Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Destruction of the Earth is a Crisis of Masculinity: Next Vigil Oct. 24, 4:30-5:30 PM #yyjstreet

Human Body Project Vulnerability Vigil #39
Friday, October 24, 2014
4:30-5:30 PM
Douglas St. near Queens Ave., Victoria

For a Human Body Project Vulnerability Vigil, I stand naked on the street once a month for an hour. I use my own naked body to share and create space for vulnerability.

I hold a sign in front of my body in a gesture of gentleness to those who are affronted by nudity.

It is worth reminding any readers that I also do not feel comfortable with presenting myself naked. It's not about comfort.

I invite people to join me, dressed or un-. If you are interested in holding a vigil at the same time in another city, please email me at

I am constantly making efforts to explain how this work can be understood, please read on if you are interested.

I have come to understand that the destruction of the earth, often viewed as a crisis of modernity, must also be viewed as a crisis of masculinity (as can most of the world's violence). 

I think examining the mechanics of masculinity can help us understand how we got here and why it's so difficult to move out of it.

Tourists enjoying the June 14, 2014 vigil.
In The History of Men, masculinity scholar Michael S. Kimmel observes that:
"masculinities are constructed in a field of power: 1) the power of men over women; 2) the power of some men over other men. Men's power over women is relatively straightforward... Men's power over other men concerns the distribution of rewards [in society] among men by differential access to class, race, ethnic privileges or privilege based on sexual orientation... The constituent elements of 'hegemonic' masculinity, the stuff of the construction, are racism, sexism and homophobia." (p. 6-7)
Jackson Katz is also a masculinity scholar and anti-sexist educator/activist. In his documentary, Tough Guise, we see many young men answer a simple question: what does it mean to be masculine? The answers are obvious: tough; don't show emotion; don't be a pussy; strong; mean; powerful. Then he goes on to share statistics showing that men commit ~95% of every violent crime. 

Kimmel relates an experiment from several years ago: 
"groups of college students were asked to write down the 10 most important words that describe their identities... Invariably, women all listed "woman" in the top three, gay people listed their sexuality, and African Americans almost always placed "black" as their number one... not one man listed 'male'" (p. x)
Kimmel himself describes the moment it dawned on him that he was white, middle-class, and male. Until he had taken a feminist seminar in the 70s it had never occurred to him to identify himself in this way because those aspects of who he is had never been an issue. "I enjoy the privilege of invisibility," states Kimmel. Men, he observes, are "ubiquitous in positions of power everywhere" and thus, paradoxically, "invisible to themselves." (p. 5) 

When I read this, I was reminded of Gertude Stein's prescient observation of emerging suburbia, "there is no there there," and novelist Richard Ford's portraits of lost, numbed-out, middle-aged white guys.

Katz makes a compelling point about masculinity as performance. He shows how white, middle-class, suburban boys imitate black rappers who themselves imitate Italian gangsters in the movies. One of Kimmel's points is that masculinity is about constantly having to prove oneself. Not too long ago, someone shared with me the Kickstarter video for The Mask You Live In,  a proposed documentary about American masculinity and the follow-up to Miss Representation. I remember thinking that my upbringing and understanding of how to be in the world was in many ways very similar. I was brought up to suppress emotion and sensitivity. I was supposed to never show weakness and be "successful," which, in my milieu was very much equivalent to what Kimmel describes as the "very specific construction" of the "generic man," which is, like Ford's characters, "a white middle-class entrepreneur" (p. 8).

Kimmel points out that a "version of white, middle-class, heterosexual masculinity emerged as normative" (p. 7) and, from there, the normative became the normal. In other words, the experience of having to perform masculinity and always prove oneself is a function of culture; about maintaining privilege; and not limited to men.  In many ways, the Human Body Project is about removing the mask I live in.

The opposite of tough? Vulnerable. One way to begin to understand this concept is to purposefully place yourself in a publicly vulnerable position in a culture where this knowledge is invisible. So I can call upon my own knowledge. I often describe the Human Body Project as being about making the invisible visible. 

Like, Kimmel, I only began to really, viscerally understand my privileged position as a white, middle-class, non-LGBTQ Canadian through my work in the Human Body Project. When I started I knew I was choosing vulnerability and that it would be challenging. I knew I was going against the culture, doing the opposite of proving my worth. But the commitment to and practice of the work has opened my eyes day after day to the ways our damaging culture is created by experiencing it through my own embodied self. For me, my privilege and its corresponding invisibility has exacerbated my emotional pain, while keeping me in ignorance of the ways I am complicit in creating pain for others.

To be vulnerable in modern culture means to be un-masculine and, correspondingly, to be unsafe. The key point I take from Kimmel and Katz is that masculinity is a performance performed to be safe. But the very performance is creating the lack of safety in an exhausting, self-perpetuating circle. In the meantime: battering is the number one cause of injury among American females (Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly 4); some statistics cite that 1 in 4 women will be raped during their lifetime; men may kill their female partners at more than 20X the rate that women do but, still, men kill more men than women (US stats from Katz); ~75% of the victims of homicide (~95% of which are committed by men) are men (Katz); more people die every year from poverty than died in the Holocaust; the North Pole melts; California dries up; the manmade 6th mass extinction is upon us; etc. I.e.--how long until this sinks in???!--no one is safe.

Kimmel's description of invisible masculinity parallels my understanding of the missing spiritual element in contemporary culture. "That men remain unaware of the centrality of gender in their lives perpetuates the inequalities based on gender in our society" (Kimmel, p. 6). The dominant culture of the earth is skewed by norms, and institutions built upon those norms, that have no relationship to the expression or understanding of ways of being that are the opposite of tough/mean-looking/pussy/vulnerable; i.e., in the realm of compassion/emotion/heart/sensitivity/intuition. Just as Kimmel observes that men are invisible to themselves, so is anyone who has never had much reason to question their entitlement, and, for many, including myself, its corresponding exhaustion (so often pathologized rather than seen as a function of 21st C culture). So off the cliff we go, blindly continuing to drive, buy, drug, cocoon and entertain ourselves.

Here are just a couple of examples from our culture of entitlement. I was 14 when my family went to Greece in 1976. It was my Greek father's first trip back since he had immigrated as a teenager. I was used to having hot baths and showers. So my Greek aunt, the one who lived with her old parents in a peasant home that still had a cellar built to hold animals; the one who made the cheese, slaughtered the goats, grew the vegetables and cooked; also gathered and chopped wood, started a fire and warmed up water for me. I watched her and thought nothing of it... for decades. 

I have also used the example of an Elizabeth Renzetti column in the Globe and Mail about Bashar al-Assad's British-born wife and her appalling behaviour as her husband waged war on his citizens: she went online shopping. When I read that article I was still getting the actual paper, I recall ads on the exact same page for several hundred dollar shoes and pricey crystal. The whole Western world (and its satellite consumerlands) is allowed to shop at the expense of the rest of humanity. We get a socially sanctioned pass, one of many. 

Kimmel: "The very processes that confer privilege to one group and not to another group are often invisible to those upon whom that privilege is conferred" (p. 5). Not that it's doing any of us much good.

In my opinion, the biggest problem humans are facing is a world of there is no there there. The destruction of the earth is a crisis of modernity is a crisis of masculinity is a crisis of entitlement.

How are you? Fine? Me? I never feel safe.

Note: Both Katz and Kimmel rightly give much credit to the decades of feminist/gender/race/queer studies work, conducted mostly by women, gay men and other minority scholars/activists under often hostile circumstances, that they build upon.

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