Emotional Activism as a construct for societal transformation

I am re-posting an older article that still resonates with me.

In June of 2007, I was in Northampton, MA at a public screening of Byron Hurt’s HIP HOP Beyond Beats and Rhymes. If you haven’t seen this movie – I recomend it highly. Hurt has done a fantastic job of really opening the connections between rap, hyper-masculinity, violence, misogyny, sexism, homophobia and corrupt capitalism. The film is powerfully edited, smart, compelling. There were about 160 people in attendance at this Sunday night screening. Some very well recognized heavy-weights in the pro-feminist, anti-violence men’s movement were in attendance.  On the way home with the LadyK I tried to verbalize the deep sadness and frustration that I feel about the disconnection between what I do in my work with the ManKind Project and the work that is being done by powerful scholars “intellectual Heavyweights” (as Hurt said) on the front lines of the anti-violence men’s movement.

And the problem is in both houses.

I have been doing this work with MKP for more than 5 years now – I LOVE this work. The power of sitting with men in a safe space, and the work that gets done there, is unbelievable. I have watched men undergo incredible shifts in their world view, make startling changes in their lives, their families, their jobs. I have made incredible strides in my own psychic landscape, stepping into my own leadership and power in a way that I could hardly have conceived just 6 years ago. It has been life altering for me and for many men that I continue to interact with every week. I have a community of men in which I feel supported and in which I can challenge men to look more deeply at themselves. Personal growth is what we do. We are not a political organization. What we ask as the price for admission is that a man take a huge risk and attend an intense initiation into mature masculinity called the New Warrior Training Adventure. Once through that door, men often join men’s Integration Groups, where they sit on a regular basis and do personal work together, using the collective wisdom and skills of the men in the group. There are also other trainings available, leadership opportunities, community gatherings with family, on and on.

There are many men in MKP who are political, but we are not an activist organization – and because this is so, there is little driving force for men to really examine some underlying structural issues that may be informing their world views. We refer to our own “shadows”, the subconscious behaviors, beliefs and traits which we hide, repress and deny. Our work is about making these things conscious, being honest with ourselves and other, and taking responsibility for our actions and emotions. My experience with MKP tells me that if men stick around and are committed to doing their own personal work, they will find their way into an understanding of many of the larger cultural frames that have been informing their beliefs. We do confront what it means to be a man – we do confront the notion that men have to be hard and unfeeling and disconnected from each other. We do confront abuse and perpetration. But we do not politically address patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, gender violence. If a man is committed, he will start to find these things for himself and there are men who have the resources to offer a man ready to look. We have a Multi-Cultural Conference every year, we have 3 multicultural trainings, we have workshops geared to confronting sexual issues, issues about women, issues about homophobia – but these are not required and there are no barriers to entrance into MKP. At a fundamental level, this is WHY MKP is so successful. All men are welcome. And I also feel frustrated when my political understanding of the world does not always resonate with other men in my circles, but I know that it is never my place, within that context, to dictate what a man should believe.

And then there is the political world. Men like those in attendance at this screening are doing incredible work in helping people wake up to the problems of our toxic masculine culture, by confronting them with what is wrong in the culture. For a young man to sit down and watch Beyond Beats and Rhymes, it may feel a bit like having a rug pulled out from under him. In psychological terms – it sets up cognitive dissonance between what he thought he was doing and the impact of what he is actually participating in. What he thought the world was about, the lens through which he has seen his world, gets skewed. Skewed like pair of glasses that is too strong. This can be a painful experience. There are many things that can happen. He can suffer through the nausea that this new perception will cause – maybe in time he will be able to integrate this new way of seeing. He can rip the glasses off and smash them – in time he will forget the new awakening that he had (because it is easy to do so in this culture). He can begin lashing out at others who aren’t wearing the new glasses, because his depth perception is off and because it makes his stomach feel less off balance. There are other options as well, but in all these cases, I see a critical piece missing – a focus on emotional growth and development.

These men are inspiring, motivating, captivating. I support and love what they do! But I believe that this powerful intellectual analysis does not offer strong answers to two fundamental questions that face any man who steps through the door into the world of political activism.

1. What do I do with the emotional wreckage that this new understanding reveals?

2. What do I replace my FALSE sense of Power with, or What do I get if I give up my REAL societal power?

There are some men in the activist world for whom these questions may seem irrelevant. They have attained some level of transcendence which allows them to integrate the new emotional shocks to the system.  Maybe they are older, have had years of therapy, have a deep and sincere spiritual practice, have been confronting these issues until they are numb to the shock and pain. They may have released their attachment to wanting personal power in the world. They may have achieved a sense of personal power through their roles as activists and speakers. They are, on some level, cursed by their knowledge and experience.

