Thursday, May 17, 2018

No Haven for Toxic Masculinity

wrote this and then didn't publish for various reason---


On May 2nd, an explosion rocked North Haven.    A town resident, in the process of a messy divorce, held his wife hostage at gun point in her home for several days.  The house, being located on a major road and with a recently sold but unoccupied property on one side, was somewhat shielded from its neighbors, but luckily a nearby woman who heard what sounded like a domestic disturbance alerted the police.  A standoff transpired that culminated in large barn explosion.   Nine officers were injured and the man at the center of the disturbance perished in the ensuing fire.  Luckily, the woman held captive escaped with her life.

It was a tragic and terrifying event, one which the town I call home will not soon forget.  Though the shock of it caught the entire community off guard, it could arguably be seen as the result of a toxic mixture of elements that had brewing for some time. North Haven is a small town in Connecticut bordering New Haven, Wallingford, and Hamden.  From an outside glance, it appears that this type of incident is a unique event, and thankfully it is, but it’s only a more extreme version of something that is deeply symptomatic of a tendency that is not at all unique to North Haven, but plagues it nevertheless; toxic masculinity.

The mere mention of term may cause many to recoil in disgust or roll their eyes.  After last year’s #MeToo moment, many men’s response was to create their own hashtag in #NotAllMen, as if the mere existence of some decent men absolved their responsibility in tackling the issue, leaving it to women to resolve their own oppression.  But even if toxic masculinity seems like a rather ephemeral concept, it has real, lasting, and deadly material consequences. Nearly three U.S. women are killed every day as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the Bureau of Justice.  According to the CDC, nearly half of all women who are murdered are murdered by their domestic partners.  The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that someone is sexually assaulted every 8 seconds in the U.S. and only 6 out of every 1,000 rapists will ever see prison time.  The vast majority of perpetrators in these instances are men.  90% of female victims and 93% of male victims of sexual violence say that their abuser was a man, according to a 2010 survey by the CDC.

In 2016, the Republican Party, under the auspices of a campaign to nominate a man who has his own 7,000+ word Wikipedia entry just on the 15+ sexual misconduct allegations against him, began actively courting the support of the fringe Men’s Rights movement, a group that has launched targeted harassment campaigns against feminists, spread false statistics meant to diminish the credibility of women who’ve been abused or mistreated, and, in some corners, even advocated against consent and for female subjugation.  The hands of the Democrats are not clean either; a series of scandals last year revealed that a number of national politicians on both sides of the aisle had used secret taxpayer funds to sweep harassment allegations under the rug.  Here in CT, in a perfect illustration of how women can also be complicit in the perpetration of toxic masculinity, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty protected her Chief of Staff after threatening a female coworker. More recently, a “Time’s Up” bill failed to be called for a final vote in the state house apparently after bipartisan objections about eliminating the statute of limitations for workplace harassment claims failed to pass muster with the corporate wing of each party. 

Toxic masculinity does not just trickle down from the national stage though.  It infiltrates our communities in opaque and unsuspecting ways.  It’s observable in the women who refuse to speak up about injustice or unfairness for fear of reprisal.  It’s present in women who are viewed with suspicion for having platonic male friends or for putting their needs above their husbands.  It’s demonstrated in the ways women are expected to perform custodial or auxiliary labor akin to domestic tasks while at the workplace, and in the “sense of humor” women are seen to lack when jokes cut at their expense. Male supremacy doesn’t even have to assert itself publicly to be felt. Its ideology clogs the air of the spaces it occupies, but to most men it’s their natural habitat so it’s like the fish who ask what water is when you try to describe it to them. 

In North Haven, one sees trickles of these attitudes all around.   In 2015, a debate raged around changing its controversial school sports team name and mascot out of concern that it was offensive to indigenous people.  The conversation reached a stalemate after several in town, including the young college-aged woman who initiated the conversation, indigenous families, and town officials sympathetic to the name change, began to fear for their safety after receiving death threats.  The same type of behavior persisted last year after a prolonged battle over the installation of two turf fields at the middle school made with synthetic crumb rubber infill, a substance currently under investigation by the EPA, CDC, and CPSC for health concerns.  That these two incidents pertain to competitive sports is not an indictment on the activities that many men and women enjoy, but it’s not entirely coincidental either.  Competition and the concept of “winning” are integral to toxic masculine culture. 

