Men’s Silence about Men’s Violence

The following is a statement given at the Purple Tie Day press conference held at the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut on October 26, 2010. The event was sponsored by the Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence as a way to call on men to step forward and speak out against men’s violence against women.

As a young sociologist teaching at Wesleyan University in the late 1970s, I became involved in the work against men’s violence against women after reading Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking study of sexual violence, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. The experience of reading that book was so disturbing, so alarming that I felt I had to not only reach an understanding of how such madness could be possible, but also to do something about it. I began by volunteering at the Rape Crisis Service at the Hartford YWCA. In the years that followed, I authored research on violence, testified before legislative committees, consulted with the National Center for the Prevention of Rape and the Connecticut Commissioner of Public Health, and served on the board of the Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence.

Through all of this I came to realize that violence is above all an instrument of control, and that men’s violence against women arises from an obsession with control coupled with a sense of entitlement in relation to women—that men have a right to control them and women a duty to allow it.

The masculine obsession with control is not a personality disorder, nor is it unique to men who do violence against women. It comes from living in a culture that measures the manhood of every man by his capacity for control. This can take many forms—whether it’s dominating a conversation or running a machine or commanding a piece of ground or a classroom or a man’s own emotions and his body—it doesn’t really matter so long as he is able to create and sustain the impression that he is the sort of man who is always in control.

The capacity for control is a cultural standard against which all men are measured and judged, especially by other men, who authorize their standing as ‘real men’ among men, a status that sets them apart from and above women who are presumed to lack a manly capacity for control, especially over their emotions. Men are presumed to be superior to women because of men’s supposed ability always to be in control—to be tough, logical, dispassionate, objective, and decisive; to be in charge of themselves and whatever situation they’re in; to always be right, to never quit, give in, back down, accept defeat, admit a mistake, or in any other way be vulnerable. And, if necessary, to be violent.

Men are encouraged to look to other men not only to affirm their standing as real men, but also for support of their right to assert control over women, in all the forms this can take, including violence.

When men are silent on this issue, whether they know it or like it or not, they are in effect giving their consent. It is this—along with a shared investment in the cultural ideal of masculine control – that connects all men to the violence that only some men do. Silence is the voice of complicity and the only alternative is to break the silence and to speak out not only against acts of violence, but the masculine obsession with control that makes it inevitable. Men’s silence is a profoundly moral issue, and as William James pointed out, when it comes to profound moral issues, there is no such thing as neutrality. Or, as Edmund Burke put it, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Men’s silence about men’s violence is not what it seems. It is not empty. Silence speaks.  And men’s silence on this issue speaks a powerful message. And so we must ask ourselves—as sons, as brothers, as fathers, as grandfathers, as men—are we willing to let silence stand as our response to this country’s devastating and continuing epidemic of men’s violence against women?

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Similar essays and more can be found at Allan’s blog, “Unraveling the Knot.” To visit, click here.

For more on this topic, see Allan’s book,The Gender Knot.

Copyright © 2013 by Allan G. Johnson. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson, www.agjohnson.com, and this copyright notice.

 

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