Men, We Need to Talk About Violence

I have delayed this article, significantly, for the very simple reason that women’s voices deserved to be prioritised over my own, and other men’s, voices at that time. This, though, is an article I’ve always had in the back of my mind and one that I’ve never released for fear of the Wicked Problem effect (there should be an article about that, too.)

I also don’t want to be accused of what-aboutism. What I am about to discuss is not intended, in any way, to dismiss or demean the experiences women have with violence, harassment or assault by men.

Unfortunately it is a simple heuristic that “two houses both alike in dignity” to steal a line from Shakespeare, will find ways to do as the Capulets and Montagues did in those circumstances, fight, no matter how stupid the fight or how much they ultimately agree with one another.

This is one thing I fear is happening in the discourse about violence, against women specifically, and masculinised violence in general.  

But the recent attack on Professor Chris Whitty when he was just going about his business in the park makes this article all the more imperative. I have never, in my life, known an atmosphere of daily life like the one I see today. I have lived in spaces where such an atmosphere pervaded but they were the most spit-and-sawdust spaces you could imagine. These were situations and neighbourhoods where violence is an everyday reality. This used to be restricted to the worst neighbourhoods. Now it pervades across towns, cities and even countryside villages. An undercurrent, and looming threat, that someone may confront you, violently, at any minute.

I may write eloquently, I may seem intelligent, but for all of that I was born in the crucible of violence, a working-class household in a rundown seaside town where beating shit out of each other was often an act of fun. I have seen violence, been violent and had violence inflicted upon me. For people of my walk of life violence is a seeming inevitability.

However these days it seems different, it seems bolder and more widespread. The only time I have heard of when such an undercurrent of threat existed was during the Thatcher years, but at that time real harm was being done and people were really angry. Industry was being decimated, unemployment, particularly in the young and restless, at an all-time high, the violent atmosphere spilled into protest against an ignorant, out of touch, oppressive state machine. Now, though, the violence is seemingly for the oppressive state machine.

This is not a violence of righteous defence of a person’s right to exist, have a job, have a family etc. It’s a violence of righteous aggression against those arguing for fair treatment. It is against those who are fighting for their right to exist, have a job, a family etc. This is violence against the poor, against the religious, against the black, against the Asian, against the gay, against the trans – This is violence against anything unwhite British and it’s not coming from nowhere.

This article was initially written as a response to the Sarah Everard case. Since then, though, it has become clear the problem is so much more than masculinised violence which is what this article was about. Now, however, I am editing and adding. I also want to highlight how people specifically incite masculinised violence for their own agendas.

Cui bono – A Latin phrase meaning “to whom is it a benefit?”

As with the miner’s strikes, violence does not come from nowhere and it serves a purpose. But whose purpose? In those cases the police forces were committing acts of violence for the benefit of the state whilst the miners, if they acted violently, were doing so to protect their livelihoods.

So what about the violence of today? To whom is it a benefit?

Some violence is clearly a benefit to the perpetrators, drug and gang related violence is about protection of one’s own interests. Whilst criminal empires can be built, organised criminal violence will occur. But there is a violence, a political violence, being stirred directly by Number 10 Downing Street, by the Prime Minister himself, that is an attack on liberty and diversity of identity.

People feel empowered to attack figures like Prof. Chris Whitty because they are being led to believe they are ‘right’, that there is some kind of conspiracy to lock us all down, keep us captive. People feel covid is a lie. People feel anyone who goes against ‘their’ narrative, a propagandised narrative, a governmental, spun narrative is a rightful target.

From booing the German national anthem at the recent football match, booing players taking a knee as a gesture against racism, our Home Secretary, herself the child of double immigrant parents (moving from India to Uganda, then to the UK) witnessing so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ being forcibly removed from their homes in a show of violent power, people harrassing public health figures in the streets as if they have done wrong by acting to protect vulnerable people from harm, the regular, accusatory violence inflicted on the sick, the disabled, those on benefits, the violence inflicted by those on benefits to people of different colours or nationalities having been led to believe they are they reason they are down on their luck – The list doesn’t fucking end!

This is not from nowhere, this benefits someone. It usually benefits someone who wouldn’t last five minutes under the same, oppressive atmosphere, in the circumstances of the very real, clear and present threat of violence that many people are living under.

