Friday, December 3, 2010

Silence, Complicity, & Resistance

As a teacher, I saw the phenomenon all too often: bullies were emboldened by the silence of the mass of students who knew what was happening, but did nothing.

And I experienced the same sense of silence when I was in middle and high school myself: seeing someone else hurt--whether physically or emotionally--at the hands of a bully (almost always a male student), I remained quiet and lived to regret my choice to not act or speak.

Where does bystanderism get its pulse? How has it become so normalized for most of us to think to ourselves, Well, I'm not doing it, so it's not my problem...

I used to show a powerful documentary in my classes called Tough Guise. Jackson Katz, an anti-violence educator and author of the book The Macho Paradox, explores the message of media towards men. His thesis is that men are socialized into thinking that violence and toughness is how men become men.

Katz connected media images of men with guns, who embody toughness, and real-life domestic abuse, other violence, and homophobic and misogynist perceptions and beliefs.

And Katz is spot-on. Indeed, when I think about one of my all-time favorite men, Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and compare him with images of men shown in today's media, I fear for boys everywhere.

Consider what Atticus tells his children: "I wanted you to see what real courage was all about, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

Atticus explains courage as, essentially, perseverance in striving towards what is just and kind and good within society. Indeed, Atticus defends a black man on trial in the deep south, at a time when everyone else in town would prefer to unlawfully kill this man, or at the very least, choose silence over justice.

But compare the words of Atticus to those that served as the byline for Hollywood's newest Rambo film release. The words are etched in my mind, even though I saw them three years ago underneath the movie title. In italic font, Rambo's slogan read: Heroes don't die; they just reload.

Even rewriting the words, my stomach turns and I feel physically ill.

This is the message boys receive is from fake masculine figures like Rambo--men who would prefer violence and aggression to the real courage of which Atticus Finch speaks.

It is time for men to resist and protest this message of gendered violence and masochism. Men are not inherently more aggressive, violent, or prone to gun-use than anyone else. However, our culture has normalized masculine violence to such an extent that we no longer see slogans like the one for the newest Rambo film and think, something is seriously wrong.

Instead, we might say to ourselves, boys will be boys.

The time for boys being boys is over.

Instead, it is high time for boys and men to start being human beings--to act with the kind of courage which Atticus Finch demonstrates for his children.

After all, anyone can fire a gun. Such an act takes no real courage, no real strength of spirit. Anyone can reload.

It takes something much more noble to practice the hard art of peace, to do the gritty work of social change, to persevere along the path of justice and love and transformation.

We can begin to change our culture--and the expectations of masculinity eschewed by it so frequently--by questioning and protesting what the media so often delivers, and what boys and men soak up and recapitulate in their schools and societies. Instead, we can all start to practice the art of not remaining silent, not agreeing to complicity.