Invited or Indicted?
Engaging Men in Gender Justice Dialogue
by Don Neufeld
In a recent TED talk, Futures Without Violence founder Esta Soler refers to research that suggests that men often feel more indicted by women than invited to join the conversation on gender-based violence and injustice. While women’s voices have been and continue to be strong and courageous in naming and challenging the norms of society that support injustice and promote violence, engaging men more deeply in conscious reflection on matters of masculinity is key to the development of healthy relationships. Until men are able to acknowledge fully and join in challenging the multiple influences that undermine their healthy participation in community and family life, the relative silence demanded by much of male culture will continue to stifle healthy masculinity and harm relationships.
How do we engage men in this conversation, if indeed the research referenced by Esta Soler reflects men’s experiences? How do we identify themes of privilege, entitlement, and violence in ways that are honest and frank, without unilaterally characterizing all men as complicit with these realities? How do we invite men to the table to come alongside women in ending abusive use of power and championing healthy, mutually respectful, egalitarian relationships?
In my practice as a social worker/therapist, I am privileged to be invited into the personal stories of my clients, who share deeply, including the intimate details of their shortcomings, their laments of loss of significant relationships, and their deep longings for meaningful participation in family and community. These stories of men and women reveal the rich nuances of human existence, in all its agonizing pain and joyful potential. My clinical training and accumulated knowledge are present with me in the counseling room and become resources for inviting clarity and dimension to the conversation. I help them unpack their stories and begin to envision and enact new chapters filled with the hope that human flourishing is achievable, often incrementally and ultimately shaped by our place in the larger story of human existence.
Until men are able to acknowledge and join in challenging the multiple influences that undermine their healthy participation in community and family life, the relative silence demanded by much of male culture will continue to harm relationships.
What has become increasing troubling in my work is the disconnect between the macro world of theoretical ideas (for example, privilege and entitlement) and the lived experience of individual men in our society. In an attempt to describe observable data, we create generalized paradigms that help us understand social interaction and advance our knowledge base as a human collective. We identify and define themes and trends that then inform our discernment process as a society in addressing human needs. This is good and important work. Things become problematic, however, when these models become a lens that project assumptions onto an identified group (in this case, men), painting broad strokes that color every person in that demographic. Erased is the individuality and specific nuances of their lives. Lost is the understanding that there are outliers in every data set.
As I work with men, in time getting to see behind often guarded and carefully constructed external masks, I am struck by the combination of stereotypical characteristics and the rich surprises present in each man. While informed by macro level knowledge, I must remain open to and expectant of the diversity of human experience and expression—a truly delightful journey of discovery! What I discover is not always appealing, and underlying the often predictable external behaviors is an assortment of trauma and drama that reveal both unhealthy legacies of survival and sometimes surprising tales of human thriving. Even when defensive and desperate actions have caused others untold grief and have exerted their legacy on subsequent generations, signs of tender humanity are present. Longings for basic human connection, belonging, and respect are clouded by misguided maps and energized by pain and desperation. As a clinician, I must reach for these alternative demonstrations of life and nurture a possibility of redemption in what might otherwise look like a lost cause. Along with relationship comes the ability to challenge behavior and call clients to ethical living, minimizing the conditioned responses of denial and self-justification.
When masculinity is too often pathologized, when generalizations lump all men into categories, and when men feel that even their efforts of best intent are suspect or dismissed, why do we wonder that men feel indicted rather than invited to participate in this pivotal discussion? Polarization of issues results from a lack of intentional listening and relationship building. The full participation of all parties in this conversation is critical for true and lasting change to happen. Future generations are counting on the table being fully welcoming to everyone. Men do need to step up and become involved, and my hope is that the table will be defined by a willingness to reserve judgment, build relationships, listen intently to all who need to be heard, and together develop a response that honors the common longings for a better relational world going forward.
Don Neufeld has been a clinical social worker for 23 years, currently in private practice as a general therapist with individuals, couples, families, and groups. A specific growing interest is working with men, and speaking and writing on issues related to men, masculinity, and gender justice from a faith perspective. He is a husband and the father of three sons, and he lives in Virgil, Ontario.
Jackson Katz on Violence Against Women: It Is a Men’s Issue
Tony Porter: A Call to Men