Rethinking the Enemy

In societies across the world, men are the overwhelming perpetrators of violence. Owing to this reality, and its horrific consequences for victims, there has been a collectivisation of men as agents of havoc. The brutality of their conduct has created a strong – and rightful – emphasis on the needs and narratives of their victims. Relatedly, the urgency of responding to male violence frequently forms the paramount objective of many organisations and institutions concerned with conflict stabilisation.

Author

January 10th, 2014

In societies across the world, men are the overwhelming perpetrators of violence. Owing to this reality, and its horrific consequences for victims, there has been a collectivisation of men as agents of havoc. The brutality of their conduct has created a strong – and rightful – emphasis on the needs and narratives of their victims. Relatedly, the urgency of responding to male violence frequently forms the paramount objective of many organisations and institutions concerned with conflict stabilisation.

While this approach is critical, it often overlooks an essential conversation and process that must occur with men. Unless we accept that men are sadistic by nature, we must conclude that a confluence of social factors contributes to the more egregious elements of their conduct. In the absence of proactive engagement with men and critical review of their gendered experiences, the challenges of violence and gender-based violence will remain reactive, which is why my new OSISA-funded photographic and research project – – is so critical.

And I know this from personal experience. Until my early twenties, I placed great stock in conventional masculinity and its pillars of emotional repression and the violent defence of honour. This experience, shared by millions of men across the world, led me into numerous, regrettable confrontations. There was a time, during my adolescent and teen years, when educators and other authorities concluded that my future would consist of incarceration and other manifestations of social failure. While my conduct was disruptive, it was ultimately born of repressed sorrow and a lack of emotional literacy to constructively and openly deal with the emotional tumult that plagued me.

But after a period of deep introspection, prompted by the guidance and encouragement from key influencers in my life, I was able to eschew the destructive constraints of conventional masculinity and embark on a healthier path of manhood. While my own struggles pale in comparison with those with whom my project is concerned, they are still part of a universal framework in which the social demands of conventional masculinity contribute to instability and conflict. I believe that my past experience will help me build trust with the men involved in my study and to address this very sensitive – and critical – issue.

Rethinking the Enemy will give me the chance to visit three countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia and South Africa – and contribute to broadening the dialogue and sparking more nuanced debate around violence through a sensitive and in-depth examination of men and masculinity.

In DRC, acute forms of violence, including appallingly high levels of rape, have long defined the landscape of conflict in eastern parts of the country. Rape has been dubbed a ‘weapon of war’ in the region and this dynamic has garnered much international attention. In recent years, the Congolese government, with support from international organisations, has attempted to enhance the rule of law and tackle impunity for murder, rape and other violence through the prosecution of offenders in mobile courts. Scores of offenders have been convicted and sentenced, allowing for a sense of community restitution for the first time in decades.

But while these punitive measures are of tremendous social value, the conversation about why rape and other forms of violence occur with alarming frequency remains underdeveloped. Sadly, much of the violence is discussed in antiquated terms and frameworks, in which perpetrators are referred to as ‘savages’ – among other dehumanising terms – and the underlying causes of their conduct are often left unexamined.

In Namibia, there is a growing gap between national peace and stability and increasing crime and violence at the community level. All evidence points to rising levels of violence, particularly gender-based violence, with a swelling tide of rape and domestic violence. An OSISA/OSF crime and violence initiative with a host of local partners has uncovered many factors behind growing insecurity in three very different communities but it has not looked into the nature of masculinity or the gendered forces behind the normalisation of violence among many men.

In South Africa, violent crime rates have fallen in recent years but are still extraordinarily high. Thousands of people are murdered each year and gender-based violence – both sexual and physical – is horrifically widespread. And yet South Africa has been peaceful and democratic for 20 years. This project will look at the roles men play and what social and cultural forces drive them – and how they are expected to act in a deeply gendered society.

While punitive measures will be enduring critical, I believe that proactive, sensitive engagement with men is also essential component in the struggle to reduce global violence and repression. Without understanding the motives behind violence and the conditions that make its occurrence so frequent, its continuation seems inevitable.

This project – undertaken through  a unique series of photographic portraits and in-depth interviews with individual men – will help to spark debate about the need for a serious engagement with those who commit violence and why the current default response of most societies can only be punitive and retroactive, which often worsens the situation.

This project is not an apology for – or justification of – some men’s deplorable behaviour. It is, instead, an inquiry into the circumstances and social factors that may be related to their conduct, which will hopefully help to flesh out dimensions of the conversation on conflict and violence that are, to date, underdeveloped.

And therefore, help to make future interventions more effective – and so, eventually, begin to reduce the appalling levels of violence in these three countries and elsewhere.

Contacts

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