We have all seen and read the many horrendous reports of violent behaviour, and violent attitudes towards women, over the past few weeks. This has been going on for millennia of course, but in these enlightened times and with the benefit of 24 hour news and social media, we cannot avoid looking deep within our own selves to ask, “In this day and age, why does such behaviour continue?”
Misogyny, literally “hatred of women” may be behind some of these reports. There are other attitudes however, just as important. Culturally held beliefs perpetuating male domination of women, such as “women must do what men say”, “women are lower in status than men” and “women should not have control over their own sexual behaviour” also have their part to play. In the past, respect for cultural relativism and wariness over ethnocentrism may have prevented some writers from speaking out about these issues, but in light of recent graphic news stories, and condemnation from within host communities, we should all now be looking, as a human race, at how we can address such archaic attitudes.
The recently highlighted profile of the issue of female genital mutilation serves as one such example of people in the West speaking out about unacceptable practices from other countries. Stoning a pregnant woman to death because of her wedding choice is another. Let us not lose sight of the fact that it is not only men who are capable of violence against women and girls in these examples, although overwhelmingly it is men’s attitudes to women which allows such abuse. The UN Declaration on Violence Against Women (1992) describes the range of activities and practices in the home, in the community and those that may be condoned by the state, which are deemed unacceptable in the modern age. It almost goes without saying that religious leaders (men) in far-flung places need to be vocal in their teachings to promote equality for women.
Closer to home in the West, we have heard from several writers in these pages of their fear of men, their experiences of verbal threats and sexual harassment, and of rape. How should we as a society respond to these abusive men (over and above due legal process)? The way we address the problem of men behaving abhorrently is as important as making sure we do address it. All psychotherapists know that one does not effect attitude and behaviour change by telling people off. We do need to agree as a society on what the boundaries to acceptable behaviour are, and we need to instil this at every opportunity at all levels of society, from the earliest age. We need this to be a public discourse, part of the school curriculum, and as regular a topic for PMQs as bankers’ bonuses. I for one would much rather hear about progress towards a safe and equal society, than updates on why we can’t tax the rich.
We should also recognise that when we see something we do not like in others we are more likely to bring about meaningful change from a position of humble enquiry than righteous indignation. The Dalai Lama has some profound words to say on this subject (http://www.dalailama.com/teachings/training-the-mind). Angry men are not changed by having anger directed at them. This is one reason why blanket criticisms of men are ineffective in bringing about social change, and may result, counter-productively in more entrenched opinions.
In 2004 the Scottish Government’s National Group to Address Violence Against Women commissioned a literature review (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2004/11/20283). The review points out that men’s violence against women is characterised by “tactics of control, humiliation and degradation, the abdication of responsibility by the male abuser, and the attribution of blame to the woman.” This chimes with outcomes from men’s anger management groups. The men who do less well from such interventions continue to harbour beliefs about their own lack of control over their anger (“I couldn’t stop myself”), and continue to blame their female victims for sparking their anger (“She made me do it”). We also know that men who do less well from these groups have lower self-esteem.
In understanding the mindset behind these beliefs we need to appreciate that most abusers have themselves witnessed domestic abuse as children. They fear loss of control and disrespect, they themselves are in distress, they have lost (or never gained) a moral compass, and they are enacting a “script” that they were given within their own families during their own development. In our modern society where there are few if any mature Elders, men make up their manhood for themselves as they go along. In many cases of course, fathers were absent (e.g. by working long hours) or emotionally scarred by their own childhood experiences.
We can direct men who need to change their attitudes towards psychotherapy but first we will need to move away from the medical ‘diagnostic’ model (as being obnoxious is not a diagnosable condition), and of course we would need to value the outcomes from this intervention enough to invest in it sufficiently (mental health services are already struggling to cope with referrals). An alternative model would be to invest in ‘men’s work’ which aims to help men mature through, for example, ‘rites of passage’ which has the aim of helping men to face their inner grief and to grow spiritually in a safe, containing group of fellow men. Men’s Rites of Passage and the Mankind Project are two such organisations providing these sorts of programmes.
We must never helplessly or hopelessly accept men’s violent attitudes and behaviour. There are always reasons for it, some cultural, some personal. If we are to build a safer, better world then we need to invite, of each other, a healthier more constructive dialogue. We need to make it the norm, just as we did with racism, for violence and prejudice against women to be unacceptable. Next time I encounter prejudicial attitudes to women, I will politely say, “May I buy you a cup of coffee? I would love to be able to talk with you about what you just said.” I could be drinking a lot of coffee. What about you, brother?