I met an old friend today, a friend I had not seen for decades – a friend from way way back in University. It was strange, and wonderful, and weird and I hope to see her again. She had changed somewhat – a little thinner of face and, perhaps, firmer in her manner – and yet, in many ways, was still the same amazing person she was back then. That statement does not cover it, she was the development of that amazing person, a later stage in the painting of her life. When I left her and two of her boys I was smiling inside.
I repaired the bag of a workmate today. A fashionable bag with a broken handle and I, with Sylv’ (my heavyweight sewing machine) was in a position to fix it up like new. My colleague was overjoyed to have her bag made whole and I was filled with a calm happiness at having helped a person and brought them joy.
I bailed on a therapy appointment today. Well, not bailed exactly – I hadn’t taken the money out to pay the therapist and the only cash machine nearby was broken – that and I was late. I will pay her for the time she put aside – that is only right. Instead of therapy I walked home through the parks and children played on swings and roudabout whilst the world seemed alive and magnificent.
I do not intend to return to my therapist. She is a wonderful woman, she has some insights and can guide my own self discovery. Over and above that it helps me immeasurably to have an external being wholly devoted to me for an hour – a rich man’s luxury. I like her, but I am afraid I took a wrong step in going to her for my issues are not ones that can be resolved through talking or discussion. They do not need exploration, even exploration from within my own mind. I lack no insight into my condition but contrary to conventional wisdom the understanding of a problem does not resolve it. To name a thing is not to control it, indeed full realisation is often a calamitous moment in which we expect relief but discover instead the rising panic of disappointment and dashed hope. Where are we to turn when we fully understand our perilous present and see no convenient way of escaping it?
I am scared of negative interactions with people. If someone shouts or snarls at me or I have to enter into a bitter an argument then I can hold the moment but for days or even weeks after the sand upon which my mental fortress stands is quick and treacherous – as if I have won a Pyrhicc victory and lived only to see my world crumble about me. My solution to this, the solution of many years, is to avoid people. I have systematically let old friends fall from my life and made new only when they were forced upon me by a partner or by fate. I have insulated myself in loneliness, an armour of great fortitude if a little cold in the wearing.
Grateful people are, conversely, a boon to me. To give a gift, to repair a bag or in any way engender a smile fills me with warmth and so I choose to serve. I choose to act as the giver and supporter of those who will, by tacit agreement, not turn upon me. I choose to serve because service brings me solace, companionship (of a kind) and safety.
After I had met my old friend today; after I had seen her children playing all about and we had talked about the passing years and our long unexamined friendship. I was thinking, or even realising, that I like people. I like engaging with them, I like hearing about their lives and helping where I can. I like to think I could accept help because to accept help is to trust (although that remains terra incognita for me). There was a reason people were friends in my past, it is because they were good people and people from whom I could derive a strength without draining either they or myself. Perhaps I needed my lonely armour once, perhaps some days I still do, but I was wrong to wear it all the time. I need to trust my friends and let them trust me.
So, i’m not going back to my therapist. I am going to take that money and see if I can rekindle friendships from the embers that remain of those past burning fires. I am going to see my friends again and endure the fear that assails me without any protection other thn faith; faith that a friend will not do me harm. I am going to walk in parks – alone or with others – and I am going to sew and draw and (fear of all fears) I am going to travel.
Manic Depression doesn’t travel well, time zones are anathema to it and finding myself in an unfamiliar place is the nemesis of the calm and familiarity I need. But I am going to travel regardless.
I met an old friend today and in her conversation I found warmth and happiness. But, as important as that, in my considerations of our meeting I think I may have made a decision that can set me on a happier path for the future.
I do not have the words to write this piece, it needs years of consideration, of learning, and of careful deliberation. I cannot guarantee I have years and so I feel I have to try and mould it now and risk it being half formed. I cannot be sure I have hours, none of us can be sure what time we have and that motivates me to put my thoughts to paper. Mayhap I will return to it another time and, as a wiser person, make it what it truly should be. For now this is what I have to give.
“We need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together.”
– bell hooks
We have a tendency to devalue that which we possess and to over-value that which we are denied.
In the feminist gatherings and events I have been privileged to be a part of I have seen the greatest of human strengths – the strength of people from diverse backgrounds to stand together against seemingly immovable domination, the strength to fight against impossible odds and carry on regardless of defeat after defeat, seizing the little victories, taking the baby steps that lead inchingly closer to equality. I have both learned from, and been humbled by, what I have experienced.
