"What's so fabulous about the idea of patriarchy?" asks Bryan Law, who takes another look at Co-Counselling and reclaims men's personal power.
I am a 40-year-old man of Anglo-European culture. I started out life in the working class, but couldn't handle the soul-destroying nature of the work and the prospects this involved. So I dropped through to the bottom of society and became no class in particular, a hippy and a dole-bludger. I experienced around fifteen years worth of constant put-downs for "failing" as a man and as a human being.
I gradually turned to political activism, to become a "greenie" and a dedicated disciple of nonviolence - as a lifestyle and a means of personal empowerment and growth. As a political activist in Queensland, I've spent my share of time in prisons for civil disobedience. I've worked with men as perpetrators of domestic violence (there's lots of 'em in prison). I've seen my share of oppressive culture and its results. I've worked in lots of ways at trying to change it. I went to University as a mature age student and found it all very interesting - a nest of privileged powerlessness. Every organisation which I've worked with since 1979 has had an analysis of patriarchy and a "pro-feminist" orientation of one kind or another. I have not always found this easy to cope with.
I know what patriarchy is supposed to mean - the structure and the system of the dominant culture - but in my experience, the word is frequently used to blame men (and me personally) for the oppression of women. Systems are hard to see, whereas individual men are easily visible and labelled as the "agents" and "beneficiaries" of the oppression.
I'm told again and again not to deny the experience of women - and I've spent a lot of time listening to the micro and macro of this. But if I speak of my personal experience as a man, and my shared experience with other men, I get told that I "just don't understand" an awful lot. Men's experience of oppression is denied.
I've been thinking lots about men's issues recently, and talking with men and women in the Australian Nonviolence Network about how we deal with empowerment and gender issues. Gender issues are a lively debate and field of action just now in the Network, and we're listing it again at our national gathering this year.
For three months I've been resting and planning at the Commonground community in Victoria. My partner and I are going back to Cairns in May to establish a centre for nonviolence there, and I'll be looking for a men's group and a perpetrators' group as part of that. In preparation, I've read the last few years' worth of XY magazine while I'm here, and books by men and women on gender issues. XY is generally excellent material, but I hear alarm bells sometimes. For example, Michael Flood's "The men of Co-Counselling' (Summer 1994-95), and Gerry Orkin's "Questioning manhood" (Autumn 1995) struck me as not relevant to my experience. Too ideologically driven, politically correct, and even preachy.
I've been learning and practising Co-Counselling since I came to Victoria. It offers a way of healing and discharging pain from past distress. It has an analysis that recognises men's "oppression" in the mainstream culture, but this in no way diminishes or challenges the reality and extent of women's oppression.
Co-Counselling simply recognises that all people are disciplined, through the use of violence, to live in a violent society. To behave violently - which men are required to do in their preparation for fighting and dying in wars which protect the property of the owning class - men have their empathy and their capacity for closeness crushed out of them. Isolation, competition, and false goals are inculcated instead. Women are oppressed in different, yet complementary ways.
Co-Counselling doesn't get into competitions about whose oppression is the worst. It challenges everyone to recognise what's going on, heal their own hurts, get powerful, and end the culture of oppression. It's not a case of "me first" - it's not done at the expense of others - but of taking charge of yourself as part of changing the world. In "Men of Co-Counselling", Michael Flood argues that Co-Counselling overestimates men's powerlessness, and uses the term oppression inappropriately. Yet how "powerful" or "powerless" are men? Flood writes that "by almost all accepted criteria of power - who occupies the government, who owns and controls businesses, who is sanctified as spiritual leaders, who sits on the judiciary, who earns the most money, who holds the management positions - it is men rather than women who have the power." This analysis is too narrow. It concentrates exclusively on what I call "instrumental" power, power which comes by virtue of one's position in an institution.
We might also look at personal power, or "power within" as the mythopoetic feminist Starhawk describes it, which comes from being at home to, and connected with, the life force. Then there's cooperative power, or "power with" as Starhawk calls it, which is built on the foundations of personal power and applied while working towards shared visions through partnership. Starhawk's vision is consonant with the model found within the Australian Nonviolence Network.
Personal power is not a "zero sum game" with only so much to go around that one gender (or class or culture) can have more than its share. Personal power is a spiritual quality, one which can be nurtured. The more personally powerful people there are, the better off we all become, and the more that will be done to heal our communities and planet. The attitude of Co-Counselling is that everyone needs to get powerful in the personal sense and be secure enough to share their power.
There is no doubt in my mind that instrumental power is skewed, oppressive, and dominant in the mainstream culture. But most men - non-owning class men - have had their "personal" power crushed out of them as part of gaining access to instrumental power (this is the soul destruction I couldn't take as a young man). The bureaucrats and parliamentarians who I encounter in my activism frequently tell me that there is nothing they can do with their instrumental power, and they really mean it. Everything gets decided above them or outside them. They have only the illusion of power.
