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The silent sex: men and violence

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Yet again an American killing spree sparks a brief surge in debate. On May 23, two women and four men were killed in yet another act of gun violence. It has become so formulaic that what should stand as an incitement to change and reflective action, is instead normalised. It begins with a collective moment of astonishment, followed by reflection on its causes and possible remedies, followed by attacks on those who deny those theories and answers, then followed by a waning of interest on the subject. A week later we forget what happened, and recalibrate our attention onto the day to day issues. 
This time however, the circumstances surrounding Elliot Rodger’s crimes are not being left off the feminist hook. His open hatred of women has asserted his place as the poster boy for feminist grievances and an epitome of what has been claimed as our ‘misogynistic’ culture. But cries of misogyny and a twitter war between #yesallwomen and #notallmen have neglected the ecological bath which breeds the very masculinity embedded in Roger’s sense of self. It is now clear that men’s issues need to be raised from the bottom of feminist discourses. 
 
There can be no doubt that feminism has played a heroic part in realising human freedom. The feminist movement must be given credit for its revolutionary part in igniting debate on the naturalised act that is human violence. After two centuries of action, feminism’s oscillating tidal wave is reaching its fourth peak. College campuses and social media are witnessing a burgeoning resurgence of feminist voices that is complemented by the welcoming phenomenon of men joining feminism's ranks as deeply concerned supporters, speaking up in dismay at the floundering aspects of civilisation which impede the pursuit of gender equality.
 
But amidst the joyful dreams of envisaging an egalitarian utopia, feminism's push towards a pure and perfect world of equality between the sexes is stumped by its major oversight of men, in which even academe has fallen victim. Unless men's issues are catered for, until boys and men no longer feel that their self-esteem, identity and acceptance among peers can only be attained by having sex, performing belligerent, imposingly assertive masculinities to assert status and maintain 'face', women will continue to fall victim to the 'lad' and ‘misogynist’ culture supposedly rampant across our society.
 
For over two centuries, the feminist crusade has been based on a mistaken assumption, that since men denied women material and political autonomy, men were mischievously hiding the key to living the good, prosperous and free life. Thus, since women saw men as having it all, prestige, fame, glory freedom and political glamour, the one sided thesis of 'female oppression' emerged. From this thesis, feminism has been criticised as projecting all of human history as male oppression and female victimage (Paglia, 2006). The answer to women's oppression according to the original feminist mantra, is that by attaining all of what men had acquired, labelled as the pursuit of 'equality', female emancipation and happiness would in theory, arise out of the residue of deprivation.
 
Men became the ideal, the model for human freedom, and benchmark for the 'good life'. But contrary to popular feminist discourse, the history of the genders should be seen as one in which both women and men have endured differing forms of subjugation. The idea that the female sex constitutes the oppressed sex is in my opinion sheer nonsense. To simplify matters, whilst women's subjugation lies within their experience as the silenced sex, men's subjugation lies within their still boxed in status as the silent sex. The radical face of feminism has ignored the very real and historical oppressions which men have faced. It is an oppression which has bred vile forms of manhood in which the application of violence seen as the default method of solving personal and collective problems. If society is to be rectified and violence subdued, then men's issues must have its own space for discussion and political action.
 
Of the many sexist proclamations which feminism has sought to destroy is the generalisation that women are pathological liars who mischievously exploit their sexual and emotional magic to keep men on a leash. But woman as the bearer and bringer of deceit is symptomatic of men's denial to reflect on their own selves. When women mustered the courage to shout in explosive defiance during the 1960’s second wave, the nature of female affliction was disclosed, discussed and projected into a framework for political action. 
 
But men, whose issues are only now being considered seriously by media commentators and academe (it is only in recent years that 'men's studies' programmes are being developed), continue to be chained to a fiercely constrictive, repressive masculinity, an internalised panopticon which strongly orientates men's actions, gestures and spoken word. As a result, women continue to endure the symptom of male distress - the fist.
 
