Fathers and Male Violence
This faded photo is of my father and mother in their old age. Now I am close to reaching that age myself.
I know all about white male fragility and violence. My father was such a man. As a child I was just plain scared of him, and as soon as I could I fled the family home to live with my maternal grandmother. My sister, brother and I spent years trying to understand what drove his behaviour. Behaviour that we now recognise as coercive control—relentlessly over my mother, and we children, right down to the size of a slice of bread. As well as what was normalised in those days—physical violence against us, his children, especially my brother. But mostly it was the continuous threat of that violence and the yearning for signs of love that had us paralysed. I never saw him hit my mother. The abuse was verbal, the constant demeaning claim that she was too stupid to understand ‘anything’, and her escape from blame, ‘I don’t know, it’s all over my head’. I rejected my mother’s lesson that to be loveable was to submit and pretend to be stupid.
I grew up in regional Queensland in a culture that was thoroughly misogynistic and racist, where neither my primary school nor high school even had a library, and where my father demanded my sister and I leave school in year 10 and get a job. Luckily for me, while working as a typist in the public service in Brisbane, I became friends with someone who told me about getting a matriculation through Evening College, and the following year I did just that, to go on and become a teacher, before further studies to become a professional sociologist.
I returned to visit my family when my father was taken to hospital with pancreatic cancer, aged 84. I remember staying overnight in the hospital when the rest of the family departed, in order to do a Buddhist practice of wrathful compassion for him. By then I recognised that his behaviour all came from acute anxiety and a sense of profound inadequacy. Before he became ill, I had met with my father and he had confessed to me how all his life he had felt inadequate—this father figure whom I had only known as the all powerful bully. I directed my practice to dissolve the anxiety that had his heart and mind in their grip as he descended into morphine-induced death.
Later, on my way back for his funeral I stopped off in Brisbane to meet with my cousins, the children of my father’s sister. One had been a nun in the Sisters of Mercy. She speculated that my father’s extreme bullying behaviour might have come from his being sexually abused while spending two years at St Joseph’s Nudgee College Boarding School, before my paternal grandfather lost his business and my father had to return home to work as a labourer, doing what he told me was ‘blackfella’s work’. We have since learned what the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic clergy did to a whole generation of men—that toxic mix of physical violence (caning) in the name of learning and obedience, combined with sexual violence (rape) by those who represented the authority of God and his church. Imagine that fear of no control in a culture built entirely on having control over you in both the earthly and heavenly realms?
Control—The Source of Misogyny
Working class males are susceptible to misogynistic violence because they are brought up to believe that to be a man is to be in control. The biggest psychological threat is deeply biological, to be impotent, unable to ‘get it up’ – sexually and societally. It is why black men have always been sexualised – the ultimate fear tied up in racial imagery of greater sexual powers—contrasting with the diminishment of their intelligence. And this diminishment of their intellect is what all women were branded with, so that men could feel secure in their control.
And yet for men, particularly white men, their lived experience is being at the mercy of the ‘bosses’ in a society of relentless class exploitation and social inequality. So you cop it at work, and come home and take it out on the missus and the kids by asserting yourself as the ‘big boss’. And for the bosses at work—well failure forever haunts their dreams. We know from the uber rich that no wealth and power is ever enough.
We also know from the literature that the profile of successful CEOs in the business world matches closely to psychopaths. And yet these psychopaths are who are celebrated and admired.
The Referendum—The Toxic Mix of White Fragility and Black Anger
As we speculate on the fate of the 2023 Referendum to enshrine a Voice to Parliament for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution, pundits claim that it is Queensland that will be the problem in getting a majority vote in support. Why is Queensland Australia’s Deep North – a land of stubborn bigots, especially among my age group, the over 60s? I argue that it is because this generation lacked any proper education and so are easily manipulated by populism. They also cling to the dream of white privilege, a pernicious idea not just held by the men, but also by their women.
And yet it is in Queensland that we are seeing a shift to progressive ideas among the younger urban educated in the south.
The worldview of the older generation is looking increasingly precarious with the rise of China and India as great economic powers with very large populations, populations who increasingly have come to live among us here in Australia. It is easy for white Australians to forget that fully 54% of the Australian population is still of Anglo-Celtic cultural background, with a further 18% of other European background. Only 25% of the immigrant population are from non-European cultural backgrounds. Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are but 3% of the population (2021 Census, SBS Report on Who Gets to Tell Our Stories). Hence demographically First Nations people have little electoral power in our democracy, where majority vote rules.
