Why Australian Greens need a men’s wellbeing policy

Australian Greens

At first glance, anything regarding politics has always been addressed to men’s concerns. But now is the time to intentionally address men as a gender – aim their frustration toward the things actually oppressing them: patriarchy and the ruthless form of capitalism it supports.

By Khin Myint and Kate Davis

‘Patriarchy’ describes a social system that continues to disadvantage women and LGBTQIA+ communities through cultural norms, discriminatory laws and cyclical economic dysfunction. In this decade, demolishing patriarchy in Australia is about changing cultural norms and implementing policies that undo disadvantage hewn by centuries of gender disparity previously instantiated by law.

A resurgence in public feminist discourse in the past five years belies an ongoing demand for this kind of work – #MeToo notably drew the world’s attention with its cultural shifts both large and small, and an ongoing demand for varied modern feminist discussions continues to rise. The next step requires men.

We need men to invest in dismantling patriarchy. Helping men to see how patriarchy oppresses them is the key to this. Communicating their investment in feminism lies in recognising the unique aspects of male suffering that come from patriarchy. That is why we have worked to propose a men’s wellbeing policy for the Australian Greens.

The male identity

When political discourse addresses people by gender, a deep aspect of them is acknowledged. Gender is both an aspect of individual identity that we each experience very personally, and something that is tied into our society’s cultural norms and the power dynamics encoded in those norms. This is obvious when we consider the plight of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals. As a political party, we must address these marginalised identities because they suffer specific forms of oppression related to how gender has been construed by the society we wish to make fairer and more inclusive for all.

There is understandable resistance to addressing men about their own gender’s plight. At first glance anything regarding politics has always been addressed to men’s concerns. The historical owners of power and property have been men, so men’s interests have dominated the mainstream public discourse for centuries.

With that in mind, extending the conversation about male interests is not what we are proposing. Instead, we wish to address male gender identity and the challenges it is facing.

Public discussion of men’s gender identity – masculinity – has been relegated far too long to rudimentary critique of male perpetrators, or, on the right, reinforcing regressive masculine norms that most progressives would like to see the back of. A deeper critique of masculinity is required and has been happening in academic spaces for some time, but it hasn’t reached the mainstream political discourse on the left properly until recently.

We need this critique in progressive public discourse, and it must be addressed to men in a way that expresses care and understanding towards men whose suffering is indeed gendered. We need to show these men how alleviating their suffering is tied into the project of dismantling patriarchy. Patriarchal norms have exploited many of them; particularly men at the bottom of economic hierarchies, men of colour, and non-gender conforming men.

Toxic masculinity

Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella Prize-winning book on domestic violence, See What You Made Me Do, is a deeply feminist book. It highlights the role of coercive control, among other things, in domestic violence.

Hill describes the way cultural notions of Western masculinity damage many men, which in turn creates a particular kind of perpetrator. She uses scholarly research to show how our culture still trains men to fear weaknesses and vulnerability within themselves, while encouraging them to instead portray dominance. If boys or men go against this expectation – which is an expectation beyond their personal control – they risk violence from other men, ostracism from parts of society where this type of masculinity is expected, and rejection from some women who regressively valorise it.

Hill is a deeply engaged feminist thinker who looks at domestic violence through this lens. Her key insight is that the men damaged most by masculinity can as a result become the worst perpetrators of violence and coercive control.

Currently, populist leaders on the right are speaking to these men who are damaged by masculinity. The rise in popular conservative leaders like Jordan Peterson and Bettina Arndt who address men’s suicide rate, substance abuse disorders and disability statistics is telling. Men are paying attention as these thinkers argue that male issues are gendered, significant, and ignored by feminism.

These leaders point to suicide being men’s main cause of death below the age of 46. They also address workplace death as a men’s issue (over 90 percent of workplace injuries and deaths being male). And they evoke a host of other male issues.

They’re not wrong to do that – one statistic from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that if men had the same mortality rate as women (controlled for genetic sex mortality differences) then 71,400 fewer men would have died in a three-year period. These statistics are tragic and shocking, but the answer conservative populist thinkers are offering are damaging, regressive and incorrect.