At these gatherings I have been taught by the most inspiring of people. Women who chose to accept my lack of knowledge and, sometimes harshly, correct my beginners mistakes. To them I am and will continue to be indebted. I have seen so much good and so much hope and yet I have also, repeatedly and subtly, seen a lack of understanding when it comes to the actions of men; most especially a lack of understanding of mens oppression under patriarchy. Perhaps this is to be expected, men have many benefits under the patriarchal system and it is easy to see men who have been warped by patriarchal society as the cause of the oppression as opposed to a symptom of a greater issue. This lack of understanding is perpetuated by the fact that, under patriarcy, the vast majority of men are cut off from their ability to experience their own feelings and articulate their emotional needs. We, as men, are self-prevented from educating others by the deeply ingrained rules of our society. We are guilty of being unable to take the step that those brave feminists took with me to help educate other genders about our own personal experiences and through teaching seek to redefine and mold them into a healthier form.
Others have done good work around the experience of male oppression. I recently read bell hooks “The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” and also Terence Real’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and there is huge insight there – but the body of knowledge surrounding the male experience of oppression is under-developed. This subject needs to be furthered and, if patriarchy is to be replaced, it needs to take it’s place alongside the other oppression literature that helps to educate us about the world in which we live and arm us for the struggles ahead. We need to understand men’s oppression not as an excuse for patriarchy – there is no excuse for patriarchy, whichever group seeks to further it – but as a legitimate position in the web of oppression that we struggle with on a daily basis. Men need to be helped to see their oppression for they are strongly conditioned against recognising it. Groups need to come into being in which men can share experiences without judgement and learn to reflect and reconnect with the feelings that were taken from them in their childhoods. Men need help to see they are wounded so that then they can take responsibility for learning to heal and through that healing learn to moderate their own privilege.
The Emotional Purging
I am capable of fully experiencing three emotions – Fear, Love and Despair. I have the capability to properly express one emotion – Fear. Everything else can be felt only up to a limited point. I feel happiness, but only in a limited way, beyond a point my body shuts down and I become instantaneously numb. It is as if the gas propelled shutter that protects a bank teller from assault has been activated – you do not see anything move but suddenly an impenetrable wall is there and the happiness is on the other side. It cannot hurt me, cannot leave me vulnerable. I can experience a little but then I experience nothing at all.
I can remember a time when I had access to a full range of emotion – aged ten is the latest age I can be certain I experienced life fully but I may have had a few years longer. By 16 I definitely had a foreshortened ability to experience emotions. Somewhere in between, most certainly in my years at senior school, the emotional range left me and was replaced by the safety mechanisms that keep it out today. These mechanisms hold the emotion on the other side of a barrier, I still know they are there, I still know that I should be experiencing them and feel despair at my inability to connect with what I, perhaps naively, equate with the ability to be human.
This experience does not just belong to me. The few men that I know who are capable of speaking out about it tell similar tales and, almost exclusively, the emotional disconnection happens in the teenage years. The years in which we take the step from being boys into being men. It is in this period that what I choose to call the ‘masculine ideal’ is embedded into us.
How We Survive
How does a person survive within the masculine ideal if they cannot allow themselves to transmit, or even experience emotions? Well, it turns out that humans are ingenious and plastic animals. If the majority of the male sex is incapable of communicating a concept due to the same disability then it actually gives them an ability to empathise (at least intellectually) with the suffering of their fellow men. It is this empathy (or perhaps proto-empathy as it is highly limited in its scope) that both drives the male urge to bond and allows a coded understanding to exist between men regarding their general emotional state. The fact that I can let another man know how I feel, that he can decode my pain and I his is just enough to carry on.
If I am depressed, if I am feeling truly bad or perhaps even suicidal and a close friend asks me ‘how are you doing’ I will not break down in tears or explain how my world is falling apart – I will not because I cannot – but I will say ‘not too great’ and if I am feeling seriously bad I will give a single firm pat to his shoulder as I pass him. Those words combined with such a blatant digression from the rules of no contact acts as a strong signal regarding my pained state of mind. A signal most men would ‘get’.
I can express my love for a friend through my actions, my willingness to takes risks with him and for him. Indeed, as my friendship with this man grows I may seek increasingly risky situations in order to enable both of us to express our mutual trust and platonic love. The means of expression for this potentially life altering emotion? A half nod before the risky act, a short smile afterward as the adrenalin begins to ebb, a spontaneous hug with back slapping and verbal high fives. These are examples of the strictly regulated means that men are permitted by patriarchy to share emotion. Though crude these means can and do serve to form a bond of common purpose between groups of men that last a lifetime and allow the spanning of vast periods in which the men may be apart. In a world without emotional communication those you make any contact with will always remain your friends.
