Post 318.

On Sunday, Colin Robinson kicked off critiques of ‘good men’ campaigns. People might think activists are being difficult. Surely this is what women wanted all along.

Actually, things are as complex as critiques make them seem. ‘Good men’ campaigns are a recent invention. In the 1990s when organisations such as Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) were founded, and were profeminist and allied with struggles of the women’s movement, no one was talking about good men.

Both women and men involved were still trying to get the public to see men’s power over women as harmful, and were squarely appealing to men to disassociate love from licks. The men’s movement acknowledged male violence against women and men’s role in ending it. In today’s opposite world, MAWAW circulates videos lauding men “destroying feminism”, and participates in male-only chat groups that malign women who suggest that doesn’t feel like solidarity.

In the decades between the 1990s and now, the ‘good men’ campaign grew as International Men’s Day became a day, not for growing men’s contribution to ending patriarchal gender ideals as they harm both women and men, but for praising men, giving them more platform and visibility, emphasising all men (not just those poor, HIV positive, disabled or gay) as marginalized, and pressing for women and feminists to meet male needs with greater priority.

We’ve seen the surreal shift to women organising fora in which only men are speakers, and radio programmes, such as on I95 on Sunday, when a male host thought it good to have only men speak about gender issues (as if experts), in the process promoting significant misinformation about gendered power relations, nature and nurture debates, and Caribbean feminist visions for women and men in our region.

Turn the whole world upside down, sang 3 Canal.

Robinson argued against ‘good men’ sloganeering because men are not good. Rather, like women, like all human beings, men have capacity for good and bad. In his words, “men owning our violence and our capacity for it is critical to change…Until we create spaces where guys can be honest about not being “good” men, men aren’t likely to do the hard work of exploring other options”.

There’s domineering joy in telling women on their way to work what you think about their bodies, knowing you would find men doing that to you both unwanted and threatening. There’s also pain and vulnerability in admitting that violence is how you control your woman because that’s what you’ve learned, and becoming the man you didn’t want to be is killing you at the same time as you risk killing her.

Peter Weller and I didn’t debate whether we “change men’s behaviour or we change the culture, systems and ideology that legitimate toxic masculinity”. Behaviour change is a strategy. The feminist revolution is more radical, conceptual and far-reaching. It includes changing the violence associated with power, opening up our very definitions of manhood and womanhood, shifting laws, policies, notions of ‘work’, and deconstructing fundamental assumptions of Western philosophy and the plantation-economy.

These legitimate goals have decades of scholarship and activism behind them and can’t be flattened simplistically into soundbites. I’m always wonderous about good men who come into a movement that they acknowledge they don’t fully understand, and may not fully support, and then seek to contain its goals. Good men should meet feminist analyses where they are, rather than women making their dreams smaller so no one gets angry.

Back to ‘good men’.

This branding mobilises the stereotype that feminists think “all men are bad”. Feminists don’t say men are bad. They call on men to be accountable for their views, behaviours and choices, and fight against masculine ideals that reproduce them as normal, natural and unchangeable.

Second, it excuses ‘good men’ from confronting male privilege as real, as institutionalized, as global, and as benefiting even good men. It’s like talking about the need to transform patriarchal power to someone who responds that your argument doesn’t have validity because he’s not bad.

Being a good guy is necessary. Being a good human is better. Supporting the feminist struggle to end sexism and homophobia, and to value us all because we are good humans, not because we meet gender ideals, is best of all.

Finally, if good men stop others from being sexist, violent, homophobic, unemotional or uncompassionate, what do good women do? By that logic, good women become feminists. Good men too.

If this becomes the conversation, it’s a transformation we’ve been dreaming of all along. Good women and men, it’s time to turn the whole unjust world upside down.

 

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Post 259.

The story isn’t on stage. It’s in the applause. That moment when a spontaneous connection erupts, and interrupts something we can all recognize, with something new –  a reverberation in the air between actors and audience, and a sense of possibility about which they agree.

I was watching poets from 2 Cents Movement perform their spoken word play about gender-based violence to secondary school students. My attention was drawn to students’ shouts of support, squeals of laughter, and raucous identification with both scenes of gender-based violence and scenes of resistance, realization and transformation.