Peterson, for example, argues for men to simply do better in what he labels “competence-based dominance hierarchies”. He encourages men to embrace the established order and to “make their beds” rather than help rebuild a system that needs changing. In other words, Peterson’s answer to male suffering is to reinforce patriarchy while encouraging individual men to perform better within it. This is both entirely regressive and lacking foresight, because despite also entrenching current disenfranchisement, this approach doesn’t actually help many men who will still struggle unfairly under late-stage capitalism regardless of how well they make their beds.

An opportunity

Here, the Australian Greens have an opportunity. Our supporter base sways toward a female demographic. We are largely made up of educated and middle-class women. Viewed critically, this is a sign that we are struggling to engage economically disenfranchised men and men of colour.

Part of the reason is that we aren’t talking about masculinity in the right way. One can hear talk of toxic masculinity amongst Green members, but usually out of concern for non-male victims. We are ignoring the way of talking about toxic masculinity that shows a deep concern for men themselves. We are missing an opportunity to show both leadership and compassion.

Key to getting our strategy right is analysing why men are listening to conservative leaders instead of to us. Many progressive thinkers understandably avoid online spaces where Jordan Peterson and Bettina Arndt followers engage. Misogyny can be present in those spaces; sometimes there are racist and pro-capitalist attitudes present too.

However, if you look dispassionately at what’s happening in them you see a lot of moral energy directed at men’s mental health. There is constant mention of the male suicide rate, the fact that men make up over ninety percent of workplace deaths and injuries, and the fact that men suffer 74 percent of substance abuse disorders. These statistics make sense when we consider the way patriarchal norms encourage men to enter physically dangerous situations; not to report illness, anxiety or injury; and to repress feelings in general.

Another key area of male struggle is educational wellbeing. Once again, we see this discussed often in right-wing echo chambers. Learning disabilities, and poor emotional and social health in educational settings are all particularly prevalent among boys. Extensive research collated in the American Psychology Association’s 2018 Guidelines for Psychological Work with Men and Boys unequivocally ties all of these unfortunate outcomes to patriarchal pressure upon men and boys. The research is clear but we aren’t referring to that research in our emancipatory gender politics. Feminism can offer us insight into these outcomes too if we look into the diversity of its academic contributions, but our challenge is to bring this into our policy work and our campaign communication.

Subordinate to patriarchy

Feminist theory conceptualises gender as a socially-entrenched phenomenon. Powerful social and political forces play a role in how gender expectations and norms are defined and shared out within any society. Judith Butler – a central figure in modern academic feminist thought – notably argues that undermining someone’s claim to living up to gender expectations also undermines their claim to being human. She rightly notes how gender is a pathway to being accepted at the most fundamental level of community.

Before any other aspect of identity, our gender is policed and pressured into shape, and our compliance demanded. Failing to comply means risking stigma and being ostracised. LGBTQIA+ communities know this. With their long history of being shamed for non-normative expressions of gender, these groups are much more likely to suffer both mental and physical health decline.

Admitting this kind of damage about their own group is too risky for many men though. Acknowledging that patriarchy has harmed men would be an admission of weakness and subordination, when that sort of admission remains taboo for many disenfranchised men. Protesting patriarchy for their own sake would stigmatise them in many contexts and undermine many already embattled self-esteems. What’s more, lack of a nuanced popular public discourse about gender aimed at men’s wellbeing makes it difficult for many to conceptualise their wellbeing as subordinate to patriarchy.

Instead, an acceptable male response to vulnerability is often anger. The populist leaders I mentioned earlier offer a pathway to that. They direct men’s frustration and anxiety at (supposedly) ignorant feminists, ‘idealistic greenies’ and ‘dangerous anti-capitalist activists’. As they do this, they use gendered suffering as a way of addressing men. It works. Anxiety that many lower-class men feel regarding their masculinity is tied up in their role as workers and breadwinners for their families. Aiming their anxiety towards feminist and green agendas, and anything anti-capitalistic, is how these right-wing leaders argue for ruthless versions of capitalism and its patriarchal norms.