Although it seems like a blunt instrument, and contrary to popular stereotype, communication within the masculine ideal is incredibly subtle and nuanced. It’s defining factor is not its lack of depth but its lack of breadth. It can communicate a limited range of what may originally have been ‘forbidden’ emotions between men and serves to both bind those men closer together and lessen the mental anguish associated with their inability to express emotion. From the moment of group expression onward the individual will feel more comfortable with that group of men than he does alone or often with members of the opposite sex. He will have found a family, but a family that is ‘addicted’ to each others presence, a family that needs to engage in occasional acts of societally unacceptable behaviour in order to enable it’s members to renew their bonds.
A Personal Perspective
My personal experience of emotional amputation is re-played inside me every day. I suspect it is the same for others, to some extent we can all hear the knocking on the other side of the barricade.
I have cried once in nearly twenty years. There is no capacity for me to cry – any emotion that would cause tears gets shuttered before it becomes intense enough to have an effect. I suspect this reaction was learned in the schoolyard to protect against the violence doled out to those who didn’t meet the masculine ideal. Nowadays it means I do not cry at the funerals of friends and relatives – indeed I often give the readings because I am unencumbered by emotion and unlikely (unable) to break down part way through. During moments of intense passion the shutters come down – suddenly I am not passionate, all I have left is an intellectual image of passion that I try to enact. When I do experience any emotion it becomes paired with anxiety. Even the emotion of love is an anxious experience inextricably tied to the fear of loss.
In a disaster I am calm – I’ve been among the first on the scene at several vehicular accidents and in those moments I become a ‘man’ and take control – the internal conditioning kicks in. Afterwards, when the adrenaline dies down and I begin to shake, I will take myself away and hide somewhere quiet because I cannot accept others seeing my perfectly understandable physiological reaction – a reaction I (and many men) interpret as weakness. People ask men why they do not seek help when they are hurting, why their rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide are so much higher than those of women. I say that the answer lies in patriarchal society teaching us that the single most important thing is the masculine ideal. Teaching us that, by inference, it is preferable to be a drunkard or an addict than to lose our masculine status by expressing emotion. It is even preferable to die by our own hand, an act that carries a certain manly respect, than to let our emotions free and become nothing.
It is an act of immense courage for a man to cast off his allegiance to the masculine ideal and enter into a potentially permanent period in which not only other men and women but he himself is forced to regard his current and past personal worth as zero. It would be a truly rare man who could take that step alone – to leave himself without any form of traditional or cultural support, who would choose to become a no-one. To my mind this is reason that most of those who have begun this journey were already outcasts or had already buckled under the pressure of maintaining the masculine ideal and exhibited mental illnesses born of that strain. It is mostly those who have had little or nothing to lose that have chosen to walk a path that begins with total loss. Even then the man may find that he chooses to regress as his self-esteem raises, as he realises that he can reintegrate into the society of men at some level and once again receive the emotional support that it provides.
This is the position I find myself in now. I choose to renounce the masculine ideal and try to reclaim the emotions that I feel will make me human once again but for every two steps I take along the path I take at least one back. For every dream I have of my freedom I dream another of dominance and violent aggression. I talk to my loved ones more about my feelings but I am acutely aware that I cannot access many of those feelings – and if they are unshared with me how can I share them onward? I am walking in a wilderness in which I feel little worth in my achievements and a constant pull toward returning to past harmful patterns. What keeps me moving forward are the supportive friendships I have with a number of people, mostly feminists. Lately I have felt that these friendships are not enough. For all their support these mostly female friends cannot understand the nature of the thing with which I struggle because they themselves have never experienced it. They cannot truly understand a man’s oppression by patriarchy just as I can never truly understand a woman’s. We can acknowledge each other, support each other, but we cannot truly know the other’s enemy.
My experience of the birth of the masculine ideal within patriarchy, as a man, begins within the schoolyard. In no other place within our society are the rules so strictly enforced and failure to conform so rigidly punished. At the age of eleven your friend relationships are everything, even eclipsing the familial, and those relationships are governed by strict rules learned from our relatives, peers and the media at large. Strict rules regarding the attributes of maleness and the concomitant suppression of emotion that involves. I personally grew up with a solid diet of war stories, war films, tales of singular heroism and stories of individuals or small groups overcoming all odds. The values these things project are oddly similar to the masculine ideal I have found as an adult.
The traits of a man, as presented within my culture to a boy of eleven are as follows:
- A man can be anything he wants to be if he tries hard enough (and by inference, if he fails to be what he chooses he has not tried hard enough and he is not a man).
