A line overheard at the beach leads Thomas Fiffer to call for all men to speak out against aggression and violence.
Yesterday, I took my boys to the beach. A beautiful beach in a beautiful suburb. A peaceful place where parents and kids play and picnic, read and relax, socialize, and soak up the sun. A place where aggression and violence are virtually absent, except in the spirited exertions of children chasing their friends, pumping their water pistols, or pelting each other playfully with fistfuls of wet sand, despite their parents’ pleas to stop. An idyllic place where nothing bad happens. The sun was shining, and the sand was warm beneath my feet. But what I heard there left me cold.
As a writer, I have learned to be a snoop. I constantly observe people around me, cataloging curious traits and behaviors, and I listen in on conversations hoping to hear tidbits and gems. It’s a habit all writers will confess to, and it holds our secret to making characters real. You can also learn a great deal about people from only a few words, and yesterday offered a shocking revelation. As the family sprawled out on the sand next to us—father, mother, young boy and girl, and a tanned old lizard of a man who appeared to be the grandfather—was getting ready to leave, the little girl, six or so, ran petulantly to her father. “Daddy!” she cried, her upset clouding her face as she stared up at him, “Daddy! Grant pushed me.” Grant, her brother, appeared to be about a year older.
I ran through the responses I use when one of my sons goes after the other in a way that is unbrotherly and mean.
“Apologize to your brother so we can clear this.”
“We solve problems with words, not fists.”
“It’s my job to protect you, including from each other.”
From the looks of the father—the cast of his eyes, his aggressive posturing—I figured his answer might be different, but I could not believe what I heard him say.
“Get used to it, Schuyler. That’s what men do.”
I felt sick.
Disgusted by the distressing knowledge that this human example of what is wrong with our culture was … right.
And painfully aware of how the cycle of aggression and violence gets repeated and reinforced.
In the second I heard those words, the rotten root of the tree was bared, the root nourished by the toxic streams of entitlement and hatred, the root beneath the tree that bears the bitter fruits of male disrespect and contempt.
The father was not addressing his son’s aggression towards women.
He was not supporting his daughter’s right to respectful treatment.
He may have thought he was preparing Schuyler for the reality of a world in which she’ll inevitably be mistreated.
But his validation of that world, and his refusal to raise an emotionally intelligent son and an assertive, confident daughter, made my heart sink on to the sand.
My younger son was off at the playground, but my older boy was with me when the father spoke, and I turned what I heard into a teachable moment for him. I told him I was astonished at what the man had said to his daughter. I told him I wanted to say something but saw no point in confrontation, knowing it wouldn’t change anything. But I determined to make a difference where I could. I made it clear to my son, who is about to be a teenager, that pushing women around is not “what men do.” I said, “It’s what pigs do, and that man is a pig.”
Later, as my son and I were sitting up on the lifeguard chair looking out at the sun-dappled waters of the Sound, he asked me why women become prostitutes. I explained that it’s complicated and offered the thought that some women grow up with a lack of self-esteem or sense of their value, and that as prostitutes they may feel valued for their bodies when they exchange sex for money. I don’t know if that’s the right answer, but I do know that little Schuyler will not grow up knowing her value, that she will believe she is less worthy than men, and that she will lack the courage to demand equal treatment. Her father is making sure of that, because he wants a world that puts his needs first, a world of submissive women who think it’s OK for men to push them around.
Male aggression and violence are endemic because they are embedded.
Because parents like Schuyler’s father raise boys to feel entitled and girls to take their lumps without complaint.
Not all men are like the pig on the beach, but too many are. Too many boys grow up with modeling that molds them into misogynistic monsters, under influences that enable and allow them to be violent, controlling, and dominating without question, in a paradigm of fear-based respect that tells them they are less of a man if they don’t put their foot down and squash women into second place.
In the wake of the Isla Vista shooting, women have created the hashtag #yesallwomen to show that all women experience male aggression, even though #notallmen behave aggressively.
I believe men must counter with a new code of conduct, a new paradigm of respect that eliminates aggression and violence.
Based on the words I overheard at the beach, I’ve created a new hashtag: #notwhatmendo.
And I’m calling for all men to stand up, speak out, and model a new standard of behavior.
Whenever we see aggression and violence, wherever we encounter it, when it’s spoken, suggested, or acted, and with every opportunity we have to show our children and the world what we’re made of, we must speak out against it. We must unite and say, “No, that’s not what men do.”