Here’s why men are so silent about women’s rights

“Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?”
- Maya Angelou

Thousands of people took to the Internet last week to talk about how Karabo Mokoena was allegedly killed by her boyfriend in South Africa and the hashtag #MenAreTrash took off as South Africans and then people from other countries weighed in on the discussions that followed. As you can tell from the hashtag that carried the discussion, women are angry.

One question that keeps coming up is why more men don’t speak up. Where are they when women are crying foul over patriarchy and calling for real change in how men relate to women?

The same question is asked across the globe as the women’s movement checks itself at a pivotal moment in history where advances made over decades look like they may be reversed, as in the case of the current debates about maternal health and women’s right to choice in the USA and as questions are asked about the scarcity of funding for women’s rights groups.

Men remain deafeningly silent, save for a few. But even with all this weighing against us, we are not trash. No one is. We are just cowards — and confused. And yes, some of us are bullies who hurt and kill, but I want to address this issue of silence. Why are we silent about these issues as men?

In an age where it’s easier to speak up and reach more people, in an age where we expect men to be more enlightened and more brazen in their support, why are they not up in arms about the continued abuse of women at the very least and why are they not actively pushing for the equal treatment of women in all spheres of life?

Men are not psychologically ready for the age of the empowered woman

For ages the world has been teaching women to be more confident and more assertive, but it has not taught men how to co-exist in a world where the women are thus disposed.

And yet society has built our value as men around being able to ‘help’ women live their lives and around ‘supporting’ and ‘protecting’ them. It’s complex, because we look at women and think, ‘but yes, they are not as strong as us, not as big as us, so they must need our help,’ and nothing in the education or societal upbringing of most men, teaches us how to deal with this dynamic.

But ‘protecting’ women also means ironically that we are wont to trespass on ‘another man’s domain’ when he’s ‘dealing with his woman.’

Thus we avoid interfering in domestic issues, even where it’s obvious that violence is being committed.

In the real world women have — gasp — opinions, ideas and solutions but we are exposed to media and films where the men usually have the answers, where the men are always the heroes. The world is awash with pornography where the women are always ready. The formula for most music videos hasn’t changed since I was a child; semi naked women shaking their bodies and fully clothed men strutting around them, the women are just more naked now than they were 25 years ago.

We think that this is the way to be a man. We must be the heroes. We must save the day. And women must admire us eternally for being so amazing. How on earth do we take a back seat to a woman and still be a man? We must always be impressive. We must always be admired.

We underestimate women, infanticize them and unfairly blame them in situations where they are victims of emotional or physical violence because in a dark, twisted way, it serves this narrative very well.

We’re struggling with the inevitability of an end to patriarchy

For so long men have abused the power and privileges that patriarchy vested in us. We have grown up in a society where men and women had their places and we were comfortable with this. We somehow thought that patriarchy would last forever, diluted in time, but present.

But we slowly see the changing of the guard as women get access to better and better jobs and take up more leadership roles in the world. We see it as men struggle to fit in to new roles as caregivers in the home or take up more domestic chores. We realize that women are indeed as awesome as us, and maybe more so. We realize that where we were given more physical strength than them, they were given the power to grow life inside them and birth it and it fills us with awe and dread at the same time. We realize that we are not that impressive after all, but don’t know how to fill up that ego void.

Then we see the beauty of women and remain as afraid as our forefathers that if we don’t control it, we will lose control of everything.

We are afraid that if women are truly given equal roles in society then we will not measure up or we will become less important. How will we define manhood, if all the rules we have in place now to keep its current vestiges in place are torn down? Because we have been abusers of power for so long — or beneficiaries of the abuse of power, we are afraid that if this power is shared we will become victims of similar abuse. We wonder what the rules of this new societal order will be. What does equal really look like? Will we still be men?

Our upbringing has not prepared us to share power, or weakness, with women, and we fear that we will end up in the gutter of some sort of emotional, or physical suffering (read: doing lots of household chores, etc) and disregarded by other men.

Maybe that’s why even in many countries where they say they have given women the equality they deserve, they still pay them less than men. Harvard University Economist, Claudia Goldin, has conducted years of research on women’s labor market issues and published many articles on the topic. She surmises that there is a part of the wage gap that can be explained by the historical imbalances in education, experience and opportunities offered to men and women, but there is still a part of the gap that’s just because women are women.

We don’t see how winning this war would be a victory for us

We are struggling with this existential crisis of manhood so much that we cannot look beyond ourselves and see how these changes can benefit society as a whole.

Let’s draw a parallel.