The play is set in a café, meant to be a safe space for everyone, both women and men who have experienced violence and those who need to let go of their anger and will to harm. There’s a simple, but disturbing scenario where a couple comes in for a drink and he tells her what she should have, even when she says she wants something else, even when she says no.

A confrontation results, because we all know that’s how easy it is, maybe not over a mauby, but maybe over some other decision a woman isn’t allowed to make if her man disagrees. You can feel the girls identifying. They’ve seen this before. It isn’t new. That’s just as disturbing.

The boys are also familiar, but there’s ambivalence. They want to identify with the man. He’s articulate and in charge. He’s taking care of his woman and demands respect. Yet, violence is always ugly. The negotiation between the couple plays itself out among groups of girls and boys. They are not only interacting with the play. They’re reacting to each others’ experiences, responses and emotions.

There’s another brilliant transition when the waiter serves up a moment of solidarity, and both boys and girls react, for we don’t see this enough either. The man wants his order. The waiter gives him something else. He tells him that he is the boss and he is the man and he decides what his customer drinks. First, the man explains this isn’t what he wants. Then, he gets angry, the way experiencing domination breathes a slow, focused, incredulous anger into you. Then, it clicks. This is what it feels like to her. 2 Cents will say that when poetry drops, it’s louder than a bomb, and you hear it right then when that lesson lands on the man. Boom. Noise fills the room.

The applause comes again and again, at points I didn’t expect, with emotional outbursts that surprise me. Laughter at a tension that shouldn’t be funny reveals, rather than hides, discomfort and uncertainty or maybe desensitization to what shouldn’t be normal. Given the paucity of local television shows, as the couple negotiates, those school children are seeing something rare. They are watching someone who looks like them or could be their neighbor or friend rewrite a dominant and toxic script, stand up for herself and be prepared to walk away. The uproar is loud when she exits because she sets the terms for her relationship, at least in this play.

This is what school children need to see: Safe spaces as common as your corner rum shop or café. Men and women challenging violence, individually and together. Information about how to manage all that hurt, fear and lashing out. Honesty about how early it is that harm begins. Individuals open to accountability and equality when old ways are wrong and need to change.

After it’s done, students write what they learned about how to end GBV. Currently a collaboration among Bocas Lit Fest, Courts, 2 Cents Movement and the IGDS, we want those messages, in students’ own words, to reach you.

This movement can never be too large and such joyful noise can never be too loud.

One secret.

Such applause can bring quiet tears to your eyes when you stand watching from the back of the crowd.

Post 256.

I won’t belabor the blatant objectification of women in the Prime Minister’s block-talk guffaw that “a golf course is like a woman, you have to groom her everyday otherwise it turns into a pasture”. Objection means seeing or referring to someone as a commodity or object, you know, like a pasture. Or, seeing women as an object of male sexual desire, you know, like sexual offenders’ practice of grooming girls to enable their acquiescence to sexual predation.

On national TV, of the many things we saw is that even Parliament isn’t a workplace where women are safe from sexist jokes by powerful men. Tells you a lot about the likelihood of that kind of discomforting bro-code language and power being similarly wielded across our nation’s workplaces in addition to its street corners. It also tells you a lot about the myth of women achieving all they want. You could get your education and your career, but you are out of order to expect ideals of manhood to change in acknowledgement of the fact that you are not just meant for men’s bedrooms, groomed.

However, above all, it’s his unapologetic impunity that makes me want to throw a teacup in Dr. Rowley’s direction.

The guy is a UWI graduate, a grandfather, political party leader, and the most influential elected official in the land. Parliament was in a supposedly serious debate about responses to an economic crisis which is extremely likely to exacerbate intimate partner violence as household insecurity increases. And, finally, a woman is neither like a golf course nor a pasture, because she is a person.

Impunity is freedom from punishment for harm caused, and its pervasive, making you wonder if all women and girls should arm themselves with a driving iron to unhesitatingly use in response to sexist language, harassment and violence. The extremely low conviction rates for domestic violence and sexual assault tell us much about the extent of that impunity, for there are no real consequences for wrong-and-strong men. In the context of such state-enforced gender inequality, Dr. Rowley’s lack of real accountability further asserts, hope for solidarity and expect salt, for bad man doh account to women and doh give no apology.

