Recently I was subjected to a vitriolic, abusive online tirade from a close male relative. It was prompted by a disagreement over a political article I had shared. This totally unprovoked and deeply personal attack was launched in a very public forum. It was designed solely to belittle and silence me and it completely ignored the substance of the particular point I had shared. I won’t go into the specifics of the abuse itself, suffice to say that it was derogatory and explicit. In thinking about this incident in the few days since, I’ve been reflecting on what it might mean or represent for the concept of masculinity. In particular what it means for my position as a teacher and for my students. I believe that this interaction is a clear manifestation of the problems inherent in certain forms of masculinity.
This toxic masculinity is something we cannot accept or tolerate for ourselves and especially not for our students. While I realise that this term is an emotionally and politically charged one, I want you to think about the context I describe above. This man is someone who has known me literally my entire life, someone I had admired growing up. Yet he still felt entirely comfortable abusing and attacking me based on a small disagreement. He did not seek to discuss the point or to provide evidence to convince me. He sought only to abuse me into silence, under the assumption that to be aggressive and to belittle is to show your strength. To attack, to beat me down, was his only purpose. Imagine how that behaviour could be elevated against a stranger. This is, at least in my mind, almost the very embodiment of toxic male aggression.
In saying that, I am well aware that this was a relatively light form of abuse. Those from minority groups or feminists for example, can suffer constant online trolling, death threats and more. This was not that, but still an example of how so many men seem to think that it is their right to dominate. That it is their right to break down those they disagree with or are threatened by. I care very deeply about teaching all of my students how to be respectful to people. But particularly important to me is the role I can play as a model for a different kind of masculinity. A masculinity that does not rely on anger, fear or abuse but rather a masculinity that is built on kindness, compassion and respect.
We need to fight this kind of behaviour. In being attacked in that way, I was being dehumanised. A disagreement about an idea led them to attempt to invalidate my lived experience and to attack the very nature of who I was. That is what abuse like this seeks to do: to break someone down and silence them by taking away their humanity. We simply cannot accept this as something that our children are taught is the right way to treat people. To disagree with someone is perfectly natural and healthy. Differences between people and ideas are an important driver of culture and societal change. But when that difference is handled by men with abuse and demeaning behaviour against their opponent, we all lose. That person loses their individual humanity. As a collective, if we stand by, we eventually lose our humanity as well. Even the abuser loses their humanity. They’re acting from a place of fear, anger and quite possibly sadness. They are ostracising themselves and exacerbating their problems. That is not something I want for any of my students.
As teachers its is obvious that we cannot accept this. So what do we do? I absolutely do not claim to know the answer to this question. The Respectful Relationships program in Victoria is an important step. Being a vocal supporter and advocate for the myriad other programs in wider society is also important. Showing solidarity with the #metoo and Time’s Up movements are vital moves in the right direction. We have to be role models for how we want men to treat the people around them. We must teach young people that they do not have to tolerate vitriolic tirades. We will teach them that they do not have to be silenced by abuse. That to be a “real man” is not synonymous with anger, power and fear. Kindness has always been, and always will be, a virtue.
The 20th century poet Khalil Gibran wrote:
Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.
Our students need this sentiment from us now more than ever. I don’t have many of the answers to this problem. But I do have one suggestion for a strategy we can give to our students: we make like Selena.
We will kill the toxic male with kindness.