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Dances with Guilt:
Looking at men looking at violence

By Ulli Diemer

Recently, I attended a meeting in which a group of about twenty men were discussing violence against women and what men could do to prevent it.

The discussion was personal, yet practically oriented. Two men related how they had discovered that male friends were physically abusing their partners, how they had tried to confront them about it, how difficult and scary it had been to do so, how the abuser had responded when confronted, etc. A couple of other men talked about how they tried to make it clear to men who told racist or sexist jokes that such jokes are inappropriate.

Someone suggested a male solidarity march along the lines of ‘Take Back The Night’. Another man picked up the idea, recounting how he had participated in an action to leaflet men in bars about violence against women. Perhaps we could make a similar action in conjunction with the ‘Take Back the Night’ march scheduled to take place a week later?

Then one man spoke up to say, to sounds of approval from others, that we were ‘avoiding the real issue’ by talking about ‘what other men do’ and how to prevent it. He said that violence isn’t something that ‘other men’ do: it’s something in which all men are complicit. We’re ‘just as guilty’, so we should be looking at how we perpetuate violence in our own relationships with women.

Agreeing with him, another participant jumped in with an example: he had once called his wife a ‘dummy’, something he said he now realized was wife abuse. Someone else said that reading about rapes and murders in the newspaper made him wonder what was the matter with men that ‘we’ do these things. Are we violent because of biology (‘something to do with testosterone?’) or because of socialization? Is there any hope for the male of the species?

Others offered similar thoughts. The remaining minutes of the meeting were devoted to a cathartic wallowing in guilt: ‘Aren't we all horrible?’. Any thought of planning an action was forgotten.

The motivation behind the shift of focus in the meeting was commendable enough: to get us to look at our own sexist attitudes and behaviour. What really happened, however, was that the discussion of what we might concretely do to lessen violence against women came to a dead stop as man after man leapt onto the guilt bandwagon. In the process, our previously focused meeting succumbed to hopeless emotional and analytical confusion.

Nothing was accomplished except likely a heightening of the guilt which these men will then pour out again at the next men’s caucus they attend.


This was by no means an isolated instance. The substitution of indiscriminate guilt and simple-minded slogans (a sort of internalized travesty of feminism) for clearheaded analysis is something which one encounters repeatedly in the men’s movement – and by no means only in the men’s movement. I believe it undermines efforts to build a movement which is effective in reaching out to men in society at large: a movement which is more than the converted talking to themselves.

In the discussion which I described above, I don’t believe that we were ‘avoiding the real issue’ by talking about the violence of some men and what we could do about it. The fact is that – for me and for a majority of men – violence against women is a thing which ‘other men’ do. I have never been violent towards a woman, and as far as I know most of the other men in that men’s group haven't either.

This is not to deny that most men, including myself, participate, to varying degrees, in behaviours, attitudes, and structures which are sexist and which need to be challenged. But nothing is gained by blurring the line between violence and behaviours which, though wrong, are not violence.

The whole point of trying to change men who are prone to violence against women is to make it absolutely clear to them that this is a line which must not be crossed. Whether you feel ‘provoked’ or not, whether or not you believe ‘she started it’, no matter how angry you feel: you must never resort to violence. Men who are prone to violence must come to understand that violence is utterly taboo, that if they violate that taboo, their wives will leave them, they will lose their children, their friends will shun them, they will be thrown in prison.

If this is the message we are trying to communicate, it is completely counterproductive to then say that a man who makes a belittling comment is ‘just as guilty’ of perpetuating violence against women as a wife-beater or rapist. This trivializes and downplays violence and undermines the whole message. We can’t simultaneously maintain that violence against women is a serious crime, behaviour that is totally out of bounds, while also maintaining it’s on the same moral level as making an ignorant remark.

This line of thinking – ‘All men are violent and everything we do is violence’ – actually encourages men who really are violent to evade responsibility for their violence. When we throw around indiscriminate terms like ‘male violence’ and give credence to theories that men are inherently violent, we are slandering men who are not violent and, unthinkingly, we are actually perpetuating the stereotype that to be a man is to be violent. We give an easy out to violent men, who can say ‘I can’t help it. I’m a man. All men are violent. Men are violent by nature.’

This is pernicious nonsense, and we aren’t doing men or women any favours by allowing it to be spread about.

Even a very quick look at the realities of violence shows us that it’s not as simple as the sexist slogan: ‘Violence is a male thing’. First, because many males are not violent (indeed many are the victims of violence), and secondly, because women too can be violent. For example, in Canada, mothers murder children as often as fathers do. Women do twice as much child battering as men do. Elder abuse is committed more often by women than men. Battering occurs in lesbian relationships. Women are increasingly joining the military and demanding the right to go into combat. Women in power (e.g. Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi) have shown that they are as likely to resort to force as male rulers.

Pointing this out is not meant to suggest that men and women are equally responsible for violence or equally affected by it. Most serious acts of violence are committed by males, and while men are also commonly the victims, it remains true that all too often the victims are those who are most vulnerable: women, children, and the old. When I worry about violence befalling my partner, or my mother, or my woman friends, it is the danger posed by violent males that I worry about. On those occasions when I myself have been afraid of the possibility of violence, it has been males I felt threatened by. There is no question that the fear of violent crime – both on the streets and in the home – is predominantly a fear of violent men.

But to deal with the problem of violence, we first have to analyze it rationally, without succumbing to guilt, myths, or ideological slogans. If we fail to understand the nature of the problem, we aren't going to contribute to solving it. Simplistic theories which relate violence to one factor and one factor only – maleness – actually serve to discourage a serious examination of what it is that leads some men and also some women to become violent. Instead of thinking seriously about causes and solutions, we assume we already have the key: the problem is maleness. This reductionist view (people with penises are prone to violence, people without penises aren’t) is as wrong as ideologies which claim that propensity to crime is somehow linked to skin colour.

