To be a man

2009-12-02 00:00

THE idea that young men have to prove their right to be called men by performing acts of violence and cruelty is one that is fortunately being gradually erased in societies throughout the world. We all hope to be moving towards a civilisation, global yet differentiated, in which before long, justice will begin to prevail and war will be rare — the exception rather than (as so often in the past) a fairly frequent event. In this situation, then, young men need to be able to prove their strength, their courage and their firmness of purpose in ways other than displays of vicious­ aggressiveness. If they are to be aggressive, let it be in a sensibly controlled way, as on a sports field.

The sad fact is, as more and more sociologists and analysts are agreeing, that men as a group constitute a social problem. The biological effects of testosterone, together with still fairly widespread social assumptions about what may be expected of men or tolerated in them, have often combined to produce potential criminals.

These thoughts seem appropriate as we go through the annual 16 Days of Activism against Abuse of Women and Children.

Who are the abusers? In at least 90% of the cases they are men. They are men who have been taught, either by being abused themselves as children or by slack or nonexistent parenting, that using and abusing people who are weak and vulnerable is somehow acceptable. The problem is to some extent a worldwide one, but the South African situation is abnormally, if not uniquely, appalling. The recently published statistics about what percentage of South African women have been raped or abused, and what percentage of men own up to having committed rape, are (to use the old phrase) too ghastly to contemplate.

What the country needs is a social and psychological revolution — a revolution in thinking, in attitudes. How can one promote such a change? The task is not easy, and it needs to be undertaken in hundreds of different ways by thousands, indeed millions, of people. But an important element in the process is to try to get rid of, or to phase out, unhelpful practices.

In this context I must join those who totally disapprove of the tearing apart of a bull, as an indication of manliness, at the Zulu First Fruits Festival, the ukweshwama.

The suggestion that Zulu tradition be modified in this respect implies no disrespect for Zulu tradition as a whole. Every valuable tradition that exists gets modified from time to time. As practices come to seem to most people to be inappropriate or inhumane, they are dropped, and something else is put in their place. One could cite examples of this form of modification from every part of the world. There are plenty of ways for young men to prove themselves: it isn’t necessary to stick to this way of doing things.

I was reminded of the question of proving one’s manliness by the recent debates aroused by the 25th anniversary of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). The arguments put forward by Rodney Warwick, who is critical of the ECC, seem to me to be fatally flawed by the fact that he speaks of those critical of conscription and those in favour of it as if the morality of the issue was split 50/50 between the two sides. That is simply not so: those who were conscripted were fighting, whether they liked it or realised it or not, for the maintenance of the injustice of apartheid, whereas those who opposed it could see what was going on and were unwilling to participate in it.

But there was also the question of manliness. The authorities, and those in favour of apartheid, but also a fair number of unthinking white people, used to say, in effect: “Don’t concern yourself with the rights and wrongs of the matter. Leave that to the government. Go for it — and show yourself to be a man. ‘National service’ [as it was called] sorts out the men from the boys.”

In response to this mindlessly amoral way of thinking about being a soldier, an anonymous author wrote the following:

Every young lad should spend two years in the army.

That, after all, is what will make him a man.

Let him learn to endure, to contain his emotion.

Let him learn to face death, and to deal it out too.

Who would not wish his son to have such virtues?

So, every girl should spend two years in a brothel.

That, after all, will make a woman of her.

Let her learn to endure, to contain her emotion.

Let her learn to face pain, and to deal it out too.

Any parent of sense must rejoice in such a daughter.

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