And then there are the rest of us, the other 99 percent of the men in the world. For us, there is a scab somewhere within, covering a very old set of wounds and beliefs that were locked in place long before we had any political understandings of the world. Being intellectually or emotionally challenged by a film like Tough Guise or Beyond Beats and Rhymes or Dreamworlds may rip that scar off and leave us wondering why the hell we are bleeding again? For many of us, the reaction may be violent when we realize that we have been cut. In one framework used by an organization called Cornerstones, they talk about “habits of closure”. We take risks to be vulnerable, to open ourselves to new experiences or stimuli and there is often a reflex reaction to that opening – a closure. I know what many of my habits of closure are; distance within my relationship, too much TV, use of pornography, overindulgence in food or alcohol – these are things that I have to be keenly aware of after I have experienced a new level of opening in my emotional or intellectual landscape.

I believe that on a cultural scale, the backlash against feminism is one of these closures. In the 80’s, when I was growing up, there was a fairly strong level of societal push to become “politically correct” in discussing issues of race, class and gender. Within each of these issues there are DEEPLY embedded constructions of POWER. When you tell a man that he can no longer have his false sense of personal power over another group (or perhaps his REAL power), you are taking away something that may be the critical facet of his entire cultural existence. What is being offered to replace this?

In much of the literature and speech about letting go of sexism, the offered benefit is “deeper intimacy” in relationships with women and a sense of connection to women and men. I hear many men saying “SO WHAT? I have never had an intimate connection with a woman or a man, I am scared to death of that intimacy, why on earth would I give up something that I am very attached to (my sense of personal power and invulnerability) in order to get something that terrifies me?” Similar things are said in reference to racism. We have the opportunity to create a just and sustainable culture, to have deeper connection and celebration of difference. “SO WHAT? I don’t have to deal with those people, why is it any of my business?” This is a lesson that the sustainability experts are learning now – the totally rational position that we MUST change in order to prevent widespread suffering and death is NOT ENOUGH to convince an irrational consumer to stop consuming. The offered replacement must be compelling in a totally different way. In order to get a corporation to change, it has to save them money. In order to get an individual to change – the benefit of what is being offered must outweigh the costs of giving up the status quo. Political activists have not offered a compelling reason to switch brands yet.

Other men take the incredible risk and give up some of their power in order to embrace something new. Not having had the experience of emotional connection with women, they often look to the people in their lives who seem to know what it is (and who want them to ‘get it’)- WOMEN. From my personal experience – trying to work out the emotional baggage of letting go of power over women with a woman is a recipe for disaster. And here we find the 100% accurate criticisms by Feminists that men should not be looking to women to solve their emotional issues with women OR MEN. (Just as whites should not be looking to people of color to resolve their issues with people of color). Again I hear a man crying out: “So what do you want from me?” And here is the backlash. “Liberals are never satisfied”, “Feminazis”, “Bitches and Hos”, “Pussified Men”, “Ivory Tower Elitists”. There is Pro Wrestling, the Bachelor, Conservative Shock Jocks, Music Video and the Right Wing Blogosphere – OH WAIT, AND the Left Wing Blogoshpere, which is still woefully sexist and racist.

The reaction is a strong reassertion of masculine invulnerability and the intentional subversion of the original intention – to create a more just and unified society. The backlash encourages a “return” to traditional roles, back into the comfortable White Supremacist Patriarchy of US history. I have seen many men who, with good intentions, destroyed their marriages in the 70’s and 80’s while trying to become more intimate in their marriages.  Because they had no outlets, no mentors, and noone except their wives to work on it with. These men often end up feeling wounded and scarred by their attempts to do what they thought they were ‘supposed’ to do to improve their relationships.

What I see happen in MKP is men discovering a place to go and look at the emotional wreckage of their cultural and personal wounds – and then having the opportunity to make new choices in their lives TODAY that are not dictated by those wounds. It is men supporting men to be more intimate with everyone by discovering how to be more intimate with one another. It is men struggling through the learning process of how to be an emotional being, as Robert Jensen would say, to become “fully human”. When these lessons start to become integrated, holding on to False or Real Power in relationships becomes less important.

