The Pragmatic Progressive

There is a line in a Ryan Lewis and Macklemore song: “it seems we’re more concerned with being called racist than we actually are with racism”. Although it was intended for a very serious discussion on race, I believe it is just as pertinent to Gender-Based Violence. The reason very few men actually support the #MenAreTrash movement is because they feel it encroaches upon their dignity. “I’m not trash,” they often retort. Once you say you are a proponent of this movement, you will get one of two responses from most men: complete dismissal of the movement as “sexist” and divisive or just a shrug and swift change of topic. 

The men who dismiss the movement out of the gate often have the very same tired argument, that is, that not all men commit sexual assault. However, the movement has never been about collectively blaming specific instances of sexual assault on all men. This would be akin to the current regime in North Korea, where if a member of a family commits a crime against the state, the entire family loses their status for three generations and has to work in labour camps. This is not what #MenAreTrash means (or at least not my interpretation of it). The movement is about taking responsibility for the culture that we as men create which perpetuates sexual assault. 

Having a one-on-one discussion with the men that disagree with the movement is always fruitful; and behind closed doors, amongst other men, they will concede many of the movement’s claims. The problem is that there are simply not enough of these conversations happening. We speak about women but not about how we treat them. There is an entire generation currently growing up with less parenting than previous ones, as the high cost of living forces both parents to work long hours. Thus, young people look for guidance in South Africa’s dysfunctional school system and the media, in which “success” is often portrayed as men being served by scantily clad women. All of these factors paired with young people not having many economic opportunities and becoming frustrated, gives us the sexual assault epidemic we have today and that could continue for the foreseeable future if swift action is not immediately taken.

The question that still remains is why many men don’t even want to speak about these issues. Denial of the fact is not the elimination of the fact. 

There are stands being taken to implement change on our campus amongst its men. The male residences are definitely not a monolith in their opinions. Not only will different residences have different ways of addressing the problem of Gender-based Violence, but the different residents are also in constant ideological conflict with one another. A rift between allies of the movement, staunch opposers and those that agree with some points of the Anti-GBV Memorandum but disagree with others, is a conversation that dominates many male residences now — as it should. My own residence, Dagbreek, has been discussing and reflecting on our position in the movement and, as a result of the movement, been forced to make substantive, and hopefully sustainable, change in aspects of its culture that perpetuates the toxic tendencies of its residents.

Recently there was severe criticism from a Dagbreek resident of the massive lack of men, more specifically white men, at the protest in Cape Town on Thursday 5th September: “We boarded the buses to go to the CBD. As I got on, I saw that there were only 2 white men in my bus, and they were both queer. When we got to Cape Town, it was still basically only them that I saw. Women were there, white and ones of colour. There were very few men, especially white men.”

This resident subsequently left the residence WhatsApp group after a huge spat on the group with some of its members, in which he accused them of being apathetic to the plight of marginalized individuals. The most troubling element of his encounter, however, was the fact that people on the group, who were not involved in the discussion, were spamming messages saying “this is not the place”. Other commenters also showed that they did not think that speaking about this issue affecting our campus and country in a forum where they were all present, was appropriate. They were more worried about the discomfort of constant vibrations in their pocket. 

Many residents feel as if they are being confronted with a choice between loyalty to their residence or support of the Anti-GBV movement. I believe, however, that residents can — and should — be proud of those house-values and traditions that are non-sexist, non-heteronormative, which in turn should spur them on to fix its shortcomings and criticize its worst parts. But this can only be done through constructive dialogue, which is not nearly as prevalent as it should be.

We can no longer be silent about these issues. A misogynistic or racist comment should no longer be ignored because you don’t want to make the situation awkward around the braai. Gender-Based Violence is a disease that has ravaged this nation for too long, and silence about it only feeds the cesspool in which it festers