The call for a Voice to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution came from the meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at Uluru, many from remote communities of majority Indigenous populations, not from coastal urban blacks. Because of colonisation, one way or another, a significant proportion of East Coast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly those who live in urban areas, are mixed race, with European ancestors along with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island forebears. First Nations identity is not a matter of so-called racial purity, but of identity through family connections to particular places—to Country. Ironically, it is amongst this group of the urbanised mixed race, who bore the brunt of dispossession and cultural dislocation, that we hear the loudest voices questioning the VOICE and rattling the cage of sovereignty—voices like Lidia Thorpe and Warren Mundine. Although Jacinta Prince is from Alice Springs, she is also mixed race. Her father is of Irish descent.
When many white Australians see black faces honoured in the Australia Day Awards, they see threat that they are being displaced. They have come to expect their ethnic dominance as the natural order of things. They often subscribe to the idea of First Nations people wanting special privileges. They want to blame them for the racism and colonial dispossession they suffered at the hands of their settler ancestors – how else to assuage the historical guilt of colonial massacres and dispossession if they are practising Christians?
However, it is not guilt, but shame and regret, that we need, and a commitment to now put things ‘right’. Past efforts for ‘closing the gap’ driven by policy and programs implemented through white-dominated bureaucracy have not worked. First Nations people want the right and the power to find more effective ways forward. Colonisation brought not only poverty and cultural dislocation, it brought profound disempowerment and with that comes helpless rage and despair that drives violence and suicide.
We of the dominant white settler population have to do what the Germans were faced with after the holocaust—acknowledge what happened and what drove it, and put things right. The tone of the Uluru Statement from the Heart was gracious: walk with us for a better future. Acknowledge our pain and the gift of our culture that we bring to Australia as the world’s oldest continuous culture—a culture steeped in knowledge about how to truly Care for Country, a culture rich in the arts—be it music, the visual arts or theatre which so enrich all our lives.
The older generation of whites do not understand that the hubris of our culture has destroyed the land and now threatens catastrophic global climate change. Instead they cling to the idea that white ingenuity and science is what built modern Australia, when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did nothing with the land. They do not understand that this ‘nothing’ was governed by the profound wisdom of their 65,000 year cultural LAWs of how to live symbiotically (in productive harmony) with the Earth and all its life forms across the seasons.
Queensland will therefore be a danger to the Referendum on the Voice, especially now that the Nationals and Liberals have decided once again to be on the wrong side of history, and get behind such disgraced Aboriginal figures as Senator Jacinta Price and businessman and aspiring liberal politician, Warren Mundine. Not only have the Nationals betrayed Regional Australia with their craven submission to the interests of the coal and gas lobby at the expense of the farmers—they are now betraying all Australians who want to ‘put things right’ and honour the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with a simple YES in the Referendum.
But then of course we now also face the sabotaging efforts from the grandiosity of people like Lidia Thorpe and some of her Aboriginal Greens colleagues who cannot read the tea leaves of what can be won, step by step, and instead want to indulge in their rage of moral righteousness—damn the consequences. Moral righteousness fuelled with anger is the terrible disease of both the far left and the far religious right. It is blind to its own ego-driven hubris.
Misogyny and Politics
Like many women in our society, who give birth to sons whom we love, and further we comprise more than 50 percent of the population, I cannot really understand political misogyny. I cannot understand how it can continue. And how it seems to be increasing, not fading away. Are there terrible parallels between the dis-ease of coercive control that underpins domestic violence, and a dis-ease of the male psychological drive for control that leads to the rabid political misogyny we see at work in the hounding of Jacinda Ardern and Julia Gillard before her?
And yet this dis-ease of the need for control is not men’s alone. It is what feeds into the modern pandemic of anxiety. The world we have come to expect, a world of wealth and privilege, of technological might over nature, is unravelling before our eyes, even in such ‘secure’ countries as Australia and New Zealand. The solution is ancient wisdom, that the world is impermanent by nature and that we can all learn how live in flow with this truth, once we have found our own unique inner source of strength and truth, our inner sense of goodness and quiet confidence. Some find this through spiritual teachings, through meditation, through prayer, through a personal connection to the idea of ‘god’ in the great religious traditions. For many First Nations people, through their deep spiritual connection to Country which is alive with the voices and wisdom of their ancestral beings.
