It was September in 1998 when I last visited this text, but I began writing it in 1988—an unlikely time for warm humid air in Minneapolis where I lived. Still, brought up by storm, bereft of beaches, warm ocean-born air covered me in that north-central city, the nearest seacoast thousands of miles away; I could smell that salt breeze left over from and carried here by hurricane Gilbert and his aftermath.And this is what I wrote in 1988 and revised (somewhat) 1998. Now, in 2016, I pulled it out, dusted it off, made some additional revisions and edits (including cutting about 15 pages out at the end) for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I read the version of the following at Verses Against Violence 3, organized by Rachel Stomel in Jerusalem, on 24 November, 2016. I have made some edits to the version I read and added a bit more, to more clearly state my position at the end. Both the edits and what I added arose from the discussion after the reading in November.
When you read this, the bombs may be falling still, or falling again; or a temporary lull may have been ordered, or a ceasefire may be in effect. This peace-around the corner, while children, invalids, and old people are blown into mass graves, has been the latest, most visible testimony to the power now handled by a few men—which begins to seem like the power of nature, to bring famine, plague, or cyclone and take it away again at will.
“The bombings, for example, if they have anything to teach us, must be understood in the light of something closer to home, both more private and painful, and more general and endemic, than institutions, class, racial oppression, the hubris of the Pentagon, or the ruthlessness of a right-wing administration: the bombings are so wholly sadistic, gratuitous and demonic that they can finally be seen, if we care to see them, for what they are: acts of concrete sexual violence, an expression of the congruence of violence and sex in the masculine psyche.”
—Adrienne Rich, “Vietnam and Sexual Violence,” a column for APR, first published in 1973
“…it’s time for men to start having programs about rape. It won’t stop until men learn that the victims aren’t responsible.”
—Irene Greene, director of the U of Minnesota Sexual Violence Program
in an interview with Doug Grow.]
The Warm Blanket of Silence
It is a comforting warm atmosphere, and that it should bear with it the responsibility for the death of hundreds and the devastation of fragile third world economies, responsibility for the spawning of floods and tornadoes, dumfounds me at this distance. The air around me is a comfortable blanket, secure and cozy, cuddling me into gentle submission, into ignoring the terrible violence that spawned it, that delivered it to my doorstep along with the bananas and the coffee and the economic well-being that are part of my privileged existence. How do I set my comfort aside and grapple with the need for others’ relief, for a fair-weather change? So easy to retreat, to retreat to the warm blanket, to snuggle against the supposed truth: I am not the perpetrator of those violent deeds. For I am not a violent man, myself.
So it is with the storm, the raging blast of destruction and domination that is U.S. foreign policy, especially in the what we once called the “Third World,” now (in 2016) also the Middle East. That storm accounts for the cozy climate of the privileged in the U.S. (and I own that I was, while living there, and still am, as an ex-pat, one of those privileged). Thousands of deaths, devastation of economies, the spawning of the floods of war and the tornadoes of insurrection and destabilization all account for the stolen ocean breezes. And if I feel as helpless against the hurricane of foreign policy as I do against Gilbert, that same comfortable blanket beckons me: I am not the perpetrator of these violent deeds. For I myself am not a violent man.
If not perpetrator, then collaborator, if not in the destruction wrought by the storm, then in the destructive forces let loose when men beat women, when parents beat children, when men beat other men, when men rape women, when men use violence, oppression and sexual power to coerce those around them into submission. And if it seems that I have leapt hugely into an abyss from foreign policy to domestic, personal, and sexual violence (are these different?), then it is because I am looking for the beginnings of our national imperialism in the place it seems to me things begin: at home. If acts of violence in foreign affairs are not acts of sexual violence, as Adrienne Rich suggests they are, and I by no means believe that they are not, then the same indifference and silence towards the raping, beating, and emotional violence that plagues our own sisters, mothers, lovers, colleagues, brothers, and ourselves allows for our silence and indifference about how our nation conducts its foreign affairs. We may not perpetrate the violence, but we collaborate with it when we remain silent: Even if we are not, ourselves, violent men.
Collaborate? With silence. Silence is collaboration, the great hushed whisper that approves by not calling out, by not naming the violence of person against person, by looking the other way. Too long men have ignored the violence, or viewed it as the victim’s problem, or, when forced to acknowledge the truth, tried to suppress the violence in patriarchal fashion with laws, jails, and punishments (more often than not punishment for other suppressed members of society more than for those in power), rather than treating the roots, looking to the core of the matter.
“Such inhumanity will not cease, I believe, until men, in groups of men, say “no more.” Until the Jaycees, Rotary, American Legion, male sports groups, and the like begin to discuss rape in their meetings and begin to give a loud prohibition to sexual abuse of women rape will not stop.”
quoting himself from a letter to the editor
of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, December 30, 1983.
Part of the problem is that many men do not see wife and child beating as a men’s issue. Here I generalize, for some activist men indeed do (singer, songwriter, activist Geoff Morgan, for instance, or witness quotes above), and no sweeping statements should be made about men, women, or any group of people. Traditionally, however, men do not seem to have dealt with this issue except as an issue of the victim—a woman’s or child’s issue, or if a men’s issue, a men’s issue based on their own victimization, as in child abuse. Rarely have men confronted the issue as an issue of their own suppression of others, or of their own fears or inability to be whole. An issue of their own rage and explosiveness. We often ignore the fact that we can be violent men.
