International Conference on Masculinities: Themes and Thoughts

13 Mar

I’m writing this on the flight back from the International Conference on Masculinities in New York, which was an inspiring and energizing experience. It’s been a while since I wrote for Masculinities101, and having a chance to really engage with other people who are deeply involved in engaging men to reduce gendered inequalities got me motivated to write more. At the same time, the conference was definitely geared towards people who are connected to major organizations or institutions, so I wanted to take the opportunity to bring some of the themes from the conference out to folks who were not able to attend or might do their work in a different way. These are, of course, just the themes that stuck out to me, and some of them interact and overlap in complex ways that I won’t detail, but I wanted to provide a space where folks who were not at the conference could think about and discuss them as well.

Accountability – The conference was opened with a panel discussion entitled “Accountability in Activism and Research,” and the theme came up in nearly every conversation I heard thereafterfire. Accountability generally expresses the idea of doing anti-sexist work in a way that is responsible and justifiable, making sure to not reproduce systems of inequality or reinforce masculine privilege. Much of the discussion at the conference was asking what this really means, how it is done, and what it looks like. For example, if you are a man giving presentations to other men or boys in order to reduce gendered inequalities, who are you accountable to: some general sense of egalitarian ethics and behavior? the specific men and boys in your audiences? the people or institutions who fund your work? women or the feminist movement? if you’re accountable to women, which ones (since women often disagree about how to do this work)?

Intersectionality – Based in the lives and thoughts of Black women, intersectionality is the idea that axes of oppression like race, gender, class, and sexuality overlap, interact, and are experienced simultaneously. The classic example is that Black women experience sexism differently than white women do, and experience racism differently than Black men do. At the conference it was clear that it is also important to think about how these ideas apply to men if we want to work with them effectively. Jonathan Grove spoke about trying to engage impoverished white men in the Appalachian region, where generations of poverty and the history of class-based oppression make conversations about men’s power seem out of touch and mark one as an outsider to be distrusted. Gaurav Jashnani discussed how one classic example of masculine privilege, feeling of safe walking alone at night, does not match the experiences of Black men who have to fear police brutality, or queer men who reasonably fear heterosexist or cissexual violence. How do we have conversations that recognizing and make space for these men’s experiences of violence and marginalization while still holding them accountable for their behaviors that uphold gender inequality?

Compassionate Critique – One partial answer to that question is through the development of compassionate critique – this is my phrase, but the idea came up frequently throughout the conference, in different terms. Finding ways for men to open up about their own lives, discuss their pain and vulnerability, and feel listened to and recognized is an important first step in getting them to engage and change their beliefs and behaviors. As Harry Brod put it, “We never talk people into changing, we listen them into changing.” The idea of compassionate critique also came up in other ways, such as discussions of how to hold each other accountable, and how to respond to Men’s Rights Activists (or as Todd Minerson of the White Ribbon Campaign encouraged us to call them, Men’s Power Activists). When asked about handling these angry anti-feminist men, Michael Kaufman pointed out that while some are ideologues who are unlikely to ever change, many are men with real wounds and legitimate grievances, but who misdirect their feelings, blaming women or a misguided notion of feminism because they have not been provided with any other way of making sense of their lives. The challenges here include distinguishing the ideologues from the genuinely hurting, keeping systemic inequalities and social power in view, and figuring out how to make the crucial transition from discussing men’s pain to feminist analyses of gender and power.

Evaluation – A particularly timely concern that recurred throughout the conference was the evaluation of men’s engagement programs. Manu Sareen, Denmark’s Minister for Equality, was able to give statistics about the impressive reduction of domestic violence in that country over the last decade as evidence that some of their programs are having the desired effects. Most folks, however, are struggling to meaningfully evaluate the effectiveness of their programs. Evaluation is crucial for gauging effectiveness, understanding challenges, improving programs, and securing funding, so it is clearly a major concern. Kate Bojin and Humberto Carolo discussed their work with the White Ribbon Campaign on crafting an evaluation model specific enough to be helpful but flexible enough to be used across Canada and possibly internationally as well. Another panel was devoted to collaborations between practitioners and researchers: Erin Casey spoke about her work with Mobilizing Men for Violence Prevention, a research network that created a sharable online tool for evaluating single events, and Cliff Leek and Rus Funk both discussed how funders often desire or require evaluations but rarely fund them or provide the expertise necessary to do them well. Most of the discussion was on the challenges and shortcomings in evaluating men’s engagement projects; questions about how to make sure that the evaluation tools themselves did not reinforce inequality also came up.

Collaboration – Collaborations between practitioners and researchers illustrate both the difficulties and the importance of collaborations more generally. In a very interesting presentation, Markus Theunert reformulated Michael Messner’s terrain of masculinity politics diagram (referenced previously in this blog) to create a three-part model for men’s engagement organizations. He argues that to be most effective, we need to simultaneously address men’s experiences of pain or harm, their unequal power and privilege, and the differences between men. This last part, he argues, involves intentionally making collaborations with groups that organize around other issues that impact men’s lives, from fatherhood to racial justice. Collaborations with women and women’s groups are clearly also important. Of course, collaborations also magnify and multiply the concerns of accountability; if you collaborate with a group, how are you accountable to them? Do you become accountable for their actions if they do something problematic? Are there strategic possibilities for collaborations with groups that might otherwise function to protect male privilege and enforce domination, like sports teams or the military?

Expanding Constituencies: Engaging men is clearly about expanding the constituency of feminism, getting more men involved in advocacy around issues previously seen as “women’s concerns”. However, it is coming to also mean reaching new groups of men who have not previously been included (which brings back the idea of intersectionality), as well as getting men who aren’t directly involved in our organizations to change their beliefs and behaviors around gender. I was particularly excited to hear about new men’s engagement projects beginning in Turkey, Tanzania, North Africa, and Arab countries, as well as hearing from Sarah Scanlon, who is manager of a Canadian project on gendered bullying that specifically aims to reach boys in grades 7-10. But, does expanding breadth mean losing depth?

I have no doubt that the conference contributed to increasing and improving men’s anti-sexist engagements around the world. Some of these improvements were logistical – meeting people, planning future projects, sharing information, learning to be better. Some, though, were conceptual, and these are just as important. These were the themes I saw in the concepts being discussed, along with some of my own thoughts and questions. How do these themes show up in your work? How might considering them improve what you’re doing?


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