WORKING FOR MEN’S CHANGE (I): LESSONS FROM BELL HOOKS

[I’m still enjoying my three-week summer break, which is why I feel today particularly rusty. In academic terms, my holidays consists of a) not answering work-related email and b) not thinking of my extremely busy agenda from next week onwards. Beyond this and as all academics do, I’m reading all I can manage between outings. Above all, I’m enjoying the luxury of thinking about what I read in leisure, which is why we academics should have much longer holidays… The holiday also explains why this post comes in two instalments.]

Today’s post will turn out to be intensely personal for I wish to deal with the thorny topic of patriarchal man’s recalcitrance in the face of necessary change and I know of no more recalcitrant patriarch than my father. His unwillingness to change despite the universal criticism and rejection of his appalling private and public behaviour is the colossal rock against which my own personal feelings and my training as a Masculinities Studies specialist crash again and again. This is why I always find some kind of comfort in reading about other Gender Studies male and female activists who also have the misfortune of having terrible, unmanageable, uncaring fathers. In this case, the volume providing some solace this summer is bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004).

I find myself quite comfortable with bell hooks’ ideas for I share many points in her own brand of feminism, which she calls, perhaps excessively, ‘visionary’. To begin with, I do agree that 1970s radical feminism was too angry “to imagine a culture of reconciliation where women and men might meet and find common ground”, based on forming a shared front against patriarchy. Like hooks, I stress all the time a most basic point: one thing is patriarchy and another masculinity–there’s no reason at all for masculinity to be always patriarchal, and it is in men’s interests as much as in women’s to get rid of patriarchy, the ugliest system of social organization ever invented. Patriarchy needs to be outed and named again and again as our common enemy, for its most insidious piece of social engineering is pretending that it is simple human nature, thus pre-empting any possible alternatives.

Like hooks, I have often placed myself in the very uncomfortable position of telling other feminist women that hating men (that is, engaging in androphobia or misandria in response to misogyny) leads nowhere, for we happen to share the planet with them. Some radical feminist SF writers have imagined in many stories what life would be like without men and, tempting as some of these stories might be, I don’t wish to participate in the extermination of the male half of the human species if only in our imagination. Like hooks, I’d rather build bridges among what often feels like separate alien species. At the same time, I do belong to the collective which wishes on a daily basis that particular men die so that the suffering they cause may end. This is our only hope in a situation in which patriarchal men simply refuse to change though, here’s the downside, wishing that someone dies feels terrible–a black hole sucking into the void the positive energy required to build those necessary bridges.

“Men cannot change”, hooks writes, “if there are no blueprints for change”. Here’s the question, though: who will provide the blueprints? We, the feminist women who believe in men, have been trying to help for decades now with an alarmingly low rate of success. hooks argues that, paradoxically, women love patriarchal men despite their not loving us back (“they would cease to be real ‘men’”) because our longing for “father love” overwhelms our better judgement. Also, I would add, because we believe against all evidence in the power of love to transform men–you see how cheesy this sounds. Thus, hooks plunges fearlessly into total sentimentalism when she argues that “the deep inner misery of men” springs from a “longing for love” that we, “feminist thinkers” must dare “to examine, explore, and talk about”. Patriarchal culture “really does not care if men are unhappy”, which is why it provides no outlets for the expression of feeling and, so, “The masculine pretence is that real men feel no pain”. Quite provokingly, hooks accuses women of not wanting “to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire” for a ‘real’ man.

Her recipe, then, looks something like this: find unhappy men, listen to them, sympathise with their woes, explain how patriarchy works, offer comfort, provide the blueprint for change. Been there, done that, and quite often, since I was a teenager. However, and this is where I diverge from hooks, a woman needs to be careful when choosing who to invest her sympathy on. As she notes, the only emotion that patriarchy values is anger and, as most victims of couple-related abuse can tell you, this often bursts out when the woman is offering emotional empathy: if there is a thing which recalcitrant patriarchs hate is being exposed as (in their view) weak men before ‘inferior’ women. Quite logically, then, “Fear keeps us from being close to the men in our lives; it keeps us from love” for too often our attempts to approach these men have been rebuked with violence, either verbal or physical.

