training has he or she had to deal with a women beating a man? Very little. And so, they take a report and walk away shaking their heads.
I can tell you that I have seen this imbalance around physical abuse play out first person. A very kind and gentle friend of mine had the side of his face opened up by his wife on the day of their son’s first birthday. He was unable to attend the party because of this and when I saw him days later he showed me the claw marks on his face. This was a serious wound.
My friend made one thing perfectly clear. He knew that if he did anything in the moment to retaliate physically, he would lose access to his son. He took physical abuse from his wife for years before the marriage finally failed. And he never raised his hand back. But the knowledge that a double standard exists was never far from his mind. When the marriage ended he was stuck holding the alimony and child support bill. I would not relate a story like this if it were not the god’s honest truth. The stakes are too high here. The implications too immense.
What we are talking about is the result of a tilted public discourse, in which women’s issues have been successfully highlighted (and justifiably so) and in which men remain victims-in-hiding of a range of issues. We have had the first half of a conversation. It’s time for the second half to begin.
But is there ill will at work here, intentionally suppressing a public discourse on male issues?
I want to address the question of whether or not women’s issues have purposely been (and continue to be) highlighted in a way specifically intended to disempower men, because I believe this question lies at the heart of the high level of reactivity from some men’s rights advocates.
First let me say this. It would be naive to deny that some of us have bought into the gender wars. There will be numerous examples of incidental smoking guns on all sides. Some people will focus on these kinds of “evidence” to somehow prove an orchestrated effort to suppress men’s issues. No matter what side you’re on, there will always be examples of the intention to mislead and take advantage of the larger dialogue. Especially when there are vast amounts of public money at stake. But I believe our stunted and contentious discourse about men’s issues is mostly the result of long standing male cultural norms.
Our male cultural history, the steps we took to get here, made ignoring boys and men as victims a likely outcome. Only now are we starting to talk about men as being equally in need of society’s focus and resources. Imagining such an idea even twenty years ago would have been impossible. In part, because men refused to think of themselves as needing help. Whatever we have had to endure, the over riding cultural message was, endure it in silence.
Our current living generation of men, born from the 1920s on, spent decades responding to the world in either the angry or confident-macho modes. These were the two acceptable modes of expression by men when confronted with life’s challenges. I suppose you can also toss in blind stinking drunk. But the fact is, there was no space in which men could express fear, or weakness, or talk about the abuse in their lives. In my father’s generation there was absolutely no space to discuss men as powerless victims. If things were bad you were expected to just punch back harder. “If you are too weak or stupid to avoid being a victim then its your own fault” seemed to be the prevailing wisdom. Never mind that some of us were just little children when bad things happened. Being tough was the answer to everything. And not that much has changed.
“Shake it off, crybaby.” When I hear that today at my kid’s soccer field, I look to see if its being said to a boy or a girl. It’s pretty much always a boy.
The fact is women were culturally granted permission to weep. To show weakness and display emotions. To be victims who needed protection. (Even as they were, in some cases, victimizing men.)
But this discourse of victimhood is new for men. This space we have created in which to share our stories and our pain has no long cultural or historical roots. For men, it goes back maybe one generation and it stops. This is not a discussion I would ever expect to have with my father. These are new ways of speaking for men. New ways of being. And the stories that come pouring out are painful and angry and grief-stricken. They create rage and they cause us to lash out. In part because we are still getting a backlash when we do share our pain. The cultural rules about showing weakness are embedding deep in us and deep in those we share our beds with. Sometimes the strictest silencers are those closest to us. They prefer the old model. They don’t like scary stories and fear. Men are supposed to protect them from that.
Sharing the stories of our victimhood is a double edged sword. A slippery slope. Focusing on a personal history of powerlessness or victimhood, although a necessary step to moving past it, can be the equivalent of drinking poison. You can get stuck there. Forever.
Victimhood is a toxic state and one has to move past it or risk being drained and weakened by the very forces you are in opposition to. And so, if we as men (or women) are now empowered to tell publicly how we have been victimized, we should also be wary of staying in that place of victimhood only. Or for too long.
Its clear that some in society and online make an identity out of it. Demanding compensation and ease of passage over and over again without giving much consideration to their role in or responsibilities to society at large. They batter and attack people, brandishing their victimhood like a club. But they are the price we pay for a wider more open discourse.
If men and boys are finally emerging from that place in which we have been prohibited from telling our painful stories, then this represents a shift of historic proportions. Because in telling these stories we can find common ground with others and we can highlight how the old stale narratives about what it is to be a man not only fall short, but are grossly divisive, abusive and unfair.
I would suggest that telling our stories is possible now. Not everywhere. And not all the time. But we have our foot in the narrative door and we’re not taking it out. And if we want our fair share of the resources and energy directed at growing a better world, we should should start looking for common ground around all the stories being told, by men or women. Because looking for good will from others is the first step in putting our pain behind us. And within that general process I intend to keep working towards substantive and genuine empowerment for all boys and men.
And girls and women, too.