Do negative attitudes towards men lurk in our collective unconscious?
I’ve been lurking in shadows this week. As a man who takes an integral approach to understanding gender I seek to integrate mind, body, spirit and shadow into my thinking.
According to the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, we all carry a shadow and the less we embody it into our conscious life, the “blacker and denser it is”.
What interests me most is the question of whether we carry a collective shadow in which lurks the unconscious demonization of men. And if so, how does that present a barrier (and an opportunity) to those of us who are committed to improving the lives of men and boys?
My personal mission is to transform the way the world relates to men and boys and one of the toughest challenges I have faced on that journey was becoming a champion for all men and boys—it required me to step out of my own shadow and into the shadows of others.
It is broadly acceptable, it seems, to be a champion for women, for the LGBT community, for different ethnic groups, for the disabled, for the poor and so on. These established advocacy groups evolved their identities in contrast to a dominant group and naturally excluded others by virtue of them being a man or straight or white or not poor or not disabled.
A key feature of these movements has been to challenge the oppression of the dominant group—such as men oppressing women, straight people oppressing gay people, and so on for each oppressed group.
In the process people develop narratives to help individuals to understand the problems they face as women, the problems they face as gay people and so on.
This evolving narrative has drawn people like me into the conversation and led us to ask the question where do men go to make sense of the problems we face as men—and more importantly, where is the overarching narrative that helps us make sense of those problems?
If the background story to understanding our personal identities is one where men are cast in the role of oppressor, then where is the motivation for us to sign up for our own chapter?
As with all good stories there are openings for men who want to play the role of heroes and so men may be invited into the conversation as male champions who speak out against male oppressors—an option I have previously described as the “patriarchy is bad now be a good patriarch”.
I have no issue with men having a choice to take on this role if they want to, but if the existing narrative is “women have problems and men are problems”, then how do we start to solve some of the problems that men and boys clearly face like shorter life expectancy, high suicide rates, educational performance, greater risk of crime and violence, unemployment, homelessness and the struggle to be an involved father?
My own personal response has been to help write a new chapter for men and boys that weaves together the experiences of people already working to tackle some of these problems. In the process I’ve met people who are helping dads; people who are working with male victims of domestic violence; people who are working with male victims of rape and sexual abuse; people who mentor boys and young men; people taking action to prevent male suicide and people who help men grow and develop in many different ways.
And while we’re all tackling different problems from different angles, one of the common themes that emerges when we talk is the strength of opposition we have faced when advocating for men and boys to have better access to help and support.
When you operate within a culture where the perceived wisdom is that men can be either oppressors or heroes who oppose the oppressors, then standing up for men and boys who have problems can sound like heresy.
Some of the opposition we face is startling: I have been told that running a support group for men is like having a support group for abusers, slave owners or the Ku Klux Klan. It can feel deeply personal to be labeled in this way, and yet when you understand the context within which other identity groups emerged, you can understand the narrative logic that leads to such offensive statements.
If you’re used to a narrative wherein men have been designated the roles of sexist, racist, homophobic oppressors, it is logical to compare a support group for men to a support group for the Ku Klux Klan.
Most of the opposition that men’s projects face is not voiced in such inflammatory terms and yet much of it seems to carry some level of undistinguished negativity towards men and boys. In recent weeks I have heard both men and women suggest that this could be our collective shadow at play, which is why I began to consider this possibility.
For those who aren’t familiar with the shadow, Jungians say it contains the things we are unconscious of, the stuff we don’t know we don’t know. We reveal our shadow by projecting its characteristics onto other individuals and groups.
If you ever had the experience of hearing someone complaining about the faults of another person and thought they could be describing themselves, then that’s shadow projection in action. It’s an age-old human trait reflected in the saying about “the pot calling the kettle black”.
People of all genders are said to have a shadow because, just like Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional character, we’re all a little bit Jekyll and Hyde—and as the name suggests we tend to hide the Hyde part of our character in the shadows.
In addition to our personal shadows, we are also said to have a collective shadow, which can manifest in the projection of our collective unconscious onto other groups. Throughout history different groups have cast their collective shadow onto each other and in recent history many “have not” groups have fought their way out of the shadow of the “haves” and demanded to be treated as equals.
Such social movements for change are naturally driven by binary belief in “good guys” and “bad guys”, the “haves” and the “have nots”. As Saul Alinsky, “’father of modern American radicalism” said, “one acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.”
History is littered with human struggles between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, the “haves” and “have nots”.
As we have evolved from our primitive past; as tribes have formed for group protection; as empires have emerged driving us beyond our tribal boundaries; as fundamental thinking in politics and religion has sought to bring collective order to humanity; as the age of the individual has expanded our personal freedoms and choices and as our humanistic nature has sought to make life fair for everyone on the planet—we have inevitably called on the “good guys” to save us from the “bad guys”.
In that process we seem to have unconsciously decided that while men as men can be “good” or “bad”; men as men can only be amongst the “haves” and never the “have nots”. A gay man can be a “have not”, for example, but because he is gay, not because he is a man. A gay woman, by contrast is a “have not” both because she is gay and because she is a woman.
In terms of our gender struggles, men are the ones who “have” and women are the ones who “have not”. This may seem like a childlike simplification but it’s how we define gender issues from the very, very top of our international hierarchy. As Kofi Annan said as Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2006: “It is impossible to realize our goals while discriminating against half the human race”. The half of humanity he was talking about was women.
Faced with this widely-accepted narrative that all women are being discriminated against, we would have to be angelic not to cast the blame on somebody, and who do we blame when all women are discriminated against? Well, if we’re women, we’ll probably blame men and if we’re men, then we’ll probably blame other men. And therein lies a collective ability to unconsciously demonize men.
Of course we may not be conscious of our own very human tendency towards prejudice and discrimination as it lurks in the shadows and we are practiced experts when it comes to hiding the Hyde-side of our own humanity, particularly from ourselves.
Working against this backdrop where men are never the “have nots” it is almost impossible to be an advocate for all men and boys and yet men and boys as a distinct group with specific needs, do need advocates. So where do we go from here?
Some advocates will naturally try to frame men as the “have nots” and women as the “haves”. Some will split men into the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and try in different ways to increase the number of men and boys in the “good guy” camp. Most of us would rather not get involved while others just can’t stop struggling with the question of how we make a difference for men and boys.
Having wrestled with this conundrum for much of my adult life I’m clear that I don’t have all the answers and there are four insights I’d like to leave you with for now:
Firstly, men and boys experience inequality, unfairness and discrimination as men. We cannot stand for equality for all if we fail or refuse to acknowledge this.
Secondly, no human being has it all. We all have areas of life where we have and have not. When we resist the temptation to define gender in absolute binary terms and acknowledge that women have problems and men have problems too, we are taking a stand against the binary thinking that causes many of the gender problems we all face.
Thirdly, no human being is simply a “good guy” or a “bad guy”, we are more complex than that and developing an awareness and acceptance of the weaknesses that we hide in our shadows is far more valuable than projecting those weaknesses onto others so we can point the finger at them.
Finally, it isn’t just our darkness that we hide in our shadows but also our light. As Marianne Williamson wrote: “It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us…..our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…..and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same….as we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
If we do carry a collective shadow in which lurks the unconscious demonization of men,then maybe the only way out of the shadow is for more of us all to shine more light on the matter.
—Photo credit: Flickr/johanlarsson