Activism 101

Four lessons, and plenty of homework. That's what Michael Flood took home from the Adelaide sessions.

I learnt important lessons about pro-feminist activism, and lessons that are important for all men, in the four-day sessions in Adelaide. I felt challenged, inspired and confused.

I've put down those lessons here, in the hope that they will spark further discussion and inform the development of men's activism and men's relationships. The issues aren't all new for me, but the workshops in Adelaide were a powerful and necessary reminder of their importance.

Gender partnership

Lesson one: working in partnership with women is a fundamental part of the way forward.

I found it profoundly challenging and exciting to work with the women who attended the Adelaide workshops. I was struck by the extraordinary combination of loving support and powerful challenge that they offered. A male friend later pointed out to me that the women showed that these two things must go together - that having one without the other does not lead to healthy personal relationships or healthy activism. Thus, there is little point in men challenging other men if we do not offer support as an integral part of that challenge.

I came back to Canberra wanting to affirm and strengthen my friendships and political alliances with women. I have close friendships with a small number of women and I value them deeply.

I'm also interested in trying to work more with women in the things I do - XY magazine and my PhD - perhaps using the models of "partnership accountability" (see here) I've heard about and briefly experienced. I'm also a little anxious about this, as I'm sure it will challenge me. I was reminded in Adelaide that we men have much to learn from women, and that our efforts at social change will only be helped by working with women. Doing so will challenge us to be more respectful and honest, and will lead to stronger personal relationships and political coalitions.

Plenty of XY's readers are not "activists". I want to acknowledge too that there are thousands of men outside the "men's movement" who have loving and respectful relationships with women. "Partnership" applies not only to politics, but to our everyday relations with lovers, wives, sisters, mothers and friends.

Just friends

Lesson two: building progressive communities of men is a fundamental part of the way forward. This means creating friendships and communities that embody an alternative men's culture, and that are not at the expense of women or particular groups of men (such as gay men).

I think of my own circle of close male friends; their existence is essential to my emotional wellbeing. I learnt years ago, in the turbulent wake of a drawn-out ending of a relationship, that having and keeping friends is a life-saver. And it's often male friends who help me wrestle with all the sticky questions of emotion, gender and sexuality: jealousy, condoms, body-image, flirting and so on.

The presence of male (and female) friends with a shared, feminist-informed vision makes it so much easier to opt out of dominant masculine culture. Their presence makes it easier to stick my neck out and challenge sexism and homophobia, and to bounce along with self-confidence and pride. I hope that I've taken to heart the idea of being "male-positive", one of the three principles adopted by XY and by Men Against Sexual Assault groups. (See my discussion of these in XY, Summer 1993 - 1994.)

A vital issue here is heterosexual dominance: the ways in which heterosexual men and women are privileged at the expense of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals (and other erotic minorities). In my article "Straightjacket" in XY (Winter 1993), I described homophobia as the dragon at the gates of an alternative masculinity. It is increasingly blatant to me that we must tackle homophobia if we are to construct a progressive culture among men.

Deep voices

Lesson three: be aware that we men speak from positions of dominance. As men in a patriarchal society, we are trained to speak in ways that create authority and truth, to take up space and ignore the experiences and knowledges of other groups.

The solution for anti-sexist men is not to stop speaking, although this is appropriate in some situations. Instead, we have to be aware of how we speak and how we listen, striving to do both in respectful and democratic ways. This is as true for our casual conversations with women as it is for our production of theory.

I was reminded in Adelaide of the danger of pro-feminist men "exceptionalising" ourselves - representing ourselves as better than other men. (And I was reminded that women can do this to men too.) A related issue is that we need to have a strong sense of anti-sexist politics as for ourselves. Pro-feminist men will sometimes personally define their politics as being "for women"; for example, as coming out of a concern for women who suffer men's violence. This concern is fantastic and yes, men must take responsibility for ending men's violence. But a sense of politics defined in terms of our own needs and lives is also important. Bob Pease made the point to me that we will also need to reconstruct "men's needs".

Shit happens

Lesson four: don't focus on "getting it right". To do so is paralysing, and can lead to putting ourselves above other men. As a friend said in Adelaide, "getting it right" can be about having an identity based on being a "nice man" and thus trying to avoid criticism. We are actually in a good position to take criticism. At the same time, just because we can't always get it right doesn't mean we resign ourselves to always getting it wrong. Some forms of activism, some behaviours, are better than others - because they're more respectful, empowering and so on.

