Men must speak

As I sit to write on a late Sunday evening, it is just over a week since police in Nova Scotia ended the April 19th rampage during which one man murdered 22 women and men, and overturned the lives and intimate hopes of countless others in his community.   

Since that outrage, we have seen commentaries in every newspaper in the country, in op-ed columns and in the letters to the editor, decrying yet another explosion of murderous male violence. What is striking is that almost without exception, these commentaries are written by women.

It is well past time for men to speak.

In an article in the Globe & Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti explores this crime in the context of male socialisation within the deeply-ingrained misogyny infusing our societies.

She warns that, “There will be hesitance to draw links between misogyny and mass violence, as there always is; it feels too ‘political’.” But, she urges, “It is this failure to see male violence as part of a continuum that keeps us from acting in meaningful ways from preventing it again.” 

“These are not senseless, isolated events,” Renzetti writes, “even if it comforts certain segments of society to think so. In fact, thinking of them as senseless and isolated releases us from responsibility for the hard fixes needed to ensure that the chain of violence is broken.”

In what now seems like another time—fully 30 years ago—I wrote an essay that explored these themes, writing as a man, addressing other men.

Published in Canadian Dimension in June 1989, the essay explored from a subjective male perspective insights offered by contemporary feminist scholars. Their relentless analysis had drawn open the curtain on the deeply ingrained—and deadly—misogyny intrinsic in our societies and in our most precious institutions, not least the institutions of Family and Faith.

In the essay, I wrote, “Male self-hatred in a male-dominated society becomes a culture of death-in-life, morbid, violent and without compassion. The insane are normal. The lie is the truth. And men who hate themselves do not know what they know. And they fear those who challenge death by loving and living, be they women or men. Women love life; men, hating themselves, love death. Men fear life, and fearing life, fear women. To kill their fear, men kill women, figuratively, sexually, and really. By the millions.”

The essay appeared as the summer began, and settled quietly into the silence. 

Six months later, on December 6th, 1989, our collective sensibilities were rocked to the core by the execution-style murder of 14 women at Montréal’s École Polytechnique, in an act that was explicitly targeted at women, at “feminists”. I think that only those of us alive as floundering adults on that late cold December evening in 1989 can comprehend how totally shaken we were—how shaken Canadian society was—by this tragedy. 

Susan Riley, on the editorial team of the Ottawa Citizen at the time, asked to reprint a condensed version of my essay as a commentary on the École Polytechnique travesty. It appeared on Saturday, January 6, 1990, one month after the Montreal killings. 

In it, I made the point that unless men start to speak about misogyny, amongst ourselves, among those we love, and in the wider world, this murderous violence would continue. History has since cruelly proven the point, as multiple killings—so many of which began with a man taking the life of a women he can’t control—have cascaded down through these many past years. 

I wrote in the essay that men have a role to play of “relentless self-examination and candid revelation. We need to tell the truth to ourselves, to each other, and to women, augmenting feminist analysis by revealing from the male experience the myths, lies, and deceits that buttress the prevailing patriarchy.” 

Even then my hope lay in the fact that, largely the result of feminist influence, many, many men were coming forward to affirm the feminist analysis of this kind of violence, and to promote a feminist transformation.

Now in response to the tragedy in Nova Scotia, and other similar outrages, there needs even more to be an open and public recognition among men that we need to stand, visible and vulnerable, to speak our truth—to save ourselves, to protect others, and to create a world without violence and fear.

Men need to stand, open and vocal with others—along the entire wide spectrum of gender-identification—to create the norms and mutual-support structures that can confront and transform our relations and relationships, not merely male-to-male, and not merely male and female, but most especially, human-to-human.

There is a deep sense in our society that events such as what has just occurred in Nova Scotia are aberrational. That the sociopath who committed them was merely a cruel aberration, not representative of men in general, but rather the very antithesis of our hopes, cares and concerns. 

This is true. The violence we saw, and the perpetrator, was an aberration and a violation of all that we wish and hope for in our society. But we also have to recognise that the disposition to such violence, the potential for such violence, is not at all aberrational. It is a deep norm in our society, to which men in particular are subject. The grim statistics of murderous male violence cannot be ignored. 

Male-to-male violence predominates without a doubt, with men as perpetrators, and men as victims. At the same time, however, this violence unfolds along a devastating spectrum, and domestic violence falls prominently within this spectrum. The daily death toll of women and of their (male and female) children, and of close relations, has been documented and publicised for decades. 

But as Renzetti states, it is the “failure to see male violence as part of a continuum that keeps us from acting in meaningful ways…These are not senseless, isolated events, even if it comforts certain segments of society to think so.”

It is long past time that we broaden and make mainstream this awareness. It is long past time that we discuss openly how to work together to transform and transcend this socialized compulsion to violence—a compulsion that is reinforced within popular culture in contemporary society, rather than challenged. 

In stating this imperative, we should have no part of promoting a generalised condemnation of all men due to the actions of one. The preponderance of men abhors such violence as deeply as any woman does. Men have generally been no less affected, pained and dismayed by the events in Nova Scotia than women have.

Indeed, if anything, such catastrophes bring us together in a shared response of solace in a way that many events do not.  

But then, after that embrace…women know that it was a man who did this; and so do men.

We need to act together on that shared knowledge.

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