From: Military Masculinity and Culture Change in the Canadian Armed Forces
Addressing Unhelpful Ideas about Masculinity in the Canadian Armed Forces: A Practitioner’s Perspective
By Tod Augusta Scott, Bridges Centre
I work with members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) who have abused their female partners. Often, this work requires challenging ideas about masculinity that can contribute to men’s abuse of power over others. These unhelpful ideas about masculinity can lead men to feel they:
- Always need to be right or to win;
- Can never admit to making mistakes or being wrong;
- Can never ask for help;
- Need to control others;
- Should never show vulnerability;
Over the years, challenging these ideas has helped men to both stop their abuse and repair the harm they caused.
The template for supporting individual men to change is the same as that for supporting systems to change. Systemic change is often referred to as organizational or cultural change. This template to create change at the individual and systemic level draws largely on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1963; 1968).
In work with individual men, I adopt a strength-based approach to conversations. Initially, I ask a man about his values and how he would prefer to act in relationships. Men often talk about valuing fair and respectful relationships, and taking responsibility for bad choices and mistakes. I then invite a man to consider various ways in which he may have lived up to these values and reflect on the skills he has for living these values.
Establishing a man’s values provides the foundation for him to consider the times when he did not live up to those values. When a man realizes that his identity is not being reduced to or conflated with his bad choices or mistakes, he is better able to face those mistakes. Furthermore, he is able to identify the unhelpful ideas about masculinity that have contributed to his behaviour. In my therapeutic conversations, men realize that admitting to making bad choices and mistakes and taking responsibility for them will not lead them to be labelled and totalized as a “perpetrator”, “abuser”, or “offender”. They understand that they do not need to be totally changed; they have values and practices that are worth saving. With this approach, I’m oriented to bring the best out of people, so they can confront their bad choices and mistakes, rather than only focusing on what is wrong with them.
Similarly, with system change, I take a strength-based approach with organizations that want to address misuses of power. With the CAF, for example, the conversations would begin with inviting leadership to articulate the values and work culture that the CAF wants to uphold. The CAF leadership would likely report wanting to promote responsible use of power over others as well as taking responsibility for mistakes and bad choices. The conversations would then explore how the CAF organization or culture promotes these ideals.
This exploration creates a foundation for leadership in the CAF to look at how their organization or work culture may not always live up to its values. With this approach, the CAF or any organization is drawn toward change because they are being invited to change to better align with their own values and ethics. Leaders in the CAF would be better able to address organizational mistakes when they know the CAF’s identity is not being conflated with these mistakes. Further, CAF would be able to identify and challenge the unhelpful ideas about masculinity that can foster abuses of power. Change would be easier because CAF leadership would know they could acknowledge abuses of power—such as sexual harassment—without the entire organization being labelled or totalized as “misogynistic” or having a “rape culture.”
This approach does not assume that organizations need a total “transformation”, that the entire culture is corrupt, or that redemption is impossible. Instead, my goal is to bring the best out of the CAF so the leadership can confront their bad choices and mistakes, adequately address when members veer off track from these values, and make changes based on the organization’s values.
This approach to individual and systemic change is modelled after the template promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King appealed to the values of the United States as they are reflected in the Constitution. While affirming America’s values, Dr. King invited people to consider how the country was falling short of its values. Americans felt drawn toward change because they were aware they were changing on the basis of their own values and ethics. They felt able to change because Dr. King did not conflate America’s bad choices with its identity. They were not being asked to change everything about themselves. Dr. King did not totalize America by labelling it “racist”, “colonialist”, or asserting that America had to be “completely transformed” and was irredeemable. Instead, Dr. King effectively appealed to America’s higher values to create change.
In working with men who have abused their female partners, I want to notice their values—such as respect and taking responsibility—that are consistent with stopping abuse and repairing harm. Similarly, the CAF can encourage service members to notice positive values in each other, even when they are not always living up to them.
The CAF can caution service members not to assume the worst of their colleagues’ intentions or disregard people’s intentions as irrelevant. The CAF can help members understand that a person’s mistakes and bad choices often do not reflect their “true values”. People need to be invited to find the best in each other and then use this knowledge to foster reflection on service members’ misuse or abuse of power. The CAF could encourage service members to be curious about how others’ values are consistent with respect and taking responsibility even when they behave otherwise.
In my practice with men who have abused their partners, I want to engage them in the same respectful manner that I invite them to use with others. In part, because of my negative assumptions about the men I worked with, I initially took an oppositional stance in conversations—challenging and confronting men on their abusive behaviour. For years, I adopted this confrontational engagement with men, in effect, competing with them about who was right and who would win arguments, and engaging in a power struggle to make them accountable. I
now see this oppositional approach was mirroring some of the same disrespectful practices I thought I was changing. Many of the men I worked with were familiar with other men being competitive with them, policing them, or confronting them. They were less familiar with a man who was caring and compassionate, and wanted to support them to be accountable and take responsibility.
Similarly, the CAF would benefit from encouraging service members to be respectful of each other, even when a service member has made bad choices or mistakes. The CAF can discourage creating a “call out culture” or “cancel culture” or adopting campaigns that encourage mottos like “don’t be that guy” in which individuals seek out the worst in others, confront others, while also remaining unaware of their own self-righteousness and the harm their behaviour and singular focused perspective may cause.
The work of Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated this respectful approach to social justice. King was aware of how easy it is for people to replicate the very dominating and controlling behaviour they’re fighting against. He modelled an effective strategy that allowed individuals and his government to confront their bad choices and mistakes on the basis of their positive qualities, their own values, and their own ethics.
Beyond Gender Essentialism
Gender essentialism insists that there is something distinct and innate that determines the actions of all women and all men. Often, gender essentialism contributes to people defining men as essentially powerful and in control, while defining women as essentially powerless and weak. Of course, these assumptions mirror common patriarchal stereotypes of women and men.
While it’s important to deconstruct unhelpful ideas about masculinity, efforts to reconstruct a healthy masculinity can be problematic. Defining masculinity risks implicitly defining femininity as its opposite, which can inadvertently reinforce gender essentialism. For example, if masculinity is promoted as being respectful and responsible, then is femininity defined differently? What are the values and traits that would be assigned to one gender and not the other? A far safer strategy for social change is for the CAF leadership to define unhelpful ideas about gender, masculinity, and femininity as the problem while promoting the values and characteristics that create safe and respectful relationships for individuals, citizens, service members, or workers, regardless of gender.
Efforts to address unhelpful ideas about masculinity need to include women. While the influence of these unhelpful ideas contributes to men abusing power, these ideas are circulated and supported by both women and men. Over the years, I have worked with many women who have shamed their male partners for not being “man enough”, accusing them of not making enough money or being too weak. Both women and men contribute to the problem of gender essentialism and need to be part of the solution to stopping the circulation of these unhelpful ideas about masculinity. Both women and men need to promote values that foster the culture that the CAF wants.
When people exclusively adopt a social justice lens, they often see only social injustice in people, institutions, and societies. They learn to see people and organizations only in terms of problems or deficits and to view complete transformation as the only solution. In this context, social justice advocates often experience appreciation for service members, the CAF, their culture, society, and country—gratitude, even patriotism—as anathema to social justice. In contrast, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, the CAF could demonstrate how gratitude, loyalty, and patriotism can provide a strong foundation from which to address social injustice.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1963. “I Have a Dream.” Transcript of speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963.
King, Martin Luther Jr. 1968. “Black Power”. In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos Or Community?, 23-70. Beacon Press.
To read the full report which this article came from, visit Mount Saint Vincent Universities’ Centre for Social Innovation and Community Engagement in Military Affairs reports page.