Unlike hooks, then, I have learned to distinguish between deserving and non-deserving men, that is, between potential allies in the anti-patriarchal struggle and downright patriarchs. The former are the object of all my love, respect, interest and attention. The others I hate with the passion of 1,000 radical 1970s feminists for there is NOTHING to love in them. I have made mistakes in my life, like any other woman, but at the ripe age of 50 I am experienced enough to know when argument (whether emotional or rational) will make no inroads into patriarchal brains. I no longer speak, then, of ‘men’ in general but of two classes of men: ‘patriarchal men’ and (hopefully) ‘anti-patriarchal men’, or, simply, good men. To make my point clear, suppose you are an anti-Nazi person trying to survive in 1940s Germany: surely, you would try to find allies of your same ideology to build a common anti-Nazi front and would never make the mistake of trying to persuade Nazis that all they need is love. So, yes, hooks does sound quite naïve by proposing that we learn to love men in general…

“To create loving men”, hooks writes, “we must love males”. Obviously, as she highlights, this passes through loving boys, of which the highest measure is teaching them to avoid the patriarchal pitfalls as soon as possible. As things are now, families, including new-style fathers, have learned to love their boys much better; however, as everyone knows, patriarchal society is so all-pervading that an anti-patriarchal father’s love provides hardly any protection against the bullies his boy will find at all levels. We women can love men as much as we can but if men still hate each other in order to prove their patriarchal credentials there is little we can contribute to changing their ways. It’s really up to men… Like hooks, I’m aware that women contribute much to upholding patriarchy, whether as victims or as perpetrators and it is true that often sons who wish to free themselves from patriarchy have to fight both father and mother. Indeed, few fathers and mothers understand that their behaviour is conditioned by patriarchy’s need to renew itself; this is why the monster needs to be named, exposed and destroyed. The point of the brutal patriarchal psychological violence parents inflict on children is to “reinforce a dominator model” of “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” which few see with as much clarity as hooks. So, yes, let’s name it as often as we can.

I must also agree with hooks when she writes that patriarchy “promotes insanity”. Patriarchal men lash out against children and women because they cannot get satisfaction out of their lives, having been promised a degree of power and respect they never earned nor deserved. “The patriarchal manhood that was supposed to satisfy does not”, hooks sentences, adding that “by the time this awareness emerges, most patriarchal men are isolated and alienated”. Rage serves “as the perfect cover, masking feelings of fear and failure”; anger, she observes, “often hides depression and profound sorrow”. It is also a formidable barrier. My own father appears to be a textbook case: nothing any member of my family can say to help him out of his rage resonates with him; he sees himself, rather, as a deeply misunderstood man, a victim of our collective ill-will against him.

“To this day,” hooks writes, “I hear individual feminist women express their concern for the plight of men within patriarchy, even as they share that they are unwilling to give their energy to help educate and change men”. I close this post with the same thought I closed her book: a man can only wish to be educated and change if a) he understands what patriarchy is, b) he is willing to abandon it. Yet this is a classic example of tail biting: a man dazzled by patriarchy will reject all attempts to be re-educated and, as patriarchy works now, already baby boys are too stepped in its mystique to embrace an alternative. So, when exactly are we to save boys from patriarchy? And how does hooks expect to establish any kind of conversation with the adult patriarchs? Going back to Nazi Germany, this is charging the Jews with the task of convincing Hitler and company to abandon their evil ways.

It seems to me that we, feminist women, can help to educate the good men we come across into our anti-patriarchal stance. Then it’s up to them to take the front line in the fight against the patriarchal aggressors. Turn now to my next post to see what happens in this case…

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