Greenwich recently put up a set of posters about domestic violence, using the slogan “Dads – have the strength to change”. This has provoked some criticism, and even a petition, from some men who feel that the poster unduly stigmatises men, and wish to put it on record that women also engage in domestic violence. There are arguments to be had about the careful handling of rhetoric by Greenwich council (appealing to a stereotypically “male” quality like strength as a way of highlighting domestic violence) and there are statistics to be shared about the gendered nature of violence in intimate relationships (something like 85% of which is by men, and women are overwhelmingly more likely to suffer injury or death.)
This post, though, was sparked by a discussion over on Mumsnet, in which it was being suggested by one commenter that these posters should be withdrawn because they “alienate” men. They may be based on accurate statistics, and men may be the “problem” group with regard to domestic violence, but putting up images like this stigmatises men and insults men who aren’t violent towards their partners of children. This approach suggests that because it is so necessary to involve men in changing the culture around violence to women, public campaigns should be very careful not to alienate or offend men who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause.
Whilst I can see the point here, I really think that ‘not alienating men’ has been the default position of discussions around male violence for decades, and has very serious limits. Most men will find being told that their gender perpetrates massive levels of violence and misery on others is upsetting and makes them feel defensive. It’s absolutely reasonable to worry about that. In fact, it connects rather well with my own experience of hearing about male violence against women.
I used to get really defensive reading feminist critics on my undergraduate literature course, because I hated the idea that people like me, who shared the masculine qualities I prided myself on, did this. I felt picked on when feminists mentioned men as the most violent and oppressive group in society. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and I found all sorts of ways to dismiss it. (Not men like me, that was all years ago in the 50s, they have some good points but they’re too extreme, they have warped perspectives because they work with victims of violence so they only see the bad side of men…)
It’s understandable that we don’t want to put men off, and I can attest to how off-putting the truth can be. But it is the truth. And I’m not sure there’s any way of phrasing it which many men don’t find offensive and upsetting. Because they should find it terribly offensive. Violent men who terrorise women do it in the name of men. They degrade women with slurs which assume that women are inferior physically and intellectually to men. They pride themselves on their proper manly attitude and self. They justify it as “boys being boys”, or “a man demanding the respect he’s owed” or “just how men are”, and other people accept that. This is something most men have probably never thought about in that way, and it should be terribly upsetting and offensive to them. When they realise what men do to women, it should cause them to question the fairness of the world, the goodness of their society, and even some of the principles they live by.
This realization is going to involve reassessing how the world works, both outside ourselves and inside. Outside ourselves, we have to face that some of our friends, the guys we’ve played sport with, the people we’ve gone drinking with, will have committed crimes against women. They looked like us, laughed at our jokes, stood their round, gave us good advice, and then went home to do horrifying things to their wives or girlfriends. Statistically, we will know a man – probably more than one – who has abused a woman physically or emotionally. There’s no way we can determine who when we meet them.
Inside ourselves, we have to face the fact that some of the things we like about ourselves – our strength, our masculinity – are used by other men to harm and demean other people. We have to consider the fact that our manhood links us in some way with those other men who do the things we want so desperately to distance ourselves from. They were brought up in the same culture as us, were encouraged to be a man in the same ways, knew what it really felt like to be one of the blokes, and they took that knowledge as a licence to terrify and to kill. It should make us think seriously about what makes us different, and about how we might be buying into a system of masculinity which hurts other people.
I worry that a message which is easy for men to swallow and won’t shake their view of the world is not going to have any effect. This is not an argument for thoughtlessly offensive slogans, or shock tactics. But we have to accept that there’s no way of discussing men’s violence to women and children which doesn’t make men uncomfortable. How on earth could there be? It they weren’t uncomfortable and upset by it they’d be total monsters.