I’m sure it was well-intentioned when International Men’s Day began over a decade ago. The day, in part, aims to draw attention to men’s and boy’s health; this year’s theme is “Stop Male Suicide”. This is a worthy goal: men die earlier and are more likely to face chronic illness and less likely to care for their health that women are. We are more likely to die on the front lines in wars and conflicts. We (men) are less likely to go for HIV testing and treatment when we are HIV-positive. We are more than 80% of the nearly 500,000 persons who die every year from homicide, and in richer countries, three times as many men die by suicide than women, with men over 50 particularly vulnerable. I have spent much of my career writing about and studying these issues. I founded a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to working on them.
But here’s why I don’t believe in the day: it’s also “an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions […] while highlighting the discrimination against them.” As a whole, it puts the focus on individual men and not on the roots of the problem. It asks us to pat our backs, while identifying our victimhood. It suggests that somehow we as men deserve attention alongside other international causes from advancing human rights, to honoring peace-making individuals, to honoring causes that are urgent for saving our planet.
Hold on a minute, men.
Absolutely, individual men have problems, and the gendered expectations of how men should be (strong at all costs, silent in the face of pain, self-sufficient) are part of this. All these examples of men’s health issues and vulnerabilities are real and need urgent attention. They matter, for the men whose lives are cut short, for those who don’t go for HIV testing and treatment, and for those who kill themselves and kill other men. They matter for the women and girls who are often pick up the pieces and hold families together.
And, yes, men need help and we need to learn how to ask for help. I survived a malignant cancer eight years ago because I went for early testing and treatment. My oncologist looked at me with an air of wonder. He said he had rarely seen men who did the tests they asked were to do on time, who picked up the results and did all the follow up—on time and as recommended. He was much more used to men dying earlier from cancer than women, being far less likely to ask for help than women and less likely to make the lifestyle changes needed to recover from cancer: we as men are horrible at taking care of our bodies.
However, in a country (the U.S.) which just revealed itself to be full of white men (and women), supposedly the ones with the power and privilege, who voted for a campaign in part built on discrimination toward women, minorities, the LGBTQI community, Muslims, and many other groups, I find it more difficult than ever to emphasize (or give a pass to) this men-as-victims narrative.
We need to work harder than ever before to call out patriarchy, and, even more precisely, how patriarchy interacts with poverty, privilege and inequality. The word patriarchy feels outdated to some men; for others it feels accusatory. For sure, patriarchy is too often over-simplified to refer to all men having power over all women. We all know, though, that this analysis doesn’t work – the white woman head of the CEO in NYC has more power (and much more income) than her Pakistani immigrant Uber driver. And the white, male (or white female) head of state in Western Europe has much more power than the Syrian man who risked his life to cross the Mediterranean Sea in an overcrowded boat to seek asylum in that white man’s, or white woman’s, country. Not all men have an equal portion of power. Some have very little, if any. Patriarchy also pits groups of men against other groups of men.
The problem starts, as sociologist Michael Kimmel tells us, when angry (and often lower middle income) men – those who showed up on November 8 in the U.S., and have been making their presence known in other countries around the world (promoting the ousting of progressive President Rousseff in Brazil, and cheering for Brexit in the United Kingdom) – feel they have lost something they think they exclusively were due: stable employment and respect.
Men (and women) lacking work – the men who feel they have no identity and no worth – have a legitimate grudge. The erosion of welfare states, profits before people, the simplistic notion that those who are out of work are the victims of their own laziness, deserve protest. But turning that anger into an exclusive victimhood on the part of angry (white) men ignores legacies of sexism, racism, and other historical inequalities and those who have experienced them. All men and women, of all ethnicities, deserve dignified work, not just men, or white men.
This is why I don’t support International Men’s Day. What I would support – as a straight, cisgender, white man – is an International Day to End Patriarchy and Unearned Privilege, or the International Day to End Hegemonic Masculinity.
On that day, I would celebrate the women and men who make it possible for women and men to care for their children equally. I would celebrate the women and men, boys and girls, cis- and transgender and across the spectrum, who work to end violence by men against women, by men against men, by adults against children, by police against young black men, and all kinds of violence. I would celebrate the individuals and organizations, and governments and corporations, that work to end homophobia and transphobia. I would celebrate the women and men who treat health care, for women and men boys and girls not as a commodity to be sold but as an undeniable human right.
On the International Day to End Hegemonic Masculinity, I would celebrate the policy-makers who support equal and paid parental leave for mothers and fathers and all caregivers of their elderly parents. I would celebrate those who work to end violence and who respect human rights every day. I would support those women and men who understand how poverty and inequality interact with ethnicity and historical oppression, and those who work to bring their countries to peace.
So in this year of angry men’s (and some angry women’s) voices, how about a day that celebrates our common humanity or one that celebrates an ethic of caring about what we share as women and men, cis- or trans, young or old? How about a day that stops pitting men against women but finds our common cause in achieving gender equality and social justice? That would truly be a day worth celebrating.
Gary Barker is President and CEO of Promundo, a ‘global leader in promoting gender justice and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.’