There is a report making headlines across our country about the details of reported cases of family violence. Portraying a tragic set of circumstances in a “developed” country,” where the levels of poverty and hunger and homelessness and military violence are, compared to many other less favoured countries, significantly lower, the report asks out loud the question of what are the roots, motives and causes of this pattern.
Of course, by far the majority of the perpetrators of this family violence is perpetrated by Canadian men and so any analysis that attempts to discern the roots and causes of this violence has to look at the failure among men to deal with their volcanic emotions, their hatreds, their failure to command the tools and skills of negotiation, mediation, even including the capacity to first believe that there are options and there are others who can and will help before the violence is committed.
“Dealing with emotions” is a cliché that is so detested by so many men that it is not an exaggeration to suggest many men simply consider such an observation or recommendation to be insulting and to ask men to be more like women, something many men find revolting. This kind of detachment, disinterest and even contempt for “emotions” is evident in little scenarios like the Honda Civic television commercial in which the young black man is still resisting a mother’s hug. (Capturing the nature of the culture is one of the ways for big car companies to secure the attention and the “like” of the target audience.)
This “emotions” question, or issue, starts very early in a baby boy’s life. From an early age, we know that mothers spend fewer seconds in face-to-face embrace with their sons than with their daughters, unconsciously connecting at least differently, if not more negatively, with their sons than their daughters.
Research revels that we generally top touching boys when they reach the age of 8, and we teach them to reject access to feelings, emotions and emotional vocabulary because these are deemed “too feminine.” So they end up mostly being able to express themselves through sex, violence, sports or work. (Dr. Joe Kort, Top Ten Myths of Male Sexuality, in The Good Men Project, October 20, 2016)
For men to begin to “deal with their emotions,” they (we) first have to come to the point of resistance, the point at which they recognize, accept and acknowledge that their emotions are an integral component of our nature just as they are for women.
(The “existential moment” is that moment when an individual comes to the conscious awareness of the meaningless of his/her own existence and thereby requires him/her to take responsibility for the meaning of that life.) Similarly, although seemingly less momentous, the moment of “resistance” to the existence of and the significance of a man’s emotions holds the potential to open our minds to another gift, a signal system that is like an early warning system built into our hard wiring. Rather than consider emotions to be “feminine” or “girly” or something to be avoided because to acknowledge their importance is to surrender one’s masculinity, men could begin to see those emotions as an important arrow in their quiver in orienting them (us) to the reality they are experiencing. Just like the points on a compass men use when they are wandering through the bush in search of game like deer or moose, our emotions are signals that detect the imprints on our psyche coming from the environment. And those emotions point ‘north’ for a cold feeling, ‘south’ for a feeling of heat, ‘east’ or ‘west’ for a less intense but perhaps even more interesting experience worthy of additional investigation. And there are at least as many different emotions in both men and women as there are points on the compass. Instead of using the words from the directions on the compass, people tend to use more conventional words that do not have the exclusivity of a technical instrument. For all people (men and women) know instantly when they experience a sense of the coldness of a situation or another person, or the warmth of the situation or other person….and these experiences are indicative of our “feelings” about that person or situation. This sounds so obvious that is hardly needs to be uttered. However, perhaps the compass could help men to consider an exploration and acceptance and then an appreciation of the kinds of emotions we are experiencing without finding the experience either threatening or emasculating. (Warning: men do have more emotions than “hot” signifying anger or arousal and “cold” signifying rejection, frustration, dismissal and avoidance. We also feel dozens, if not hundreds, of nuances between the extremes, and it is this middle ground that needs to be identified, accepted and explored as more moderate, more nuanced and more complex and therefore potentially more interesting.)
There is a strong myth among both men and women that men experience only hot (anger or sexual arousal) or cold (avoidance, rejection) emotions. And that myth is both a denial of reality and a sabotage of masculinity and often leads to such common and detestable epithets like “all men are jerks” or “all men want only one thing” or “all men are little boys and will never grow up” that are so often blurted out in anger, frustration and rejection of men by women, and then they become an accepted depiction of men in too many situations.
Nevertheless, while pointing men to the sensibility and the sensitivity that are involved in “dealing with their emotions” there is the continuing and persistent threat that many men will either ignore the invitation of pieces like this, or more dangerously, outright throw out any suggestion of a new way of perceiving their emotions.
And, if the patterns of history are anything on which to base an estimate of the future, the report about the incidents of family violence, at least of the documented and therefore reported incidents, will only indicate a growth in those numbers, and for many, they are already astounding and very tragic.
Every day, just over 230 Canadians are reported as victims of family violence.
· In 2014, 57,835 girls and women were victims of family violence, accounting for seven out of every 10 reported cases.
· Every four days a woman is killed by a family member.
· Population surveys tell us that a third of Canadians, that is 9 million people, have reported experiencing abuse before they were 15 years old.
