Opinionista Patrick Madden 12 September 2019

Why many men don’t feel safe talking about gender issues

For generations, men have wrongly arrogated to themselves the right to bestow worthiness upon women. Today, a discourse that arrogates to itself the right to bestow worthiness upon men, or strip them of it, sabotages the goal of healing.

Recently my work partner and I met a man – I’ll call him Devon – to finalise aspects of a workshop proposal. But, before we got to that, Devon spoke about the work he’s been doing with men and boys. And he spoke for a solid half-hour.

In another professional context this would have been poor form. We had an agenda, 45 minutes, and no need to hear the story of his week. But we were in his meeting room, and he kept talking, and we are coaches, and listening is a tough habit to break when it’s your job.

So, we listened to his tale, which concerned the feelings he’d heard and seen among men and boys that week – the week in which news of Uyinene Mrwetyana’s murder broke and the memorials, protests, shutdowns, hashtags and meetings against gender-based violence which followed.

The men and boys Devon works with, by and large, identify as good people.

They feel … I don’t know what the word is,” said Devon. “Mute. They feel mute.”

Why do these men and boys feel mute?

Partly, they are in shock. Violence against women in South Africa seems like a problem of such horror, pervasiveness, subtlety and scale that it paralyses by overwhelming.

Partly, they are scared. They carry their own wounds of violence-induced trauma and they are re-traumatised whenever they witness violence. The events of the past week have left them feeling unsafe and fearful.

Partly, they feel their speech is unwelcome. This is the moment for women to speak; men should not usurp the stage. Further, they understand well that, on a day-to-day basis, to a woman they are Schrödinger’s rapists; their mere presence is unwelcome.

They feel in their hearts that they’d never abuse a woman, but they don’t know if that’s just a comforting veil over a core of vicious, irredeemable maleness. They feel shame, but they don’t know if they ought to. Their feelings are a mess of anxiety, deep discomfort and pain. But they feel they should not expect to be listened to, much less solicit empathy.

This anecdata may partially answer some questions about why more men don’t speak out on gender issues. The short answer, for these men anyway, is that they don’t feel safe to. Although they affirm the validity of women’s outrage, they feel dismissed by hashtags like #menaretrash, which condemn them before they’ve drawn breath and place them in a series of double binds. To agree is self-invalidating and contradictory. To disagree (or to qualify, often in the form of #notallmen) is regarded as a sure indication of trashiness. The path of least resistance is to ignore the hashtag, which entails not taking women’s speech seriously.

A loosely deployed allegation of “mansplaining”, with its implicit charge of bigotry, efficiently shames into silence any man who doesn’t want to be a bigot. Faced with the risks of engaging (especially online, where words are permanent) staying silent seems the best bet.

Facilitators, coaches and psychologists work on a simple principle: psychological healing takes place by having thoughts and feelings be heard, held and not rejected (without which healing does not happen). Feelings cannot be heard unless they are spoken and the best way to elicit them is to create, through invitation and consent, a space of safety and trust, with acceptance and nonviolence as core principles. This does not mean forgoing accountability, or sacrificing our intellect, or our capacity to make value judgments. Rather, it is the skilful application of our intellect to recognise what works and what doesn’t. We speak when we feel safe; we withdraw when we feel unsafe. Trying to argue someone into healing is like holding them underwater and asking them to breathe.

When we receive non-judgmental, compassionate attention from another, it allows us to extend the same attention towards ourselves and only on that basis can we have a healthy regard for ourselves and others – and that healthy self-regard is the basis for good behaviour.

Healthy self-regard is hard to find for men who engage with the topic of gender-based violence in South Africa. If they recognise the insidious impact of patriarchal norms on their lives, if they read the invective aimed at men en masse online and the apologia for that invective from respected peers, they find themselves in a place of deep insecurity about what behaviour is appropriate and about their worth as human beings.

They need to talk, they need to listen, but the space is not available. It is of course too much to expect of social media that it be a safe and non-judgmental space, especially when it must, of necessity, be a ventilation space for intense collective trauma. And, if our aim is to have a conversation, we could do better at creating conducive conditions for it.

Our society is desperate for cultural change in the hearts of men. That change will not happen unless it happens on the basis of a principle of innate human worthiness, predicated on recognising and affirming the compassion in our hearts (it is our valid wish not to suffer and for others not to suffer, that makes us worthy).

This is not something that can be understood in the way we might understand a concept after reading it. It must be understood personally, immediately, by recognising it in ourselves through introspection. Then it must be cultivated like a vulnerable seedling, because compassion is tender and deeply countercultural and it needs protection and affirmation. It is the only way out of a vicious cycle of fear, hatred, violence and pain.

In the same meeting with Devon, my working partner spoke about her morning’s session at a weekly hospice workshop with stage-four cancer patients, in which men wept and asked for forgiveness, while women tried to comfort them. The men were seeking validation from women, who might restore to them their lost humanity.

It’s a heart-wrenching scene rendered genuinely tragic by the hopelessness of that dynamic: women cannot restore men’s humanity (and the pedestal they are placed upon to do so is equally a cage). Our worth as human beings, whatever our gender, must be affirmed within ourselves. No-one can bestow it upon us.

For generations, men have wrongly arrogated to themselves the right to bestow worthiness upon women. Today, a discourse that arrogates to itself the right to bestow worthiness upon men, or strip them of it, sabotages the goal of healing and change it claims to advance.

Every single one of us, whatever our identity markers, has a lot of healing and growing up to do. It is hard work, it stings the ego, but it’s better than continuing to suffer in the same old ways and we are all in it together. May we do it with compassion and wisdom.

P.S. Devon works as a psychologist and facilitator in the post-secondary education sector. He is driving, every working day, the change our society is calling for. He facilitates the healing that’s desperately needed among our male humans (among all our humans). And he does this work of listening and holding others’ trauma while also quietly carrying his own. To me, that is heroic. DM

Patrick Madden is a mindfulness & resilience coach who lives in Cape Town.  He is good at listening, asking questions and forgetting he made tea 20 minutes ago.

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