- To show any emotion but anger is weakness (to shed a tear is an act of failure whilst to intimidate another is to be a success)
- Physical ability is a paramount achievement (and so those who fail to make the team have failed to be men)
- A man is sexually attractive (to be unable to secure a woman is a failure to be a man)
- A man is resolute (to take time to think or search for balanced opinion is a failure)
What is telling about the above traits is not what they prescribe – all men know the masculine ideal – but the meaning ascribed to the failure to meet any or all of these requirements. To show emotion does not make you a woman, it makes you not a man. In the absence of another gender identity it makes you nothing. It nullifies everything about you, it makes you zero and leaves you unmoored and adrift. If you are not a man then you cannot partake in masculine bonding and form emotion venting groups, no matter what you achieve in the state of not-a-man the sum value of your life will always be multiplied by zero, it will never amount to anything of worth. If the child, and later the man, does not follow the code then they must rapidly break free of the entire patriarchal masculine ideal or be forced to live a life with no forms of connection at all. To be male is not a state of being, under patriarchy it is a target one must constantly fight to achieve lest you cease to exist at all.
We absorb these truths from innumerable films and television programmes. Every war movie in which the stoic hero goes to his death in the service of a cause or saves a friend by dying in his place. Every time a hero runs after an opponent, leaping from rooftop to rooftop before pummelling his nemesis into bloody unconsciousness. We absorb these things from our fathers who in turn have absorbed them from their fathers. We absorb them from our mothers and grandmothers who encourage us to be whatever we want whilst openly admiring the strong or the quick or the beautiful, who identify a character as a ‘baddie’ because he is ugly or limps. It is not the fault of most parents, they cannot do anything but reinforce the dominant patriarchal current within our culture – but they perpetuate and strengthen that current nevertheless.
Even those of us with access to somewhat more open-minded parents cannot be protected. Our schoolmates bring their parents attitudes with them and re-enact them with great force. There can be no meaningful escape. To survive we buy in to the patriarchal narrative, we bury ourselves deep in the knowledge that our emotions cannot, must not, be found if we are to survive.
By the time we leave the schoolyard the damage to most men is done. We carry the lessons onward into the world at large. We carry the understanding that we must constantly push and dominate to maintain our maleness and that those who are ‘weak’ can be looked upon with love or sympathy but can never be considered equal. We understand that only by playing the game will we acheive any emotional release any catharsis regarding our internal divisions. We also carry with ourselves the knowledge of the absence of our emotions. It is hard for any person to come to terms with an amputated limb, even if they understand the amputation was necessary for survival, so too is it hard for any man to come to terms with his amputated emotions – especially when he thinks he can still feel them behind the barricades – like a phantom limb cramping where no real limb now exists.
Many men are desperate to find a way out of patriarchy but they do not know it or at least cannot name it or see the bars of the cage that restrains them. Men everywhere struggle to understand their feelings of entrapment and desperation in a world in which they feel they should be masters, who are appalled at their own destructive behaviour but cannot identify its root or control its expression. Many men need help and whether it is our role or not the only way many will receive it is if we help to educate and rehabilitate them. I would even suggest that to help to heal them is the only viable way to overthrow patriarchy in our world.
The crisis facing men is not the crisis of masculinity, it is the crisis of patriarchal masculinity. Until we make this distinction clear, men will continue to fear that any critique of patriarchy represents a threat.
– bell hooks
I have looked for and failed to find a body of support for men as they pass through the wasteland of the post-masculine ideal and attempt to construct or discover a new, more holistic, way of being. Some resource exists, the Goodmen project, for example, are centred around responsible and fair behaviour by men within this society but fail to address the underlying problem. No-one I have found addresses the twisted form of socialisation that our society takes as normal and uses to wring the emotional capacity from their male children. I support the Goodmen because their stance is well meant and does some good – but they are not enough to address this problem.
I dream of an organisation of men who have chosen to enter into the wilderness and, at least temporarily, discard their values. A society of men that can offer the support that each of them will need as he is tempted to return to the aggressively dominant ways that he has been taught; who struggles with the truth that it feels better to be emotionally crippled and yet supported by your peers than it does to start out on the journey to wellness alone. I dream of a society of men that can offer each other support, as best they are able, and who strive to find a better way for themselves and the generations that will follow them. They will get things wrong, they will need to learn from others and be constantly forced to build and rebuild bridges. They will need to learn to find a new way of being, a way that feels alien to them and that may well leave them rejected by the women and men they’ve left behind. They will need to break a new way that ultimately lets them feel and express the emotions that were stolen from them in their childhood. A way that their children wont consider new, but normal. A way that will grow and help all men.
Such an organisation does not exist.
I will try to do my best to help build it.
