Posted 25 February 2015 1:41pm

Q&A: Men don’t need to hear other men speak out against violence in order to change

There’s something awry in this opinion piece by Clementine Ford, and it’s here in her message to men who are wanting to stop violence to women by exerting influence on other men:

‘I do not accept that men need to listen to other men in order to accept the state of violence against women in this country. Replicating patriarchy under the guise of progressive activity will not save women from being killed.’

Challenging men to stop using violence, or ignoring it, or accepting it, or condoning it, or not speaking up about it, is essential to ending ‘the state of violence against women in our country’. Is Ford opposed to men speaking to other men and seeking to be agents of change? I’m not sure that she is, but her article seems equivocal.

There are good reasons for men to be engaged in campaigns about ending violence and sexual assault of women. The first that comes to mind is that it’s one way in which men can be responsible. Being committed to speaking to other men means giving up the right to silence, the right to minimise the significance of the issue or ignore the harm that men do to women. It means acting to change men’s culture.

Another is that men have many contexts where women are absent, in which we can and need to be challenging men about violence to women. Men perpetuate attitudes to violence to women in public and private communications with each other, and so this is a critical place for men to bring their influence to bear. A lot of those men aren’t watching Q&A, or reading Daily Life, but they may be bagging feminists, or dismissing women’s experience of sexual assault or domestic violence, displaying the very attitudes towards women which need to be eradicated.

The problem with Ford’s injunction ‘If you are a man and you want to challenge men’s violence against women, don’t tell men to listen to you. Tell them to listen to women.’ is that other men have to be listening to you – you have to be someone they will pay attention to, otherwise your direction that they listen to women will fall on deaf ears. Like it or not, men’s voices make a useful addition to the voices of women in changing community attitudes about violence and sexual assault.

If the idea is being touted that men can only learn from other men, that’s clearly wrong. Is it frequent in discussions around violence? I’m not so sure that it is. Most of the men I know who are involved in activism or service delivery understand that ending violence is a ‘root and branch’ undertaking of enormous proportion and don’t have simplistic answers, but most, if not all, would agree that men’s violence to women is men’s issue, and take their responsibilities to influence their service users and friends and families and work colleagues and sporting clubs and schools and communities very seriously.

Is this ‘patriarchy under the guise of progressive activity’? If there are people who are saying that men can only learn from other men, this would seem to be reducing to a catch-cry the argument that men need to be activists in changing men’s culture, or that men have a capacity to influence men by role modelling or setting examples. We live in the world of the sound byte, the three-word slogan, and there are always people who want to show that they’re one of the brightest lights in the room by layering a patina of knowledgeability over an opinion.

Having said all that, Ford is quite right to be wary of ‘…men being given precedence to explain women’s reality to other men…’ We should be supporting what women are saying, challenging attitudes which challenging women’s voices. We should never speak for women. But if we’re listening to women, then we have to take what we’re hearing to other men to get them to start listening too.

Men can speak authoritatively about men when we speak to men. We’re the insiders. We know our trade secrets – how we talk to each other, how we bring our influences to bear, how we lean on other men to collude with our atitudes and behaviours, how we enlist each other. We can see warning signs, hear alarm bells too. And, let’s not forget, we have relationships with men which are powerful pathways for influence. In this context, I’d have to agree strongly with Ford when she says that ‘Effective violence prevention and real gender equality hinges on men being taught to respect women. It fundamentally cannot work by simply threatening them with the shame of losing the respect of other men.’

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