Looking beyond the “good man” in explorations of positive masculinities

Looking beyond the “good man” in explorations of positive masculinities

By: Molemo Ramphalile*

The way in which to approach and challenge gender-based violence, as well as other manifestations of misogyny, sexism and hetero-patriarchy, is not confined to a single foolproof method. The urgency of the issue also necessitates the establishment and proliferation of terms and phrases that are simultaneously catchy, popularly accessible yet thought-provoking. It’s no wonder then the attraction to, and traction of, phrases such as “real men don’t rape” in a country like South Africa that is desperate to halt the all-too common sexual violence experienced by its women and children. However, these methods as well as the phrases and terms defined by them are, and should be, despite their good intentions, open to sharp, clarifying and regular critique.

Take for instance an emerging discourse that challenges the notion that “real men don’t rape”. The notion is challenged not only for encouraging problematic assumptions of what constitutes “real” manhood; but also through noting that the pervasiveness and entrenchment of rape, sexual violence and harassment in South African society could only mean that a majority of real, living men do in actual fact rape, sexually harass or commit sexual violence. Or are, at the very least, complicit producers of what is termed a “rape culture”. The critiques of the “real men don’t rape” discourse are concerned with the lack of fundamental transformative potential that such phrases offer. The idea is not to call upon the “real” men to show themselves, but rather to produce men who do not reinforce a hetero-patriarchal order. The idea is to have men who are men in ways that are radically dynamic, endearing, loving, respectful and non-harmful towards women, other men and children. The “real men don’t rape” phrase and discourse undermines such efforts in that it is often too narrow, simplified and potentially reactionary.

I want to share some thoughts here around one such term that lends itself too easily to narrow and reactionary understandings, despite its apparently noble intentions, in the discourse around gender-based violence and patriarchy in general, namely the term “good men” or “good man”. Thebe Ikalafeng’s article published in the South African newspaper Sunday Independent on the 25th of August 2013 titled “A march for the good of men”–provides an illuminating example of why this term may be problematic. I’m aware that the term “good man” or “good men” isn’t reducible to a singular perspective and I concern myself here with the discourse it represents and produces in this particular article. The article in question is primarily written as an appraisal of the National Men’s Rally against gender-based violence, child abuse and homophobia organised by the Brothers for Life campaign that took place in Johannesburg on the 24th August 2013. In it, however, Ikalafeng writes little about the rally itself, but rather bemoans how the actions of a “delinquent minority” of black men in particular work to besmirch the image, as well as reinforce racist and disparaging stereotypes, of the majority of “good” black men.

He writes that “good men have had enough”, that they “have grown what Farrakhan calls ‘testicular fortitude’ and are mobilising to show that there are more than few good men in society”. He goes on to tell the “young men looking for inspiration in a world blinded by statistics of the failures of black men” that there are a number of black men “past, present and future who have, can and will always play a good role in society”. What then follows is a list of the who’s who of African actors, playwrights, musicians, writers, academics, sportspersons, politicians, businesspersons etc., past and present, all male, that young black men can look up to.

Now it may well be that what Ikalafeng writes in the article is what was resolved at the rally, or at least represents the agreed upon sentiments of the participants. I don’t know; I was not there, although I would have liked to be. But as much as it is necessary to critically engage with, and destroy, widespread racist portrayals of black males specifically, as well the structures that perpetuate the dire conditions experienced by black people in general, the article completely misses the point of putting forth an anti-gender-based violence (and anti-child-abuse and anti-homophobia) message. Clearly the author is more concerned about how gender-based violence, amongst other things, makes black men look rather than how it makes women feel. And this is particularly so because the message in the article is situated in the “good man” narrative.

Firstly, the “good majority” vs. “delinquent minority” notion constructs an unhelpful, untruthful and conservative binary. By placing the majority “good men” on one side and the few “delinquent men” on the other, the “delinquent men” become an abstraction. They become people who we only encounter through their bad deeds, not people who live amongst us, not us. They are not our friends, cousins, brothers, uncles, fathers, sons or grandfathers, who we experience so much of life with, and certainly love and respect; they are the unknown or unfamiliar “delinquent men” who only exist to make us “good men” look bad. That Ikalafeng sees them as “delinquents” or pathological figures means that he regards them as anything other than the norm. But the fact of the matter is that if all the normal “good men” had to deny proximity to these abnormal “delinquent men”, then we have to begin accepting that these “delinquents” are in fact reptilians whose true nature is only revealed when caught. If not, then we must accept that there are no good or delinquent men when it comes to being products and beneficiaries of systems and cultures that privilege men over women.

As such, as a vital starting point, we must accept that there are just men, and we are all complicit. We may not all be violent in the same explicit ways, and I suppose distinguishing between the different forms of gender-based violence is necessary. But we must understand that the obscene instances of gender-based violence that we have become so accustomed to, fundamentally come from the same place that the more unspectacular, ‘small’ and benign forms of gender-based violence do.

Where else would they come from? Not all men who are responsible for gruesome acts of gender-based violence are irredeemable psychopaths. Most of them are very ‘normal’ and may otherwise even be considered “good men”. Ultimately, the male systems and cultures that I, as a “good man”, depend on to favourably negotiate my way through professional spaces, for example, are the same systems and cultures that allow my “delinquent” friend, who I grew up with and know very well, to repeatedly beat his girlfriend because she doesn’t listen to him. We know, for example, the shameful ways in which many of us “good men” speak, act and joke when around the safe, assuring and trusting company of other men, or even women. We know how to speak and be that language because we are of that language. And this is normal.