Through their silence, their individual and collective fear of denouncing violence and of voicing issues of mental ills, it is men who are the pathological liars, not women. Men are the silent sex, whose historical cynical portrayal has us assuming that men’s natural behavioural state is that of a loud, chest thumping bunch of monkeys, making noise, stirring hostility, and decimating mother nature wherever they go. Under their guise as fearless defenders and heroic saviours, men have literally fooled the world in their pretence of emotional hardness. Under this masquerade, fear, love and vulnerability are suppressed into a miserable mooping shame and slapped with identity shattering labels. 
 
Radical feminists have been rightly enraged by men's historical perpetration of structural and physical violence, but their subjection to the idea that women’s history is of nothing but victimage by male privilege has blinded them to the forces which impeded on men's ability to cry with tears rather than fists. When we realise the potential for men to express deep love and compassion, we can conclude that macho forms of masculinity have repressed men's potential as loving, caring beings. Unless ideals of masculinity are re-constructed, unless men's place and importance in society undergoes a transformation of metaphysical proportions, boys and men will continue to remain trapped in a state of liminality - going somewhere but ending nowhere. 
 
Masculinity needs a new firm foundation articulated and cultivated by dialogue between all spheres of society. Like Elliot Rodger, as long as sex is seen by some men as the only means by which to become a man, to feel a sense that one belongs, that one’s place and importance in the world is confirmed, acts like those committed by Rodger will happen again whether we like it or not. It is up to men, alongside women to re-construct a 21st century masculine image which serves to promote the ideals of freedom and respect feminism tries so desperately to establish between the genders.
 
Gender roles may be socially constructed, but social construction is a natural part of the human form. Humans have always moulded and adapted their behaviours for the survival of the collective. When a society needs men to fight, it's not going to teach men how to care, but how to supress fear. Spartan society once took boys from their homes at age seven for combat training. But this was a natural response to the plagues which forced the military to defend what little food was available at the time (Farrell, 1994). We adapt in accordance with the environment we seek to create. Rather than the result of a male conspiracy, gender roles were required for the functioning and maintenance of agrarian societies.
 
But our modern visions of a peaceful, equal and free world which incentivises the abolition of gender roles cannot be fulfilled with the current state of men's issues today. Encouraging men to take male violence and toxic forms of masculinity seriously will require far more investment in the consciousness raising of men's issues than is currently promoted.
 
The truth hidden by men is typified by their tragically high suicide rates which continues to remain too much of a quiet social problem. While suicide's stigma comes in part from a "suicide is selfish" attitude, the reality according to men's activist Warren Farrell (1994), is that suicide is sort of like a perverse act of love. The hammering burden too many men feel they weigh upon their families convinces them that their loved ones would be better off without them. Unless the silent sex comes out and reveals its true self, as human, vulnerable and capable of deep love without being slapped with crude, ungenerous, identity shattering labels like "pussy", "gay" or "coward", the pursuit of a society based on cooperation and love for others cannot be realized.
 
Rather than a history of being privileged egomaniacs, too many men literally regard themselves as inferior and unworthy of love. Rather than obsessing over sex, too many men obsess over whether their family and friends would be better off without them. Rather than hopelessly, irreversibly destined to commit violent acts, men are inclined to adapt to whatever masculinities a culture cultivates and values. In our quest for freedom from violence, a non-violent masculine identity is possible, but we must deconstruct the emotional subordination of males and induce within our culture, an acceptance of male emotional flexibility. A "boys don't cry attitude" has its place in a society needy of tough and emotionally stupefied soldiers. We continue to teach this to young males. But we are not at war.
 
References
 
Farrell, W. (1994) The Myth of Male Power. London: Fourth Estate

Paglia, C. (2006) Salon Interview: Camille Paglia. Salon.

Robert Bolton is currently graduating in social science at University College Cork.

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