With the continuing momentum of social media movements such as #metoo #saynotosexism, and #timesup, the opportunities for empowering social change are more varied than ever, but the ways in which these movements manifest into a day to day reality are much harder to recognise. There are many inspiring speeches and comments that we can appreciate within our public spaces today, but it can seem that much of this good work can equate to the opposite of that famous 1903 Suffragette slogan: ‘Deeds, not Words’ when it comes to how we can respond to these movements on a personal level.
For us, it is easier than ever to make a public declaration, and to ally ourselves with the movements that seek to tackle abuses of power; gender inequality and sexual exploitation, but in private, the reality of how to act on our own words, or the words of others, can be lost to us because of just how challenging and complicated this process is. There is an irony here in the sense that our access to social media leaves us with an abundance of words, but with no clear space for the deeply personal communication in which we can address what isn’t working for us and what may even be causing us harm closer to home.
This paradox perhaps isn’t so surprising if we consider that we have only this year reached the centenary year of The Representation of the People Act (1918), and we are just under fifty years from the stark contradictions of 1969; the year in which Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon; Woodstock became one of the most monumental events of the hippie movement; The Stonewall uprising took place, and Tammy Wynette belted out her just-grin-and-bear-it hit ‘Stand by Your Man’. It was a time of great social change and upheaval, but the events and moods of that year also highlighted the uncomfortable social tensions that continue to limit the way we live our lives now. For us in 2018, it’s still painfully true that ‘Sometimes, it’s hard to be a woman’, but I think now in some ways, it might actually be a little harder to be a man.
The plight of men is perhaps not the most obvious position from which to consider the movements of #metoo or #timesup, but if we do explore this perspective, we leave ourselves open to asking how men can respond to the impact of #metoo in private as well as public? This is a question I have been reflecting on throughout this year following on from two visits to Southsea Sangha from Lama Rod Owens who eloquently articulated things I had not fully formed into coherence, and who inspired many more reflections that are still ongoing. This is also a question that lies at the heart of the many allegations, investigations and convictions of sexual assault that are now in the public arena, as well as in the underlying abuses of power that such exploitation is a symptom of.
One of the most powerful public statements of the #metoo and #timesup movements this year has come from Asia Argento at the closing ceremony of Cannes in May. Such a strong declaration creates a space in which others can publicly and privately articulate their own experiences of abuse, but it also exposes the conflicting range of emotions and judgements that can be seen in the the language of those who choose to respond.
There is so much at stake for those who engage publicly with a statement like this, but it is perhaps more interesting to consider what happens privately after such a statement is made. There is an undeniable strength and power in Argento’s words, as well as in the gesture of the ‘no shame fist’, (which owes a great debt to Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s Black Power Salute of fifty years ago this week), but what do these statements become a rallying cry or a trigger for? What does a truly empowering healing process look like for women, and how can harmful experiences be communicated safely? Equally, what options do men have if they ask themselves: have I caused harm to the women in my life, and the honest answer is yes? How do men find ways to recognise the nature of the harm they may have caused, and what do they do about it?
It is all of us who are left with the choice of how to respond to these questions on a personal level, but the challenge of recognising what is harmful to each of us and to each other is not easy to engage with or respond to. So much of what appears to be overlooked or ignored when we attempt to understand how we have been triggered and affected by public declarations like Argento’s comes down to our lack of skill in being able to recognise harm, and to communicate our own needs, desires and fears. This is not only a form of emotional illiteracy that we are all dealing with, but also a lack of fluency in the language of difficult conversations.