· About 760,000 Canadians reported experiencing unhealthy spousal conflict, abuse or violence in the last five years.
· In 2014, Indigenous people were murdered at a rate six times higher than non-Indigenous Canadians, with Indigenous women being three times more likely to report spousal abuse than nonindigenous women.
· Every day, eight seniors are victims of family violence. (CBC, October 21, 2016)
There will be the inevitable public outcry for men to change their ways, to refuse to use violence to “express” themselves and to get their needs met. And that outcry will undoubtedly focus on the need for men to learn how to “articulate” their emotions in words. “I feel” statements will be proposed as the starting point of that change. “I feel” statements are considered by the therapeutic community as a place where all men and women can begin to “own” their emotions. However, many men, especially men who have already been punished for their violent expression of their very strong feelings, will already have deeply imprinted messages that tell them “your feelings are too dangerous and too threatening to be expressed” and the punishment you have received, (inside and outside the legal system) is to separate you from the violence you have inflicted, and make you think about your ‘crime’. Too often the expression of strong emotions leads to a crossing of boundaries: ethical boundaries, social boundaries and criminal boundaries. And for those men, numbering in the millions, who have crossed those boundaries, the retracing of their steps, through shame, guilt, embarrassment and loss and potentially to healing and self-acceptance will be long and hard. For others not yet caught in the web of the entanglements of their emotional needs, they will have the opportunity at least to consider how they might approach the issue of how to express their feelings.
Talking about frustrations, disappointments and losses with a good friend could be a good place to begin. Finding and nurturing such a friend will obviously precede such “man talk”. Starting with the mind set that one is never alone, and that there are always other options than the one that jumps into mind, of pounding the “crap” out of someone who does not agree with or comply with an expressed wish, need or aspiration, could replace the instant “resort” to physical anger. Recognizing, too, that often the anger a man feels is not directed at another person but, perhaps unconsciously at himself, is another “reality check” to have with himself. Not becoming aware of the mis-directed nature of his anger, (at another rather than himself) can point him in the wrong direction. And of course, the consequents of such an act are just as indefensible as an act in which the target of the anger is precisely the one who has “made me so mad”.
At the base of violence too is the unmentioned and often unacknowledged self-loathing, lack of respect and self-acceptance that has already failed the man. Having experienced so little “approval” and “respect” and “affirmation” in his early life, there is a central core of self-talk, like a repeating audio loop that replays itself over and over in his head, “you are no good”… “you are nothing” … “you are just like you father, a no good”….. “you will never amount to anything”...or any of the other versions of this condemnation. The repercussions of such “jabs” especially those administered by an insensitive mother or father will be heard long after puberty has come and gone, and long after the offending parent is dead. Too often the mother is unconsciously giving vent to a contempt for men (misandry) the origins of which she has not even begun to unpack. The father, on the other hand, is often repeating a “brand” of parenting (hard nosed and hard assed) just like the kind of parenting he experienced from his father, or even his grandfather.
Clearly, anyone who thinks one’s complete biography is not essential to a comprehensive understanding of the violence evidenced by this, and other, reports is living in la-la-land. Furthermore, most public systems, including our medical system, our social service agencies like Family and Children’s Services, and our courts operate without a full reporting, study, reflection and ethical consideration of the biographical details of our patients, clients and our criminals. For various reasons, among them the prominence of budgetary restrictions, these professional agents are dealing with “collations” of numbers of types, diagnostic labels and deterministic, behaviouristic “treatments” meted out with impunity and without detailed and compassionate reflection by groups of professional peers. However, here as in so many other situations, band-aids of classical conditioning, behavioural therapy, medications, and incarcerations are not the principal answer, if we are really serious about how much violence is being experienced and reported. Short-term fixes, of the kind that can be easily parametered by budget allocations, staffing insurgencies (like the current infusion of support in Northern Saskatchewan where four girls under the age of fifteen have taken their lives in the last two weeks), and political headlines are not going to work.
And the conventional cultural meme of short-term heroic measures, to satisfy the short-term, narcissistic needs of the decision-makers, and not the needs of the perpetrators or the victims of family violence will continue to generate short-term headlines and self-congratulatory celebrations without actually making a dent in the size, the scope or the reduction of the problem. Academic theses too will concentrate on theories of sociology and of traditional family service therapy, much of it generated by documents like the DSM-5 (or is it 6 or 7?) or on the traditional approaches of criminology, incarceration and segregation and “time to think” about the harm that “YOU” committed, and the injustice that YOU committed against these victims.
The life and importance of the original victim, (the perpetrator) however, will continue to be the missing “x” factor in the operational equation. His life story, and the normal quotient of respect and support and approval needed for a normal child and adolescent development will be missing from the myriad of interventions on behalf of the society. And the public will deem itself to have exercised its responsibility to those victims and those perpetrators, when in fact, the public purse will have perpetuated and even protracted the issue into the next centuries.