People who think differently about men and boys need space to learn how to speak with each other, says our International Men’s Movement editor, Glen Poole.
This week I met with a small team of great volunteers who are helping to host the Third National Conference for Men and Boys in the UK.
It’s an event I first imagined in 2009, the same year that The Good Men Project started. I wasn’t aware of The Good Men Project at the time but I was driven by a similar desire to start a new conversation by men, about men and for men.
For me the vehicle wasn’t an online magazine but a global network of people who are committed to making a difference for men and boys in areas like education, parenting, health, mental health and violence and abuse.
The primary manifestation of this network in real life is our annual conference, which is why the conversation at this week’s meeting skipped from big questions like who will make the sandwiches this year, to minor concerns like how we can evolve into a global men’s movement that’s active in every country on earth.
The conference sandwiches are an important part of our history. The first conference in 2011 went slightly over budget when the volunteer in charge of catering realized he’d mislaid the ham and cheese and had to rush out and buy some moments before the lunch break.
We laughed with embarrassment when one of our keynote speakers revealed that a friend had joked with him before the event: “A men’s conference, but who’ll make the sandwiches?”
In retrospect, feeding the delegates — albeit a little later than expected — was the least of our concerns.
Our biggest challenge was helping feminists and anti-feminists and everyone in between to have worthwhile conversations about men. Anyone who’s watched The Good Men Project evolve will know how difficult these types of conversation can be sometimes.
I have found that people from opposite poles of the conversation want to control how we talk about men in different ways — we all have our prejudices about gender and these dictate how we prefer the conversation to go.
Pro-feminists will tend to control the context of the conversation, demanding that any discussion about men and gender must either focus on the problems men cause or explore how men can change to address the problems women face.
Anti-feminists tend to demand a platform to talk ‘at’ people about the problems men have and how these problems are caused by feminism (with some additional focus on the problems women cause for good measure).
It’s both an over-simplification of what happens and a handy distinction that you can see being played out in the way some feminists resist initiatives like men’s issues groups on campus and explains why social media has become a useful platform for some anti-feminists to spread information by talking at people online.
I think I was prepared for the challenge of negotiating these two polarities because I’ve been developing my ability to have conversations with people who think differently about men and boys for most of my adult life.
I became an adult in the 1980s when hating Thatcher and Reagan and being a left-wing, vegetarian, feminist was a common rite of passage for my generation.
I didn’t like McDonalds, I didn’t like Conservatives and most of all I didn’t like men. As far as I was concerned, all men were bumbling, bigoted bastards — except for me of course.
I rejected the typical male role with great passion — challenging conventional dress codes, working in female-dominated industries and avoiding being the breadwinner in relationships, even if it meant never becoming the father I longed to be.
And then I was blessed to meet a career woman who was desperate to have a child and I leapt at the opportunity of becoming a stay at home dad.
The experience was magical. There has been no greater privilege in my life than the privilege of bringing up my daughter. Sadly, while this privilege can be gifted to men by women, it isn’t a legal privilege — not in law and not in practice.
So when my wife left me she was able to reclaim her maternal privilege and seek custody of our daughter. I foolishly expected the law to be gender blind and view me as the primary carer. It didn’t. The law viewed me as a man. And I knew full well what men are — all men are bumbling, bigoted bastards.
I tried to explain that I was different from other men, but it was to no avail. Men had a bad press that I personally had helped to create and now it was biting me where it hurt most — in my relationship with my daughter.
Family Law outcomes in the UK and elsewhere are decided on the “best interests of the child” which sounds like an excellent principle until you factor in our collective gender prejudice that “mother knows best” and that giving custody to mum will always be assumed to be in the “best interest of the child.”
When a breadwinning man leaves a marriage (or gets left), he doesn’t get to claim custody of the children. That the reverse is true for women is sex discrimination. As my ex-wife acknowledged in our friendlier moments some years later, if I was a woman, I would have been treated differently.