I am not naïve enough to think that having women in politics will make society more compassionate. Margaret Thatcher was not a compassionate leader. There were many women on the hard political right who hated Julia Gillard with a passion, who continue to speak derisively about many of our woman political leaders who now occupy ministries in the Albanese Government. They seem happy to campaign against the Voice in order to promote themselves to the political Right and wedge Labor. Even figures like Jacinta Price are happy to be the darling of Sky After Dark and Far Right think tanks. I often wonder how they, along with Sussan Ley and Senator Jane Hume, can look themselves in the mirror without feeling sick.
Since the shock resignation of Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister of New Zealand, there has been much discussion about the role of relentless misogynistic violence directed at her, in her decision. She of course merely talks about having no fuel left in the tank—but we now know that Ardern faced online vitriol at a rate between 50 and 90 times higher than any other high-profile figure. Of the posts classified as negative, hateful, sexually explicit or toxic, a full 93% mentioned Ardern, and even her daughter—vitriol laced with calls for rape and death. As we know, rape is about control; rape is a weapon of war.
Slurs have been directed against Ardern’s appearance, her youth, her parenting, her relationship – these all bloomed like the corpse-flower into death and rape threats, calls for her public hanging, and harassment on the streets. Analysts conclude that misogyny is the policing of women who step out of line, and that means women who rise to positions of power that were until recently reserved for men. The personal threats to Ardern – which have tripled since 2020 – were not made by people who just hate women. Rather, we see again and again that it’s about control. And we know that New Zealand has shockingly high levels of domestic violence—the dark underbelly of a society that on the surface seems so sunny, at peace in its picturesque islands of extraordinary beauty.
We remember the similar campaign of relentless vitriol against Julia Gillard when she was Australia’s Prime Minister, and are surprised that so many years later, this should play out again in New Zealand. Has nothing changed? Or does social media simply amplify the demonic forces of misogynistic hatred that seem to lurk in the hearts of so many men?
Former NZ PM Helen Clark wrote in a statement that “Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.” Security experts from the University of Auckland say that Ardern will need special police protection for a long time after examining online hate directed towards her.
The Psychological Drivers of White Male Violence
White male violence is not restricted to Australia and New Zealand as colonial societies. It is found in the US and Canada, and it is found across Northern and Central Europe. For while Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand are all expressions of British colonial conquest, they are also immigrant nations who have grown their population through immigration from many lands, and have so embraced the idea of multiculturalism. Australia is even so bold as to claim it is the most successful multicultural nation in the world—once forced to junk its White Australia immigration policy. First to welcome folk from the rest of Europe, especially the more brown skinned ‘wogs’ of Italy and Greece.
And we should not forget that virulent ethnocentrism and misogyny is to be found in India, China, Japan, and the Middle East, to name just a few. But when they now come to live among us, we work hard at getting them to subscribe to an ‘Australian identity’ that is now firmly based on inclusive multiculturalism.
By contrast the North European nations, now home to a steady flow of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, are now experiencing white male violence and misogyny as they face the same sense of threat to their ‘rightful’ place on the hierarchy. In this they hark back to the racist ideas that prevailed in Nazi Germany—then directed against the Jews and the few blacks among them. White male violence is now appearing in liberal Scandinavia, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, and in France and the UK.
The following text, which sheds light on white male violence, is taken from an article by US based Frank Lesko
Society can be tough on white males these days, especially if you are a white male with a conscience. White males have had a disproportionate amount of power for a very long time. The rest of society is clamouring for justice and equality. And rightly so. We are becoming increasingly aware of just how much power and privilege white men have had and just how much that power has been abused.
Most commentators level criticism more at while male privilege than at while males as individuals, but not every person makes that distinction. What is hard for the rest of society to understand is not just the amount of power that white males have had but rather the abuse of that power.
Mass shootings in the U.S. are a perfect example. Virtually all mass shootings in the U.S. are perpetrated by white males. This can be difficult to understand, since terrorism is usually the last desperate tool used by groups who lack institutional power. Given all the horrors and injustices committed against other demographic groups, for example, it might seem more likely than a white woman, an African American youth or a Native American male would buy and AR 15 and shoot up a crowd. Yet, we almost never see that.
Sexual violence is another place where we see abuse of power. Experts tell us that sexual violence is almost always done out of a grasp for power rather than sexual desire. But how can this be when the perpetrators are almost always people who seem to have more power to begin with? Certainly, not all sexual predators are white males, but given their position in society, it is surprising that so many of them are.
We are forced to come to the surprising conclusion that white males in these situations obviously do not feel very powerful! How in the world can this be when males (particularly white males) seem to have more power than any other demographic group?