Some kinds of feminism seriously propose that everything will be all right if women can just get fifty percent of instrumental power. I suspect they'd be better off cultivating their "wild woman" or "warrior woman" persona, and increasing their ability to act directly against injustice and for life. If power remains instrumental only, it doesn't matter who wields it; injustice and oppression will be rife.
Real wild child
Which brings me to mythopoetry. I was stunned by the bad review given Stephen Biddulph's Manhood, and the sneering tone reserved for Robert Bly and others. I've just finished Manhood and found it quite useful. I believe we need strong men, just as we need strong women. Men and women can benefit from those leaders who personally demonstrate the gains which lie ahead in the difficult and dangerous journeys of personal and political transformation.
My first experience of evoking "the warrior" or "the wild one" as archetype and protector came not from within the women's movement, not the men's. By connecting with and expressing their rage and anger, women who have had their boundaries violated (or who feel inferior, or powerless for any other reason) can learn to develop and trust their ability to assert themselves and their needs effectively. They can "protect their inner child" and "cultivate their adult power". They can learn to deal with the ogres and monsters of past experience. They can also learn to cultivate and access their "wise woman" for thinking about difficult situations. All of the women I know who have done this work speak in glowing terms of the sense of power it gives them, and the positive impact it has on their lives.
It seems to me that there is a similar need for men's personal empowerment work, and that only those ideas and movements which provide a real working tool for achieving it will succeed in capturing the hearts, minds, and souls of men (and women, and youth). Perhaps that is why the widely reviled mythopoetic men's movement enjoys such success in "getting the numbers".
Reading the Autumn 1995 issue of XY, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the constant repetition of the theme "how do we get more kinds of men to join our movement - while insisting on a very narrow definition of pro-feminist?" I suspect that the answer is, you don't. I consider myself to be pro-feminist. I support and encourage women from all backgrounds to be strong, and to stand against injustice individually and in alliances of their choice. I support and encourage men to do the same.
When I teach an introduction to nonviolence, I say that a key goal is to dismantle the "power-over" culture we have at the moment. I ask two obligations of anyone who would do this work. One is to give up any participation in or complicity with domination or exploitation of any kind. To root it out of one's personal life, and confront it in others or institutions wherever it is found.
The second is to give up any participation in or complicity with submissive or victim behaviours. Acquiescing to victim behaviours does nothing to end injustice, or meet people's real needs. It doesn't empower people. It just confuses things and allows bad situations to continue longer than they might have done.
I hardly ever use the word "patriarchy", because it's been my experience that more is told about people's experience of oppression by what class they come from, what culture, and what family circumstances, than is explained by gender. "Patriarchy" may have been created by white middle-class feminists to describe their own experience of oppression, but when it is thought of as the cause of all oppression it is neither accurate nor fair. Whether it's meant to or not, "patriarchy" lays blame with fathers and absolves mothers from responsibility. Many of its users appear to want "their share" of power-over while keeping the apparent benefits of victim status. Tch tch.
I am disturbed by the questions asked in two articles about the Adelaide sessions, which I will paraphrase: "are pro-feminist men part of the men's movement, or part of a pro-feminist movement which includes and is accountable to women?" Flood asked for "answers". Here is mine.
Don't fear the mythopoetic movement, or even the "men's rights" movements. They may have a distasteful analysis, and even be "wrong", but they are expressions of men trying to make their lives better, and as such they deserve to be acknowledged and heard. We can all learn from each other.
If some women and some sections of the various women's movements are fearful of male power, then gently let them know it's their business to sort it out. Reassure everyone of the benefits of active power, cooperatively shared, and offer to share. Continue to work on your own empowerment, and on social change.
If you see bad behaviour, interrupt it, but don't blame or judge. Support good behaviour instead. Model good behaviour. Repudiation of other men will lead to isolation, which will do little to promote your ideas more broadly. The time for adherence to the concept of patriarchy is nearly over; it was useful for its time, but it is of limited value in our common future.
Committed to change
I'll finish with the Co-Counselling commitment for men: "I promise that, from this moment on, I will be proud to be male and will seek closeness and brotherhood with every other man of every age, race, nation and class.
"I will permit no slandering or disrespect or blaming of any man for the hurts which have been placed upon him, and I will seek to restore safety to all men to discharge these cruel hurts.
"I will fight to end and eliminate the burdening of men with over-fatigue, over-responsibility, and coercion into armed service in which we have been brutalised, and forced to kill or be killed. "I will cherish my birthright of being a good, intelligent, courageous, and powerful male human."
First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(4), Summer 1995-96. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995