By Simon Brewis.
Last night I watched an interview with Chris Hemmings on BBC News. It was only a short piece, but it stirred in me a strange cocktail of emotions I was not used to. Chris is a writer and journalist with a focus on masculinity and unpicking macho culture. I share his interest, but I have never seen a man with these values platformed on the evening news before. I am not saying it has not happened, but I have never seen it so I don’t think it happens often. The swirl of feelings included excitement and invigoration at hearing a voice I could identify with, and of course anger, exasperation, and depressed resignation at knowing that the context of Chris’ platform is another woman having been murdered. Wait, scratch that… the context of Chris’ platform is another man killing a woman.
This context is of course the murder of Sarah Everard, and the outpouring of fear, anger, collective grief, and other understandable responses that have followed. This murder is unusual. Perhaps something about the man arrested being a Police Officer, that Sarah appears to have been walking home alone when attacked, perhaps the proximity of international women’s day in the collective consciousness, the response has been unusual. A woman being murdered by a man is not unusual. Numerous women, both in public life and on social media, rightly pointed out the statistics yesterday. On average one hundred and twenty women are known to be killed by a man in this country each year; these deaths are accepted as normal. What is unusual is the cut through of women’s voices speaking out in protest. A notable, seismic outpouring of emotional energy through the sharing of stories of harassment and fear about their victimisation by men. Curiously, this was in part what Chris was on the BBC News to question.
The sharp edge of his attack is aimed at BBC News itself and the strap line they have been using all day that refers to ‘Women’s Safety Concerns’. He insists that this framing is flawed and should be changed to ‘Male Violence Against Women’. BBC News have already changed it for this interview, and for a short time the words sit powerfully on the screen. A good kind of powerful. Chris continues to argue that the social narrative around this murder incorrectly places responsibility upon women to speak out, to act, to be concerned for their safety. He questions why it is women’s emotional labour that is required to confront the social and cultural problems we face? Men commit violence against women to vastly disproportionate degrees, and most violence towards other men to boot. He argues that men’s violence towards women is driven by masculine cultures and that it is men’s emotional energy that is needed to solve the problem. Men must be centred as the problem, and this will help men take responsibility for solving it. This at least is my summary and reading of his argument. It is only a short interview; you should check it out for yourself on twitter here (make sure you scroll down for the second part).
There was a lot that I took from Chris’ perspective although I do have some concerns when reflecting upon his message from that interview. Particularly about ‘centring men’, which is a powerful term loaded with meaning.
I have first-hand experience, like Chris, of workshopping in schools with young men and women about male violence. In my case in terms of discussing domestic violence with them. A pattern I often observe over the two days is that to begin none of them know how to discuss male violence, to do so is alien. As confidence increases some young men will usually take ownership, and leadership, centring them and marginalising women’s voices in the room. Once this happens it is important to guide the group to a place where the men’s voices can speak, and women’s voices are equally heard. The process takes time and care, and my experience here leaves me with a healthy scepticism of centring men’s voices when discussing gender. It is a paradox that I feel can and must be navigated, but perhaps the emotional energy it asks of men needs to be central for us to truly take responsibility?
A second problem is that women have been leading the charge against patriarchy and men’s violence through the feminist movement for generations. Many women have rightly found this resistance to be a powerful source of identity and meaning in the face of oppression. Talk of centring men may not be met kindly by these activists for quite understandable reasons. Again, I don’t think this issue is fatal for the perspective Chris puts forward, but I think it needs serious consideration. I would be interested to hear from women who have been active in voicing their stories of harassment. Is centring men the answer or problematic, or both?
A third point which is less developed in my mind is intersectional. I found Chris inspiring, and that could be in part because of the intersections of identity we share. We are both white men, of a similar age, and of not entirely different social class. Also, he wears his hair pretty much like I do and that stands for something. I wonder how men of colour who share our interest in unpicking macho culture and men’s violence understand the issue? How does centring male violence apply to the lives of LGBTQI men? What do men who agree in principle who are older and younger than us think? How does Chris’ argument sound from a different class location? I don’t have the answers, but I am interested to her from men that have other perspectives.
Of course, some men will be concerned about making the narrative about men’s violence against women because they do not feel like they are violent. I think Chris speaks to that well enough for me not to need to as well.
I am a natural critic and I believe that testing the limits of ideas makes them stronger, or at least more useful in context. It is also worth noting that this was a short interview and Chris had to make his point strongly and quickly and that didn’t allow for much nuanced thinking. I have his book on order and look forward to understanding a fuller picture of his thinking. There are also other more substantial interviews with him available to be listened to on his web site. With my concerns laid out I return to how inspired I was by hearing Chris’ voice on the news.
For a long as I can remember I have always been a sceptic towards aspects of masculinity and its culture. I have always attempted to resist assimilation into the worst of the toxic thinking and behaviour, and that attempt is important, perhaps centrally important, to my notion of self. Of course, it has been a mixed bag in terms of success. I am part of it and it has shaped me, not always for the better. It would be hugely naive for me to consider myself from outside of it. I know I am not alone, but patriarchal culture has robust mechanisms to defend itself from attack both from outside and within. It is made transparently clear to men from point of entry into the club that non-compliance will be met with bullying, ostracization and ultimately male violence. Men like me often group together for mutual protection, and even though we understand the nature of what we share the culture still tends to prevent us from actually articulating it to each other. It is a strange thing.
Seeing Chris on the news last night helped me feel like it was more possible for a man to be outspoken about the darkness within our masculine culture. Speaking out is a risk. We risk vilification from men who take exception, we risk appropriate criticism because we got it wrong, even more worryingly we risk getting lost due to complex social maps of meaning that can never be clearly interpreted; and as we know we often don’t like to admit that we are lost. On the bright side, the culture does teach us to engage in risky behaviours, so perhaps we should not find it so hard? I am really pleased that I heard Chris last night, and that he has inspired me to think more deeply about masculinity that I have done in some time. I just wish it could be under better circumstances.