“I’m sorry for being a man, right now,” David Cunliffe told a Women’s Refuge Symposium recently. “Because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children.”
David Cunliffe is the leader of the Labour Party, the largest opposition group in New Zealand’s parliament. His intended audience was clearly not only the women in the room, but it would be a mistake to argue his only target audience was NZ men, even when he said, “Wake up, stand up, man up and stop this bullshit.’’ Cunliffe’s words are cited on a blog called Bowalley Road, which reports that later, in a TV3 interview with Patrick Gower, the Labour leader remained staunch in his position, despite the criticism he had begun to attract.
It goes without saying that women need to be respected, protected and valued. In what is offered here, there is no effort to promote the idea that one section of society should benefit at the expense of any other part. Women, men, children, ethnic groups, sexual minorities, marginalised groups – and the criminal is included in this list – all these people are the beneficiaries of a better society and a future world worth building and fighting for.
When considering the roles men play in all this, an important distinction is necessary: one can speak of how men see themselves in general, or one can focus on how men view themselves in relation to the violence David Cunliffe was highlighting. Chris Trotter, the blogster behind Bowalley Road, sees matters of identity and human responsibility as linked to the issue of social benefit – who benefits from the way things are? He argues that all men benefit when they live inside societies and cultures that are patriarchal, even if they as individuals would see themselves as nice guys. So for him all men must own the negative outcomes of patriarchy. I can agree with him and yet it is actually the subtext of that ownership I want to look at. I don’t want men to say yes to a belief that they as individuals and as a group are somehow flawed – men bad/ women good.
It is a genuinely modern view that a text is no longer a sequence of words or marks on a page that are set in motion by the intentions of the writer. A modern reader appreciates that how a text is read is more important than how it was intended to be read. So a good author, that is a thoughtful and knowing author, actually looks at both the intended message and the many ways the text could be read. Viewed critically Chris Trotter’s position could be read as a little naïve. He certainly has the intention of addressing the issue of violence against women and children; some of the other possible readings of his text, however, carry the potential to misdirect New Zealand society and culture. Note what is being argued here: neither David Cunliffe nor Chris Trotter intends to let men off the hook; the danger nonetheless is that men might become less willing to own and explore who they are and short-circuit the kind of reflection that is needed if a way forward is to be found.
The reflection process for this blog piece actually began inside an Australian media item. What was offered there was, unlike the messages of Cunlilffe and Trotter, a wrong turn as far as leadership messages go.
The local call to regret being a man from David Cunliffe sadly sounds so similar to what the Australian piece delivered it seemed sensible to open with what happened for us as New Zealanders first and then use the Australian piece to shed light on where not to go.
Before getting into the detail, a few general points are pertinent. Leadership can involve sending messages to people about what a person should do, and that can get very tricky. Some situations are difficult to navigate; one such instance is to say something critical about a person who is a victim of social oppression. It is even harder to say it to them face to face, although that may have the best chance of being understood by others.
Having read some of the texts authored by Hannah Arendt – one of which was her book The Origins of Totalitarianism – I see her as an articulate intellectual of her day. She had to deal with just this kind of situation: she was critical of the Jewish leadership regarding how they managed their role in the period when the German political movement led by Hitler brought many of the Jewish population to their deaths. When she made those comments some of the Jewish community saw this as rubbing salt into an already deep wound. Despite the victim status of the Jewish community Arendt was, in my view, right in what she had to say. (A good account of this process is given in the 2012 movie about Hannah Arendt.)
Group-think – and that is how I will refer to it – is a process where people give away ownership of how they do their thinking, and (sadly) become easily manipulated by others. Arendt was speaking about how the Jewish group, en masse, just stopped being sufficiently critical and reflective to understand what was happening to them. This is precisely what I sometimes see men doing when they are required to deal with matters concerning the sexual abuse of women and children.
Women and children have certainly been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of men, and continue to suffer harm. Our social and cultural awareness of this issue is higher now than it was when I was a younger man. Given the importance of this issue and the need to take steps to stop the abuse some men are adopting a group-think approach that is deeply flawed. I saw this step being taken inside a piece published this week by the Australian media magazine, The Age. The item was authored by Sam de Brito and the title of the article was “Suffer the men, not the little children”.
De Brito points to an image of the past in which men saw themselves as good blokes – “part of the scenery at parks, beaches and playgrounds” – but then the image changes, and the good bloke is transformed into a “figure of dread and suspicion”. De Brito is offering the view that the change is best explained by the sexual abuse of women and children by some men. He says the good bloke image has been shattered by accounts of abusive men. But the ordinary man senses that this ‘self’ he is being offered today is not really him; his problem includes a generalised not-being-sure.
This is not how I read de Brito: his writing does sound like he understands the average bloke; he has been to a guru, to check that he’s right. But what he has been told by psychologist and author Steve Biddulph is what I choose to call a wrong turn – it was at this point the group-think error unpacked itself. (Biddulph’s book, Raising Boys, is a worthwhile read.)
Biddulph offered de Brito the view the current environment of mistrust towards males is simply “a correction”. “For decades, in fact centuries,” Biddulph explains, “people were in denial that such things could happen – priests sodomising little boys, TV stars molesting pre-teen girls, and so on. … So when it finally all came out, and we shifted to the vigilance we should have had all along, it became necessary to suspect everyone.”
De Brito argues the path that unfolds runs along these lines – “The resulting apprehension and scepticism about men and children is an undoubted inconvenience for guys today, however, we just have to accept it.” De Brito has Biddulph closing off his overview with the comment, “It’s tough, but like security at airports [and the presumption we all could be a terrorist] it is probably worth it.”
I view Biddulph as behaving in a very similar way to how Jewish leaders responded to the political moves by the German leadership under Adolf Hitler. There are some very powerful movers and shakers at work in our present, just as there were in 1940s Germany – and yes, one needs to assess what can and cannot be done; however, the level of capitulation imaged for us in Biddulph’s advice is frightening. It is vital that fathers and male caregivers love the children in their care; to let go of that is a serious wrong turn.
My somewhat utopic vision looks forward to societies and cultures where men respect, support and love the young; and equally, oppose and guard against all disrespect, abuse and indifference towards them.
1973 The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego; New York; London: Harcourt Press.
2014 Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different – and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men. New York: Ten Speed Press.
de Brito, Sam
2014 Suffer the Men, not the Little Children. Newspaper Comment. The Age [Australia], 24/June, Online Newspaper, Comment Section.
von Trotta, Margarethe
2012 Hannah Arendt (2012). Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer. Heimatfilm. 113 minutes.