I wouldn’t normally write about the #MeToo movement, and not just because I’m a man. The main reason I wouldn’t is that, in some respects, it is close to the third rail of politics, akin to talking about education or religion. It is pretty hard to have a cerebral conversation about it without emotional resonance upping the conversation to higher stakes. It is almost impossible to unpack something that has a strong normative statement at its core, a statement of how things ought to be but which are not currently that way.
Last week, somebody was handing out samples from the Moose Hide Campaign. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a grassroots campaign against violence against women and girls, with a strong Indigenous start, for men and boys to “do their part” so to speak in ending violence against women and girls. It’s a huge campaign, and people who have gone to the sessions have found it highly compelling to hear men committing to the same goals. My reaction is a bit, “meh”. Not because the goal isn’t fantastic, but because I’m not sure when men commit to “ending violence” against women and girls that they have any idea what it means.
If you ask those same men, they’ll tell you that they themselves would and have never demonstrated any violence towards women or girls. They frequently think it is something “other men do” and THOSE men should be stopped. By raising awareness, they’ll speak out to stop the other behaviour. Except, to me, if you define the problem as “other men”, the commitment seems way too weak. It’s powerful, but it seems like a parlour trick — let me tell you about something egregious that’s happening, make you feel like there is something you should do, and get you to commit to doing it, i.e., A leads to B leads to C. Powerful, linear, compelling. Unless you mis-diagnosed the problem as you went from A to B. If you ONLY see it as OTHER men committing violence, that your responsibility is JUST to speak out but not to end the violent actions within you, the awareness raising is insufficient. In fact, in psychological situations, denial of part of a problem actually tends to reinforce it.
So I’m not sold on the campaign. I don’t think it’s bad, I just don’t think it will actually accomplish much more than talk. Which isn’t to say I have some magic alternative, just that I feel that similar campaigns in international development circles have created buzz and conversation, but no real results on the ground. Maybe it’s a “long-term” thing and I’m looking for shorter-term results, but I’m less than enthused by such campaigns.
But I was harsher in my reaction to another male-led campaign because I’d see another parlour trick earlier in the week. Jackson Katz has written “The Macho Paradox”, and its subtitle is “Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help”. Powerful words. And you may have seen an excerpt from it flying around the internet as a meme, even if you didn’t recognize where it was from or it wasn’t cited any longer on the meme. One of his excerpts has gone viral because it talks, very simply, about a big question in his research and outreach. He asks men and women in a large group: “What steps do you take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourself from being sexually assaulted?”. And then, in powerful terms, the men go first — with putting nothing on their list. Maybe humour to hide their lack of anything to say. Then he asks the women, and the list is huge. I won’t repeat it here, but the list is long and varied. Let me give you a slightly tweaked version of seven things they do:
- Carry a weapon when they’re out in public (i.e keys en route to their car);
- Avoid being alone in non-public places, particularly at night;
- Carry a cell phone so they can call for help;
- Don’t be alone in an enclosed space with one person or a group of people you don’t know;
- Stay alert and vigilant when walking, even in the daytime (i.e. don’t wear headphones, avoid forests);
- Always have a safe ride home (i.e. car or cab fare);
- Avoid eye contact.
As Jackson points out, men put nothing on their list. They don’t think about it. So again, like with the Moose Skin campaign, an incredibly powerful diagnostic tool to display the small-p policy issues at play in the current dynamics.
And I don’t disagree that the list that women create, all the things they put on it, the list is amazingly soul-destroying to see what they have to do. And I don’t take any of that away in what I’m about to say. But as with the first example, you start with A, you go to B, you go to C, and you think that’s the linear process, no issues.
But I mentioned above that the list was slightly tweaked when I recreated it, and I did that because I don’t do parlour tricks. I’m transparent when I’m manipulating words and experiences. I could walk you through a bunch of rhetoric to get you to “see my argument” for yourself, but that is manipulative. Instead, I’ll just tell you outright. Ask yourself this…if you were a 13-year-old boy, and you were being severely bullied at school, what might your list look like of the things you could do to remain safe?
Having experienced some bullying when I was younger, I carried a pocket knife. Just in case. I tried not to be alone, particularly at night, and if I was, it was straight from point A to B, sometimes running while I went. Certainly a VERY fast walk. I didn’t have cellphones then, but I did think of places along my route where I could get help if needed. Sanctuaries, so to speak, to reach out for assistance. For a short time, when things were bad, I was hyper aware when I was out. Constantly scanning the environment for dangers. If I could, I got rides home with friends or family, people I knew and trusted. And I didn’t put myself in situations where I couldn’t have that option very often. For a time, I just didn’t go out. And I avoided eye contact at school in the hallways to make sure I didn’t attract attention or seem like I was challenging someone. Jumping rabbits get chased; mice hide.
In short, an almost identical list that I saw in the experiences of women that Katz summarized.
And I know what you’re thinking, you immediately want to say, “It’s not the same” and I totally give you that. But it makes me wonder. Is a lot of what we class openly as sexual violence also a form of violent bullying that many males might experience when they’re at elementary school, high school, or college, but no longer do because it isn’t seen as pranks or “acceptable” once the person is an adult? There are some horror stories still in college or pro sports, but those are more rare (a small subset of the population get to the pro leagues!) so I’m focusing on the “general experience”. I experienced things in high school, but others experienced it later in high school or even college.
Is the original list sexual violence? Sure, I’m not taking away from that. But if you define it only as sexual violence, and you do a parlour trick like the above one, then you are also telling men “this is a problem created by men and experienced by women”, and again, like with the Moose Skin, many of the men will say, “WELL, I’ve NEVER done ANYTHING like THAT to women, so it’s not me, it’s those scumbag men.” When the trick jumped from A to B, some people didn’t notice that it wasn’t the only policy element to get you there.
So something niggles with me when I read the list. Could the behaviour be rooted in the bullying behaviour of simple power dynamics? And if so, could there be common ground with some men in the audience who say “not me” simply because they can’t relate to the experiences as described, but who might find resonance in experiencing bullying as a kid from siblings or classmates or who might have been sexually assaulted as children but eventually were able to “escape” simply by getting older? Because when I read the list, it is also highly similar to what some young victims of abuse (both male and female) have said they experienced and did to avoid being alone with their abusers.
And would that extra common ground be useful fodder for discussion, particularly as a lot of that behaviour that was experienced as a kid can return later? If you grew up in a house where there was a lot of drama and yelling, you are at increased risk of being a yeller. And yet most of the men in the audience wouldn’t see that as sexual violence, that is just people being loud when they argue about something. But who are they arguing with? Women. Who are they getting louder towards, in hope of winning the argument by outshouting the other person? Women. Who is now replicating their learned bullying behaviour in a form of violence against women? The men who said they would never do it. Because they don’t see it as sexual violence, and when the jump went from A to B, they didn’t define it that way.
If some men, feeling defensive, are quick to say “not me”, would letting them know that simpler-looking bullying behaviour also needs to be addressed, something to which they can say “me too” and thus see the problem is for everyone, but that the overlay with sexual violence makes it so much more worse for women who can’t simply escape from it by simply getting older and moving away and instead continue to face it every day?
I just don’t know how to ask the question, “Did we miss something in jumping from A to B to C that might help us address all the roots of the problem?” without generally sound like an asshat. At its simplest, I think part of my concern is that if men are going to take on larger roles, including some male-oriented thought leadership within the community, for combatting sexual violence, we should make sure that what we’re doing is the right step and not cutting corners to get to the end goal.
I’m hoping Jackson Katz’ book has more in it, and I look forward to reading it. If nothing else, the initial meme sharing helped me to think about broader aspects.