What the “good man” discourse does is that it allows “good men” the opportunity to absolve themselves of the responsibility and accountability for their active (and passive) participation in a system that ensures their privilege at the expense of women. It encroaches on the spaces that women have to legitimately express their experiences of male violence that may not be the type of vulgar violence typically associated with “delinquent men”. It leads to what writer Francoise Verges in her essay “Creole Skin, Black Mask: Fanon and Disavowal” refers to as “responsibilized patriarchy” where men determine that the problem lies in the male non-fulfilment of traditional roles and responsibilities such as parenting one’s children, being disciplined, working hard to take care of the family and being protective of women and children; simply put, in the lack of “testicular fortitude”. And it also presents gender-based violence and its perpetrators as pathology and not common and destructive norm.

Secondly, Ikalafeng’s roll call of African men past and present betrays what Verges calls the presupposition of a “before of truth and integrity and an after of regained authenticity”. The reader is supposed to accept all of these prominent black men as examples of “good men” who were, and are, and should be, influential in their respective societies. And this is supposed to be accepted despite there not being an apparent interrogation of these “good men’s” respective gender politics. This means for example that the same Patrick Shai (well known South African actor), that Ikalafeng rightfully commends for publicly admitting his abusive ways and seeking help, could have easily made the list were it not public knowledge that he used to physically abuse his wife. What Ikalafeng is basically saying is that everything was relatively fine until the “delinquents” came along and gave all (black) men an even worse reputation. However, everything can be fine again if we just follow the examples of these “good men”, who for all we know could very well be sexist, misogynist, hetero-patriarchal and homophobic.

What this indicates is that, essentially, being a “good man” is a man’s idea of a progressive masculinity that is based on a purportedly distant Other, the “delinquent man”. We demand to be regarded as good men, not because we are sincerely concerned about the wide-ranging violence our masculinities are and cause, but because we are unlike those bad men out there. Being a “good man” is about how dignified, responsible, noble, capable, hard-working, respectable, and in some cases successful, a man appears rather than about transformed and radically dynamic masculinities. This is why an article that should be about men challenging gender-based violence, that can utilise the opportunity to ponder about how men can help transform each other whilst taking the lead from women in learning how to be men in ways that are not harmful to women, other men and children, can so easily be about the image and brand of “good men” and male leaders.

*Molemo Ramphalile is an independent scholar who survives off the spiritual, financial, emotional and intellectual generosity of family, friends and others.


Works Cited

  1. Ikalafeng, T (2013). “A march for the good of men”. Sunday Independent. http://www.iol.co.za/sundayindependent/a-march-for-the-good-of-men-1.1567675#.UjhdjrUaK1s
  2. Verges, F (1997). “Creole Skin, Black Mask: Fanon and Disavowal”. Critical Inquiry (23), pg. 578-595.

Molemo Ramphalile

Molemo Ramphalile is an independent scholar who survives off the spiritual, financial, emotional and intellectual generosity of family, friends and others.

4 Responses to Looking beyond the “good man” in explorations of positive masculinities

  1. I LOVE this article. It is spot on. Anyone upholding the dominant harmful patriarchy is accountable and men that many of us would consider “good” often slip into active and passive forms of abuse as you mentioned. Not because they are “bad” but because most cultures in the world fundamentally support and promote these ideas and behaviors that are oppressive. Many men (and women) simply think nothing of it. As you said these forums should be used to help people notice the small ideas and acts that lead to the more graphic and repulsive examples. We need to go beyond “good and bad people” and realize how capable we all are of oppression in various ways. Wonderful perspective clearly conveyed!

  2. The concept of Good vs Evil is a prehistoric way of looking at lifes’ problem and issues. Good men are a combination of Good and Bad deeds, but the ability of the man to conquor the allure of the bad deeds qualifies him a good man. The best way to demonstrate this concept is to switch on a lamp and critically observe it. Around the lamp there is darkness but yet it considered a lamp because its the light that it covers the most……Skuda

  3. Like Merrian, I too LOVED this article! The nuance with which you capture the danger of looking at patriarchy within binaries of “good versus bad” captures the limited way in which we are thinking ourselves out of patriarchy. Your article reminds me so much of Jackson Katz’s TED talk about the fact that so much of our discussions about gender based violence says little about the silence of spectators. Instead the focus is either on the man who does the beating – the delinquent or the attention is often on the woman who is beaten. Often the woman finds herself being asked how “she” could have gotten herself in a bad relationship where she “allows” a man to hit her. Again, this focus on the victim or the perpetrator says little about the social condition that allows such violence to be possible and so frequent.

    These sentences capture it for me:

    1. “What the “good man” discourse does is that it allows “good men” the opportunity to absolve themselves of the responsibility and accountability for their active (and passive) participation in a system that ensures their privilege at the expense of women”

    2. “What this indicates is that, essentially, being a “good man” is a man’s idea of a progressive masculinity that is based on a purportedly distant Other, the “delinquent man”. We demand to be regarded as good men, not because we are sincerely concerned about the wide-ranging violence our masculinities are and cause, but because we are unlike those bad men out there. Being a “good man” is about how dignified, responsible, noble, capable, hard-working, respectable, and in some cases successful, a man appears rather than about transformed and radically dynamic masculinities”

    Emphasis on the need for “transformed and radically dynamic masculinities”. Thank you.

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