Ironically, in the same week, the ‘me too’ campaign circulated across the lives of millions on the planet. Started by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago, the words are meant to show that girls and women who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation are not ashamed and are not alone. Revived as a social media status, women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted disclosed their own survival, with far too many in Trinidad and Tobago either adding their post or reading others with which they could identify.

I had been lucky enough to attend the third match between the Sri Lankan and West Indies cricket teams last week Friday, but unlucky enough to see Sam, a longtime cameraman, and sexual assaulter from my youthful newsroom days, there also. I pointed him out to Ziya and told her what he had done so she could know, her mom is educated, employed and empowered, but look at what impunity looks like because he never faced consequences. Yes, ‘me too’.

Last year was swept with ‘Life in Leggings’ stories from Caribbean women harassed and harmed. Then, as now, I find myself asking the ‘what about the men’ question that occupies everyone when girls are doing well because they worked hard, but not when women are being dehumanized and threatened. Don’t men want a world where no girl or women has to again say ‘me too’? Isn’t speaking out for approval of a national plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, or for higher conviction rates for sexual offenses, or across the board workplace and political party sexual harassment policies also men’s responsibility? Isn’t also publicly insisting on better from Dr. Rowley?

His words may seem harmless, but they land on a nation full of girls and women still struggling to break silences about harm, and still hoping for men’s solidarity. Lack of consequences is part of something much greater, that gets far more dangerous. That is why a Prime Minister’s impunity must be taken seriously.

 

 

Post 179.

You don’t go there thinking that you will learn about how to live, but so it was last week at the funeral of Marcia Henville. How humbling to sit among her children and best friends, those she helped or who helped her, and some who never met her at all, everyone reflecting on what difference one life could make.

I was moved by invocations of forgiveness, knowing that this choice is not about excusing a wrong, but preventing it from devouring you from inside, particularly when your family is already torn asunder. I heard people say it was too soon, Marcia wasn’t even buried yet, but I couldn’t imagine what else her children could be expected to do.

We all live in families where we have had to learn to forgive hurts large and small. That hasn’t meant forgetting, and it does not displace necessary expectations for accountability, care and justice. But, as you walk with your wounds, you need to travel light. Fear, anger and hate are too heavy burdens when grief, regret and disappointment may be all you can bear.

Forgiveness is never about the other person and his or her lesson, it is only always about your ability to heal. When you forgive, you fit something that happened into your past, freeing your present, knowing there is no other exit from a darkening maze.

I admired that Marcia’s family and community understood this immediately. In my heart, I asked myself if I could be that good, that strong, that insightful about how to survive such a painful path ahead.

I also listened closely to what people remembered. She taught her children to be themselves, and she was their friend. Her friends said that she would go wherever she heard someone cry. She roamed the country helping families. She connected shotters with their desire to live differently, rather than by the gun. She had her own vision for the marginalised.  It felt like not letting such commitment die could be so simple, but her coffin was a reminder that it is not.

We still ask the wrong questions about violence against women. Why ask why women don’t leave? There are many reasons, from commitment to children and abiding love to terror and low self-confidence to lack of support and economic insecurity. While women must be empowered to secure their own safety, our questions should instead be: Why doesn’t every societal message tell boys and men who resort to violence that seeking help is their responsibility? Why don’t more men’s groups take action against men’s violence and for men’s healing? When will powerful men visibly lead transformations of masculinity beyond its associations with power, recognising the point of women’s struggle for peace and equality?

My own male Guardian Media bosses can begin to set examples that may save women’s lives. Stag’s totally sexist, ‘It’s a man’s world. Rule responsibly’, campaign should be the first to fund national anti-violence messaging everywhere that Stag sells, throughout and beyond Carnival. Profiting from dangerous ideals of men’s right to rule, despite statistics showing what that means for women in reality, means on every billboard and bottle you should be the first to market men’s responsibility to stop violence against women.

Reflecting on what difference one life, one effort, one campaign could make, I left Marcia Henville’s funeral with lessons resonating in my head like a conversation between tenor pan and bass. Remembering that love is a practice of forgiveness as much as of justice, I walked away under noon sun, grateful for an example of the kind of person I still could become.

(An interesting note: when this column was published, the Guardian editors removed the reference to the company, Guardian Media. Just reminder that what we read is, ultimately, corporate controlled.)