Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A MCSR Check-In: The Pa. and Co. School Shootings: Press Releases and Men's Pain

Men Can Stop Rape's occasional "Check-Ins" provide a place for Men Can Stop Rape staff to reflect on how the topics that MCSR addresses touch us personally. The opinions expressed in the "Check-Ins" are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of MCSR.

This Check-In by Pat McGann, MCSR's communications director, is about the struggles he had drafting the press release below. He wanted to write more than a press release would typically cover, especially the relationship between men's violence against women and men's pain.

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I have written good press releases before, but for the life of me I couldn't get a handle on how to write one in response to the recent acts of violence against girls and young women perpetrated by two males, one in a Colorado high school and the other in an Amish school in Pennsylvania. The initial draft was a muddled hybrid of intentions and possibilities, an op ed trying to be a press release, which made it bad on both counts.

Basically, it seems I find it hard to write a press release when I'm feeling mournful, sad, pissed off, and overwhelmed. In late September the Washington Post ran a story on the killing of three teenagers in Washington, DC within a 24-hour period, something Police Chief Charles Ramsey couldn't recall ever happening. Around the same time, there was a news story of the gang rape of a young woman in Wisconsin by two men in an alley and a third man, a cook from a restaurant, who came out the back door and joined in, taking pictures and groping her. And there was the story about the 15-year-old shooting his principal at a Wisconsin high school. Then the story about the Colorado high school. Then the story about the Pennsylvania Amish school. And in the Metro section of the Washington Post on October 6, a story about a Prince Georges County woman being murdered by her one time boyfriend after a judge denied her a request for a peace order because no threats or acts of violence had occurred.

In response to these acts violence, I wanted to write more than a press release could contain, which made writing a clear and concise piece for the press difficult. Fortunately, I had help getting our message out to the media; other staff members were able to take what I had written and give it a more definitive shape. Now that the release is out, I want to write about what I couldn't include in it.

I knew that after tragic incidents like those named earlier, the media wants to present the public with answers, and it seemed probable that none of the answers would clearly identify traditional masculinity as a culprit. But I didn't want to just stay on the surface of manhood; I wanted to burrow underneath to get at its muscle and bone. I wanted to write about how men's pain gets transformed into men's anger, because it seemed to me that some deep-seated anguish was underlying all the bullets, the ropes, the knives. We men typically aren't socialized to handle pain in healthy, constructive ways. Instead we're taught to “suck it up” and “get over it,” which might be useful strategies some of the time but not as everyday practices – especially when it comes to violence.

In many of the violent incidents I was struck by the number of men who committed suicide. At the end of the Pennsylvania and Colorado school shootings both men shot themselves, as did the murderer of the Prince Georges County woman. And supposedly the Wisconsin shooting took place because the student had been bullied by students and neither teachers nor the principal would act to stop it. In each of these instances, it seems likely to me that some deep-seated, chronic despondency was present and fueled by anger, the likely source of the violence. I don't mean to suggest that the root cause of men's violence is always despair and sadness; everyone can probably clearly point to some examples of brutal acts by men that could be traced back to something other than emotional anguish, but to overlook despondency as a possible cause some of the time misses a revolutionary opportunity.

Yes, revolutionary. I'm making what could be construed as an inflated claim, but I don't think so: men dealing with their pain in responsible, constructive, and healthy ways would make the world shudder and shake, shifting the foundations of our realities. Once the dust settled, we would be in a better place, a less violent place.

I've written about this idea before in an academic article:

Men's denial of and removal from their own emotional and bodily pain results in the denigration of the pain of the other; within the logic of the masculine field, this justifies the other's oppression. Men's awareness and acceptance of their pain, then, can potentially serve as a means to disassemble the hierarchical differential between those who are supposedly “pain-less” and strong, and those who are “pain-full” and weak. (Edited by N. Tuana, et al. “Eating Muscle in Revealing Male Bodies. Page 94.)

This is dense, theoretical language wiped clean of the ache that surges through the blood. It doesn't capture lived experience. I know because I spent years covering up emotional aches. After I married, my partner and daughter started receiving the brunt of that cover up. I didn't physically harm either of them, but I spent a lot of time at home yelling. My daughter, never one to hold back, let me know she didn't like it. My partner wasn't too crazy about it either.

So I worked on the yelling and anger in various ways, until ultimately, I found myself in a deep pit of pain that had nothing to do with the two of them and at times felt like it would consume me. It had built up over years and confronting it sometimes seemed like it would take more strength than I had. But eventually I came out on the other side. And when I did, my yelling slowed down and then diminished to a trickle.

My masculine defenses were so intact that for the longest time I couldn't give myself permission to acknowledge the pain. While women often receive encouragement – both in the form of popular culture and people they know – to deal with emotional suffering, it has yet to be normalized for men. In an October 8, 2006 Parade Magazine “Women's Health Special” article on “6 Ways To Have More Energy,” number four is “Feel to heal.” The section presents dealing with grief, resentment, and sadness as a necessary part of women's everyday lives; denying these emotional states grows the feelings' power and perpetuates their life, or in the words of Dr. Christiane Northrup, the author, “What we resists persists” (page 5). The only related Parade article I could find for men appeared in June of 2004 and focused on depression in connection with a survey on men's health. Rather than a normal part of life, depression is a medical condition that we think of as limited to persons diagnosed with it, and in fact, in the survey, 61% of the male respondents thought women were more likely to suffer from it than men. Many of the other articles on men's health in Parade cover topics like testosterone, sperm potency, physical exercise, and prostate health.

All of the above topics are important, but so is men's everyday emotional health. So when we feel violent or angry, we have to find the strength to get underneath our masculine defenses and take a look at what's there. If it is pain, we have to be willing to step into it and find healthy ways to move through it. And we have to realize we can't do it alone. We need the support of the people in our lives, men and women. And they in turn need our support.

We as men have to learn how to better deal with our pain for our own well being, for the well being of boys, and for women and girl's safety. We have to do a better job of dealing with our pain to stop the brutal acts of violence like those in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and in every community in every country every day. We have to confront our emotional life because acknowledging and dealing with our pain allows for the revolutionary possibility that we will be better able to recognize and empathize with others' pain. For all these reasons, we have to find the strength to sometimes say to ourselves and others, “It hurts.”

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