At the beginning of most of my talks, I tell the audience that I am an Elephant Hunter.
My parents moved from Sri Lanka to England and then Canada in the early 70’s. They brought along with them little wooden statues and paintings of elephants, even a vase made of an elephant tusk. As a little boy, I would hide under the table pretending to hunt the elephants scattered in our living room. Now, everywhere I go, whether a meeting, out shopping, on a campus, or sitting down with you, I am hunting elephants.
…oh, I don’t mean real elephants, I mean the Elephants in the Room…
You know, the conversations we don’t have, the ones we are afraid to have or avoid…the conversations we NEED to have. Britain’s notorious artist Banksy had a 2006 exhibit in Los Angeles which literally asked us to consider the Elephant in the Room…with an actual elephant in the room.
Two elephants in the room have come up in conversation once again, as a result of the brutal rape and heartbreaking murder by six men of young female student in New Delhi, India. The first is the universal devaluing of Women and Girls which denies many the pursuit of happiness, to be seen as equals, treated equally and even the right to breathe. The discussion needed is not unique to the South Asian community, as we must have it in every region, cultural space and place on the planet.
It is all around us and as everyday as oxygen. From one end of the spectrum to the other, from one side of the globe to the other. From women depicted as fragile, demure ornaments in Hollywood or Bollywood cinema, to not even being seen as human beings and treated as such. The horror is found in the stories coming out of Steubenville, Ohio where members of a high-school football team tweeted about dragging an abducted and unconscious 16 year old young woman from party to party to be raped and urinated on.
The sentiment that these are the actions of monsters who hide among us, disconnected from larger society, rather than the by-products of a society structured by sickened and corrupted ideas of masculinity. This idea of Monsters is the other Elephant in the Room we need to discuss.
There is a never-ending misconception that Frankenstein is the Monster, when in fact Frankenstein is actually the Doctor who created the monster. Having said that, as the creator, Frankenstein himself perhaps is The Monster.
In his book ‘Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters‘, Matt Kaplan explores the history of monsters and how they are created reflecting realities and fears within society. Kaplan writes about William of Newburgh, a 12th Century English historian who documented a period of tuberculosis epidemics where people who visited the bodies of deceased loved ones before burial, ended up becoming infected themselves. The belief spread that the dead were taking peoples lives after death. Graves were dug up to investigate, revealing corpses in states of decay with skin retracted around their nails as well as the gums around their teeth leaving the appearance of longer nails and fangs. This, along with blood (brought up possibly by gases in the stomach to the mouth) staining teeth, fed into the conceptualization of a supernatural monster coming back from the dead to consume the living: the Vampire.
Monsters are fear manifest, ideas of societal ruin such as the threat of contagious disease (Zombies). In his conclusion, Kaplain says that “the mask of the monster has fallen over time…on the face of humanity”. When it comes to rape and sexual assault, we make it easier for ourselves with a simple answer that a monster crawled out from under a rock or from a dark alleyway versus a ‘normal’ person committing these acts of horror…not one of us. Even statements such as ‘Real Men Don’t Rape’ can unwillingly reinforce this.
The truth is, as my colleague at White Ribbon, Tuval Dinner says “Real Men Do Rape“.
It is real men committing these acts of violence and horror towards women and men. “It is not a monster that crawled out from under a rock…” Tuval says ” it is the person sitting on top of the rock. Out in the open, basking in the sun“. Not all men or even most are violent, or directly responsible for the violence. Men and boys are also targets of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a small portion of men. The majority of evil in our world is authored by the hands of a small few, while the vast majority of good people unknowingly enforce or support oppressive structures, in our actions or our non-action.
The truth is we have all played a role in creating these ‘monsters’ , the world we live in is the world we shape. We are all in part, Dr Frankenstein.
“We need to address how we as a society are implicated in producing such appalling levels of violence against women, which is increasingly being tolerated and even normalized.”
– Ratna Kapur, Rape and the Crisis of Indian Masculinity.
Harmful ideas of being a man are reinforced in every corner of culture. A man has to be in power, in control, be the breadwinner and the strong, have the answers and is the solution. When we create such a lofty and impossible state for young men & boys to operate in 24/7 they are doomed to fail on a daily basis. For some who fall short (and never mature from Boy to Man, but are stuck as an Adult Boy) the equalizer is finding a way to quickly access power, bridge that gap between what we are supposed to be and all we are limited to be. For some , they feel their loss of power is at the hands of women gaining or holding power. The key for this idea of manhood is the distance you get between yourself and whatever is considered ‘Feminine’.
This is the elephant in the room, the monster we fear is the monster we created. This is about a few real men with a warped idea of power and attaining power, in their minds, they are trying to ‘take the power back’.
In describing the core of Chuck Palahniuk’s book that became David Fincher’s classic film ‘Fight Club’ , star Edward Norton spoke of “this idea of men and their sense of being displaced, their role in the culture being displaced…… I thought this is a piece about the challenge of individual self-overcoming. Of making yourself evolve and of shattering old value systems and received value systems and institutional kind of hierarchies to free yourself individually. “
Jagmeet Singh is a Member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario, and he gets it:
Why aren’t more men upset at the realities for women and girls, as well as the messaging they receive to protect themselves because men ‘can’t help it’? Let’s heed Lauren Wolfe’s call to end the culture of rape in 2013.
“This is where our work lies, with those of us who are raising the next generation. It lies in teaching our sons and daughters to become liberated, respectful adults who know that men who hurt women are making a choice…When I was 17, I could not have imagined thousands of people marching against rape in India, as we have seen these past few weeks. And yet there is still work to be done. We have spent generations constructing elaborate systems of patriarchy, caste and social and sexual inequality that allow abuse to flourish.”
-I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t by Sohaila Abdulali
We as a global society, carve out ideas for boys and girls of what they can be and cannot be…
Men can be more, Women are more.
Courage my friends..it’s time for the conversation.
Let’s find those elephants.
Jeff Perera is a Community and Youth Engagement Manager for the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest effort to engage men and boys in re-imaging masculinity and helping end violence against women. Jeff speaks to grade school, high school, post-secondary students and people from all walks of life around how society’s unattainable concepts of masculinity are effecting men and boys as well as impacting women and girls. He is director and curator of the annual discussion-focused ‘What Makes a Man’ White Ribbon Conference and delivered the TEDx talk ‘Words Speak Louder Than Actions’ discussing gender construction and roles, the impact we all have and the impact words have on our everyday lives.