When I was seven or eight years old, I was riding in the car with my parents down John Ralston Road in northeast Harris County in Texas. At the time, it was a small two-lane road surrounded by nothing but forest and a few pastures. It was a gray day of light, drizzling rain. Three motorcycle riders were behind us. All was quiet.
When we arrived at the intersection of Humble Road, one of the riders pulled around, parked his bike across the road, and began walking toward the car, motioning for my father to roll down his window. As my father did so, this young man launched into a diatribe about how my father’s car was throwing spray from the rain up into his face. He wanted my father to know he didn’t appreciate it.
Of course, everyone who heard what he was saying, including the child in the back seat, knew that drivers on wet roads aren’t responsible for the misty spray of water that comes off their tires. The people behind them have a choice of either backing off to avoid the mist or passing to get in front of the mist. This rider had instead elected to tailgate dangerously on a wet road.
Clearly, he was hoping only for a fight. Further, he was hoping to impress his friends with his toughness. My father looked him in the eye, and said, “I guess you have a choice to make right now. You can get back on your bike and ride on, or you can walk home, because I’m finished talking.” The rider looked to his friends, who offered no support and no concern. He said, “Just be more considerate in the future,” and got on his bike to ride away. His friends followed in silence.
My father drove on his way, too, and never mentioned it. I don’t think we even discussed it in the car. If we did, the discussion was brief. The lesson was clear, though. When a bully approaches, don’t blink. Don’t back off. If someone is trying to scare you, the best defense is to be tough. Or pretend to be. Don’t get me wrong, we all knew that we were lucky. These three guys could have approached with chains or other weapons from the get go, and serious violence could have ensued. Fortunately, he was only looking for the thrill of scaring someone, and my father denied him that thrill. This time, it worked.
A few years later, I was old enough, or so my mother thought, to walk to the local TG&Y department store from time to time. On this occasion, I had gone to buy a present for my mother. For any other family member, my mother would take me to the store to pick out a gift, but it didn’t seem right to ask her to drive me to pick out her own gift. Anyway, I bought her a towel and soap set, I think. As I was shopping, though, I noticed some boys following my movements. As with the motorcycle group, I think there were three of them. Trouble doesn’t always come in threes, you know, but coincidences happen.
Anyway, when I left the store, these boys left the store, too. I was on alert and clutching the gift tightly. Sure enough, as I crossed onto the high school grounds, which were behind the store, I heard and felt a large bang against the gift bag. I think this boy kicked it, expecting it to fly from my hands. I turned around, grip on the bag firm, other hand made into an ineffective but determined fist. I stared the boy right in the eye and didn’t budge. He stared back for a minute, looked to his friends and said, “Let’s go.” And they all did, and I made my way home. I don’t think I mentioned this to anyone.
Again, I was lucky. This boy was hoping the bag would fly loose, and I would run away in fear. He thought he would look like a hero to his friends by his ability to terrorise and chase off a young boy on his own. I was lucky his friends didn’t join in. I was lucky he didn’t initiate contact with me through more extreme violence, and I was lucky my nerves didn’t fail me. Nonetheless, I had twice learned the lesson that showing fear to a bully was a recipe for disaster.
A few years later, I was walking across the Sam Houston State University campus alone at night when about ten or twelve men surrounded me. One of them said, “Hey, man, got a minute to talk about Jesus?” I know Jesus traveled around with disciples, but I don’t really think He used this kind of intimidation. Maybe these guys wanted to talk about Jesus, something I didn’t want to do, and maybe they had something more sinister in mind. Either way, I looked straight at the one speaking and walked directly toward him. When I reached him, I just kept walking. No one followed, and no one shouted after me.
A short time later, I was sleeping with my girlfriend at the time when I was woken by pounding on the door and aggressive shouting. As my girlfriend opened the door, two drunken men came in shouting, “Where is he? We’re gonna kill ‘im!” As I struggled to pull some pants on, they grabbed me and said, “Come on. We’re gonna hang you from the tree across the street.” I can tell you now that they were only motivated to inspire terror and humiliation, but I did not know that at the time. I believed I was about to be murdered to the soundtrack of my girlfriend’s laughter in the background. Knowing her brothers, she was accustomed to such “pranks.” Again, I was lucky. I had only encountered buffoons, not murderers.
The next episode I will recall was when racist skinheads jumped me at a gig because I was wearing a t-shirt expressing support for Nelson Mandela. Ironically, the lead singer of the band both the skinheads and I had gone to see was wearing the same t-shirt. Nonetheless, this racist skinhead grabbed me from behind, knocked me down, and started kicking and punching.
Before I was fully aware of what was happening, others intervened and pulled him off me. It wasn’t over, though, as a parking lot confrontation was bound to follow, and it did. I think he was surprised to find out I was not alone, though, and my friend showed no fear, only rage. People like this aren’t looking for a fair fight or any fight for that matter. They are only looking for attack. Because I wasn’t the easy mark they believed, they went on their way, telling me they “hate violence.” They hated violence in the way bank robbers hate theft.
As I write this, I think of the dying moments of men like Paul Broussard, who was murdered in Houston’s Montrose neighbourhood by a group of suburban teenagers. I think of Matthew Shepherd, left crucified on a fence. I think if James Byrd, dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas. The violence I experienced never even required medical attention, much less a funeral. I am lucky that I only experienced the routine, non-lethal violence—the kind all men have experienced. And that’s my point. We men suffer a collective trauma of violence and threats of violence. Most of the perpetrators have themselves been victims of violence, though I certainly do not believe all victims have been perpetrators.
More than 78 percent of homicide victims are male, 73 percent of robbery victims in the UK are male, and about 70 percent of suicide victims are male while about 96 percent of murderers are male. Men are born into a culture of violence. Some embrace the violence, and it becomes a core feature of their identity. Others become victims, and many do not survive. Others survive either through their wits or dumb luck, but no man lives a life free of violence. Men live their lives on watch for the next threat. Being constantly on guard, an incessant reserve of hostility can prove essential for survival.
This is how patriarchy harms men. Whether they embrace the characteristics known as “masculinity” or consciously reject the rigid imposition of violent expectations, they are sacrificial and disposable. Some men will celebrate and rejoice in their ability to conquer and thrive in the Hobbesian war of all against all. [Surely Hobbes meant all men against all men, not women.] Other men will try to create an alternative way of being, but no man will escape unscathed.