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GBV and #MenAreTrash: Men should be seen and not heard


Schalk Engelbrecht is a research associate with the Centre for Applied Ethics (University of Stellenbosch), and a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Business School.

Manliness is in need of cleansing so it may be of use again. Men should feel rage, not at hashtags, but at the violence that hides in, and spills over on to, their identities.

The philosopher and activist Simone Weil famously defined force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”. While this is both a striking and useful definition, it fails to capture the true horror, the paralysing intolerability of force or violence.

It would be preferable if the brutality that women in South Africa so frequently endure turned them into things. Things do not fear, do not feel pain, do not bleed or bruise, do not pray to live through force, do not face the prospect that there is no other side of violence and no “future me” (a me this evening, a me tomorrow morning, a me after this violent attack, this rape, this abduction). Things do not leave a legacy frozen in terror and are not forever remembered for being degraded, instead of for the singular event they were before force.

The true horror of force and violence is that the person who suffers physically and psychologically during the exercise of violence is also forced to remain a human being throughout the violence. She must endure the pain and humiliation, the dread and trembling, the uncertainty, the paralysis and darkest resignation of being invaded, degraded, controlled and tortured while being a human being. A human with all its sentience, preference, eviscerable singularity, once-off beauty, dignity, individuality, personality, relatedness and history.

This is the terrible trick of force – it is predicated on and feeds off the victim’s inability to become a thing (to be objectified). Kicking a rock does not confer on the agent sadistic pleasure or a sense of power. That only comes in relation to another person. “Wathint abafazi wathint imbokodo” is therefore at once true and false. Women are infinitely resilient… but they are not rocks.

Given the abhorrent reality of this festival of cruelty we name “gender-based violence”, taking offence at the hashtag #MenAreTrash is laughable. The reported offence can be dismissed. Some offendees are rightly less equal than others.

Resentful objections to this hashtag include “Not all men are like that!” and “How unfair to suffer these outrageous arrows when I have done nothing!” These confused objections pose the question, “What is the appropriate moral response for men to gender-based violence?” The second question, which follows from the first, is, “What role should men play in the movement against GBV?” Should trash even be allowed to talk on this topic?

These questions mirror similar questions raised early in the 20-teens, when ethicist Samantha Vice from Wits University asked how white people should live in South Africa, given the continued implication of their whitely identities in the ongoing racial inequality marking our country. Vice’s short answer was: shame is the appropriate moral response for white people in South Africa, and their consequent role is to direct themselves inward (to private moral labour) and to keep quiet and humble outward (refraining from imposing a whitely stance in the public realm).

There is good justification for adopting the same strategies in relation to the anti-GBV movement (ironically rendering this opinion piece a performative fallacy – a ladder we must kick away once it has served its purpose).

Much like we cannot avoid the collective shame for what State Capture has done to the very idea of South Africa, so our mere membership of the group “men” endows us with shame, regardless of personal culpability. Hence even if we could claim innocence, we cannot escape an appropriate shame (an argument Eusebius McKaiser has made in response to the objection of whites to the suggestion of shame).

Apart from our unavoidable collective shame, there are two additional reasons why men should feel shame. The first reason is that a “manly” position confers undeserved benefits on men. Who I am, or “the man I have become” is not self-made but connected to the moral wrong that is a gender-skewed society. One is taken more seriously merely for being a man. It is more “natural” to see men in presidential and executive roles. Men steer the hard and authoritative audit committee; women are given positions in the seemingly softer Social and Ethics Committee.

The second motivation for shame, as many commentators suggest, is that the unacknowledged but ingrained values and practices of manliness carry the spores of GBV. I may never have hit a woman, but joyfully partook in lubricious trash talk, or exposed latent misogyny through the dismissive sexualisation of a work rival.

Male shame is therefore appropriate. So overwhelming are the crimes men commit, and so obviously complicit are men, that even the inconvenient politician who feigns and takes pride in aggressive and militant masculinity has recognised that the war on women makes trash of us all.

What are men to do with this shame? What action should it spark? In line with Vice’s argument, inwardly focused moral labour is the most advisable course of action for men. Not defensiveness. I would hazard that the defensive “gentle man” doth protest too much. These protests are forms of moral disengagement, preventing us from changing ourselves and an unequal and dangerous society. The private work of conscience would do the moral community better.

As for the public role of men, I cannot but support a response that is inaudible, but not passive. Men should be seen and not heard. Trash should not talk. When we talk many of us bellow misguidedly manly calls to arms: “Men should be men again, taking up a manly God’s injunction to be the heady dictator of the dwelling” or “Men should be men again, and protect the weaker but oh-so-treasured sex”.

Trash should not talk. It should be recycled. Not in the sense of “dishonestly re-circulated in a falsely-new form”. Instead, manliness is in need of cleansing so it may be of use again. Men should feel rage, not at hashtags, but at the violence that hides in, and spills over onto their identities. The philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler suggests that our response to violence should be to craft and channel justified moral outrage.

In the case of men, we should quietly cultivate and channel our outrage towards the exposure and countering of gender-based violence. If we were to stop being defensive, dispense with loud and reactive machismo, diagnose both our manly habits and the unjustly gendered society within which our manliness has become invisible to us and oppressive to others, then a man of few words – a humble silent type of man who is not a wolf unto woman – may just emerge. DM


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