If, for example, we look at instances of ‘domestic’ violence and ask ourselves why some people (male and female) resort to violence towards someone they are close to (their spouse, their child, their parent), we will frequently find complex situations in which one or more of the following factors are at work:
1. They feel angry, frustrated, etc., and when angry they become violent. They have never learned how to deal with anger non-violently.
2. They don‘t know how to control or cope with the behaviour of a child or an old person whom they are caring for.
3. They have learned, often as children, that violence is a way of dealing with problems. As children, they witnessed violence in their families and/or were themselves subject to violence.
4. They think they will get away with it because
(a) they are stronger than the individual they are beating up on, and
(b) they don't think they‘ll be subject to sanctions (e.g. social ostracism, criminal charges) for doing it.

When we consider these factors, we can see that to break the cycle of violence, we have to do something to change the conditions and experiences, especially in childhood, which breed violence. A very high proportion of violent adults started off as children who were victims of violence. To break the cycle, we have to above all find ways of stopping violence against children, that committed by women as well as that committed by men, and we can‘t do that if we focus on ‘male violence’ alone.

In saying these things, I do not mean to absolve non-violent men from the responsibility of taking action against violence. Quite the contrary. However, I believe that men will do a better job of it if they understand that taking responsibility for doing something about it is different from accepting blame for what a violent minority of men do. To take effective action, it is necessary to be clear about whose problem it is and what the nature of our responsibility is.

To get perspective on how we look at the responsibility for ‘male violence’ differently from how we view the responsibility for other problems, it may be useful to consider the analogy of race and crime.

Statistically, in Canada more violent crimes are committed by members of certain minorities than would be expected given the percentage of the population they comprise. Even when allowance is made for the effect of racist influences on arrest and conviction patterns, discrepancies remain.

Yet progressive people strongly – and rightly – condemn any effort to link crime to race as racist and reactionary. We would never tolerate anyone in the progressive movement who used terms like ‘Native criminals’ or ‘Vietnamese violence’ or who stated that ‘Violence is a Black thing’. We would justifiably view such statements as vicious racist smears against a whole group, most of whose members are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. In this instance, we recognize that blaming all members of a group for the actions of a minority is the very essence of racism. Yet if the word ‘male’ is substituted instead, the above phrases are considered perfectly acceptable, even though most men are not violent criminals.

To put it another way, if a male member of a particular minority commits a crime, it is considered repugnant to suggest that his actions are typical of his race, but quite proper to suggest that they are typical of his sex.

In rejecting any attempt to link race to violent crime, we would argue that the likelihood of someone committing a crime has nothing whatever to do with the characteristics they are born with, such as their skin colour, as is easily demonstrated by the fact that in any race, the vast majority are not violent criminals. Instead, we would say, crime breeds in conditions of economic, social, and educational deprivation and hopelessness, conditions such as those caused by the institutionalized racism of capitalist society. We would consider the existence of high levels of crime to be evidence of the need to change the conditions that cause crime, rather than evidence of inborn criminal tendencies in the group.

I believe that a similar approach will take us further in dealing with violence than the approach of blaming all men for the violent actions of a minority, actions most men find repugnant.

I believe nevertheless that we men have a particular responsibility to act against violence.

There are several reasons for this.

The first is simple human solidarity. Violence is a horrendous violation of a human being. Any person who cares about justice has to care about the appalling continuing injustice of violence. Stopping it is an urgent priority, and each of us has a duty to do whatever we can to help stop it.

A second reason is self-interest. Even though we are much freer of the fear of violence than women are, men’s lives too are under a shadow as long as we have to fear for the safety of those we love and care for. If someone we care for is assaulted, it falls to us to help heal the damage. And, albeit to a lesser extent, males too have to fear violence in this society, especially as children and as we grow old.

Men also have a special responsibility to act against violence precisely because there are men who are violent, and because we as men may be able to get through to them to make them understand that other men consider violence unacceptable. In this as in anything else, I believe that whenever the group we belong to, or some people in it, do something to wrong others, then those of us who belong to that group have the best opportunity, and therefore a particular duty, to oppose that wrong, to correct it, and to prevent it from happening again.

Because of this, I, and many other people who like me were born in post-war Germany, and who therefore share no blame for Nazism, nevertheless feel that we have a particular historical obligation to stand up against fascism and anti-Semitism. Similarly, even though I feel in no way responsible for ‘my’ government, which I strongly oppose, I believed I had a responsibility, as a citizen of this country, to oppose the violence it helped to inflict on the people of Iraq while claiming to speak in the name of this country.

And so it is with ‘male violence’. As long as there are men who are violent, it is the responsibility of non-violent men to oppose that violence, to show through our words and our actions that violence is not a male thing, but an anti-woman, anti-man, and anti-human thing.


Ulli Diemer
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Written September 1991. Published in the Canadian Dimension; Humanist in Canada (#100 - April-June 1992);Kick it Over (#28, Spring 1992).

También disponible en español: Bailando con la culpa: Los hombres hablando de la violencia.
Aussi disponible en français: Il danse avec la Culpabilité.
Also available in German: Begegnung mit dem Schuldbewusstsein.
Also available in Polish: Taniec z Winą.

See also Ulli Diemer's response to criticisms of Dances with Guilt.

Subject Headings: Men - Sexism - Violence - Violence against Men - Violence against Women & Children