One idea that gets floated around a lot is “white male entitlement.” The theory goes like this: White men feel so entitled to their power and privilege that whenever reality does not match it, they feel they have the right to simply destroy everything and everyone around them to get what they feel is theirs — or if they can’t have it then no one else should, either.
Family violence practitioners recognise the prevalence of the problem of entitlement. Repeatedly, they observe something in men about a right to control or violate women. In this regard, sociologist Michael Johnson notes that “for some men marriage is a ‘license to control’, legitimating their feelings that as husbands they are entitled to control ‘their women’.” Likewise, Evan Stark remarks that almost “every victim of coercive control I’ve worked with felt their femininity was under siege, and every perpetrator understood he was defending the entitlements of manhood.”
Intimate partner violence, for example, is a multilayered problem, surfacing in diverse ways depending on context, personal history, and other factors. The nature of violence varies, but controlling behaviour consistently forms the background of violence. Typically, violence emerges as a symptom of thwarted control. Control, nevertheless, in the absence of overt forms of violence, constitutes a covert form of violence. Control is a feature of entitlement.
When people are attached to positions they believe are their birthright, there is backlash. Indeed, whenever stories circulate of mass shootings or sexual violence, my social media feed is quickly filled with accusations of “toxic masculinity,” “white male entitlement” and “white male fragility.” There is a lot of truth in this, absolutely. We need to continue to explore the concept of entitlement as a lens for understanding white male privilege. However, there is another way of looking at this. It’s on the flip side of the coin from entitlement: I’ll call it white male expectations.
It’s a chicken and egg scenario where entitlement and expectations create a feedback loop, constantly building on each other. When white men are expected to be dominant in all circumstances, and when the world is increasingly not working that way, some men — particularly those who lack better coping mechanism — may take up violence to compensate for that gap between reality and expectations.
A white male feels he must be dominant in all circumstances. He has to be the hero who saves the day. He is expected to provide for his family, or at the very least, make more income than his wife. If a white male wanders into a group of people comprised of mixed races and genders, the white male will assume it is his job to be the leader, the loudest or the funniest. After all, it’s what he sees in the movies. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and generations of Hollywood figures show us that the white male can singularly take on the whole world and rise to the top in every circumstance.
If he can’t, it’s an indictment against his character and a mark of his shortcomings — this is key.
The white male does not simply enjoy his privilege as a free gift. Rather, he is told he must be capable of achieving that dominance solely through his superior skills, savvy and character. In other words, he feels like he earns his position. When he doesn’t rise to the top, he feels like a failure. Society neglects to tell white men that their dominance does not come solely through their own efforts but rather through complex and numerous mechanisms of privilege — legal, historical, inertial and social infrastructures — that push him to the top.
It’s a double-edged sword. Whatever dominance he has, he believes he has earned through his own merits. He believes he is getting a 1st place trophy when all he really deserves is a participation trophy. This is bad enough, but it gets worse: The dark side to this is that when he does not achieve dominance, he feels it is a reflection of his own shortcomings. And feeds into fear of impotence, that most potent dread that lurks in the male psyche.
A fragile, insecure man is very dangerous. He’s going to augment himself with guns, steroids or all manner of aggressive trappings. He’s going to find someone to dominate. His very sense of self is on the line. He is going to lash out as if his own life were at stake, because in a sense it is. Cue spousal abuse, sexual violence, mass shootings and just general bullying.
I think this is why many white males do not recognize their privilege. What others see as a privileged position, white males see as the bare minimum. They don’t get to enjoy it as much as others might think. It’s a never ending battle to be king of the hill and their very worth as human beings depends on the outcome.
These high, rigid expectations create fragility. It’s actually quite horrible when you are never allowed to be weak or to even come in second place. It creates incredible brittleness. In my own experiences, I am always stronger when I allow myself to be weak. I win more often when I allow myself the possibility of losing. That’s the paradox. Fragility begets violence because something that is fragile is prone to breaking.
White male privilege creates a dynamic that is akin to bullying behavior. Like a bully, white males are rarely happy about their circumstances. They may hurt a lot of people to maintain their standing, but they are rarely satisfied for long. It’s never enough. Everyone else feels their privilege — except them. If you take away the privilege, they may feel “oppressed” because they can no longer dominate others anymore. It’s a problem of perception, because that was power they never should have had in the first place, but yet white males are led to believe that this power is necessary for them to feel complete. White male privilege is a rotten system that causes a lot of damage and rarely brings out the best in white males. There are no real winners but there are many who lose.
