Learning is hard. Men can do it.
By Jon Farmer
Learning is hard. It requires vulnerability. We need to be able to say things like “I don’t know”, “I could have done that better”, and “I made a mistake” before even being open to new perspectives or personal change.
For too many boys and men, we were raised to value strength and power and to fear weakness. If an adult man hasn’t abandoned those beliefs, then vulnerability feels like weakness, and that weakness feels like a threat that must be attacked. That man will attack the threat to his power no matter whether it comes from a stranger, friend, child, or his partner.
This is one root of men’s violence and it is a problem. It is also a problem we can solve.
Men have a role to play in ending gender based violence because most violence is perpetrated by men. Post that sentence on the internet and comments will follow. Men will post things like “not all men”, “women are violent too”, and “why do you hate men?”.
Men get the message early in their lives that violence is not only acceptable but expected of them. We are shown examples of heroes whose status comes from their power over others. We can test our conditioning right now by imagining what a powerful man looks like.
Who did you imagine?
You might have imagined someone rich, maybe someone physically strong. Maybe he can build, fix, and hunt everything he needs. He was probably either young and handsome or old and wealthy. Maybe he was a leader of a country. Maybe he was a boss or maybe a professional athlete.
In all these examples, it’s a man with power over other people; a man in charge. If these are also our portraits of what it means to be ‘successful’ men, then they portray what we encourage boys and men to be.
This particular picture of manhood has unforeseen consequences. It interferes with our ability to learn by suggesting that our value as men is directly connected to our power. It encourages men to be violent. Most of us will not be millionaires, sports heroes, movie stars, or even a manager in a work place. With those doors to ‘success’ closed, men seek power in other ways and this often takes the form of violence against women.
I define violence as anything that inspires fear or causes pain in another person. Physical, mental, and emotional violence – and the threat of them – are tools to take power over other people. Men learn what it takes to be a winner and that losing means failing to be ‘a man’. We learn that lesson in youthful arguments and school yard fights, locker rooms, job sites, business meetings, and romances. We learn it from the first time our tears are met with ‘tough love’ instead of comfort and most of us learn the lesson quickly.
To quote feminist writer bell hooks:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.”
The trouble is that we need those parts of ourselves. If we as men don’t learn that it is okay and necessary to feel our feelings, then we won’t have the tools we need to engage in healthy adult relationships. We won’t know how to deal with feelings of emotional hurt or the guilt that comes with hurting others.
Every human being is going to make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes cause hurt and pain for the people around us. We say hurtful things. We make threats. We make rash decisions. If we have learned to fear mistakes as a sign of weakness, then each mistake will plant a seed of shame. We will scramble to bury them not realizing that shame grows. We will resent and attack the people who point to the source of our shame. We will try to convince ourselves and the people around us that we are successful and ‘real men’.
We’ll turn to other people for confirmation of our power and in all of these things we will do more harm.
Mistakes are how we learn. None of us is born knowing how to be a safe or healthy human being. If we have learned to accept vulnerability and to practice accountability, then we will not fear our mistakes. We will treat them as our teachers. We will learn from them. We will apologize and do better when we see that we have caused harm and those actions will strengthen relationships. We will be respected and trusted for our accountability and our honesty. We will take our lessons forward and do less harm in the future.
Men have many roles to play in ending gender based violence and they start when we acknowledge that there are things that we still need to learn. As men there are skills and abilities that we need to nurture in our boys, our friends, and our selves. The humility to admit when we are wrong. The ability to acknowledge and value the feelings of those around us. The ability to ask for help.
In my violence prevention work, I’ve asked a lot of men to describe their idea of ‘being a man’ as well as the men whom they admire most in their lives. The ‘real men’ fit the powerful image we described above. The men they admired were people who had supported and nurtured them, men they respected and who were respectful with no suggestion of power or pain.
Every one of us can learn how to be that kind of man, even though learning is hard.
Jon Farmer is the coordinator of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce and Supervisor of the Men’s Program.