For men who bully, taunt, and harass, their actual goal is frequently secondary to the power they wish to assert, the desire to dominate, more often than not over women who challenge their wisdom or authority.  Indeed, central to the push for change in the aforementioned incidents were PTA moms and elected women, who bore the brunt of the merciless mocking, harassment, and gaslighting by sports dads and public officials.  A now infamous May 2017 North Haven Special Board of Selectmen meeting held in response to a request for a special meeting to review the town’s decision to proceed with crumb rubber turf fields descended into a mock trial against the parents and residents (mostly women) who dared voice concerns about the health and safety of their children, led in part by the two majority party men on the board and their male lawyer.  Afterwards, the one minority party woman sympathetic to the idea of holding the meeting, who patiently cited relevant case law supporting the town’s legal obligation to call it as she was jeered and booed, had her house vandalized.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sense when episodes of mass hysteria like this might bubble over into something truly dangerous like the incident on Quinnipiac Avenue.  Lacking the ability to see what happens behind closed doors in the bedroom or the office, one must rely on what happens in public. And there’s nothing more public, nor vile, than what transpires on social media.  As anyone who has attempted to “chime in” on an issue of even minor controversy can attest, trolls and bullies can materialize quickly and with alarming ferocity. 

Earlier this year when a young woman from North Haven High School posted a notice about the then-upcoming March For Our Lives walkout, she was pestered relentlessly by a group of intimidating men with guns as their profile pictures in a manner not dissimilar to the relentless campaign that hounded the Parkland teens after they spoke out.  Thus, an event launched by children in the wake of a massacre of children, which like so many other massacres of children was triggered by murderous delusions of grandeur and entitlement by an armed man, was met with hostility and intimidation by a group of armed men and their strong opinion about the way children should be responding to threats against their safety and wellbeing. 

Even more recently, a college student set up a GoFundMe to assist the woman who had been held hostage by her husband, lost her home in the May 2nd explosion, and suffered injuries in the process.  The young man who set up the fund was transparent about his process and intentions, posting online in several North Haven groups using his real name and account.  Nevertheless, a paranoid mob soon determined that he was a scammer and the college student too was threatened, with his mother and eventually the victim herself rushing to his defense to assuage the angry hoard. 

This alarming pattern of behavior should surprise no one at this point, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be accepted as normative.  For years, Twitter and Facebook have refused to respond to online harassment claims by women, while aggressively going after seeming lesser offenses like breastfeeding pictures or swearing at verified accounts.   While men are not responsible for all of the harassment or aggressive silencing that takes place online, men become responsible for setting the tone of a conversation by the very nature of the gender imbalance.  When women are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal or retribution, it falls on men to either fight themselves for open dialogue by all or accept the grossly inequitable norm by encouraging women to either fight back or self-censor.

As I gathered thoughts and sat down to write this column on the way toxic masculinity had affected my community, yet another North Haven woman was silenced, this time forever.  After what was allegedly a domestic quarrel, a woman was struck and then dragged by a car being driven by her husband, who is now being charged with manslaughter after she succumbed to her injuries.   For women who are afraid of their husbands or their male co-workers, the message this act sends is loud and clear- watch your step.  While men loudly protest about what words and actions they take, it’s rare that their lives are literally on the lines over this.  Women live among grave potentialities every day, the kind in which one false move or a word out of line can send spinning the unhinged gears of male supremacy.

For North Haven, and particularly North Haven men, the decision on how to proceed after these two horrifying incidents of domestic violence that both took place in such a small time frame is vital.  It’s on us to decide what kind of community we are and what kind of behavior we will allow.  If we continue down our current path, these latest incidents won’t be the last that bubble up and detonate in ways we can no longer ignore.

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