This is weaponisation of, predominantly, working class men against a fictional villain. This is an emboldening of violence in people, like me, who were born into the crucible of violence, by people who have never seen it, never lived it and likely never will.

Like the armchair generals of World War I we have a group of politicians playing toy soldiers with public opinion blind to the reality of what stoking that fire genuinely does and who, frankly, in the same circumstances, would wilt. Few if any of these Tory orators, these tongue-warriors, would last in a situation of real violence – and yet they stir the shit as though they’re the toughest people on the planet.

They’ve got people frothing at the mouth ready to fight ‘liberal media’, trans rights activists and people taking the knee at football matches. But they know nothing of what that violence entails, of the fear in communities, of walking home casting your eye about not knowing who might do what to you, when.

I am releasing this piece now because masculinised violence against women, politicised, weaponised violence against anyone who dares speak against a narrative decided for us by the state, violence in general has become a huge, non-isolated problem. It is no longer my place to step aside and let other people’s voices be heard, it’s time I, and everyone else who thinks this situation very fucking dangerous speaks up.

Anyone who thinks an act of unprovoked, unjustified violence against another person is in any way excusable is a fool.

Anyone who thinks street harassment, calling out and shouting at people in the street who are just trying to go about their business is a fool.

Anyone who thinks the active pursuit, against their will, of another person, whether for reasons of personal, sexual or ego gratification, is a fool.

Anyone who has been guilty of none of these things at any point in their lifetime is a liar, or a saint.

Especially if they’re a man.

The thing is I want a quick and easy solution but there isn’t one. For want of anything to demonstrate differently, violence is a ‘wicked problem’, male violence even more so.

The statistics speak for themselves. I will be using UK Office of National Statistics data, for the year ending March 2020 (so March 2019- March 2020) for this, but I think the pattern holds true for much of the world, as this Wikipedia page demonstrates.

The majority, by a significant margin, of homicide victims are male. In the UK for the year ending March 2020 you were three times more likely to die by homicide if you were male than if you were female.

In fact, as the ONS report on the data says “The increase in homicide between the year ending March 2015 and year ending March 2018 reflected a 50% rise in the number of male victims, which increased from 319 in the year ending March 2015 to 479 in the year ending March 2018.”

Effectively, until quite recently homicide stats had been going down, and their proportional rise has been because of a rise in homicides with male victims. Not female, as the report continues…

“In the latest year, there has been a 20% increase in the number of male victims (422 to 506). Conversely, the number of female victims fell by 16% (from 225 to 188), the first decrease since year ending March 2016.”

Now again, my quoting this could be suggested by some to be dismissing the lives of the women taken as being less important than the lives of the men, or diminishing the fear felt by women as they go about their daily lives. I do not want to do this. One woman dead by homicide is one too many, just as one man dead by homicide is one too many. I am leading to a point. Please, withhold your judgements until I get to it.

You see, yes, men might make up the majority of the victims of homicide worldwide. Approximately 79% according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study in 2013.

According to the same study they account for 96% of those crimes, though.

Here’s the point I’m getting to.

There is a tendency, when it comes to academic study of violence and men, to disengender men – so much is the assumption that masculinity, a maleness, and violence go together. It is not even a topic of discussion. ‘Men are violent’ is the seeming consensus; therefore the discussion is always of ‘men as a problem’.

The very presentation of violence, a google image search of ‘violence’ to find a card image for this article, presented me with numerous figures of cowering women with a man looming over them. It’s socially and culturally self-evident that men are the perpetrators and women and children the victims and that violence is a male trait. Yet the statistics suggests an overwhelming number of the world’s victims of violent crime are male, and there has never been any credible study or report linking being ‘male’, biologically a man, with violence.

We cannot disengender this problem. Men are engendered, masculinity and maleness are traits associated with violence, a violence that affects men disproportionately – not only as the gender associated with those traits, not only as the predominant perpetrators of violent crimes but also as the predominant victims of those same crimes!

Violence is the problem. Some men are the perpetrators. All men, as well as wider society, can be made better by the solutions and therefore all men, indeed all people, must work to be part of the solution.