In the past I have used surgical scalpels, craft knives, Stanley knives, nail clippers, my own fingernails, a leatherworkers clicker knife, hypodermic syringes and a piece of glass to deliberately cut into my flesh and cause myself to bleed. Some of these cuts were sufficient to require hospital treatment, many many more were superficial.
This sort of deliberate self-harm is repellent to many people who either cannot conceive of why an individual would choose to act in this way or are driven themselves toward this sort of behaviour and cannot allow themselves to feel anything but disgust else they weaken and join in. Other people, a surprising number of people, show a flash of recognition if they see the cuts or, in the case of other people’s self-harm, burns or abrasions. They will give a nod of understanding or the flicker of a smile. Just enough to let you know that they get it and in that instant of recognition neither of you are alone. The truth is that self-harm is a lot more common than most people think and it is not necessarily a sign that a person is self-destructive; indeed I would go so far as to say it saves many lives.
I have self-harmed for a number of reasons but almost all of those reasons involve a need to regain control of my emotions. I am in many ways the archetypal male product of the patriarchal system. Since my childhood my peers have instilled in me the fact that as a male I am allowed no public expression of emotion – except perhaps anger. I have internalised this. I actually cannot cry beyond a single hard squeezed tear and even that is only released when watching feats of superhuman Hollywood bonding (my brother and I were bound for life by both shedding a single man tear whilst watching Backdraft, as the wounded firefighter looks down at the hero fighting the blaze and whispers ‘he’s my brother’). That’s it, Backdraft is my only outlet, the pinnacle of release. Backdraft and a few other films are the only tap that remains to my inner emotional wellspring.
I didn’t shed a tear when my Grandparents died, in fact I am the go to guy for reading the heart touching eulogies from friends and family. I read my dads goodbye to his father and there was never a hint or suggestion that I might shed a tear – even though it was one of the most touching things I had ever read; if the emotion is strong it will be automatically and idiotically hidden . Don’t misunderstand me, my fathers words touched me to the core but I could not let that emotion into the world – I just don’t know how unless it is in the act of beating a punchbag or some equally violent activity. When I received the news of my Grandad’s death I ran further and faster than I ever had before and then beat on my punchbag until it came loose of its hanging and collapsed. That was my grief, that was all I had the ability to share; my upbringing, almost every man’s upbringing, had left no ability to release emotion in a healthy way.
This is a problem. This is a problem of magnitude because the metaphor of a ‘wellspring’ of emotion is an apt one. The emotion doesn’t go away, it builds up. The pressure of emotion rises until I am in severe mental distress and anything, anything, is better than the pounding, drumming, surging emotion that is pulsing inside me. Anything. Anything including death.
It’s in these moments, when the pressure inside me is so monstrous that I will take the scalpel, knife or glass and I will deliberately and slowly cut through my flesh. Once upon a time the cuts were only just deep enough to draw a trickle of blood. With time they got so deep that I could watch the fatty adipose tissue before the blood welled forth.
When I cut the pain is inconsequential. I can feel it, but physical pain is really a very small thing compared to mental pain – it is insignificant. Also, the nerves sit near the surface of the skin, a deep cut hurts no more than a shallow one. The act of cutting silences the pressure of emotion within me. It makes my inside as flat as the visage I present on the outside. The violence I do to myself acts as a surrogate for the violence I need to inflict to drain the emotion. As the blood flows I relax, I am calm, I am no longer suicidal. Self-harm has saved my life.
It says something about me, and about society, that the only way I can release strong emotion is through these means. I feel I have been deliberately and mercilessly denuded of the tools that I need to live an emotionally healthy life. This abuse has come partly through mental illness but I fervently believe it has come mostly through the way society (and Western Kyriarchal society especially) has robbed me of the tools to experience emotional fulfilment. I truly, strongly, believe that.
I do not cut very often now. I redesigned my life long ago to avoid all situations that would generate hard to cope with emotions in myself. I have taken up mindfulness meditation and done my best to learn about better ways of living. I still can’t express emotion and if I were to be given a choice I’d give up almost anything to be able to cry again. What use money, importance and pretty toys when you’ve forgotten how to enjoy them?
I am a manic depressive and the statistics are fairly clear when it comes to suicide. I have a 20% chance of committing suicide if I am well medicated and a 40% chance if I am not. As far as I am aware these are the highest figures for any form of mental illness. I am not a special case of manic depression – I get the urges just like so many others and those urges are so much harder to battle when I feel that I am swollen with trapped emotion; when ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’ (to quote Harlan Ellison), when I am desperate to cry or laugh, when my body has shut down and my face gone impassive and my externally directed mood gone indifferent not because I don’t care or don’t feel but because my lifelong lesson has been DO NOT SHOW IT, and now I cant. Now I can take my place amongst the Sensei of patriarchy. A white man, status job, money, reaching middle age, emotionally dysfunctional and only capable of masculine expressiveness through violence. I’d just rather that violence were aimed toward myself than someone else.
