May 1st, 2008

le 'tis gar

More Thoughts On Men, Women and Violence

Back in the '70s, when I was 10 or 11 years old, my mother bought into the then-fashionable belief that television was "the plug-in drug", a Destructive Influence that threatened the moral fibre of children exposed to the sex and (especially, to my mother's mind) the violence on offer via the glass teat.

And so it was that my brother and I found ourselves required to plan out our television-watching, limited (I think; and maybe she made an exception for Saturday night hockey) to an hour a day. (As an after-thought, she also made me pack away my comics in the basement, so that the inferior reading material would not be a constant temptation.) And in truth, when she decided to Make Changes, I recall that I was reading a lot less, and watching, a lot more. After we were required to consciously choose what we wanted to watch, rather than vacantly channel-surf through the hours, my reading time did go up.

But I don't recall any change in my propensity towards violence. And neither do I know of any serious studies that ever showed a direct correlation between exposure to violent television and actual violent behaviour, any more than I am aware of any correlation between the current bete noire, violent "first-person shooter"video-games and actual violence.

While it is conceivable that media might encourage anti-social behaviour, as any one who has read about life in, say, 19th century London (England) will know, violent crime goes back far beyond the introduction of mass media to human civilization.

Thebigthreekill's reply to my recent post, in which I berated one of you Gentle Readers for treating "men" as an abstraction rather than as individual human beings, provoked this entry. I thought her response was, if not wrong, at least over-simplistic. But when it came to answering her thoughts, I quickly realized the issue required more space than permitted by LJ's comment character-limit. And so, an entire new entry.

Thebigthreekill said,

The problem isn't men, the problem is mainstream hegemonic ideas and ideals of masculinity. Violent, dominant ideals. Its how being a real man is depicted and how power is achieved.

Its also about the degree to which men and women resist these ideals and come up with their own ideals and their own ways and things to admire in men.:)

I think your first paragraph is chasing a chimera, not too far off the one my mum was chasing 30 years ago.

What are these "hegemonic ideas and ideals of masculinity"? In a world in which the very concept that there is a "popular culture" is questionable, to simply assert that "violent, dominant ideals" are those that drive the behaviour of men seems to me simplistic in the extreme.

In point of fact, in the mainstream (western) world, real power is not achieved through the use of physical violence. It is not even achieved through the display of physical strength. Real power now comes through skills that have often been considered "feminine" traits - through networking and cooperation, not through beating the shit out of a rival.

In the year 2008, successful mainstream North American men are those who don't use their brawn to achieve power, but those who use their brains.

I'm old enough to remember when a female MP brought up the problem of violence against women (I think it was Floral MacDonald, and I think she was talking specifically about spousal rape, but I could be wrong on both counts), only to be loudly heckled by many other "honourable" members, as if the very idea of rape was essentially comical.

That was only 30-odd years ago. Canadian society has changed one hell of a lot since then. Rape is simply not acceptable in mainstream discourse anymore, and that marks a significant change. "If rape is inevitable," goes an old joke, "just lie back and enjoy it." I don't remember who said it, but it was once considered to be a rather witty line.

And yet, rape still occurs. As do milder forms of sexual harrassment, along with assault and murder.

Let's talk about murder. It's the most extreme form of violence, in that it ends with a person's death, and also the one that's least amenable to being played with statistically by changes in definition. After all, a dead body is a dead body.

And in truth, women in Canada are just about safer, statistically-speaking, than women ever have been in the known history of the human species. And so are men, though men are less safe than women.

Allow me to quote again from the Statscan document, Homicide In Canada, 2006: "Almost three-quarters (73%) of homicide victims in 2006 were male."

Granted, that same document shows that 87% of the killers were male, which suggests that inter-personal violence is largely (though far from exclusively!) a problem with (some) men.

Which I think begs the question: what are those factors that lead some people (mostly men) to behave violently, up to and including murder?

To say that it's "the media" or "mainstream hegemonic ideas and ideals" really just puts a label on the problem, but doesn't address it.

What are the real contributing factors towards violence? Which men (and some women) commit rape and murder? Under what circumstances do they do it? Why do some societies have much lower rates of violence than others?

Let me digress a moment.

Contrary to popular belief, 20th century western civilization has in fact been the safest civilization in the known history of the world. As an example, take a look at the following chart, taken from page 56 of Steven Pinker's, book, The Blank Slate.

Chart graphing male deaths caused my warfare, from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, page 57.

Note that the final group - the US and Europe over the 20th century includes both world wars (though, admittedly, it doesn't seem to include those killed in the so-called third-world, which might make for a significantly different graph, though I think the rank ordering would remain the same).

So. If this society is safer than any other, what causes the violence that remains and, in particular, the violence that isn't mutual (two drunk guys agreeing to fight), but that that is clearly the violence of a physically stronger individual victimizing an individual who is physically weaker?