Sadly it’s a tough problem, one that requires significant effort and a large social consensus to solve. A social consensus it will be tough to get thanks to the ‘wicked problem’ scenario. People feel ‘men’ are to blame, people feel victimised by ‘men’ and that it should be up to men to solve the problem. But that’s too much an oversimplification of a very complex problem. To quote an introductory article on male violence in Current Anthropology;

“The complexity of the subject requires anthropological engagement by specialists in all its subfields. If ever a topic cried out for integrated, seamless scholarship by anthropology in the broadest sense, maleness and violence, and their relations to masculinities, is certainly one example.”

There is a tendency to believe, thanks to pop-culture use of the word ‘testosterone’, for example, that levels of that hormone – considered a masculine hormone despite being present in women as well – particularly high testosterone, is a cause for increased violence in men. There has never been a credible study that has demonstrated a causal link between acts of violence and levels of testosterone.

This ties in with, in my opinion, a wider inability to correctly and accurately portray the complexities of hormones and neurotransmitters and their roles within the body. Testosterone becomes the ‘man’ hormone, oestrogen the ‘woman’ hormone, serotonin is the ‘happy’ hormone, adrenaline the ‘scared’ hormone – It’s all a massive over-simplification of what is actually incredibly complex biochemistry and metabolics.

The only time I was ever truly intimidated in a bio lecture was in metabolics when the lecturer put up a map of all the known metabolic pathways and how they interact with one another. It was in tiny print, projected onto this massive screen, and it was like looking at a near infinite-field of interconnected arguing spaghetti.

To simplify one chemical as being a causal agent of aggression is basically impossible and is done only by people with a significant ignorance of the reality of the science.

But that also is true of the notion that high or low testosterone makes you more or less of a man.

Guys – Your testosterone levels do not make you more, or less, of a man. What’s manlier than a bearded dad carrying his child on his shoulders? Well studies indicate males in longer-term monogamous relationships, or who have children, have lower relative levels of testosterone than single, non-fathers.

Some of the manliest men you know have low testosterone, it does not make them any less of a man.

So surely if testosterone is not the problem there must be some excuse, some biological mechanism to explain why men are so often violent, and so often with each other?

There is, as yet, no discovered innate, biological or neurological mechanism for male violence.

One of the other things that prompted this article is the #notallmen idea. The notion is that it is a minority of men who are committing these acts therefore women who are scared of all men as a result are overreacting.

Holly Brockwell (@holly on twitter) a tech journalist gave an analogy that really resonated with me, because I think it puts it in perspective. The ‘poisoned chip’ analogy.

Someone hands you a bowl of chips (could be American crispy-fried potatoes us Brits would call crisps, could be proper chips that others may call ‘fries’ – whatever) and tells you one of them is poisoned. Do you eat any of them? Or are you scared of all of them?

All it takes is awareness that it could be any one of those chips that could do you harm and you won’t touch a single one.

I do it! It has become a rare event but I have, in the past, been shouted at, spat at or attacked in the street by other men, as a result, now, I am almost braced every time I pass a stranger in the street.

I responded that from my perspective, one problem that men live with is that they either think they are the poisoned chip – they may or may not be, but they revel in the reputation – or they think they’re brave enough to eat anyway.

And this brings us back to the point, the reason why I used male-on-male violence statistics to demonstrate my point in this article.

Guys – STOP EATING THE FUCKING CHIPS!

The data is there to back it up, we’re killing ourselves. The majority of worldwide homicides are committed by men on men.

Even if you’re the biggest piece of misogynistic garbage alive, even if you hate women and think their every opinion worthless, and even if you think you’re the biggest Billy Big Bollocks time has ever known – You are more likely to die to an act of violence perpetrated by a man than your wife, your mum, your daughter or your niece is. If you need that selfish perspective to this problem, if you are that unfeeling for others, there’s your selfish incentive.

You are more likely to die in an act of masculinised violence if you are a man. There’s a good reason, men, to start looking at solutions to this problem! It starts with you and it can end with you. In fact, I would argue if you are a misogynistic piece of garbage and think you’re Billy Big Bollocks you specifically put a target on your back. You are definitely more likely to die to an act of male violence, because some young buck is going to want to prove himself more poisoned of a chip than you are!

Men, we’re killing ourselves. Always have been, these statistics don’t even take into account lives lost through war. These are just the ‘criminal’ homicide statistics.

If there’s no innate mechanism for it, why does it happen? Who does it benefit?