I know I have viewed this as a “women’s issue,” I know my friends have, I know that some of the concerned men I met with in Minneapolis have all ignored men’s responsibility, to greater and lesser extent, while wanting to acknowledge our “sensitivity.” In failing to acknowledge our potential for violence, we continue the oppression. It is when we deny our own anger, often at ourselves or other men, that we become most likely to blow up with rage at others, also.
But, I am not a violent man. And I do not beat or rape women. Why should I consider this my problem?
Because men are the most common perpetrators of this violence, and men ought to consider solutions that will stop other men from violating other human beings. (I speak hear of male abusers because I wish to arouse men to action to stop sanctioning this abuse with our silence—what I say may apply to women abusers as well.)
We should stop being silent and start taking responsibility, stop saying that this only effects the victims and recognize the effects throughout society and culture, stop subscribing to the patriarchal code of silence that allows the male, even requires the male, to dominate and control those around him, and start working with each other to end family and personal violence. If we want accusations like Rich’s to be untrue, (that violence and sexuality are one for men), we have to speak out and say that it is untrue for us and unacceptable in those around us. We have to act according to these words. We must disentangle them in our own psyches and lives and acts. We must, as men, face our own violence, turn our own sexuality from oppression to eroticism (not to be mistaken for pornography) and spirituality (not to be mistaken for patriarchal indoctrination), from desire for self-gratification to tenderness for the Other.
(skipping about 15 pages to coda at end of original essay)
The first step for any change in attitudes we have and perpetuate about gender, sexuality, and violence begins in the mirror. I must face up to my own capacity for abuse, my own tendency to authoritarianism: my own reluctance to feel, to trust, to be vulnerable, to love (and be loved). I must face myself in my worst aspect to create my best. If this has been, up to now, a social commentary and proposal, it is now a call to all men, and to myself, to begin the act of change within each of us. I ask no one to give up manhood. On the contrary, I ask each man reading this to embrace his own manhood, and to recognise that this manhood is not the violent, competitive, truncated beast that is so often reflected in our culture and our self-images.
I am not a storm, unleashed by nature, not a furious distemper whipping and whirling through the world. I am not corrosion, destruction, death and war. I am not powerless in the face of my actions, hopeless or helpless. Although I could be all of those things. I am not Hurricane Gilbert run amuck, nor Gilbert merely placated, worn down by feminism, politics, my mother, my lover, or my therapist. I am a man choosing to change that which I can. I have missed opportunities in the past, and these missed opportunities are scars that run deep into my psyche: I watched one man die violently where I might have made a difference had I not been silent. I experienced the sudden death of my father with an incomplete relationship because the silence between us—despite all of our words—had grown too big, was broached too late. I have attacked myself, despised myself at times, and lashed out at others.
I may be hunter, and warrior, which means I have the capacity for destructive and abusive violence, and also the capacity for sustaining power and strength. I am also lover and parent, which some may take to mean that I could control and possess a (male or female) vessel in an attempt to fill my needs, but for me means that I can form a tender, erotic, spiritual, and emotional alliance which truly satisfies. I am human, which means I have the power to repress and deny the reality of my emotions, and also that I have the power to experience, survive, and grow in the world by knowing my deepest feelings. I am parent, which means that I can continue the cycle of destruction and violence that I have inherited, and also that I can be open to growth and change. I live in the world, which means that I can strive for dominion, and also that I can strive to form a spiritual community not only with my fellow humans (male and female), but with nature itself. Change begins at home, the choices are mine.
If I do not wish to suffocate under a warm blanket of storm blown silence, I will have to own the destruction that the silence protects. If I own the destruction, I take responsibility for the violence, and then I can change. If I change, I empower myself. I can complete myself. I can choose life, spirit, love, nature. I am not, by inheritance from my father or otherwise, beast; but human being by inheritance of my mother and my father, together. And I will try to be.
“While I have yearned for leadership from persons and groups more influential than I, I also know that the burden of responsibility lies on my shoulders. Consciousness-raising doesn’t cut it! It is time to talk with my sons, brothers, and male friends and yours also. Will you join me in speaking to your male acquaintances? Can we make a difference? I think so! Let’s do it!”
Ted Bowman 1988
(This is as far as the reading went.)
I have brought this essay back for what I imagine are, to the readers of The BeZine, obvious reasons—an unrepentant “pussy-grabber” has been elected to the office of President of the United States. As a man, I renew my decades-long commitment to stand against such violence and abuse, to resist the “locker-room” excuses and all violence, but most certainly violence against women and children. One thing I take heart in, though, is that what I have witnessed at the Verses against Violence reading this year and in the past—people speaking out, women (mostly) and men resisting the violence embedded in our society and breaking silence. The outcry about the orange-man’s grabbing statement, while it did not stop him being elected, was loud and clear. In 1988, I suspect his comments would not have been a subject in the media. I suspect, but who can know for sure, that the media of that time would have shrugged their shoulders and themselves said, “locker-room talk.” In 1998… possibly not much better. Things are not where they should be, they are not where I want them to be, but at least there was a shout of “NO!”
So, let’s shake the blanket of silence off of our shoulders. Let’s do what we must, do what we can. Let’s not accept in complacency what this presidency likely will bring.
—Michael Dickel (Meta/Phor(e)/Play)