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Beliefs are powerful, and often dangerous things.
We absorb some beliefs along with our mother’s milk in the first years of life; they provide the conceptual backbone to what we think of as our culture. In later life, we may come to question some or all of them, but to begin with, we just assume they are true.
Other beliefs take root in us when we’re older—perhaps because they match some unconscious expectation or need that we have. Like a tenacious weed, it seems that when a belief finds a home in us, no matter how ridiculous or extreme it may look to others, we’re programmed to hold on to it.
Most of us are carrying around unexamined beliefs about other people. All too often these negative stereotypes are not based on any kind of objective reality, but in some distorted way, they help us feel better about ourselves.
Maybe it has to do with the primal human need to belong to a tribe or be part of a group, and demeaning “outsiders” is a way for us to strengthen our sense of shared identity and bolster our self-esteem. All of the world’s worst “-isms” fall into this category.
One of the more depressing results of the COVID-19 lockdown period in many other parts of the world has been the sharp increase in calls made to the police by women suffering domestic abuse. On top of that, in the past couple of weeks there have been several depressing news stories in the United Kingdom describing vicious, and in some cases fatal, attacks on women by men.
Nothing new here, as can be attested by the #MeToo movement and many other women’s actions which are trying to wake us all up to the scale of the problem. But when women friends told me that all of them had, at some point, been attacked at least once by a man or multiple men, I still found this shocking.
I’ve spent some time working with domestic abuse perpetrators, and one factor that seemed common to all of them was a set of distorted beliefs about women; beliefs that to most readers would seem outlandish and archaic, but which these men cling on to because it provides a justifying backdrop for their actions—actions which might otherwise seem shameful even to them.
In these men’s minds, they’re not “bad” because they’ve done nothing wrong. They believe that women are meant to serve men—sexually, domestically, and in every other way. And if they fail to do so they should be punished. They believe that women are essentially inferior to men and so deserve this fate—and that a “real” man must be the master of his household who wields power over everyone in it.
These damaging beliefs have taken root in the need for a man to be in control—which is no doubt spawned by a network of factors which I think is underpinned by a man’s most potent fear that he is weak and less of a man than he should be.
This is the paradox of violence; it masquerades as strength, but it stems from insecurity. A violent man always has something to prove and will often pick the most vulnerable people he can find to be sure he gets the reassurance he needs. Negative beliefs in relation to women are part of a package of assumptions about what it means to be a man—which is still ingrained in our culture, although more men are questioning and refusing to accept them.
Men who, for whatever reason, still hold on to these obsolete beliefs tend to connect and communicate with others who see the world in the same way because this is comfortable and reassuring. It’s painful and anxiety-provoking to have our beliefs challenged or questioned—which may explain why people promoting and working for women’s equality encounter anger and aggression from some men even though a more equal world would bring them many benefits too.
My response to men—who hold damaging beliefs about themselves and women—is a mixture of compassion and boundaries: compassion for how tragically lonely and isolating it must be to have such a lack of mutual love and respect for their lives. And wanting to help them escape that protective man-box and have the courage to give and receive love, combined with a commitment to affirming that sexist and abusive attitudes and behaviours are unacceptable and can never be justified.
I’ve always felt a certain amount of shame in learning about the continuing high levels of gender-based violence, and a sense of responsibility to do what I can to confront and eliminate it.
I’m really hoping that government will also take greater responsibility for providing support for both perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence and do whatever is needed—including more research into its causes, in order to end this scourge of gender-based violence and domestic abuse (just as they are doing with the Covid virus).
Meanwhile, it might be our most important task as “good men” to expose the weakness of men who attack women.
And guide them to understand that being strong means strong enough to never need power over anyone—especially the women and children who want to trust and love us for being the men who, I like to think, we all want to be at heart.