In recent times there has been a call for moderate whites in the USA to stand up and fight racism more openly. Inspired by these, till recently, less quoted words of Martin Luther King from an April 1963 letter; “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

As with the race struggle, so with the gender struggle. The greatest stumbling block for true equality is those men who say they support women’s equality, but do little about it — and that includes me.

A simple explanation for this is that perhaps we just don’t see it as our war to fight because we don’t see the benefits to us. But I think there’s more. We see the benefits to our daughters, mothers and sisters, but still we remain silent. Why?

We don’t want to be seen as apologists or wussies, or traitors. What other men; our fathers, our brothers, our uncles, pastors, bosses and friends, think of us is truly important to us. We want to be men among other men and we cannot see how standing up to support the women’s movement will enable us to do this and so we quietly support it, but most of us don’t make any bold moves.

After all, the more chores we do in the house, the less time we’ll have to watch sports or hang with the guys. How do we support that? The more power and influence women have, the less we’ll be able to impress them. Unforgivable.

We sometimes don’t feel our hands are clean enough to protest

Digging even deeper, we are either afraid that we too will one day be the perpetrators of this sort of thing or maybe at some point in our lives we have come close to touching a woman without her consent, or we genuinely misread a woman’s cues and moved in too fast and made a fool of ourselves and feel the guilt that we feel makes us accomplices in this collective horror of men abusing women.

We have other fears and concerns related to what we expect of women. Mark Greene of the Good Men Project wrote that men fear that what they want sexually is wrong. I’ve also heard this repeated in other circles where men say they are afraid to talk about their deepest sexual desires with their women as they fear it would just freak them out.

There are men who at some point in their lives were close to doing some pretty nasty things but somehow didn’t. And there are guys who have had discussions with friends and relatives who have done these things. Thinking about these things in light of stories like Karabo Mokoena’s invokes guilt and self-chiding that may stop one thinking about the bigger picture.

And so we may hold back because we do not have the courage, either individually or as a collective of men to say yes, maybe some of us have done these things before and were never called out for it, but that doesn’t make it right. We don’t have the courage and sometimes, many times, we feel we don’t have the moral capital to be the one standing up and asking other men to behave better.

Some of us deeply believe that women should remain subservient to men

In an age of political correctness, many men will not openly say that they believe women have a place and that place is under the man — even when they believe it. “Women are asking us to give up too much. We are men, we are supposed to lead.” But we only say this in bars or to our close friends. Some men quote scripture and remind us all that the madness we have with relationships is because women now wear pants and want to be like men. They forget that even in societies where women are as meek as the marching of humble snails, many still get abused and battered.

One of my favorite podcasts is the TED Radio Hour. In one episode, titled ‘Speaking Up,’ presenter Guy Raz speaks to Columbia Business School social psychologist, Adam Galinsky, and asks him, “What do you think explains this force inside of us that sometimes compels us to speak out?”

Galinsky’s response is, “It’s something that psychologists call moral conviction. We are as human beings moral beings. We believe in principles. We are driven by values. And that is a very compelling and motivating force for people to want to speak up. It’s not just that I have a strong attitude or I believe in something. It’s that I really feel that it’s morally right…”

But there’s more. Galinsky goes on to say that there are two other factors that motivate us to speak up; when we feel that we have expertise in, or special knowledge about something and when we feel like we have social support and allies.

Social support and allies in this case simply translates to, “What will other men think about me?”

Add to this the confusion caused by people we respect; relatives and friends, men and women alike, who constantly remind us what our role as men should be. “You’re the man. Act like it.”

Putting all these things together, when women face gender-based injustice and abuse and we hear about it, maybe we just don’t want to process it, because it hits too close to home. Or maybe, at some sub-conscious level we’re all thinking of some woman somewhere who we couldn’t shut up when we wanted her to, or whom we couldn’t compete with or who said no to us when we came on to her and are thinking, unthinkable of unthinkables, “Maybe she started it. Maybe she should have been meek and humble, like our mothers or grandmothers were — even though this didn’t spare many of them ill-treatment by men — maybe she should have just said yes to him and she would not have been beaten up.”

In short, we haven’t reached a point where our moral conviction is greater than the friction from all the other social factors around the status quo perpetuating these practices. So we won’t speak up. Not in our numbers.

In her book, ‘We Should All be Feminists,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote, “Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in.”

I would hazard to say that most men are intimidated by strong, confident women and that most men are intimidated by the rising tide of women’s progress, which is why they don’t take bold steps to support it. Chimamanda should be worried. We should all be worried, because we cannot build a healthy society if we men remain such, dare I say it again, wussies.

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