by Paul Ang, Prevention Program Coordinator, The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education
*Please note, I’ve included hyperlinks to many articles or videos, to help give context and expand on what I’ve wrote here. Other people have written or spoken about these issues for years, in meaningful ways that should be honored and experienced in their own right. **Some of the links may contain content that could be triggering.
As a man, I and many others so infrequently allow ourselves to be vulnerable, or have been given permission to be vulnerable, that we can’t truly appreciate the strength and courage it takes for a person share their own painful experience. We may also struggle to feel the weight of what that person is sharing and to truly empathize. Moments like the ones signified by #MeToo, #WhyIStayed, #YesAllWomen, “I Believe You, Anita” bumper stickers, and others are snapshots of the cyclical, serial, and repetitive nature of violence. We will continue to experience this repetition, unless we disrupt the cycle, and start to take an active role in violence prevention.
I’ve always found the saying, “It’s hard for a fish to know it’s in water,” to be meaningful. First, I’ve found it a useful analogy for helping me understand why someone like myself, who has privilege, is often oblivious of this fact. Second, it’s helped me excavate and examine the environment that I live in, and what that environment produces, particularly a culture of gender-based violence, i.e. intimate partner homicide, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment, street harassment, etc. This environment and culture becomes invisible by hiding in plain sight, and can feel overwhelming and too much to take on for one person.
Last, the quote has helped me be mindful of my place in “the ocean” and the waves I make. Even though I work to address and end gender-based violence, I am still a part of the system that creates it in the first place. Many times when I’ve explained to student peer educators or men I’ve worked with, that our meetings or trainings are moments when we’re pulled out of that water. And like a fish out of water, we struggle, we’re uncomfortable, we yearn to be tossed back into the ocean. The moments when we breakdown the socialization, self-reinforcing messages, and rituals that make up unhealthy masculinity, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, are just a few opportunities for us to disrupt the cycles of violence.
But we’re not fish. We’re human beings. None of us can survive without holding others underwater when our reality is the ocean of violence and oppression. And whether those who identify as men, white, straight, cisgender, neuro-typical, a US citizen, rich, well-educated, a descendant of a colonizer, etc want to admit it, we enact violence and oppression when we choose silence, “neutrality,” and inaction. This is why when our fellow human beings tell us that Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, No DAPL, Bring Back Our Girls, Me Too, and any other calls to recognize of the loss of humanity, value, visibility, dignity and justice that too many folks experience, we need to listen. We need to listen not deny, minimize, justify, or blame someone or something else, but to learn and take positive action based on what we learned.
For me this has always and will always have to start at home, with a deep look at ourselves. To ask ourselves and honestly answer the hard questions. Why don’t I believe people who come forward? Why don’t I care? What have I done? What do I continue to do that harms or contributes to the harm of others. We need to ask ourselves these things regularly, perpetually, start a new cycle, a new set of repetition. Next, turn to what you can control: yourself, and your actions, your behaviors, and your language.
Find ways to be a part of dialogues that challenge you and makes you feel uncomfortable or defensive. Do your best to suspend those feelings so you can really take in what you learn. Listen to, read, and watch things created by women, by queer, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks, by indigenous folks, and by people of color. Seek critical feedback from those friends, colleagues, peers, activists, authors, scholars, and artists about how to be accountable, and how you can work collaboratively to end violence and oppression.
Then, find at least one friend or loved one, and encourage them to do the same personal, introspective work. Talk to them about what you’re trying to work on, what goals you’ve set, and ask them to help hold you to it. Then, return the favor. Help hold them accountable to the change they want to see happen in themselves and their community. Share with each other what you’ve learned. Help each other intervene and interrupt violence, and invite other to do the same.