[addendum, May 31, 2014: I added a brief video statement about this topic]
Since so much has been - and will continue to be - written about the horrible events last week in Isla Vista, I will try not to re-tread what others have quite eloquently addressed (kudos to the folks who brought #YesAllWomen to the forefront of the discussion).
Instead, I want to write this letter directly to my fellow males.
I’m writing to the Elliot Rodgers of tomorrow. Let’s be clear: I hope there never is another Elliot Rodgers; I am, of course, not denigrating the name, but the persona of a killer who used knives and guns – not to mention verbal vitriol via YouTube and message boards – to vent his rage upon a world he felt to be so un-caring. As much as the cynic in me fears that this will not be the last event of this kind (remember when we said that, after Columbine?), as a violence prevention activist I am given to act in a way that brings about a world in which people will cease to make these sorts of horrible choices. I am given to live in hope.
I hope he’s the last one to walk that far down that horrible road. But he’s not the only one on the road; we all are on it to varying degrees; we have inherited a model of masculinity rife not only with misogyny but with mythology, falsehood, pitfalls, and booby traps (pardon the pun).
At times we all feel rejection, loneliness, anger, pain, isolation, and confusion about what our role or place in the world is as males. That place has changed; thanks to a hard-fought battle by pioneering women, men, and people along the gender continuum on the front lines of the feminist movement, traditional role models which presumed our place to be at the top of an oppressive food-chain have been challenged (though apparent from last week’s events, not completely toppled).
What we haven’t done is found a way to articulate what the newer masculinity is – one where we work in tandem – as equals – with women, gay men and women, and people all along the gender continuum; and where we no longer live in isolation, harboring our pain until it grows too big to hold onto and we unleash it on the world, or on those we profess to love.
That’s what I want to address: the pain.
First, a disclaimer. I am a preventionist. In discussions of violence prevention, things can be misconstrued as being a comment on that which HAS ALREADY happened. The work of prevention is envisioning; we talk about how things might have been done differently, or could be done differently in the future so that bad things WILL NOT happen. Therefore, my comments are not intended to excuse, deny, or offer some sort of solace for what has been done.
So, here goes:
In a world where we continue to raise little boys to think that feelings are feminine, and that being feminine is shameful, the price we pay is that these little boys grow up to be men who don’t have the tools to process their own needs and feelings in any other way except through rage, exerting power and control, and violence.
We have to learn to cope with the pain – and by “cope with the pain” I don’t mean in the traditional masculine “grin and bear it”, “don’t let them see you sweat” crap. I mean we need to learn how to show it, share it, process it, and not be afraid that doing so will erode any other part of our identity, but will rather bring us closer to our partners, our friends, and to our own humanness.
And this is work WE need to do, fellas. Women aren’t put on the planet to do this for us. We certainly have lots we can learn from them; but it’s not their job. We need to do this work ourselves, and with each other. We need to re-create male spaces; we need to shift them from places where we hide from each other – afraid of showing any vulnerability, and use women as pawns to jockey for status and position within male culture – to places where we model for each other acceptance and provide support.
Through the bits and pieces of several online videos, and the infamous lengthy manifesto, Rodgers expressed a lot of pain and self-pity. From my vantage point as a mid-forties white male, it’s easy to see some of his ranting as almost quaint; were there times in my life when I decried being a virgin, felt unlovable and unattractive as a man - certainly by traditional, Western standards of masculinity? You bet. And I grew out of them. Removed from the horror of the events that followed, Rodgers’ comments are an adolescent temper tantrum from someone lacking patience. Someone trapped into thinking that there was only one way to be a male in modern America.
I want to say to him: “You’ll grow up; you will gain confidence; you will learn how to connect with women as human beings, and you will find someone who appreciates you for you.”
I want say, effectively, “it gets better.”
In 2010, in response to an alarming rise in suicides by LGBT youth, author Dan Savage and his partner created a video that launched a movement – the It Gets Better campaign. Do we need a hetero “It Gets Better” campaign?
It seems almost silly to suggest it (and I mean no disrespect to the LGBT community, nor do I intend to downplay the obstacles that gay people have had to overcome, or the value of the It Gets Better movement and what it has meant to that community). It sounds paradoxical. In a world with a long track record of male domination – check that: white, male domination; check that: white, male, heterosexual domination – liberation and emergence work belongs to those in marginalized populations, right? Well, yes. They have their work to do; but all of their work won’t shift the prevailing culture unless those of us in historically dominant positions are willing to do our work too; examine our privilege, and shift our behavior.
How do we do this? A big part of the process has to be creating spaces where men can talk with other men about this stuff without the usual sexism/misogyny in place. This can be therapy, sure. But more so, the locker room, the athletic field; and other places which remain very male-dominated.
It starts with learning to not be afraid of feelings; it continues through looking at the language we use – especially about women and women’s bodies; it leads to a an understanding of our humanness, which allows us to more clearly see the human in the other.
We can no longer continue to live lives as men/boys who are boxed-in; who think that violence and aggression are the only acceptable means of emotional expression. I’m willing to put myself out there – to meet you half-way, and to share my experiences. Let’s become a part of the solution.