Make a difference

How is it in men's interests to dismantle a system that also seems to serve their interests? Bob Pease, an man who has been active in anti-sexist politics since 1975 and who was one of the architects of the first Men Against Sexual Assault group, explains the paradox. He is interviewed by Michael Flood.

This is the first part of an interview with Bob Pease. The second part is titled "Seeds of change" and published in XY, 3(4), Summer 1993/94.

WHY are so many men resistant to a pro-feminist message, to such a simple message as saying violence against women or against others is unacceptable?

One reason is that, when you're born into a society that yields you certain privileges, you have a tendency to not recognise those privileges as privileges. They're taken for granted, and you're much more conscious of your struggles in the world and of the costs, than you are of how the nature of your privilege has yielded you a whole range of opportunities unavailable to other groups.

When you occupy a position of privilege you are less conscious of your statuses. A white heterosexual man looks in the mirror in the morning and sees a person more so than a white heterosexual man. A black lesbian women is more likely to see a black lesbian women, because she's very conscious of the colour of her skin, her gender, her sexual preference, because they're tied to her oppression.

The second reason is that so much oppressive behaviour occurs at the level of what I would call social practice. Many of the oppressive behaviours that men engage in have become the norm within our society, to such an extent that they are not recognised as oppressive.

A number of men will for example recognise that physical and sexual violence against women is inappropriate male behaviour and they will say "I'm opposed to violence against women. But I'm not violent, so don't implicate me in your analysis that says men do this." What they're unable to recognise so easily is that physical violence is one means of controlling women, and that there are a whole range of controlling behaviours that are not physically violent, but which men who would abhor the suggestion that they would be physically violent, engage in every day. These are to do with how they relate sexually to women and the ways in which they control women in their relationships.

I'll give you an example. We had a man come to a MASA meeting about two years ago, whose partner had been raped by a mutual acquaintance of theirs. When he heard about the rape he went through a response which is fairly understandable and typical in that situation for many men, which was incredible rage and anger, and he was going to go out and bash the man who raped his partner. When he was expressing this rage and anger with his partner about this man who raped her, she turned to him and said, "But listen, you raped me two years ago." And this was the first time she had disclosed to him that she had felt raped in their sexual relationship two years earlier. So here he is with this incredible rage and anger towards the man who raped his partner, and she for the first time discloses that she felt raped by him. So he's now beginning to recognise and examine that it is not just that man out there, that his own sexual behaviour has been coercive and that's something he needs to explore.

Is this exploration by men of their own violent or oppressive behaviour an important part of what MASA does?

Yes, it's a significant part of our educational work and it involves addressing two other levels of resistance.

The third level of resistance is that men don't listen to women. Men devalue women's insights and understandings of the world, because they have been encouraged to believe that as men they have a market on the truth, and that as men their views and values are always more important and truer than those of women. So, men don't hear what women are saying about their experience. If men did listen to women, they would also have to confront some of the pain that that listening entails.

The fourth reason is that, because many men have been unable to connect with their own pain and their own earlier oppression as children, I believe that it is much more difficult for them to be able to empathise with the oppression and pain of others. If men are not connected to their own oppression or repression, I think it's much harder for them to feel compassion for the oppression of women.

I would have thought you might say that some men in the men's movement focus too much on the ways in which they're oppressed.

Yes, much of the men's movement has focused only on men's pain, and hasn't looked at how it is also connected to men's position of dominance within a patriarchy. So, while I don't think there's anything inevitable in the process of connecting with your own pain which enables you to empathise with others, I think that if you're unable to connect with your own pain it's also more difficult to establish that empathy.

Some men's groups that focus on "men's liberation" say that the benefits or rewards of patriarchy, of men's public power and status, are hollow. In fact, men's real interests are not served by patriarchy.

I believe that it is in men's longer-term, reconstructed interests to dismantle patriarchy. However, it is in men's short-term, material interests to defend their privilege. It seems to me that while one may judge from a particular stance that many of those benefits are hollow, the political reality is that the vast majority of men who do that cost-benefit analysis have come to a different conclusion. Those benefits and privileges, while they do have a number of costs, do serve men's material interests.

