Let’s talk about: ‘masculinity’, collaboration, & making mistakes

This is the first in what will be a series of ‘multi-voice’ blog posts where we speak to men seeking to be active in challenging Male Violence Against Women and Girls.

It’s good to talk, of course, but sometimes it’s also good to ask widely then listen carefully, so there’ll be no editorial input from AC2M UK, just 3 questions (put by Michael Conroy from AC2M UK) and 4 men answering them. None of the individuals or groups they represent are affiliated to AC2M UK, or to each other, but they are voices we frequently encounter in social media, and occasionally in person, so they seemed a good place to start. We asked and they said yes. Simple as that. We thank them all for their time. As you will see, they have a range of perspectives.

Here are the responses, unedited and not in conversation with each other, but in straight response to the questions put, from four men who are active in various ways in seeking to reduce violence against women and girls. The groups these four people represent are active in in Scotland, Ireland and England.

The four contributors to this blog-post are:

Tom Meagher, White Ribbon Ireland: @whiteribbonirl  www.whiteribbon.ie

Graham Goulden: Chief Inspector Scottish Violence Reduction Unit and Training specialist MVP strategies  @graham_VRU

Stephen Burrell:  Doctoral Researcher at Durham University / Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA) @the_daily_panda thedailypandablog.wordpress.com durham.ac.uk/criva founder of #YesAllMen

Chris Flux: Campaign Director, Men Against Violence, Preston @MAV_Preston www.menagainstviolence.co.uk

Let’s talk about: #masculinity #collaboration and #makingmistakes

MC: What does the word ‘masculinity’ mean to you? Do you think it’s a useful concept / word when engaging with men in work around tackling violence towards women and girls?

Graham Goulden:

Masculinity is something that is both defined by the person and by the culture.  Often these two definitions will be miles apart.  To me the term defines my presence as a man who believes in respect, love, trust, strength in character and strength through emotion. Certain cultures/groups often define it in negative ways which is more often than not contrary to personal beliefs.

Discussing the values men hold personally is an excellent tool, too, when discussing all forms of violence within the context of a public health model.

Stephen Burrell:

For me ‘masculinity’ is the collection of socially constructed meanings, norms and values we attach to being a man. I think it can be a useful concept for demonstrating how so many of the things we are taught as being normal, natural, acceptable and desirable about being a man in our society are nothing of the sort. However, if we are to move towards an equal world then we have to abolish the gender system that masculinity is based around, because that system is intrinsically hierarchical. There can be no such thing as ‘healthy’ or ‘positive’ masculinity in my view, because masculinity is founded upon the dominance of men over women, with all of the consequences that has.

Chris Flux:

For me ‘masculinity’ is a social concept about how we understand, identify and define ourselves and others as male. This can be both damaging and good depending on how that’s done. Having a strong sense of self is healthy so long as it’s not rooted in prejudice or arrogance. Talking about ‘masculinity’ is probably a useful starting place for the majority of men as that is where they are at. Encouraging men to question gender is important, but I don’t think they have to reject their gender identity in order to reject sexism and violence.

Tom Meagher:

For me masculinity is a problematic concept because it is ever increasingly rooted in identity which tends to sanitise it as a socially constructed tool of patriarchy and oppression. I have no problem with identity if it is helpful, but masculinity is definitionally hierarchical and throughout time, space and cultures has been used to police men into collusion with a system of rape and violence towards women, children and the planet, and to police women into submission. It has been used as a tool to send men fight and die in imperialist wars for our ‘betters’, to colonise, to murder and to dominate. While I agree that it is crucial to come to men from where they are, I don’t believe it should be our job to make men feel comfortable with the identity of masculinity, but to question and re-evaluate the stories they have been sold as masculine. This is always uncomfortable work. It was uncomfortable and painful for me to attempt to dis-identify with masculinity as I’m sure it is for all of us so I don’t expect success in this work unless men are feeling uncomfortable with their masculine identification. I fear that to use masculinity as a tool to redress the problems masculinity has created reassures individual men that they can be nice guys without addressing the systemic and deliberate oppression that women face as an oppressed class and reassures them that they are still a member of the privileged class. While it is great to be able to get through to individual men (and that is a large and significant portion of our work), I think our ultimate goal should be dismantling hierarchical concepts like masculinity and its institutions.

