Post 413.

I WAS DEEPLY saddened by the killing of 15-year-old Akid Duke and 17-year-old Christopher Cummings. These boys were still children. It made me think back to 17-year-old Denelson Smith and 16-year-old Mark Richards, whose murders in 2016 were described as a “slaughter of the innocents.” You may have missed the story of 14-year-old Michael Sooknanan, electrocuted and abandoned, until found on top of an electricity pole last month. 

All of these are tragedies, leaving grieving families.

There can be no single explanation for why people march for some dead and not others, some children and not others. Sometimes, it is a question of race, class and respectability politics. Sometimes, it is explained by the time of year, the breaking point a population has reached, or the circumstances of a killing. 

It’s been asked why the country protested the killing of women, but not the murders of men and boys. It’s a question without any single answer, but it’s not the right question. 

There is insufficient response to the deaths of men and boys, just as there always has been, and remains, insufficient response to the daily threat of sexual and physical violence in the lives of women and girls. 

There have also been vast resources spent on trying to curb men’s violence against men, gang violence, proliferation of guns, and crime. Far more than has ever been spent on ending violence against women. 

In this context, the question isn’t about why women’s deaths are getting more attention than men’s. The question is, why do men continue to be violent to women and other men? Not all men are violent, but there’s enough violence by men, including against each other, for us to ask the right questions.

Men’s murders of other men and boys, including in domestic-violence contexts, are only one side of male violence. The other sides of this triad are men’s violence against women and men’s violence against themselves. Such violence is not simply an emotional-intelligence or relationship-conflict issue. It can be to assert and prove public status and power, and gain inclusion and respect. As well, low levels of skills and literacy, family and community insecurity, limited legal livelihood options, and easy access to weapons and drugs create a risky environment for boys to grow. Schools, courts and prisons also have combined culpability.

Men and boys are not bad people. Patriarchy harms and dehumanises men even while it accords them privileges denied to women and girls. Patriarchal gender ideals that valorise violence and associate it with dominant and invulnerable masculinity are the deep root of this issue. It’s the reason why we bring up youth in a world where men call each other names such as monster, criminal, shotter, soldier and badman as signs of respect. It’s the shadowy culprit that should be the target of those concerned about the threat to our boys. 

It is true that women can also be violent and predators, but their harm to men and boys, measured in sexual abuse, rape and killings suggests far different prevalence, severity, form and impact. Not everyone is equally violent across sex, and there are good reasons for highlighting violence against women. There is a war against one sex by another, regardless of age, ethnicity or place of the victims. Indeed, women and girls become targets of men precisely because of their sex. This year’s gatherings against men’s violence against women were decades overdue. 

Our greater silence about male deaths is because we want killings to stop, but manhood to remain the same, even at the cost to boys’ lives. We practise the stoicism we have assigned to men. Our response to murders of our boys is also related to the fact that they are often, but not only, working class and Afro-Trinidadian, and those bodies are stereotypically associated with criminality and lesser humanity. Anti-blackness means that black bodies carry lower value, whether to their killers or to the public, regardless of whether they are innocent or children. 

My friend Colin Robinson cheekily said to give a boy a doll. He argued in his column that masculinity doesn’t protect boys from violence, and for “socialising boys from infancy to be nurturers and to welcome and manage loving feelings” (March 11, 2018). 

The senseless death of another boy should make sorrow boil over, again leading citizens to the streets. Not to protest attention to women, but to protest the taking of each life by cold-blooded ideals of manhood which we must let go.

Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.