It seems to me there are two general classes of people in our society who do this. On the street, it tends to be men (and sometimes women) with very little power, except that which they can enforce through their fists; and at the opposite end of the scale it tends to be men (and sometimes women) who have at their disposal the apparatus of the state.

We're no longer talking (much) about sexism, but about class.

For the moment, I'd like to take the state out of the discussion and talk about men and women here in Canada.

In general, which individual men are most likely to commit assault or murder?

For murder, the answer is clear. Poor and (especially) socio-economically disenfranchised men. In Canada, those men tend to be native and black. I don't think there's any reason to doubt that racism is a factor, though I believe there are many other factors involved, cultural factors in particular.

Here in Toronto, my impression is that most gun crime involves "blacks". And I can certainly say that my ex-girl-friend (who was "black") reported to me that, if she was harrassed on the streetcar, the aggressor was (almost) invariably "black" himself.

You may have noticed the quotation marks around the word, black. There was a reason for it.

My further impression is that, when "blacks" and "gun crimes" are used in the same sentence, the truth is, more often than not, "blacks" means "Jamaican" (immigrants or first generation Canadians).

My ex was roughly as "black" as Barrack Obama. Her mum was an immigrant from Jamaica, her dad from somewhere in Europe. Neither chose to settle into a "ghetto", and they expected from their daughters that they would be fully Canadian.

Laura herself told me that the closest she came to experiencing racism was that she sometimes felt "a little" more watched when she and her friends would invade a store.

I know, it seems as if I digress, but I really am getting to a point.

Physical violence (mostly) comes from a place of psychological weakness and fear, and from a place of confusion, where one doesn't know what it is one's expected behaviour.

Every human being is capable of lashing out violently. There is a reason (hormones) that young men are those most likely to do so. There is a reason (social inequality - ie, perceived poverty) that is those from groups who feel socially disenfranchised are most likely to do so.

And there might be one more reason, which feminists ought to look into, another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The feminists of the 1960s and 1970s won some marvellous victories, which began to take effect in the 1980s. Society as a whole began to recognize that women and, especially, girls had been given a bum deal for decades - hell, for the entire history of the human race.

And society began to change. School curriculums were altered, girls were given extra attention, all with the admirable of levelling the playing field between the sexes. And to a large extent, it's worked. Women now make up half or more of the enrolment in most post-secondary fields of education, sometimes quite a bit beyond the percentage of women in the population.

Referring to my age once again, I was already pushing 20 when it was a rarity to see a female streetcar driver, let alone a female cop or doctor.

I doubt there has been such a vast social change in any society in history. It should come as no surprise that, in that massive shift, some people - some individuals - have been left behind, bobbing like so much flotsom and jetsom in the wake of the good ship Society.

Blaming "men" for society's ills never was intellectually tenable; blaming "men" now is just stupid.

The fact is, "society" is more complex than ever before, because it is still in flux</em>.

None of knows what we are supposed to do in any given situation. Men and women alike, we're making it up as we go along, trying to create a new equilibrium out of chaos. And one of the factors in that chaos are those men whose parents somehow missed out on the change, who have been raised to believe they are still the centre of the universe, when in fact they have been - as men - flung to the periphery.

If the term, feminism, ever meant something more than, "I want my share of the pie", then serious feminists need to start thinking about their sons, as well as their daughters.

Why is there a subset of those sons who think it's a good idea that every woman at a science fiction convention label her breasts as "touch" or "touch not"? How is it they don't understand that women are actually people?

Why is there a sub-set of men who respond to the least slight by pulling out a handgun?

Why is there a sub-set of men who think it's okay to use their greater size and strength to harrass and intimidate women who happen to be passing them by?

Blaming "the patriarchy" or some abstraction we label "hegemonic ideals" might make us feel clever, but it doesn't do anything to deal with problems in life.

And hell, I feel like I've only opened the book of questions. All of what I've tried to say above really demands that we address the question of class, of a society that insists on a steep hierarchy of (mostly) winners and (a very few) winners.

If you live in a society in which a significant percentage of your population consider themselves to be losers, then they will perceive that they have nothing to lose by resorting to violence. They will mostly kill each other, but you (if you're lucky enough to be a winner) won't be safe strolling in the public sphere either.

I guess I'm asking all of us, but in particular those who think of themselves as feminists in particular and progressives in general, to park your easy answers at the door and really think about the big picture. With globalisation and global warming, the next hundred years is going to be a century of unparalleled conflict, a time when one real right will be struggling against the claims of three others. History suggests we're going to see a bloodbath that will make World Wars I and II look like playground brawls, but the trend in history makes it clear it doesn't have to be that way.

But only some very hard thinking is going to see us through this dark patch.