MC: How best could men working to end MVAWG in our countries (England, Ireland, Scotland) maximise the positive impact and energies of disparate organisations and individuals working in this field?

Stephen Burrell:

For me the fundamental issue is how we can we can upscale our efforts so that we can engage with more men and boys, and bring about change at all levels of society. It’s great that there are a range of different pro-feminist campaigns and organisations out there, as I don’t think there’s one perfect way of doing this work, as long as it follows feminist principles and is accountable to women. However, it would be great if we were able to link up and work together more, across sectors and across countries, to learn from each other, raise the profile of this kind of work, and enhance our ability to influence policymakers and push for social change in support of the feminist movement.

Graham Goulden:

Learning from experiences and expertise is always going to support any work I’m involved.  Many of my mentors work individually or within organisations connected to this work. Think also the question needs to be reversed so that organisations you describe maximise the authentic conversations that many men are able to have with the men they are working with.  This is not to say that men can do this on their own, to the contrary however there need to be partnerships which share the agenda.  This work is about making life better both for girls and women as well as boys and men.

Chris Flux:

Men can add their voice to that of the many women’s who are already speaking out about these issues. We shouldn’t speak over or on behalf of women, but add our voice in order to amplify women’s. Anti-sexist men should focus on creating a culture change (starting within their own sphere of influence) and it would be great for men with the right skills to get involved in mentoring programmes.

Tom Meagher:

I think we need to remember that we are going against the grain here, but to remember there will be people who want to work with us in almost every community and we need to build stronger anti-violence communities in our respective locations to build strong national movements. It is essential that we link up with women’s groups (those who are willing to work with us) and let them lead the discussions and remember that while working on the ground is essential, we should be willing to rock the boat politically as well. In terms of the international movement, we can sometimes forget to link up and share ideas and experiences, which I think is invaluable. I know I was over in the UK with White Ribbon UK almost two years ago now and we still incorporate some of the ideas I got from that meeting, so there is enormous value in keeping in contact with one another and applying what is common in our communities while acknowledging what is different.

MC: We all make mistakes. That’s a given. Have you learned any key lessons from mistakes you may have made in the course of your work that you’d be happy to share?

Tom Meagher:

My most costly mistake has been a failure to recognise when I am exhibiting signs of my own gender conditioning. This includes not talking to others, or even admitting to myself when things are getting on top of me. I think it’s important to help ourselves and one another in this work and to recognise that just because we are working to address gender conditioning, it doesn’t mean we are immune to our own.

Graham Goulden:

Over the years I have watched many people (including myself) struggle when speaking with men and many who have succeeded.  I hold the view that our job is not simply to educate but to engage men in an honest, authentic conversation on issues which affect themselves as well as people they care about.  Making the invisible visible is my aim.  I like to discuss personal values and concepts of masculinity rather than focusing on societal expectations.  I also use the ‘answer is in the room’ tactic which has worked really well.

Chris Flux:

I have definitely made mistakes as a man and with the Campaign. But I always try to learn from them. One mistake I used to make on Twitter was to get bogged down in unproductive debates with people (mainly trolls) on Twitter.

I also think sometimes pro-feminist & feminist campaigns (including MAV) can set a low bar for men and get over excited because some bloke posed for a campaign photo wearing a white ribbon. Not that this is a bad thing, but we really need to be moving the conversation on from this and seeing actual social change

Stephen Burrell:

I have learnt so much from the mistakes I’ve made – the biggest thing perhaps being that I am always going to make mistakes. No matter how long we have participated in this work for, or how much feminist theory we have read, there is no such thing as a perfectly formed pro-feminist. Ultimately, we will always be men living within a society in which we are denoted with privilege and power simply for being men. That is why it is so important for us to remember that we are never beyond making mistakes or learning new things, and that we always strive to listen to women and reflect on our own behaviour. Indeed, one of the most important things I have learnt as a man this way is to talk less, and listen more.