How should men respond when a group of women talk about sexism? How should white people respond when people of colour challenge their racism? I don't have lots of the answers, but I keep thinking of what an Aboriginal woman said to some white women in Adelaide; "Just because I shout at you doesn't mean I want you to go away."

Questions: answers please

About fifty other crucial issues came up over the four days, so I want to leave you with a bunch of questions. They're our "homework", to keep talking and writing about. I hope that some of you will take up these issues and explore them in the pages of XY.

There are two big questions for me. Firstly, how does anti-sexist activism relate to the issue of men's pain? More specifically, how do we acknowledge and respond to men's pain without surrendering to a men's rights and anti-feminist agenda?

It seems to me that we will only be able to reach and mobilise large numbers of men if we speak to their lives and concerns, and if we thus tackle the difficult issues. Fathering and custody come to mind as important ones. Secondly, how does anti-sexist activism relate to the men's movement? Should we conceptualise pro-feminist men's efforts as part of the "men's movement", or should we think in terms of both men and women within a feminist or pro-feminist movement? Talking about the "men's movement" sometimes sounds to me like lumping together the Ku Klux Klan and land rights groups and calling it the "race movement"!

A host of other questions bounced around in the men's discussions. How do we balance interpersonal action and structural action? How do we promote alternative masculinities? How do we reach out to other men? How much tolerance do we allow within pro-feminist groups? What can we learn from the successes of mythopoetic, men's rights and men's liberation groups? Is our focus "working with men", as a career for example, or working against gender injustice?

So there you go. I'm looking forward to ongoing involvement in what I can only describe as a vibrant, informed and groovy men's politics. Thank you in particular to Mark Kriewaldt, and to Cheryl White and Bob Pease, for comments on an earlier draft of this article.

The Adelaide sessions

Thirty-five or so women and men attended two days of workshops in Adelaide, hosted by the Dulwich Centre, an independent therapy centre, in the first week of December last year. The men then went off for two days of discussion south of Adelaide, returning for a final evening session with the women, who had continued to meet over this period.

The bulk of the twenty men attending were pro-feminist activists, with the majority involved in Men Against Sexual Assault groups around Australia. The women attending came from therapy, feminist, lesbian, Aboriginal, educational and anti-violent groups or networks in Adelaide. These sessions were the outcome of a series of conversations over the last three years among half a dozen women and men, about gender, pro-feminist men's activism, working in partnership and related issues.

What is "accountability"?

Processes of accountability are a way of responding to the power differences between groups of people - white and black, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual and so on.

Accountability is a tool for addressing injustice, based on the position that the best knowledge of an injustice comes from those who have experienced it. Accountability processes are designed so that groups which have been marginalised and oppressed can have their voices heard.

Accountability structures can involve a variety of group processes and arrangements. In one model, members of the oppressed group meet; when ready they meet with members of the dominant group, who listen to their concerns and respond.

The impact of accountability processes is described by Chris McLean: "[A]ccountability is essentially an ethical process. It brings together groups of unequal people who speak from positions of unequal power and who have diverging experiences. It enables dialogue to occur where it has frequently been impossible, and enables trust to be built where it has previously been broken. The collective nature of discrimination in our society is recognised, and members of the dominant group are challenged to address it collectively rather than individually. Most importantly, it allows the voices of marginalised groups to be heard when they have so often been silenced or ignored. This is not an easy process and involves considerable levels of vulnerability and trust on both sides."

Therapists and activists in Adelaide are exploring the use of "partnership accountability", as are some Men Against Sexual Assault groups.

Accountability ideas and processes are examined more fully in the Dulwich Centre Newsletter's special issue on "Accountability: new directions for working in partnership", Numbers 2 and 3, 1994. The above is based on this discussion.

See alsoAccountability: New Directions for Working in Partnership (Dulwich Centre Newsletter 1994 nos 2 & 3), and The Partnership Way: New Tools for Living and Learning, Riane Eisler and David Loye (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1990)

For more information, contact Dulwich Centre Publications. Hutt St PO Box 7192, Adelaide, SA 5000. Phone [08] 223 3966. Fax [08] 232 4441.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(1), Autumn 1995. XY, PO Box 473, Blackwood, SA 5051, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995