The uncomfortable truth is that we all have a responsibility to care for and to empower ourselves before we can attempt to change the way that we relate to others. Many of us share a reluctance to attempt to fully recognise those ugly aspects of ourselves that may be the cause or result of harmful behaviour, and we also carefully curate what we present to others for fear that they may turn away or reject us if they no longer see what we think they want to see. For men, this may be more true now that it ever has been, and despite the many privileges that being born a man can offer, the stark reality is that suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 45 in the U.K., and white men accounted for 7 out of 10 suicides in the U.S. in 2016, which makes it undeniably clear that the culture of white male privilege is not just harming women. Such statistics also make it clear that the more skilled we all are in recognising what harm to ourselves and to others looks like, the more opportunities we all have to engage in a healing process that benefits us all.
The question of what harm looks like is complex, and although sexual assault, rape, psychological abuse, and domestic violence are clearly significant causes of trauma and harm, the culture of male privilege and power that can foster such acts also surfaces in day to day behaviours and language that can cause subtler layers of harm to everyone. The challenging aspect of recognising this form of day to day harm is that it is sometimes what is not done or said that can have the biggest impact, and this in itself can be symptomatic of a limited awareness of the baggage we bring to a situation through our own experiences, agendas, and biases at any given time.
Many men can honestly say, ‘no, I haven’t assaulted or abused anyone’, in response to the question of ‘have I caused harm?’ But if a broader idea of what harm looks like can be considered, then a response to this question may surface a little differently. It is not too difficult to note some examples of what subtler forms of harm may look like if we think of occasions when biased judgments are made and acted on without awareness; when the needs and experiences of another person are not recognised or respected, or when a right to something is assumed and taken for granted. It is important to recognise here that we can all cause degrees of harm, (whether intentionally or unintentionally), but it can also be noted that it is those day to day choices of how we do or do not address what is happening in such moments that make all the difference to what happens next.
When men come face to face with an answer of ‘yes’ to the question of ‘have I caused harm?’ Or perhaps more accurately, ‘how have I caused harm to myself and others?’ The challenge of how to respond is fraught with complexity. This is still true if the answer that forms is a ‘maybe’, or even a ‘no’, because the reality is that a culture of male privilege and power is not really supporting any of us to thrive. Aside from the harmful behaviour that has already been noted, the day to day currency of phrases such as: ‘you need to man up’; ‘boys don’t cry’; ‘boys will be boys’, or ‘I’m a man, I should be able to deal with this’, all assert a macho brand of masculinity that actively promotes damaging behaviour, and sidesteps the need for self-care, whilst also ignoring those issues that men are attempting to negotiate. Such attitudes and values leave us all continually caught in a cycle of expectations and ideas of what we think we should be for each other that do not truly reflect what we want or really need.
For men, who are statistically the most likely to cause significant harm to themselves or to others, the process of beginning to respond to ‘how have I caused harm to myself and others?’ must start with a safe space first, and honesty second. I see and facilitate this in my work as a Specialist Mental Health Mentor on a regular basis, but such a process may also need the input of other men who share the same goal, especially when a significant level of harmful behaviour has taken place, and feelings of shame, insecurity and anger are in play. This support is also vitally important when the skills that underpin emotional literacy have not been learned well, or taught, as it is these skills that open the door to being able to practice self-care; manage distress, and be self-accountable. The ongoing work that Lama Rod Owens, The Good Men Project, CALM, Time to Change, Mental Health U.K., and many others have blazed a trail for is also supporting and facilitating this process by creating the safe spaces that men need to talk frankly, and in which to build the tools they need to address what isn’t working. The vulnerability and unflinching honesty that choosing to engage with such a process demands may be hard to face, but with commitment and the support of other skillful men, it will never be a process that isn’t powerful in its potential to make things better.
It is not a risk free process to stop and face what #metoo actually means for all of us, or more importantly, to attempt to respond to that most uncomfortable of questions: ‘how have I caused harm?’ There are no quick-fix solutions, deeds, or words that can make this work easy for men to do, or for us all to find a fast route out of the cycles of harmful behaviour that a culture of male privilege and power leave us all vulnerable to. All that we have on a day to day basis are choices, and for those men who dare to do things differently, the potential for happiness and change is not only great, but liberating for all of us.