I do not cut very often now, but it is a tool I keep because sometimes it is the only tool with which to access tomorrow.
I have always considered myself a pretty selfless person. When in a relationship I will willingly surrender my own needs, hobbies, or even desires in the service of furthering my partner’s happiness. I have always assumed that my partner would do the same, to the best of their ability. I have always seen this as noble, and as the best possible way to show love, but recently I had an argument – an argument that helped me realise that not only is this not good but that it may just be abusive. An abuse not just aimed toward my partner but also aimed toward me, an abuse that I have never been able to see – until now.
I’ve been thinking hard about this ever since and, as has become my want, I’m using this blog to try and work my head around the issues.
When I enter a relationship I enter into a wonderful period in which I get to explore the being of another person. Physically and mentally I get to discover their past and their present, get to delve into their psyche and learn a little of their inner workings and their outer habits. We get to share, we get to delve deeply into each other and revel in the amazing complexity of another person. I laugh and I cry, there is a lot of hugging and deep wonderful sexual play. I learn and, perhaps, they learn too.
And then it goes wrong.
In some misguided way that is, undoubtedly, born of my past history I choose to start prioritising what I perceive as my partner’s desires over my own. I will not discuss it with them, I will not let them in on the decision making process, I will simply decide that to make them happy it is necessary to shed some of my desires and replace them with the servicing of what I have perceived to be their desires. In a healthy relationship there would be a dialogue. Some of my desires would be scaled back, as would some of hers and we would find a negotiated medium in which to function peacefully. In my world I choose what is important to her and eject my needs based on that assessment. I take her choice, her actual desires out of the equation and replace them my own perception of those desires; this leads, inevitably, to a situation in which I feel I have sacrificed a great deal to make the relationship work and she, quite rightly, feels that she is being forced down a road she has not chosen; a road that is a distorted mirror of her true desires.
I have never realised this before, but this behaviour is abusive. I am the abuser in this situation and I feel ashamed to have acted in this way; I feel ashamed that I never even saw that I was acting in this way towards ones that I loved.
Shame is a good thing to feel if it drives us away from our negative behaviour and toward something better. I am getting better, but a lifetime carving out this mould is not so easily broken free from. Therefore I am going to talk to my partner. I am going to show them this post (before it is posted) and try to agree a way forward based upon their true needs and desires as well as my own. I am going to look for a way that allows me to properly integrate who I am and what I want into our relationship whilst allowing them to be who they are. I want to stop imposing my skewed understanding of what they want or need and truly address both of our needs and desires.
I want to be a better partner.
I cant explain it
but the pressure on the outside
doesn’t meet the pressure from within
and i’m diving down for safety to
the bottom whilst my pressure hull is
creaking groaning cracking with the strain
and we hold and pray beneath our breath
that tolerances made by makers many miles away
can be exceeded.
Within my panoptical network vision
people starve, drown and beg for food
whilst in my head I argue with anyone
and everyone, all comers to the nights event
and amidst that building pressure , as I
hear the rivets pop like gunshots
I dive, as deep below the waves the pressure there
might equalise the pressure of the thoughts
kettled within my head.
In murky silence near the bottom,
crushing force upon me,
silence, nothing, negation
Within this place dwells nothing
Here in the inky blackness the creaking has stopped.
I breath. I am alone.
and repairs begin anew.
This past Christmas was hard because I have a happy and supportive family.
This past Christmas was hard because I saw the happiness of homeless people.
This past Christmas was hard because, when all was done, I turned homeless people back out onto the street.
This past Christmas was hard because I lost my good CPAP machine.
This past Christmas was hard because straight afterwards I started a new and well-paying job.
This past Christmas was hard because we were planning a wedding.
Some of the above, most of the above, should be positives in my life. Not unmitigated positives, new jobs and weddings are undoubtedly stressful events, but they mark progression – they mark the growth of wonderful things. They are positives, huge positives, but when set side by side with my experiences working with Crisis over Christmas to help rough sleepers in London these positives become hard to deal with. These positives, when set against the suffering, victimisation and demonization of others become hard to reconcile mentally. The fact that my life is going well makes the gulf between me and a group of people, some of whom I would like to call friends, that much harder to reconcile. I am taking that difficult but liberating leap into flight as they are trapped and held down against a cold and hostile earth.
