"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What is it About Men? Part Two

In Part One, I outlined some of the general reasons why I think that an exploration of men, masculinity and violence is a good personal and social goal to have, and began to sketch out some of the emotional difficulties that come up for men who do so. I think I would be remiss, however, if I didn't point out that one of the sources of my personal exploration (this time around) was a question that a good friend of mine posed. She asked me, in various ways, what it is that makes men think they can use violence in their lives the way that they do?

The context of this question was an attempt by her to possibly/partially explain to me why an ex of mine seems to have an intense interest in not having any contact with me at all. And, while characterizing my friend's questioning as saying 'She doesn't want any contact with you because you've had temper tantrums in the past' would be oversimplifying her position, she did want to draw my attention to the possibility that the places where I have followed the script of traditional masculinity may have contributed to my ex's desire to not have anything to do with me.

To be clear, these are my friend's ideas and not my ex's ideas. Also, our breakup wasn't the result in any direct way that I know, of some sort of abuse of her by me. Tantrums on my part weren't a common occurence or anything like that; I don't think that my ex felt abused in the traditional senses of the word. But therin lies part of the complexities of the institutional structures which surround violence and abuse which is perpetuated by men against women: Things we as a culture wouldn't have characterized as abuse in the past are clearly seen as abuse now. Who is to say that a few tantrums in a relationship aren't abusive? (The person who feels abused, likely, may be in a good position to make such a judgment.) The ways that men are able to use and abuse their privilege in the course of regular relationships with women are many, and they can be subtle.

Standing in the Doorway
Take, for instance, something as simple as standing in a doorway during an argument. This was something that was a trigger for my ex, due to past experience. During any sort of argument, whether heated or not (and we really didn't argue very often), there were all sorts of ways for me to exercise my privilege as a man who weighed 100 pounds more than my interlocutor. Things that I tend to do 'automatically' when I argue--stand up and move around a lot--are the sorts of things that can also be exercising privilege. If you're in an argument where feelings are raw, where people feel insecure or the like, then standing up while the other person sits can be an exercise of power. It doesn't have to be--I want to make that clear, that I don't think all of these things have to be important as regards privilege; but they can be, and as such, we need to be aware of them.

Paying Attention Isn't Easy
But this 'being aware of them' isn't as easy as it might sound. It's a constant sort of thing, a conscious sort of thing. And it's exactly the sort of thing that gets more difficult just when it needs to be recognized the most. That is, it's hardest to not use the power that standing up, raising one's voice, or blocking a doorway just when one is caught up in an argument; and it's hardest to not even notice that one is standing up, raising one's voice, or blocking a doorway just at this same time. So, one answer to the more general question "What is it about men that they think they can use violence the way they do?" is "They sometimes don't know that they're doing it." This is, to stress again, not an excuse, but an explanation. And it's an explanation that needs to be talked about by men (and by women, I think), for several reasons. First of all, it needs to be talked about because some men do use it as an excuse. Some men will end up saying things like, "I had no idea that my standing up and screaming at you, even though I'm 100lbs heavier and a foot taller than you, would make you feel like you couldn't respond to what I was saying." Or worse, they say, "It's your choice to be intimidated by that. You should know I would never really hurt you or anything."

These sorts of excuses shouldn't be tolerated by anybody. To claim either of them as excusing behavior is to stand in a place of conscious ignorance. In both cases, such a claim betrays a conscious ignorance of the way human beings' central nervous systems work--if we feel physically threatened, we are put in a place that isn't conducive to rational discussion, for instance. And, even though in various situations individual men may not have the physical 'advantage' during a confrontation, in general they do, and that general fact informs even the situations where the man is smaller than the woman or some such. That is, even if I'm 4'2 and my interlocutor is 6'2, if she grew up in this culture, she has likely interacted with quite a few men who consciously or unconsciously were intimidating in various ways by their very stature. The latter 'excuse' in particular betrays priviledge--not as many men have come face to face with thinking that somebody would never really hurt them, only to be shown the opposite.

So What Do the Explanations Matter?
I think the explanations can matter, if they are used for something other than excuses. If we can better understand the reasons why it can be easy for men to come up with such excuses, we may be able to more easily change. I think bell hooks is an invaluable resource in this regard, and her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love has been helpful in trying to understand the ins and outs of being a feminist man. One of the concepts that I continually go back to when dealing with the limits of my own ability to overcome my training is to remember that it is training--that it's not essential. hooks notes:
"Every day in out nation there are men who turn away from violence. These men do not write books about how they manage to navigate the terrain of patriarchal masculinity wihtout succumbing to the lure of violence. As women have gained the right to be patriarchal men in drag, women are engaging in acts of violence similar to those of their male counterparts. This serves to remind us that the will to use violence is really not linked to biology but to a set of expectations about the nature of power in a dominator culture." -- bell hooks, The Will to Change p55
First of all, I think it's interesting that men don't tend to write books like the one that hooks has written. (And I would love to hear of the books that men have written, from all y'all!) In fact, even men who are die-hard feminists tend to not talk about this...or at least I haven't found enough that do in whatever limited experience I have with all of this stuff. When it gets talked about, it often gets talked about in a 'feminism-is-to-blame' or a men-as-victims framework, which are frameworks that just don't seem to get to the reality of the situation to me.

But even more interesting (and perhaps somewhat controversial in feminist circles?) is hooks' idea that the women who engage in similar acts of violence point to the lack of biological essentialism involved. Unfortunately for those men who would bring up their divorces and supposed child-custody cases as evidence that they somehow don't experience priviledge, the fact that sometimes some women exercise some power doesn't get in the way of the institutionalized patriarchy that we all live under. And that institutionalized patriarchy includes indoctrinating boys (and then men) into a world where they are permitted to do violence of various sorts, and are indeed expected to do violence. The indoctrination begins early, sure, but it's helpful to remember, to repeat to oneself in times of feeling guilt and (sometimes) despair, that men are not essentially violent.

This is a grand claim. It's the sort of claim that's hard to prove or disprove. But I think the very fact that there are men who manage to shed most or all of these violent learnings show that it must at least be possible for some men to do so. If actual men do so, then it's possible for at least some men to do so. And, to borrow and distort Sartre, since it's very difficult to tell whether one can change something 'fundamental' about oneself or not, we may as well act as if we can change it. Even if we end up only being able to change somewhat, even if we find ourselves in something like a constant struggle to improve, then at least we're improving.

But changing things which are learned so early on that they are often mistaken for essential characteristics, changing things that are so deeply rooted at times that we have a hard time even recognizing them, how does one accomplish that? Well, I'll save some of the ideas I have about that (hint: getting by with a little help from your friends) in the next installment.

Disclaimer: For those of you who feel compelled to respond with statements like "but men aren't privileged, it's women who are privileged" or variations on that theme, please keep it to yourselves. That discussion can be had in other places, at other times. This is a discussion for men who have begun to see their privilege, and who want to make positive changes to reduce the amount of violence perpetuated by men toward women.
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