Why do men hurt?

2007-12-03 00:00

On November 26, the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children began. It is part of an international recognition that gender-based violence is a serious problem that scars the lives of millions across the world and costs millions in lost working hours, and the costs of hospital, police and other institutions involved in dealing with the human trauma that violence causes.

In South Africa, it is important to continue to focus public attention on why violence occurs and how to reduce it. Current efforts to address violence either concentrate on dealing with its consequences or trying to prevent it from occurring. Interventions to prevent violence can focus on individuals or on groups with the intention of changing behaviour.

Work on violence has recognised its gendered nature. The 16 Days of Activism focuses attention on women and children because they often bear the brunt of violence. Implicit in the call for an end to this violence is that men are generally responsible and are not victims of violence. While the former assumption is correct, the latter is incorrect. Men are in fact more often victims of violence than are women, not that one should engage in an accounting exercise in order to establish who is most at risk.

It is more helpful to look at why men are largely responsible for violence and how they are victims.

Violence is an interpersonal happening. When a person is violent, he or she is relating to another person or thing in a particular way. This way is generally bereft of sympathy or empathy. It ignores another person’s feelings. It ignores hurt, pain and damage. We need to consider why people would act in this way.

Why are men predominantly the occupants of the world’s prisons? Why is it that most (all?) smash and grabs are undertaken by young men? I don’t think the answer is to be found in testosterone, but rather in the way that boys and men are socialised.

Young boys are often taught that it is alright to hurt and be hurt. They are also often taught that their own emotions should not be expressed, particularly if these emotions reveal weakness. They are taught that when they achieve manhood it is their right to be served, sexually and domestically. In this process, they hand over the work of care to their (female) partners. They take little responsibility for the care of others and even less for the care of themselves.

In poverty-stricken circumstances it is more difficult to promote an ethic of caring because the competition for resources is more intense and peer pressure to conform to acquisitive and aggressive ways of being a man are stronger. It should not surprise, therefore, that in Brazil and South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor are greater than anywhere else on the planet, the levels of violence are highest.

But it is important to remember that not all poor people are violent and not all violent people are poor. The experiences of childhood are important in creating the personal conditions for violence. In contexts where interpersonal violence is common and there is an absence of sympathy and love, the chances of regarding violence as useful and legitimate increase.

Violent societies clearly need more care to deal with trauma and loss, yet it is often because these societies have lost their ability to care that violence occurs so readily. Globalisation has undermined the conditions for a caring society. Capitalism has eroded relationships of respect and globalisation continues to erode indigenous value systems.

In the context of HIV and Aids the importance of care is paramount. We need to care for the sick and the dying. We need to reach out to those who are afflicted. The existence of stigma which makes it difficult for people to acknowledge their HIV status and acts as an obstacle to people engaging with voluntary counselling and testing, testifies to a widespread lack of care and sympathy.

Violence also continues because there are discourses and practices which legitimise it. When people accept that violence is an acceptable way of resolving differences and of getting one’s way, their statements and actions legitimise and make violence possible. Similarly, when institutions ignore violence, do nothing to prevent it, do little to illegitimise it, they effectively endorse violent practices.

In South Africa there are too many institutions that avoid taking responsibility for ending violence by turning a blind eye and hiding behind bureaucratic processes.

In education, the centralisation and bureaucratisation of power increase the distance between “managers” and the constituencies for which they are responsible: staff and pupils. School principals and university vice chancellors have unprecedented powers. They have an obligation to engage in caring but few do.

If we are to deal with violence successfully, programmes that work with men need to be prioritised. And managers in education need to understand that violence cannot be solved bureaucratically.

• Robert Morrell is an acadmic who has written extensively on masculinity.

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