One way to resolve this is to forget them. To take the road that most choose to take and fail to see them asleep in doorways or begging in the street. To pretend that they are criminals or drug addicts who brought their own misfortunes down upon themselves. To fool myself that they could not be me and I could not be them. I won’t ignore them, I couldn’t even if I chose because I have met some of their representatives and I know they are people like me. Some are nice, some nasty; some intelligent, others slow; many are sick or have turned to alcohol to try and cope with their situation – but less have become addicts or alcoholics than you think. Many have mental health problems, vulnerable people are easy for the system to side-line – the mentally ill often don’t know how to fight back. Many do not have mental health problems when they first go out onto the street, the environment provides them; they can then be used to ignore the afflicted individual.
This year one of our guests (that is our homeless guests to whom we gave a bed) was an English teacher – a very erudite man who gave us a talk on what the work of Crisis meant to him and the other homeless people he knew. That talk meant a great deal to me at the end of the final shift, the shift in which we have to take the people we have helped and turn many of them back onto the street, the shift at the end of which you are more emotionally and physically tired than any other. I don’t remember his exact words but I think I can paraphrase an extract here:
“The quality of volunteers at Crisis has not changed. You still give hope to people through food, shelter and, perhaps more importantly, through conversation and little things such as opening doors for your guests and treating them like human beings – an experience that is rare on the streets.
“The calibre of volunteers has not changed, but the calibre of guests has. This year the centre has had one professor, two doctors and several teachers – all homeless. There are more of what society calls skilled people, people who you would not have seen in the past.”
I can add to his comments that we had at least one person homeless because they could not work – on the waiting list for an operation (and so not someone an employer would take on with major time-off looming) and another who was a barely controlled diabetic. A third had a crippling heart condition. Our speaker did not venture an opinion on why our homeless guests suddenly seemed more educated, more professional. Why they were from areas of the workforce that have traditionally been ‘safe’ or why people who were so sick had been left homeless and rough sleeping. He did not venture an opinion on why all our centres (more were opened this year than last) were swamped by numbers never seen before. I can venture my opinion:
We have seen a massive spike in the numbers of homeless people in the last few years as the coalition government has implemented austerity measures. Crisis loans for the disabled have effectively been removed (they were moved under local council control but no funding was transferred to pay them). ATOS, the government’s private medical assessor, has been ruling disabled people fit for work against their specialist’s direct recommendations and thus taking away the benefits of people who cannot in reality hold a job. Job centres have become incrementally harsher in applying penalties to job seekers in the case of minor infringements (such as missing a meeting due to a sick child, the flare up of a severe disability or to attend a last minute interview for a job). With DLA/PIP, ESA and many others being removed or slashed in real terms or placed behind a bureaucratic wall that takes months, and a huge emotional investment, to penetrate more and more people – skilled or otherwise – are finding themselves abandoned by the systems they have been funding for decades through taxation.
So, my life is doing well, but as I watch the gap between myself and the people that I have met opening ever wider my heart is filled with a deep impenetrable sadness. I see a void, a gap that our current austerity blinkered society refuses to see, expanding and start to swallow people that it could never reach in the past. I see a void looming behind friends who have not seen its growth or, instead, stubbornly deny that it could ever reach out to them. I have met people better qualified than them or I, people who had better jobs and better prospects who have been swallowed whole and deposited on the streets. I see a shadow at the edges of this void and I fear what is coming.
I have met homeless teachers, doctors, market traders, professors, literary critics, chef’s, cooks, musicians, labourers, civil servants, taxi drivers and businessmen. They have been a mixture of healthy, sick, disabled, desperate, hopeful, determined, broken and unbreakable. To cope they have stayed sober, gotten drunk or high, denied reality or faced a nihilistic world with grim resolve. They have been people like you and for some of these readers they will be you, one day in the future.
That void is opening up below you and unless we all open our eyes and work to close it down some of you will be swallowed by it, as might I.
There was a famous statement made by Pastor Niemöller with regard to the cowardice of German intellectuals in the face of Nazism. You have probably heard the official version:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There are other versions, one of the first written included these lines:
“Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers”
I do not claim we are facing a holocaust, but we are facing the deaths of people because politicians have decided that those who are a burden to society, the incurably sick or disabled, are no longer worth supporting. We are seeing a rise in homelessness amongst our educators, a sign that their moral and intellectual guidance is being devalued. We are once again adopting the creed that an individual that does not contribute monetarily does not deserve the basic rights afforded to all humans. The last holocaust began with the gassing of the mentally ill in specially modified vans because society deemed they were a burden. Be alert and speak out when once again we are shown that these people are not cared for by the state. Place Niemöller’s statement into your mind every day and speak out now, it is too late to speak when the void has swallowed you.
