Sunday, 17 June 2018

Men are key to stopping violence against women

In the wake of the cruel murder last week of Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon, an event which caused a general outcry in the community that had echoes of the reaction provoked by the death in September 2012 under similar circumstances of Jill Meagher, the #MeToo movement inevitably gained renewed focus.

Given that people are talking in public places about the problem, including on social media, it’s no surprise to learn that Australian publisher Allen & Unwin has contracted with journalist David Leser to write a book about the issue. In reporting on this fact, Guardian media reporter Amanda Meade was quizzical when faced with what might at first glance appear to be a point of dissonance: a male writer putting out a book on something so close to the hearts of women as the physical violence that is used by some men to get what they want. In her story, Meade included quotes from pugnacious commentator Van Badham, who is not surprisingly totally against the deal. Online, someone I know was equally scathing.

But men have to be part of the solution to the problem of violence against women and must also be helped to develop the empathy that will stop it from happening in the future. Empathy is not equally inherent in every person, and in many cases has to be learned, but we know that reading literary fiction helps people to respond with greater empathy to events in the real world. Leser, who started out in his career by writing up sensitive interviews with prominent people in the form of profiles, uses literary techniques in his work.

Literary journalism (also called creative non-fiction) differs from regular journalism in that it relies on the techniques of literature to achieve its aims. Things like characterisation, including a strong reliance on reported speech and the distinguishing of subjects using such elements of writerly colour as descriptions of their mannerisms. It also uses recounts of the feelings that the interviewer him- or herself felt during the interview, and often novelistic plotting, in order to build a sense of drama into the piece. The kind of details that make reading novels so satisfying. Giving Leser a wad of cash to allow him to turn his limpid gaze onto such a thorny subject as #MeToo strikes me as being not only good sense from a business perspective, but also constructive in a broader sense in that it might help men, especially, to pay more attention and take a more critical look at they ways they often cause women to feel fear.

Like using the body’s own immune system to fight a cancer that is growing in it, it is essential to get men to examine themselves critically as part of the wider debate about the murder and the movement. Just as is formulating better ways of educating boys to respectfully deal with girls. Because of the way that some men sometimes behave without the softening influence of empathy, we need to help them to view the way they act with fresh eyes. A book by someone as intelligent and skillful as Leser must go a long way toward furthering that project. Simply lambasting the project even before it has borne fruit simply because the book won’t be written by a woman merely demonstrates the kind of unthinking and corrosive partisanship that often prevails on social media and in the public sphere more generally, and which is a symptom of exactly the same lack of empathy that lies at the root of the tendency of some men to intimidate and hurt women. It’s fighting fire with fire.

We need to take a different approach and try to understand each other better if we are to find a way to solve the problem at hand. Just lobbing insults in order to give a narrow following a momentary thrill in the end won’t help anyone.

On 3 May this year I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Darlington. For me, the area is redolent with memories as in the 1980s I studied as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I met one of my oldest friends over lunch in a terrace house on Abercrombie Street, just around the corner from the event’s venue. But on this sunny autumn day I sat down in a crowd of mostly older women to listen to the short story writer Melanie Cheng talk about empathy. Cheng is a GP as well as an author of fiction. She was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and lives and works in Melbourne. It was fascinating to be part of the crowd of people with their minds trained on such a difficult and important subject. Cheng reminded the audience that research studies conducted in various places around the world have shown that reading literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction or non-fiction) is especially good at helping people to use empathy in their daily lives. She said many other things as well, and hopefully her ideas and insights as a doctor will be published in a literary journal so that more people can learn from her studies into this fascinating subject.

Because it’s not male journalists writing about violence against women that is the problem, it’s the broader culture they grow up in that is at fault here. You see groups of young men or teenagers walking in the city from time to time and you keep an eye on them, just in case, even in broad daylight. Especially with teenagers aged from 13 to 16, you never know what is going to happen. Some uncritical uses of popular culture, such as spectator sport or music, can exaggerate the dysfunction characterising such deadly cliques, where solidarity with one’s peers is prized because their applause is more valuable to you than any other available good. You don’t score goals unless you work as a team, and you are more lethal and effective when it is night-time and there’s no-one around with the power to stop you doing exactly what you feel inclined to do.

The other day I was in Newtown and as I was standing with a friend, who was born in an Asian country, a car with some people in it went past on the carriageway. Some cold liquid, it could have been water flung from a bottle or it could have been spit from someone’s mouth, erupted in the air among the people waiting for the bus to arrive at the stop we stood next to. A young woman who was standing there acknowledged that she too had felt the flying drops. “Too much freedom,” commented my friend severely as she motioned for me to step away from the kerb to the relative safety of the pavement under a shop awning.

Individual freedom is prized in Western countries but there is a trade-off in the form of undesirable aberrant behaviour, especially with young men in places where they think they can get away with whatever action comes into their mind to carry out. We need to teach young men and boys how to function better as parts of a society where the rights of everyone are equally respected. Teaching empathy is the way to achieve this goal, and it must be done at different ages in different ways. Young men must be made to experience how other people feel, and not to just obey the call of their own inclinations. A book by someone as skilful with his craft as Leser is a good place to start this journey.

A member of my family suffered a fate like that which befell Dixon and Meagher. In 1930 a young woman, a poet named Mollie Dean, was stabbed to death in a street in Elwood, in suburban Melbourne. Her cousin Harry Dean was my grandfather. Like his cousin, Harry loved literature. On my bookshelves I have some of his copies of Henry Lawson’s short stories. He had a habit of clipping poems out of the left-wing newspapers published in the cities in his era and pasting them in a scrapbook. A lot of these poems were not very good, but it was the sentiments that animated them that he prized rather than the skill with which they were expressed. He was all for sharing the wealth the community generates as widely as possible.

In my family, no-one ever talked about Mollie’s untimely death when I was growing up although mum would mention it from time to time when she arrived in her eighties and I was living up in Queensland looking after her. In the family trees that dad made using Excel spreadsheets in the years after his retirement, he signposted Mollie’s unfortunately brief existence with a few words.

But I think that Harry would have been pleased, to the extent that recognition and truth-telling are valuable quantities in themselves given the tragic facts of the case, with the book about Mollie’s murder published earlier this year by Gideon Haigh. Harry died in 1954 from cancer that had started as a melanoma and his daughter, my mother, was given away by her brother Geoff at the church booked for her marriage the following year. I was born eight years after Harry’s death but I think that if he had somehow survived his illness we would have got along. I regret also never having had the opportunity to meet Mollie and show her children my own poems.

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