And that’s why I got involved in campaigning for men and boys. I’m still vegetarian, but at some point on this journey I stopped being left-wing and feminist and became an apolitical non-feminist who’s out to transform the way the world talks about men.I take an integral approach to gender and what interests me most is connecting with people whose actions are making a difference for men and boys.
I had a brief burst of media limelight as PR Director for the controversial Fathers 4 Justice campaign, a committed group of activists who got people thinking differently about separated fathers when they put a protestor dressed as Batman on Buckingham Palace in 2004.
Since then I’ve been gradually exploring how I can leave the world a better place for my daughter to inherit and I’ve committed myself to the mission of working on the man side of things, a job which has included addressing my own negative beliefs about men.
My approach is to facilitate conversations between people who think differently about men and boys. I do this because I want my daughter to live in a world that works for every man, woman, girl and boy. And I want to use the sexism and discrimination I’ve experienced as a man to make a difference to others.
I keep asking questions like how do we help men live longer? Ho do we do better for boys? How do we prevent male suicide? How do we keep men and boys safe? How do we help every dad be the great dad he wants to be?
These are the types of questions we invite delegates at our conferences to explore. And we set them a challenge to spend the day hunting out common ground; to focus on what we agree about, not what we disagree about; to listen for that which unites us, rather than that which divides us.
This is often a unique experience for our guests who include charity workers, health workers, social workers, men working in childcare, people working with men from minority groups, people from different faiths, people from different political perspectives—and yes those arch rivals, the feminists and the anti-feminists.
On the surface, it looks like an argument waiting to happen and so one of the vital ingredients is that we pack the event with volunteers and practitioners with experience of working in men’s groups—by which I mean the guys who sit in circles and talk about being a man.
Most people at our conferences are used to attending events where they sit in rows and have people talk at them. The great power of men who have access to the ancient art of connecting with each other in a circle is that they know how to provide a nurturing space where people don’t just talk at each other, they talk with each other.
And from this supportive and loving foundation we provide our delegates with many different spaces where lessons are learned, relationships are born and new ways of thinking begin to take shape.
One of the ideas that really solidified for me at our first event is my vision of a world where every man and boy is just one conversation away from the help and support he needs at every stage in life.
When we create this world I have not doubt that men will live longer, happier, healthier lives and enjoy exploring their own potential in ways that both serves themselves and is of service to others.
It’s a vision not a reality and new realities can only emerge through new conversations where ideas are shared and new futures created.
So my mission is to talk with as many different types of thinkers as possible as I seek out the very best examples of people who are making a difference for men and boys all over the world. I can’t find those people if I only take part in feminist or anti-feminist conversations about men — there are more than two ways to think differently about men and boys.
Buckminster Fuller is quoted as saying: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
For me, developing a new model of conversation that can make a real difference for men and boys will require people who think differently about men’s issues to talk with each other, not at each other.
I share The Good Men Project’s ambition to give a platform to conversations for men, by men and about men—and I know how difficult this seemingly simple task can be when so many people want to control and dominate how conversations about men are conducted.
This conversation is too important to be controlled by any single interest group — and that includes me and it includes The Good Men Project.
The world needs leaders from different communities and schools of thought to learn how to talk with each other about men and boys.
If you want to contribute to creating a new model of conversation, where together we learn to speak with people who think differently about men and boys then I’d love to hear from you.
This is what I want the International Men’s Section of the Good Men Project to become, a platform where people who think differently about men and boys can develop their ability to talk with each other, through the act of being bold enough to talk with each other about men and boys.
If you want to contribute to The Good Men Project’s international men’s movement section then please email me at [email protected]
All well-written contributions are very welcome, including those previously published elsewhere. Submissions should be between 500-1500 words long and follow Good Men Project Style Guidelines.
Wherever you are in the world, whatever your viewpoint, if you are committed to improving the lives of men and boys and have something to say on the matter, then I am waiting to hear from you.