I was recently reading an excellently written short article that spoke directly to feelings that have forming within me for some months. I encourage you to read it here:
In essence the author says that as a man he does not feel he can be a feminist even though he supports the goals of the feminist movement. In essence this is because he has neither been raised as female or lives as a female in this society, therefore he cannot have the shared experience of female gender oppression that is necessary to comprehend the feminist position and so cannot take a meaningful role in the strategy to combat it. He can however act as an ally in assisting feminists to achieve their aims
I recognise much of what is being said here because I am a white middle class male who was not raised female. Unlike the author I have experienced societal discrimination due to my innate attributes but in my case it is because I am manic depressive and not because I have lived as a female. So, can I truly be a feminist or should I cast myself in the more marginal role of a feminist ally?
The answer to my titular question is heavily reliant upon the often fluid definition of what feminism and feminists actually are.
If the definition is taken from the dictionary we see feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” (although I’d prefer equality of the genders). Such a definition clearly allows non-females to be feminists.
However, if we go to an extreme separatist feminist viewpoint – “”Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” (SCUM Manifesto) then I most certainly cannot be a feminist.
Of course most groups lie between the extremes of complete equality for males within a feminist movement and the outright rejection of males in their entirety. In my experience feminist groups lean strongly toward acceptance of men who have developed an understanding of the nature of patriarchal oppression and demonstrated a willingness to learn from the oppression of others.
What I take from this is, as with all movements, feminism is factionalised and I am welcome (or even encouraged) in some areas whilst being rejected in others. A situation not so different from any other collective organisation in this world.
For me personally it is feminist groups that have adopted ideas based around the intersectional feminism of Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and others that speak most credibly to the topic of making successful and realistic alterations to society to achieve female equality (and, hand in hand with this, racial, disability and many other equalities). Within this context I can be a feminist and, even if I choose not to be one, I have a duty to engage with feminism from the the viewpoint of the oppressions that I experience. This is because a final feminist equality must necessarily include a liberation of men from patriarchal oppression alongside the liberation of people of colour, mental disability and many other oppressed groups.
It is this intersectional definition of feminism that speaks most clearly to me. To my eye it is a definition of feminism that transcends feminism itself in that it acknowledges that we live in a society that includes powerful inbuilt negative influences on multiple groups on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, mental disability, physical disability, race and many other aspects of normal human variation. With that understanding it becomes clear that each of us is to some extent oppressed and to some extent an oppressor. Each of us has a duty to attempt to locate ourselves within the web of oppression and aid each other in extracting ourselves as best we are able.
To successfully end discrimination against any group will require the dismantling of significant aspects of the current societal power structures and replacing them with new structures better designed to promote equality. Dismantling the power structure is too great a job for any single oppressed group acting on its own and building a viable alternative is impossible for a single group as it will automatically incorporate the invisible oppressions inherent to that group. We may well achieve a society that is equal for women, but it will not be equal with respect to race and other oppressions unless we have previously embraced and learned from those groups. A truly equal society can only stem from multiple oppressed groups that have acknowledged the fact that their societally inherited viewpoints are often oppressive to others and strive to find a way to work together without mutually oppressing each other. When that goal has been achieved these combined groups will not only have a more comprehensive understanding of how to build an equal society but will have the strength of numbers necessary to achieve meaningful societal change.
So. Can I be a feminist? On current reflection I believe a feminist is not something you are or something that you think, I believe it is something that you do. When I am holding a placard or taking some other action to support equality of the genders then I am a feminist. When I am campaigning for the rights of the disabled I am a disability rights activist. When I am working with the homeless then I am a human rights activist. When I am sitting at home then I am just me, I still have my views and beliefs on all these things but they are intermingled and can no longer be easily attributed to a single viewpoint. I choose not to label them unless they are in action.
The Oxford Feminist Network, of which I am a member, adopted the following guiding statement:
“This group is for any person of any gender identity in Oxford and all are welcome to be members whether you are just beginning to explore feminism or whether you have decided your views. This group is about recognising that feminism is an inherently political movement connected to and through lots of other social justice movements and challenging other forms of inequality. We meet once a month in Oxford for discussions, activism planning and networking and at other times to conduct events, protests and projects. The Facebook site is an adjunct to face to face meetings.
“We aim to be an accessible group; to meet at accessible venues and put up information and important points raised in our meetings for those unable to attend.
“We are still learning to challenge our own learned prejudices. If someone in the group has said something or done something prejudiced or discriminatory, please feel free and safe to raise the issue without retribution (either directly or with the moderators) and we will all work to resolve it. Be respectful, encouraging and kind.”
I believe this statement marks the first step along the right path for many of us.