It doesn’t matter to me whether Masculine and Feminine are nothing but cultural constructs. In order to deconstruct them, you have to go inside.  It is the pervasive context of our surroundings. In order to access a man’s psyche – you have to enter through a door that he is willing to open. Jensen said in an op-ed that he had pretty much abandoned hope of reaching some men. MKP can reach those men, it does reach those men. It reaches men that most of us write off. Holding on to the cultural critique of the Mythopoetic men’s movement, or Jungian Psychology or discounting Robert Bly (who I have yet to read) we miss the opportunity to affect change in the everyday world of men. It starts when they recognize that under their anger there is another emotion, and under that one there is another. The process of emotional discovery can prepare a man to raise little boys with a new empathic view of the world. It can let fundamentalist Christians sit with Jews and homosexuals and black men and CRY. It is a transformational first step. My frustration, from the inside, can be that men become content with only digging into the emotional level and may not take the time to look a the structural or contextual layers of their existence. (Belly button gazing). But I would much rather have a man who knows he is scared and can say so, even if he doesn’t know who Andrea Dworkin is.

Furthermore, not all men will become political activists. Why say this? Because I believe the process of becoming an activist gives a person a new sense of personal power to replace what is given up. Activism gives a man a VOICE that he may have never had. It gives him a place to focus his energy and even his aggression in a way that may help society. What about the other 99%? How do we nurture change in men that have NO interest in changing the culture? My belief is that we have to offer them something so compelling that they become willing to let go of the Power they have been holding on to as the soul of their persona. In MKP that offering is about Mission, affirmation and Community. It is about letting men discover for themselves a personal vision and then encouraging and supporting them in a strong community to live focused on the actions that will help them manifest their vision. It could be about their family, it could be about learning to love themselves or tell the truth or even just be kind to others, it could be learning to stand up for the positive change that they wish to see in the world.

The world becomes a safer place when men learn how to feel their sadness, their fear, their shame and anger, without projecting it on another person or class of people. And frankly – many activists do not do this very well. Political Activism can simply become a stand in for other forms of aggression. I note that many of the very progressive talk radio hosts still don’t seem to “get” or care about issues of Gender or Race. I note the stereotype of the “spitting” liberal, taking out their rage on the corporations, governments and organizations that they blame for societal problems. Michael Lerner, in The Left Hand of God, talks about the internal backlash that happened within the peace movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, when activists learned that other activists were just as likely to hurt them as the “ENEMY”.

It is the subconscious game of “whack a mole”. I bang one head and make it go away and then within some period of time, another head pops up! I witness this in the many “sensitive new age guys” I know who have a sincere love for the women in their lives and struggle with compulsive behaviors with pornography or impulsive anger (neatly wrapped in comfortable clothing). The right wing is the same – it’s not just Liberals who are powering the billions of dollars that flood the porn industry every year, but good Christian folk from the mid-west as well.

And as Byron Hurt points out – 70% of the hard core rap music purchased in the US is purchased by white teenage boys. The intellectual argument may shock them into putting on the new glasses, but what in their lives will support them through the painful transition into mature masculinity? Where will the aggression that they find comforting in the music (as a reflection of internal struggles to understand the world) re-emerge when the music is gone? What will they do with the sense of powerlessness that is part and parcel of today’s society? I believe that if they’re going to be left on their own with the emotional reality,  let them keep the music. If there are not mentors and emotionally responsible men around them – the fantasy of the violent music is safer than the reality of the violence that will play out when the whack-a-mole pops up somewhere else. What is lacking in the discussion is the intentional self-aware exploration of the emotional reality that informs and inspires the fantasy of an artist like Eminem. Highly pressurized material will find a vent. It takes a strong container to focus that pressure into a useful machine that can help society. The ManKind Project creates that container. Eminem has been doing shadow work for a decade. Sadly, because there was no one there to mentor the process – there are essential pieces missing that could lead to healing the wounds and turning a violent fantasy into a useful tool for cultural transformation.

ACTIVISM IS GOOD! It is essential, urgent and vital to the survival of our society. What I want – what I deeply desire – is for activists to make the connection between emotional growth and political activism. One cannot survive long without the other. Activist men limping along with the baggage of their emotional lives in tow, still unable to take responsibility for their unexamined shadows. They rage against the machine as they simultaneaously add reinforcements to the structure they wish to destroy. They carry the load until they burn out, they bludgeon their fellow activists with it or they retreat back into the denial of the painful emotional realities that political activism gives birth to. None of these is a good solution.

Byron Hurt said the conversation after the Film was more important than the film itself. I agree. But the conversation is not enough. There needs to be an alternative for men. Powerful intellectual awakenings are only the beginning of creating systematic change. Systematic change may start with the intellect, but it will depend on emotional development to succeed.

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