From Recognition to Compassion and Insight
Perhaps society is not ready for a sympathetic treatment of white males. Perhaps there is simply too much anger and a perception that society has already been overly sympathetic to white males. After all, who is going to shed a tear for the plight of the white male? They can get in line behind everyone else, right? But if what I wrote above is true — that white males lash out violently out of a sense of powerlessness and a lack of self worth — then heaping a message of negativity on top of what is already a message of negativity is not likely to yield a better result. In truth, no one is justified lashing out violently, and I’m not writing this to make excuses. But we know people are in various stages of emotional health and maturity, and some have better coping mechanisms than others.
Recognizing and understanding privilege is key here. Yes, it can be a blow to the white male ego to realize that his dominance does not come through his own efforts or through his own efforts or natural superiority, but rather through the unfair advantage of privilege, from structural factors built into society.
He does not have to augment that with weaponry, “conquest” marks on his bedpost or any other marks of dominance. He can re-join the rest of society as an equal member, give up false narratives of superiority and save the wasted energy proving something he’s not. He does not have to feel threatened when women and men from all demographic groups make strikes in education, the workforce, politics and elsewhere.
There is tremendous freedom in this message when he realizes his self-worth does not have to be tied to his ability to dominate in every circumstance.
This may sound counter-intuitive and even completely unfair, but I am here to suggest that the answer to white male privilege is that white males need more compassion, sympathy and understanding rather than less — even though it seems they already have all of that in abundance. Their actions tell us something is missing.
Truly confident, self-assured people are rarely violent.
White men are constantly being told to give up their entitlement, power and privilege. In order for this to happen, we ought to offer them something to replace all that with, and the answer is a positive self-image for themselves as they are. We have a choice. We can either say that white males are dirty, rotten scoundrels by their very nature, or we can say that they are reacting to the expectations put upon them.
Entitlement and high expectations go hand in hand. Both are important in understanding white male privilege. I hope this essay has shown that the high expectations that come with white male privilege have at least two outcomes: First, they make it difficult to recognize that privilege, and second, they create the fragility that leads to the violence.
So what do we do about gender-based violence—a violence that pervades political discourse, that results in high rates of domestic violence leading to the murder of women by predominantly intimate partners, to gang rape culture in India, to the Taliban war on women in the name of Islam?
Why are men so fragile? Why are they so afraid of women? What drives this terrible need to control and punish? What makes some religious doctrines argue for such pernicious conservative Anglican ideas as a God-ordained ‘male headship’, of a Catholic Church that reserve the representation of God’s grace for men alone, of a form of Islam that seeks to keep women hidden under hot and heavy clothing in order to keep them ‘safe’. Safe from what?
For those of us who love our sons, who love our men friends, what can we do to heal this terrible rage that bubbles along and seems to increase whenever there is any fracturing of society, that delicate fabric of relations between humans that allows us to live with one another? It is to interrogate this very need for control and dissolve its grip. To deeply accept the impermanent nature of all life and to learn to live in flow with this truth—moment by moment, day by day, through all the ups and downs of a life, from birth till death claims us, as it must.
I know there are people working to address male involvement in domestic violence, by focusing on the perpetrators, not just the victims. This makes sense to me. In this age of identity politics, men need to find a new story to tell about what it means to be a ‘man’ in a world of gender diversity and women’s right to be equal participants in the public sphere, to be treated with respect for themselves, just as they are. We need to all feel a sense of our profound interdependence with one another as expressions of the overflowing creative fecundity of Earth and all its life forms. It is why films like Avatar and its sequel find such a popular audience. They speak to this yearning in us all to feel and honour such a connection.
Not only does the climate crisis and the war on biodiversity show what a dangerous animal the human is, it also shows that alongside human ingenuity is a terrible capacity for savagery driven by what my Buddhist teachers call the Three Mind Poisons—’ compulsive wanting’ that translates into greed and jealousy; ‘not wanting’ that translates into anger, rage, prejudice and moral righteousness; and ‘ignorance’ that translates into indifference, looking the other way, and the deliberate refusal to acknowledge what is going on, leading to the scourge of fake news.
Understanding how these factors drive human behaviour, and finding ways to dissolve their distorting impacts gives us the insight we need to act with compassionate courage and insight in our lives and those of others. We need to work to support a society that does not inflame greed and jealousy, such as is the impact of advertising and ‘influencers’ in the media; a media industry that does not stoke anger and prejudice to grab our attention, and a political system that is firmly focused on community wellbeing for all, not just the 1%—while others struggle with homelessness, crippling debt and despair.