By Abhijit Das
Day by day, prime time news is becoming painfully repetitious. Men, all over the world, are in the news for killing, shooting, raping, road rage, domestic violence, acid attacks and using many other forms of violence on women, children, and fellow men.
Society has often glorified violence and killing, especially in wars waged for political gain and public safety. But in recent times, such ‘heroic’ acts of violence are being replaced by inter-personal violence or violence which is not aimed at an obvious enemy. This ‘disease’ seems to have affected men everywhere.
Is Gender the Culprit?
Many of us men find these violent incidents upsetting, gross, or unacceptable. But in most cases, this sense of ‘disquiet’ is followed by rationalization. One way or the other, we become oblivious to such news and tend to cast intellectual positions about the state of the world, distancing ourselves from it. We stay secure in our belief that ‘we’ and our friends are different and our sons will not become the violent rapists we read about.
It is here that we fail to understand the perils of patriarchy. A society based on men’s primacy creates a male-centric hegemony.
Controls are exercised not only through boundaries, coercion, and force but equally through expressions of love, overweening concern and the protection of paternalism. Men are comfortable being in a position of love tinged with fear, of having authority respected and implied orders obeyed. But when this male ego is challenged, these seamlessly take the shape of violence and cruelty.
At the core of these heinous acts lies the phenomenon of men becoming ‘violent’ when their authority is opposed. Violence, control, and coercion are keys to the expression of power. And society often valorizes these expressions for purposes of safety and discipline and which are seen as ‘good violence’.
Men Will Be Men
Boys are trained to become men in all families. They internalize these ‘masculine’ roles and ‘ideal prototypes’ through myths, stories, toys, video games – the list is endless. The most well-meaning mother prepares her son for his future roles by encouraging studying, sports, and an outdoor life. Many discourage participation in domestic activities, art, or even music.
When it comes to emotions, being despondent is discouraged. Anger is never penalized; it is instead pacified to ensure that there is no disappointment.
Boys, these days, are encouraged to be happy and successful at all costs but lack the patience to deal with failure.
We raise boys as men familiar with positions of authority and power. They know they can express dissatisfaction through anger and believe that violence as an authority can be morally justified and ‘good’ if it is an ‘enemy’. Taken together, this can become a very toxic mix.
Receding Rules and Changing Roles
The real world of the ‘grown-ups’ is very different from the cocoon of a family. It is full of disappointments and frustrations.
Moreover, the world order is changing rapidly. The subordinate social classes are now much more assertive. Income and livelihood opportunities are changing, jobs are insecure and there is increasing relative poverty. The security of the home is often lost because of inevitable migration. The staggering economic growth of neo-liberal capitalism, coupled with the technological revolution have not only led to unprecedented growth but also widened social and economic divisions.
There are more men who find their world ‘topsy-turvy’ than the few who rest as heirs of privilege and authority. In such a situation, some try to hang on to other ‘security blankets’ of caste, ethnic, race or religion based superiority. These perturbed men now see the ‘enemy’ everywhere and thus justify actions guided by violence. Cow vigilantism in India, the killing of bloggers in Bangladesh or the odious operations conducted by ISIS, they all seem to be feeding off this phenomenon.
Women, on the other hand, have been fighting for socio-economic and political changes. Having even achieved quite some, they are capable of adapting to the overall environment of changes better. At the same time, men’s inability to cope with change sometimes induces a deep sense of failure.
Failure is a phase they are not trained to deal with. Since childhood, success is the only credo they have been taught – in school, in the field, and on the battlefield. A man who seems to have ‘lost’ is clearly believed to lack in ‘honor’. Many farmers in India have opted for suicides, leaving their families to manage their inherited debt. Women are trained to manage failures much better and thus continue.
The Road Ahead is Rocky
If we aspire for a different future, a future less divisive and less violent, we need to acknowledge the problem as being vast. It lies beyond ‘those’ men or communities – it lies within all of us. It is imbibed in how we are bringing up our boys. We unconsciously replay and reinforce values of hegemonic masculinity. Even the most enlightened parent concerned about equality between the sexes will say “I bring up my daughter like a son” but never the reverse.
What boys are taught has that element of pressure for success, but rarely an emphasis on collaboration, cooperation or respect for the other. It is important to train boys to manage disappointment and failure – equally if not more.
Youth from the safely gated communities of the upper class is perhaps less involved in the violence that we read about. Most of the violence is a result of not being able to manage ‘loss of privilege’. These are men who are no longer secure in their ‘assumed’ class-caste-gender-religious superior position. However, taming is not a solution when the society continues to incentivize such behavior. A man who continues in his position of power and authority without the obvious use of violence, force or coercion is still ‘successful’.
We need to create new models of the ‘successful’ man, and the gated community is probably one of the best places that this can start. The people in this strata are usually high earning professionals. They owe their position not only to traditional sources of power like caste or feudalism but to university degrees which require some degree of critical thinking. Also, women in these families have been adapting and initiating change. They would value an alternative model of masculinity.
The issue is not just limited to those news items, but is prevalent in our own homes. The solution can probably best begin at an individual level.
Dr Abhijit Das is Director of the Centre for Health and Social Justice, in India and Clinical Assistant Professor of the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.
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