i’m back at Yale, preparing for more writing time, but cannot help reflecting on an extra-ordinary teaching experience last week. For the first time in two decades I am teaching undergraduates again. I was somewhat nervous, but it has been very very satisfying. I taught a module on our new Diploma in Sustainable Development. The class comprises about 25 young people, just completed high school. The large majority are women and nearly all are black. On the first day I decided to arrive without a course outline. I told them my life story and then asked what they would like to learn from me. I asked them to introduce themselves, and to include a question they bring to the course. I then clustered these questions into themes and these became the themes for the course. We then brainstormed how they would like to learn about all this. One of the themes was sexuality, femininism and masculinity. When the day arrived for this session on sexuality, I asked them to watch two talks overnight before the session – one by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie on ‘why we should all be feminists’ and another by a black American male activist called Tony Porter who organises movements of young men to reinvent what masculinity means. I opened the morning session by asking them to discuss in small groups what struck them about these two talks. The question I asked them to consider was: Is it possible for men to be feminists? Before getting feedback, I then asked them all to get up and stand to one side of the classroom. I then posed a series of questions, asking them to vote with their feet. Although I cant recall exactly what I asked them, they were questions such as: ‘Those who think men can be feminists, move to one side of the classroom and those that don’t, stay where you are – and the undecided, can situate themselves anywhere in-between’. Then I asked: ‘Those who think men hate women, move to one side …. etc’. And so on….. . The ones I recall thinking of: ‘Those who think women are more oppressed and exploited than men…. .’ ‘Those who think it is harder for a women to succeed than men…..’ ‘Those who think that men can actually change so that they are less misogynistic and sexist…..’ ‘Those who think black women face more challenges than white women ….. ‘ ‘Those who think ….. etc’. This worked very well, because for younger people expressing themselves with their bodies and actions is so much more expressive and energising. We then sat down, and got feedback from their group discussions. Although most deviated from the question, there was a generally positive view that men could be feminists. However, underneath, as I pushed harder, it became clear that the men in particular (only 3 of them) did not fully understand what this meant. Nor were the women able to express very clearly what it is about men that they want to see change. There was a lot of talk about how boys are told growing up that they should not express their feelings and what that has done to them as men. As one women put it: ‘men are told they have to be men’, and she said it in a way that made it clear that she did not approve of the outcome. So my question to the class was: ‘Well, if you don’t want them to be brought up to be men, what should they be brought up to be – after all, they are men?’ This is where the talk by Tony Porter was so useful – he provided basic concepts for how to re-invent what it means to be men. With this discussion as background, I then read out from a text a summary of all the global statistics that reflect the extent of patriarchal oppression and how embedded we are in a misogynistic culture: not only the usual economic numbers about unpaid work, wage differentials, etc, but also how often rapists are known to the women who get raped, how widespread and under-reported domestic violence really is, the extent of human trafficking (predominantly women), the difference in sentences meted out to those who beat up boys versus those who beat up girls, etc. Deeply shocking stuff. This sunk deep, and I let the silence hang. I then expressed my overall conclusion: I argued that the most dangerous species ever to walk the earth in 4 billion years of evolution is the heterosexual male. Yes, like all humans of all sexual persuasions and all cultural backgrounds, heterosexual males possess amazing capabilities for imagining the worlds we want to live in and organising ourselves in large numbers – these being the two fundamental features of the species we call homo sapiens. With these capabilities extra-ordinary things have been achieved. However, as we contemplate the distinct possibility that in 50 years life as we know it will no longer be possible because of fundamental geophysical changes instigated by human actions over the past 250 years, and as we contemplate the past and present history of colonial and non-colonial oppression and exploitation of particular categories of humans by other humans, then the one species that stands out as being the most destructive of all is the heterosexual male. He is responsible for the industrial systems that are destroying the planet, and the socio-economic and patriarchal systems that destroy the lives of millions of people. So this raises questions about what do we really know about this heterosexual male. What makes him tick? To open up this discussion I took a risky decision to read them a piece of writing by someone who did an online course on Sacred Masculinity that I did some years ago. I have posted this before on my blog and it can be accessed here. Before reading this out, I prepared them – I said it may be upsetting, and I asked them to consciously shield themselves via a hand movement across their bodies symbolizing the donning of a shield – a gesture we use in the men’s movement when one man has what we call a “charge” with another. I then slowly read the writing entitled Awakening the Sleeping Giant in All Men. This triggered strong reactions, with many saying ‘we know all this, but we never say it’ – one young man who has experienced gang culture was deeply moved, saying this is what men (and I read this to mean heterosexual men) are. Of course, quite a few said these are not just what men feel – women also have these feelings. True, but men have power, women don’t – having power over women, the less powerful and nature, men express their destructiveness in ways others who have less power cannot. But as suggested by the reading, for the heterosexual male – and, indeed, all humans – there is a transformative healing power in the act of loving. We explored this further, but I also made it clear that the issue is not simply a psycho-sociological challenge. It is also a socio-structural challenge because patriarchal and misogynistic power has been institutionalized and now legitimized by a violent pornographic culture that is having a particularly pernicious impact on boys and men in the age of high-speed digital imagery. The culture versus biological debate is, of course, pertinent here – I argued it is not one or the other. When it comes to puberty, boys are hit by a tsunami of testosterone no-one warns them about – in this drug-induced state, they get inserted into a digitized pornographic culture that creates neural pathways in their brains that are often antithetical to what meaningful real-life sexual relations are all about. This is where biology and culture fuse into a deadly cocktail whose implications very few are currently contemplating. This took us into a rich discussion that captivated them. To finish on a hopeful note, though, I read out a poem by the founder of the Mankind Project called The New Macho.
He cleans up after himself.
He cleans up the planet.
He is a role model for young men.
He is rigorously honest and fiercely optimistic.
He holds himself accountable.
He knows what he feels.
He knows how to cry and he lets it go.
He knows how to rage without hurting others.
He knows how to fear and how to keep moving.
He seeks self-mastery.
He’s let go of childish shame.
He feels guilty when he’s done something wrong.
He is kind to men, kind to women, kind to children.
He teaches others how to be kind.
He says he’s sorry.
He stopped blaming women or his parents or men for his pain years ago.
He stopped letting his defenses ruin his relationships.
He stopped letting his penis run his life.
He has enough self respect to tell the truth.
He creates intimacy and trust with his actions.
He has men that he trusts and that he turns to for support.
He knows how to roll with it.
He knows how to make it happen.
He is disciplined when he needs to be.
He is flexible when he needs to be.
He knows how to listen from the core of his being.
He’s not afraid to get dirty.
He’s ready to confront his own limitations.
He has high expectations for himself and for those he connects with.
He looks for ways to serve others.
He knows he is an individual.
He knows that we are all one.
He knows he is an animal and a part of nature.
He knows his spirit and his connection to something greater.
He knows future generations are watching his actions.
He builds communities where people are respected and valued.
He takes responsibility for himself.
In times of need, he will be his brother’s keeper.
He knows his higher purpose.
He loves with fierceness.
He laughs with abandon, because he gets the joke.