What if this is such a difficult problem to deal with because the very structural power that holds our society together has been forged in the fires of masculinised violence? The UK House of Commons, despite having a record number of female Members of Parliament, is still two-thirds male. Those males are still, predominantly, moulded in the factories of Imperialist era public-schools (a weird UK term for very elite private schools) with antiquated attitudes towards just about everything.

The policies our current government pursue increase deprivation, unemployment, underemployment, youth disenfranchisement and all the various environmental and behavioural trappings that we do know have causal links to violence.

But then they can argue for ‘law and order’ and get more votes from a bunch of people who, themselves, promote violence against those who perpetrate violence in the form of punitive consequences for crime rather than access to rehabilitation and opportunity.

When I see acts of mass violence it is always at protests (politically motivated), sports events (community/tribally motivated), or terrorism (religiously/politically motivated). Whenever I see severe acts of violence occur they occur not in a spur of the moment on some biological impulse, but as a considered response to a perceived attack on an idea. I suspect while there is an innate aspect to violence, this, in humans, is mainly related to method more than motivation. The motivation for most violence seem to stem from mere ‘ideas’.

There is a political machine literally creating a problem (violence) that it can then show a hard-line on (via violence) to prove how capable of preventing violence they are. And it works!

Is this what we’re killing ourselves for, in order to maintain a violent status quo and uphold the rule of tradition?  For ideas? Are men truly willing to kill and be killed for a political ideology? The sad answer, as demonstrated throughout history is – yes. Something needs to change.

We’re also killing ourselves LITERALLY! 75% of the UKs suicides, every year, since the 1990s, are men.

We’re literally killing ourselves. There’s clearly a problem! 

I think the problem must be psychological and behavioural.

I have been hearing harrowing tales of women being afraid to walk the streets at night, so they don’t go out. The stories of abuses shouted at them from random members of the public. The stories of feeling targeted, followed and threatened.

Do you know what? I have all of those stories to, and I’m a man!

I have walked weird routes home at night knowing the local nightclubs will be kicking out and I don’t want any trouble. I’ve walked with my keys between my knuckles in case someone from that group walking towards me wants to cause a problem. I’ve been shouted at, called names, had my appearance commented on and been spat at. I’ve even been groped in public, in broad daylight, by a group of teenage girls.

This sort of behaviour is not exclusively the realm of the female victim.

Men, though, aren’t necessarily ‘allowed’ to deal with it in the same way as women are. It is not permitted for a man to admit he is scared. It is not permitted for a man to admit there may be a scenario in which he cannot defend himself. It would be considered, socially, an act of cowardice for a man to not intervene in a violent dispute, despite the fact it may cause him harm. The pressures of the competition of masculinity all promote this.

Consider the #metoo movement, there was a massive uproar, rightfully, when we found out women were being abused, exploited and having their careers threatened if they did not sexually appease those who could help their careers. But then the bravery of men like Brendan Fraser or Terry Crews gets a completely different reception. A cold reception, a reception whereby the idea is that the man should ‘take care of himself’. Particularly so with Terry Crews, a former athlete, a man with muscles on his muscles, a very seemingly ‘masculine’ man.

These men sharing their tales of abuse and exploitation to be met with a chorus of boos only serves to prevent men stepping forward and admitting their own fears, vulnerabilities and the times they have been victims. These men deserve huge credit for knowing that talking about what happened to them was going to get them a negative response from certain sections of society, but that it was right to do so anyway.

Men get assaulted, sexually and physically. They suffer the traumas too, they get the PTSD too – only they are not permitted, by their masculinity, to be so open about it. Both male and female ideas of masculinity perpetuate a status quo of men not being permitted to be vulnerable. Many men who experience tragic, traumatic events, who suffer PTSD, kill themselves.

According to ONS data again, the leading cause of death in people under 50 between 2001 and 2015 was suicide with men accounting for around 75% of those deaths. Recently death by ‘accidental poisoning’ has become the lead cause of death in under 50s, likely this includes many intentional overdoses but also, according to the Mental Health Foundation men are around three times as likely to experience a drug or substance abuse problem. According to a University of York report, men account for around 75% of adult missing persons. ONS data on homelessness in the UK shows the majority of registered homeless people are male. Government data on rough sleeping, people who may not be registered as ‘homeless’, found an estimate 85% of people sleeping rough were male.

There is, quite apparently, an ongoing crisis for men.