Supercharged anxiety, supercharged suffering

Jess Hill is not the only prominent leftist thinker pointing out how this anxiety about living up to masculine norms contributes to male suffering, pathos and criminality. Psychologists and psychiatrists with an interest in supporting leftist agendas have noted it for decades. When a person is pressured by patriarchy into believing their value is the ability to hide weakness, then their experience of weakness is backed by an irrationally outsized fear of being considered less than human.

This supercharged anxiety damages them and the people around them. It may drive them to attempt to cover up any feelings of inadequacy or weakness with pathological attempts to dominate partners and others within the social milieu.

Hill also points to the precarious role many women have in such relationships. As the only person with whom many men can express vulnerability, female partners are in a dangerous situation. If a man’s only avenue for vulnerable self-expression is with women, pathologically controlling and vacillating love/hate behaviour toward women can become compelling for him. The research backing that analysis is clear, and it has been around for a long time now. We need to start using its insights for political campaigning. We need to show men how dismantling patriarchy is in their interests. One reason we need to do this is because it is also in our interests.

Men as a gender

As mentioned already, recently voices like Milo Yiannopolous, Bettina Arndt, Jordan Peterson, and Mark Latham have amassed substantial followings by addressing male anxiety about masculinity, principally by speaking to male suffering and arguing that feminists ignore it. Some of these figures, such as Yiannopolous, also add racism and Trumpism to the anti-feminist sentiments they sow.

We need to understand this radicalisation. Many men feel that progressive activists don’t care about their experiences, which is how they get captured by these right-wing leaders. It is part of progressive leadership to attempt to correct that misconception.

Now is the time to address men as a gender, and we must aim their frustration toward the things that are actually oppressing them: patriarchy and the ruthless form of capitalism it supports. If we don’t do this work, we will lose them. The fact that we already are losing them is apparent in the rise of populist right-wing figures like Trump, whose regressive model of masculinity plays a central role in his appeal to a generation of confused and anxious lower-class men.

One of the reasons we struggle to see men’s oppression under patriarchy is because we often think about the group ‘men’ while pondering individuals who have hindered us throughout our own lives. Many of us have experiences of entitled and powerful men refusing to cede power across gender lines, or harassing us for various reasons.

This struggle mustn’t be forgotten, but we must also recognise that the group ‘men’ comprises many disenfranchised men who make up the majority of those tragic statistics we’ve mentioned. We mustn’t forget the economically disenfranchised men, the men of colour, the Indigenous men, and the gender non-conforming men. All are susceptible to being filtered rightward if we fail to speak to them, and for their interests.

That is why our men’s wellbeing policy begins with this principle drawn from intersectional feminism:

Men are diverse and their experiences of the benefits and constraints of gender norms are varied. These experiences are impacted by the intersection of other aspects in their identities including class, race, age, sexuality, trans identity or history, disability, health, marital status, parental status, and remote, rural and regional living.

Now is the time to address men as a gender. They want it, and we need to muster them as allies. We can do that ethically by showing them how patriarchy hurts them, while recognising how fixing that harm helps us achieve equality for all. We must stop allowing the right to draw disenfranchised men into echo chambers. We need to offer our own discussion of masculinity that centres on male wellbeing. We must see beyond the tit-for-tat that emerges between feminist and anti-feminist individuals. We must show leadership for men by recognising those men who are at the bottom, and we must send out an address to them based on sound feminist principles that include them.

They are welcome as allies who can interpret their concerns through our feminist framework, highlighting the connections between their concerns and our goals. Telling men that they are welcome, and that we see their unique suffering is why we have written the first Australian Greens Men’s Wellbeing Policy.

Khin Myint has a PhD with a critical focus on race and gender, examining issues of masculinity in Australia in particular. He was in part prompted to undertake his PhD to make sense of his experiences after attempting suicide following a challenging adolescence strewn with tensions around masculinity.

Kate Davis has practiced public interest law for 15 years, with over ten years working on legal issues related to domestic violence, with victims and perpetrators. Kate is currently undertaking a PhD in children’s human rights to housing.

Kate and Khin are both Greens WA members.

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