I’ve often wondered about the effect of men not openly showing emotional vulnerability. What does that do to us, and to those we love?
The recent case of President Barack Obama showing his emotion in public when he spoke about the destructive effect of guns on US society brought this issue into sharp focus for me. Here was the president of a leading nation, a man expected to be stoic, strong and not emotional, openly shedding tears about the loss of life as a result of guns as he expressed his frustration with why America can’t come to grips with the challenge of gun control.
I’ve often felt this same frustration with regard to the prevalence of guns in South African society and their use by men to kill women. When Obama showed how he felt about guns, it made me reflect on how we, as men in South Africa, also use guns to resolve our differences, and threaten and prey on other members of society. The horror of this often brings me to tears. Seeing Obama cry allowed me to cry.
A national study has found that more than 57% of all women murdered in South Africa were killed by their husbands or boyfriends, not by strangers. This is called intimate partner violence, sometimes also referred to as femicide. In many cases, the women are killed by men with guns.
If such men had been taught that violence is not an option, what would have happened? How many vulnerable people, including women and children, could have been saved from unnecessary and violent deaths?
From early childhood, we allow social scripting to define how we raise boys and girls. Boys are forced to suppress their emotions and make a false show of strength – they are not allowed to cry or show their feelings or affections. Boys are taught to be in command; in control; to be the providers; the protectors. Then we say to the girls: be followers; be obedient; speak in measured tones; show respect; submit. President Obama’s frankness about how he felt emotionally led me to wonder why it is that we, as a society, have not found in ourselves the willingness to validate and affirm men who openly cry, or men who can say: “I don’t have the answers; I am overwhelmed; I am vulnerable; I am emotionally strained.” We label such men “sissies”, “unmanly”, “weak” and “pathetic”. What would happen if we allowed men to share their sadness, fears, anguish, insecurities and frustrations without being labelled in this way?
We have forged a culture through which those who comply with the script are rewarded and those who go off script are punished. For boys, complying means being violent, controlling and intolerant. For girls, complying means accepting violence, injustice and a lesser value in society.
What is the punishment for men who live their lives outside the social script? They are ostracised, marginalised, called names, and physically and sexually violated. What is the punishment for a woman who rejects the social script? She is considered less of a woman, disrespectful, arrogant and in need of physical punishment, including sexual assault to “put her in her place”. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, the punishments are more extreme.
The script encourages and allows men to behave aggressively and violently, and they use the script as an excuse to engage in domestic violence, and alcohol and drug abuse, as an outlet for their unresolved emotional wounds and pain.
Is this really what we want to teach our children and have as the basis of our society? Do we really want to stick to this script and keep repeating the horror?
We need a radical change because the script denies us our full potential to show love, compassion, kindness and solidarity with one another and our society.
What if we, as a society, when raising boys, taught them to express themselves emotionally without fear? What if we encouraged them to talk about their feelings without labelling them less than men? Would this not only change every man’s future behaviour, but also our willingness as a society to accept such outrageous levels of violence in our homes and lives?
What if we, as a society, when raising girls, taught them self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, independence and their true value to society? Would this not create a society that values girls and women, and affords them equal opportunities and quality of life? Would it not make for happier homes and a more equitable society in which everyone is allowed to express opinions and be valued as individuals?
It is the sharing of our feelings and our emotions, which may be negative, that helps those around us, because we ourselves found help. As men, we are collectively victims of toxic forms of masculinity that have stopped us from communicating within our families, which cause us to abandon those we profess to love and to instead engage in violent and self-destructive behaviours. I am more than convinced that when we begin to be truthful about how we feel as men, to acknowledge our feelings and seek help, we will reduce the high levels of violence towards women and children, and among ourselves. We should seek help as men to deal with our frustrations and anguish, our sadness and anger, without resorting to violence.
Investing in our emotional development is something we should all do. It does not need to cost us money, just effort and commitment. I acknowledge that it won’t be easy, and I’m also not so naive as to think that I can’t appreciate the damage that years of social construction have done to the majority of us.
We must, however, have a starting point, where we draw the line and say: “Enough. I will not participate in this any longer. I commit to taking responsibility for myself and my actions. I will not close my eyes and look the other way any longer. Enough.” We are all agents of change and our actions are powerful. Have you had enough too?