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‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

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