When the Men's Resource Center collected signatures to place an advertisement in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican for "A Valentine's Day Message from Men of Heart," 155 men signed on. The ad calls for "...creating a society where women are safe from violence and abuse every day," and it urges men "to reject the masculine culture of violence and to support creating an egalitarian culture of peace." Surprisingly, its publication sparked a firestorm of protest.
A number of men who read the ad wrote that they were angered by it. For a week after it was published, a steady stream of e-mails, a few phone calls and letters let me know in no uncertain terms that the ad was offensive. Its message was seen as "us" vs. "them." Many men saw it as invalidating their experience. The language of the ad was not intended to be off-putting, but the outpouring of angry responses to it suggests there is much work ahead if we--not "us" or "them"--want to find common ground. Because it is important for those working for a violence-free world to carefully consider what we say and how we say it to best create the conditions for inspired dialogue, I continued rereading the ad.
"We come together with one voice," the text continues, "to say 'Enough!' Women are entitled to live their lives free of fear of abuse and violence, free from stalking and harassment." I wondered who could argue with that statement. Doesn't everyone want women to be safe? Many e-mail writers anticipated that question with "Yes, but" communiqués, emphasizing the inequity they feel in a society that perceives domestic violence as primarily a women's issue.
I empathize with men who feel their point of view is underrepresented, but am wary of language that seems to demonize all women because some may act inappropriately. And it saddens me that the Men's Resource Center, which has been supporting a range of men for 23 years, might be seen, as some suggested, as man-hating. What we reject is violence. What alarms us is abusive behavior. What we try to foster is taking responsibility for one's actions. What we encourage is being accountable for what we do.
Among the challenges to the ad was our characterization of a "masculine culture of violence." Sadly, I have not discovered an alternative phrase to replace it. The uncomfortable truth is that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of violence--as well as the largest number of victims of violence--are men and boys. While most men and boys want to do the right thing and are not abusive, all males in our society are socialized to promote competition over cooperation, and isolation over connection. We see the bitter fruits of that socialization in our homes, on our streets, in our prisons and in our communities. Equally sad is the limited menu of emotional expression available to most men, running from anger to, well, anger. And the under-recognized phenomenon of male depression, which has been discussed in the pages of Voice Male and often shows up in our men's support groups, is just one of a range of health issues, physical and mental, that are the legacy of male socialization. At the MRC we are committed to assisting men to increase the range of their emotional expression.
As I read the e-mails a theme emerged-an assertion that women commit as much, or more, domestic abuse against men as men do against women. Credible research strongly rejects such a claim. Nevertheless, that these men (and the few women who joined their chorus of e-voices) believe the ad somehow neglected their feelings should not go unnoticed. It is disheartening that any man would not see himself in an ad that called on men "to mentor boys on how to respect girls and women, and to teach that these lessons apply to other boys and men" (emphasis added). Clearly, we have to redouble our efforts to build a bridge of communication with all those who value dialogue over diatribe.
It seems that those who protested the ad are asking for visibility for their reality: that many men experience real injustice, particularly when they are involved in custody disputes with the mothers of their children. The MRC has long acknowledged the need to raise the profile of nonviolent fathers in family court, and we have long championed parenting with peace and justice. (Indeed, in March we are beginning a new group for young fathers, many of whom are separated from their children.) Family court judges would be well served to continue learning about healthy, involved fathering and using that learning in their rulings. Where we are unwavering is in our unequivocal advocacy for women's safety.
One of the phone calls I took was from a man I'll call Jay. He told me he was upset with the ad because, as I understood him, he didn't see himself in it. He said his wife fought a losing battle with alcoholism yet had still won custody of their daughters. He said his older daughter, now 24, apologized for turning against him, saying her mom had distorted her perspective. His 17-year-old daughter is still estranged from him. "You know, Rob," he told me, his voice growing quiet, "sometimes men go home alone, close the door and cry." We talked for a long time and he told me he'd gone to meetings of a group purporting to help dads who had lost custody of their children but said they mostly vented their anger. He marveled at women's ability to organize and advocate for their point of view and seemed to be wishing that the "angry men's group" could move beyond their anger and do the same. Jay seems like someone to continue a conversation with, someone who sees there is a "both/and" aspect to this issue, not just an "either/or." I know there are more men like him with whom to build a bridge of understanding and dialogue. We all have much to gain from that conversation.
The last line of the MRC's Valentine's Day ad reads: "We recognize that men are frequently the victims of violence and we stand for a future where all people are free from the tyranny of violence."
That's a vision the Men's Resource Center will continue to work for, every day.
MRC Executive Director Rob Okun can be reached at [email protected]. This essay also appears in the Spring 2005 issue of Voice Male.
(To read the full text of the February 14th ad click here.)