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Rob Okun: The duty of bystanders — speaking out against domestic violence

The smile that crossed my face quickly faded. Society is so often poised to castigate men that even those working to redefine manhood and masculine culture are mostly invisible. An event Thursday at the Statehouse sought to change that.

As for the past five years, several hundred men from across Massachusetts gathered for a public event highlighting men’s commitment to preventing violence against women.

We all took part in Massachusetts White Ribbon Day, an event aimed at both older and younger men.

The White Ribbon campaign began in Canada in response to the Dec. 6, 1989, mass murder at l’École Polytechnique in Montréal. A man stormed into the college, murdered 14 women and then shot himself. Commemorated as Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, it has grown into an international campaign with activities at various times of the year in dozens of countries around the world.

The gathering is both a commemoration and a call to men to redouble our efforts in addressing the domestic and sexual violence crisis plaguing society. The campaign is coordinated by Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence whose members include battered women’s organizations and rape crisis centers across the commonwealth.

Male ambassadors are a key part of Jane Doe’s strategy to encourage more men to work to prevent violence against women.

“The vast majority of men want to do the right thing, to speak up and speak out against the minority of men who perpetrate violence,” said Craig Norberg-Bohm, who coordinates Jane Doe’s men’s initiative. “As men wake up to the injustice that women face, they become enthusiastic about becoming involved.”

The office of Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan is coordinating several activities to press this cause.

Today, International Women’s Day, is a good time to recognize a missing component in the violence equation society is trying to solve. On one side are well-meaning men like White Ribbon Day ambassadors; on the other are men acting abusively. In between, and missing from the equation, are bystanders; the overwhelming majority of men who are neither peace ambassadors nor agents of violence. They hold the answer to what kind of manhood society will embrace. If they stand silently by, the abusers will mistakenly believe they are condoning their violence, and the ambassadors of peace will think they don’t care.

The truth is, all men need to recognize that violence against women — whether a domestic violence murder in Springfield or a gang rape in New Delhi — is not a women’s issue but a community issue. It is high time for bystanders to leave the sidelines and take a stand so their sons won’t have to ask, “Dad, what are you waiting for?”

White Ribbon Day commemorations remind us of the efforts some men are making to reshape masculinity. Still, we cannot wish away the damaging impact of conventional expressions of masculinity; that too many men exert power and control over others, often the women in their lives, as a way to mask their insecurity with life’s challenges.

As more men question what it means to be a man, it’s a good opportunity to also consider what they wish for their sons, grandsons and brothers. Are we nearing the day when we define manhood by a male’s capacity to be compassionate and nurturing as well as strong and decisive? I hope so.

Rob Okun is psychotherapist in Amherst and the editor of Voice Male, a national magazine chronicling the transformation of masculinity. He can be reached at rob@voicemalemagazine.org.

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