Do you mean simply men's economic interests?

Not only their economic interests, but their sexual interests, men's interest to have someone to take care of their children and do the domestic labour, provide nurturance and support, alongside it being in their interests to have greater opportunities to accumulate prestige, money and employment. It's in men's interests to have positions of power and control within social institutions. Those interests, although socially constructed, are deeply embedded in men's psyches.

How can we encourage men to abandon their short-term material interests?

To me it's a combination of three things, all in tension with each other. And I believe that any one of the three, by itself, will take us down the wrong path.

One motivation for men to change is to do with altruism, empathy and a sense of social justice. That may be heightened by the experience of being a parent of a daughter, or by the connectedness with a female partner, a sister, a mother. But I don't believe that on their own, altruism and a sense of social justice and empathy will sustain men in a longer-term political struggle.

Secondly, I do believe that it is in men's reconstructed interests to change. In the process of engaging in that political struggle, men transform themselves and reconstruct their interests.

Are you saying that men's criteria of what they value in life shift?

Yes. Men start valuing good relationships, connectedness with their children, and find relationships of equality more satisfying than ones of dominance and subordination.

Men's needs change as they engage in that process of political transformation. And if that didn't occur, I don't believe that men would be able to stay in the struggle. But I think there's also a third motivation, and sometimes the third motivation might be the initial one that acts as the spark. That is, when you begin to listen to what women are saying about their experience, you sometimes are wounded by that and you feel a sense of guilt or shame in relation to not only your own individual behaviour, but to the wider gender-class of men and what patriarchy is doing to women. That sense of shame and guilt may shatter your complacency about your role and may be the catalyst for you to become involved.

While I don't accept the caricature of pro-feminist men as motivated solely by guilt, I think there is a place for guilt and shame in starting the journey for men.I don't believe, however, that it is a sustainable position from which to organise on its own.

The three motivations are altruism and empathy, reconstructed interests, and guilt and shame. Put like that, they don't sound very positive.

Don't they? I think they're all positive.

Well, guilt has a bad name.

It does, and I think that some men have been stuck in a guilt phase. At times, men have used guilt to further oppress women. There are times when men, by demonstrating their guilt, evoke guilt in women, who feel guilty because the men are feeling guilty and then they nurture the man by saying "Well look, really Michael, you're not such a bad man after all."

I just think guilt serves an important role initially in shattering complacency. I don't think men should stay in it for very long. I think the way you deal with guilt and shame is by living your life in ways that make a difference. And I actually see a positiveness in all three of those things. I'm thinking of a discussion I had with a Koori woman about guilt one time, and she said, "You should feel proud to be able to feel guilty."

It was her way of saying that the capacity to feel a sense of shame was a positive human quality, from which you can then move forward. I also think there's something positive in men constructing their interests in ways that enhance their lives. One of the things we also talk about in our educational work is the costs for men continuing to occupy positions of dominance, costs to do with health, emotions and intimacy.

Do these add up to the case that "men are oppressed"?

I don't think men are oppressed as men. Some men are oppressed by other dimensions of domination, so that I'd say working-class men are oppressed by class and gay men are oppressed by heterosexism and men of colour are oppressed by racism. But I don't believe that men are oppressed as men. I would prefer to refer to those other things as a kind of malaise, or a repression, rather than oppression. The humanness of white people in South Africa is stunted and limited by racism and apartheid, but I wouldn't for a moment say that they were oppressed by apartheid, in the way that black people are. And I think that the analogy is the same with men and patriarchy.

Bob Pease grew up in a working-class family, left school when he was 14 and worked in timberyards and factories for the first seven years of his working life. He then returned to study as a mature-age student, and now lectures in the Department of Social Work at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and also teaches a course on men and masculinity. Bob is 44 years old, and the co-parent of two children aged 12 and 14.

First published in XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 3(3), Spring 1993. Reprinted with permission. PO Box 26, Ainslie ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA.