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Columnist Tom Weiner: Men must stand up for victims of harassment

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Paying particular attention to coincidences (just ask my 6th graders who witnessed and participated in my fascination with synchronicity over the years), I couldn’t help but notice that on May 22, at the men’s cross-race dialogue group in Hartford, Connecticut, that I’ve been attending since the election of #45, one of the men told a story about intervening in a charged situation.

Then, John Engel wrote a column in the May 23 Daily Hampshire Gazette (“A father learns from a missed opportunity”) about not intervening in a similarly charged situation.

The confluence of these stories felt like a golden opportunity to reflect on their meaning and significance. I have benefited from participating in the men’s work of trying to transform the maladaptive components of traditional manhood, now most commonly referred to as toxic masculinity, into more considerate, nurturing and self-aware words and deeds for decades.

When I hear stories about men who have found a way to either interrupt the toxicity in the first instance or deeply reflect on what stopped them and what could have been done or said to attempt to stop what was happening, I am encouraged.

The first story involved a man overcoming his own fear and anger at hearing a white man verbally harangue and assault an Asian man who was trying to launch a canoe where the man who was yelling and being insulting was about to launch his boat. The bystander found a way to intervene that stopped the abusive behavior and even elicited an apology.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen and there is often some degree of risk involved in saying something, whether racism, sexism or any oppressive behavior is occurring.

The second story involved a father mistreating a young son and the fear factor, especially the notion of intervening when Engel’s young son was present, that stopped him from acting to curtail the behavior. What I found commendable was Engel’s determination to seek counsel from a therapist friend who offered him some possible ways of speaking in such volatile situations.

What struck me the night of the cross-race dialogue meeting was that two African-American men responded to the story about the boat ramp very differently. One, who had a background of going to all-white schools and having parents who were fully engaged and fully present in his upbringing, spoke of his having intervened on numerous occasions, usually successfully, when either racist or sexist behaviors were occurring.

The other, having previously told us about the significant traumas that distinguished his childhood and adolescent years, spoke of his reluctance to enter into such situations for fear that his own anger and frustration with what was happening could escalate the already intense interaction and lead to his behaving violently himself. He shared his fear of such an outcome and the work he continues to do to overcome his own history of mistreatment.

It became clear that not only is there the dynamic of what we witness in such moments, there is also very much the experiences we’ve had with anger, intensity and trauma that we bring with us. These contribute to our capacity to say what needs to be said and act in accordance with what we know is right in order to interrupt mistreatment and to ally ourselves with those who are being mistreated.

All of these observations circle back to the need for more men to stand up for people of color, for women, for children and for anyone we witness being mistreated in any setting.

Now more than ever, with so many women speaking their truth about how men have treated them, it is incumbent upon men to ask themselves if they have the conviction to speak out against harassing comments, jokes and behaviors. If not, then it is time to do the work on one’s self to be able to do so.

Tom Weiner, of Northampton, is the author of two books and a retired teacher at the Smith College Campus School.