Consider stories where a man, for the sake of the peace, attempts to break up a street argument of none of his concern, an act of violence between willing participants, and he, himself, gets murdered. This is never portrayed for the pseudo-heroic stupidity it realistically is. These victims of masculine expectation, instead, become tragic heroes, they are ‘brave’. Members of the community who would seek to do good who got caught up in violence.

To this day, for a man to die in an act of violence – particularly if his side can be portrayed as righteous – is considered ‘heroic’.

Even if he leaves behind a family. Even if he leaves children without a father.

That’s not heroism. That’s sacrifice. That’s martyrdom to an ideal of masculinity. Men should be allowed to be valued as more than just shields or swords and yet this is still the narrative.

What is a man considered if he does not attempt to intervene or break it up? A coward! Not sensible, not rightfully minding his own business – It is his ‘duty’, as a man, to perform an expected social role and put himself in danger regardless of the circumstances.

There is clearly a problem of perception. There is clearly a problem with what masculinity is and is expected to be.

In a lot of men this is entirely unconscious. Much like none of us imagines we will get cancer even though it affects upwards of 50% of the population. Men are behaviourally trained, socially, to believe that they can and should ‘take care of themselves’ – which basically means respond to any violent threat with a violent response that protects them and those around them.

People who perform this role and succeed are often rewarded. People who perform this role and fail are often martyred, made into heroes of the masculine ideal. People who, in plain sight, fail to perform this role are considered cowards, are marginalised and persecuted.

There’s a denialism there, clearly reflected in the statistics. Men are significantly more likely to be the victims of homicide or violent assault in most countries around the world. They’re clearly failing to defend themselves and the notion that they can, or should be able to is clearly a lie. A lie that they must believe, or else be considered less than a man.

I’ve found myself rocking and crying in hospitals because my brain broke, shame at my vulnerability has long since gone out the window with me. I don’t fucking care. I’ve been scared. I think, though, not everyone has been through that. Not everyone has been forced to confront their own vulnerability.

Many men, thankfully an increasing number, are now willing to admit and share their fears and vulnerabilities. But certainly among those of the opinion that is inciting this current atmosphere of violence, there is still denial, a willful denial. There’s still an idea of a manly man sticking up for himself, being the hero and saving the day. It’s bullshit. The reality, the statistics, speak for themselves, the reality is that when you incite masculine violence men, women and children die.

There’s also a denialism of one’s capacity for violence. I have read many responses to female stories, many perspectives from men saying “I’ve never had a problem controlling myself.” Or “Obviously not a problem for me, but…”. People claiming they’re ‘raising their sons to be different’.

These people are fucking fools. All it takes is that one bad day, that one bad mood, that one life event, bereavement, a car accident, an assault, a little PTSD and you can lash out. You don’t even have to be a man, this is a human thing! To deny your own capability to commit an act of violence is as foolish as to deny a problem exists and a sure-fire way to not be able to control yourself when that time does come.

Men need to think and admit to those times in their lives when they have been subjected to the same kinds of fears and humiliations as women. If you cannot think of a time in your life when you have ever felt like that then you need to have a serious think about whether you are either completely oblivious to danger, whether you are so priviliged as to have never had to have experienced it, or if you are, yourself, the problem.

The data suggests violence is more often than not a male problem. Men, maleness, is so assumed in violent behaviour that men have been disengendered from this problem, but we need to consider it from the perspective of gender because as of yet there has not been a discovery of a single, innate, biological cause for male violence.

If biology cannot be blamed then the social construction of masculinity needs to be investigated as a potential cause. We then need to look at how this is constructed. This would make it not merely a male problem, not merely a problem in men, by men, of men that men need to solve. It would be a social problem. One that all areas and all aspects of society would need to look at themselves and ask “What role do I play in this.”

I quoted ‘Current Anthropology’ earlier as requiring an “…integrated, seamless scholarship… in the broadest sense…”I think it needs the same approach from society, too. Not animosity, shouting, competition, us versus them, sex and gender division – but an integration, an intersectional discussion on what we believe masculinity is, what we expect of it and, most importantly, what it needs to be to stop the harm of masculinised violence.

Men are not the problem.

The construct of maleness and masculinity may be part of the problem.

Violence is definitely the problem.

Everyone is a victim.

Everyone needs to be part of the solution.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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