This past week Professor Janice Fiamengo of the University of Ottawa was heckled (at Queens University) and, the next night, forced to stop speaking (at the University of Ottawa) because of the topic of her lecture: boys and men in contemporary society. Why is the topic considered dangerous enough to be met by violent protesters?
I can think of topics that are supportive of, say, racism or anti-semitism being protested, given the history of harm done to racial and ethnic groups. But such talks would most certainly not be about promoting such attitudes and would most likely take up the history of such attitudes. I can also think of lectures on topics such as pro-abortion being anticipated with angry protests against the practice being promoted. But in a university setting, it is never or should never be a matter of promoting any attitude or practice (except, perhaps, being open to every topic for disucssion). At universities, every topic must be open for discussion. This is what makes the university different from a soap-box or a political speech: any topic, no matter how difficult to consider, must be allowed to be openly presented for discussion and debate, without worry that the speaker will be shouted down or prevented from speaking. The university extracurricular lecture format has traditionally provided for this. Of course, no one is required to attend such a lecture.
Now consider the topic of boys and men as such: male studies and why they are needed. Why is the topic opposed? What are the psychological reasons for individuals to pre-empt discussion of the topic? Why may it not even be broached without a speaker being insulted, jeered at, or the event cancelled because the safety of attendees becomes an issue (when a fire alarm is set off, although there is no fire.)
My question is, Why does the topic itself, Boys and Men, cause individuals to attend an event that promises to deal with the topic in order to ensure that the topic cannot be discussed? Why are individuals drawn to places where they will be made angry? Or if they are already angry, what sort of anger wants to have its heat further inflamed? What sort of individual hate needs public demonstration?
I am deeply interested in the well-being of boys and men and for that reason was invited to write a blog entry here from time to time. Some of the response to my discussions has been off-topic and some of it has been angry. As I think about recent events in Canadian universities, I see similarities.
It should be clear that favoring something (the discussion of the well-being of boys and men) does not imply opposing something else (for example, the well-being of girls and women). Generalized dismissive comments here are equivalent to loud opposition in the lecture hall, where because tables are pounded, horns are blown, or a fire alarm is set off (all occurred when Professor Fiamengo spoke) so that audience could not hear the lecture or the lecture had to be cancelled.
Non one is required to read what is presented here, just as one need not attend a talk on male-positive approaches to understanding issues concerning the well-being of boys and men. Yet some seem to some here because they are angry or because they want to feel more anger. Taking a male-positive stance causes some to become angry. But why? Would it not be just as irrational to go angrily to a place where pro-female discussions of girls’ and women’s well-being are being held in order to denounce them? Such discussions are regularly held and quite popular, and they are not opposed, shouted down, or disabled. Nor should they be. They should be encouraged. But why are there such responses to pro-male discourse?
I would argue that such attitudes reflect an underlying contempt for men, the reasons for which are not clear. This contempt has been termed misandry (a term coined near the end of the 19th century). It is the counterpart of misogyny (contempt for females). For a psychologist, the question becomes: What engenders hatred or generalized contempt for a group of human beings–such as males–based on accidental features of anatomy (sex, skin color, stature and the like)?
Typically, a person’s (most often, a child’s) experience with a single individual that has been traumatizing causes the person to generalize to all individuals with shared features. And so, for example, a boy who has been harshly treated by his mother as a result comes to fear and hate all females, all of whom remind him of his mother. In the absence of such an experience, social psychologists provide a different explanation and invoke prejudice as the motivating attitude that causes an individual to fear and then hate all members of a given group. Perhaps the individual has heard generalizations about the group from authority figures (parents) before the capacity for critical thinking has developed and an irrational prejudice against a group is the result.
What is the case with females (and some males) who experience contempt for all males? Either we have a collection of individuals who have been traumatized as children and later meet. This is commong among self-help groups. Or we have individuals who share a prejudice. All have heard early all in the formative years generalizations about males that are as irrational as generalizations about racial or ethnic groups. But have they heard such talk in the formative years? Do many parents talk to their children about how awful males (dads, brothers) are? That seems unlikely. Are such ideas heard in elementary school? One would hope not.
It is an open question which explanation is better here–shared trauma or arttitude formation. Perhaps it is a mixture of both sorts of individuals.
I write as a psychologist and therefore believe that individuals with similar experiences as individuals find each other and group psychological forces take over. When we look back on any period of social conflict between groups (for example, racial groups), we find that the group psychological explanation (attitude formation) is more useful than a political (sociological) explanation that may after the fact be invoked to explain or justify the psychological effect.
The discussion about boys and men must take place and it will, but this is a difficult time. Students especially need to be taught the discipline of listening. They should then make up their minds about what to believe, but only on the basis of information and critical discussion.