I have watched with interest how the trauma of men is treated, especially men who go on to traumatise others. Frankly I am disappointed, and believe it does not serve us in attempting to understand patriarchal violence.
I saw this dynamic when the news of sexual assault allegations began to surface against author Junot Díaz. Though vague accusations had been voiced about Díaz, author Zinzi Clemmons bravely stepped forward with her story and, since early April, numerous other women authors also began telling their stories about his violent behaviour.
Prior to survivors coming forward, Díaz wrote in The New Yorker about his rape as a child: “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue …”
Many began to frame Díaz’s violent behaviour towards Clemmons and other women as a consequence of his childhood, citing that those who are abused are more likely to abuse.
But Díaz being a survivor of abuse and then consequently becoming an abuser cannot be solely attributed to his trauma. Part of the answer lies in what society teaches generations of boys about trauma: that they should take their feelings of entitlement, anger and rejection and turn them into a weapon.
Radical feminists such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks have framed this dynamic in useful ways. Hooks in particular wrote in Why Men Need Feminism Too: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.
“If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
Feminist writers have long understood that patriarchy violates men too, coupling this with the understanding that trauma is also a vehicle of patriarchal violence. Trauma then becomes a part of the way in which we begin to make sense of an abnormal and violent society and world.
Although understanding trauma helps to make sense of violent behaviour that becomes normalised, it cannot be used to excuse this behaviour, especially in groups in which the boot of white supremacy is particularly heavy.
Patriarchal societies teach men that their feelings are more valuable than anyone else’s. It teaches men that they can break the backs of women and children while trying to heal themselves. It dictates that those of us who have been raped and beaten by men who themselves were abused should be empathetic.
Under patriarchy, men’s anger is sacrosanct and unquestionable. Men can kill women because rejection angers them. Men rape and assault women, children and other men because they are hurting and broken — as though the rest of us aren’t hurt and broken.
Under patriarchy, men never have any burden of empathy for those who survive their violence. The examples are endless, and right on our doorstep.
Convicted murderer Sandile Mantsoe repeatedly tried to argue that Karabo Mokoena had “angered” him as a way to justify his abuse and ultimately her murder. Thabani Mzolo (23) is alleged to have told of how he “lost control” of the situation that led to the brutal murder of 23-year-old Zolile Khumalo at Mangosuthu University of Technology. Kwaito artist Mshoza is in hiding after her husband is alleged to have been “angered” by an infidelity he accuses her of, and thus he beat and threatened to kill her.
Convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius had repeated incidents of “losing his temper” and aggression prior to and after his conviction for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, including his former girlfriend Samantha Taylor having to constantly placate him and shouting at prison nurse Charlotte Mashobane.
More recently Mandla “Mampintsha” Maphumulo, accused of abusing and stalking his former girlfriend Bongekile “Babes Wodumo” Simelane, took to Facebook the day after the allegations were made on The Drive on Metro FM.
He wrote: “I want to apologise to South Africa for disappointing you and discourage other men out there who may find themselves in my situation or different one that challenges your emotional [stability] and restrain[t].
“No man has any right or justification to abuse a woman in any form whatsoever … I want to assure South Africans, in particular our supporters, that violence is not in my character, especially towards women. Like a human being in a relationship I may have been overwhelmed by emotions and over-reacted. Where we come from with her, abusive wouldn’t best define the nature of our journey.”
When men are not downplaying their propensity for violence, patriarchal societies routinely provide excuses for their aggression, even when it ends in death. Men “over-react” and when it’s not that, they are “broken”.
This is how patriarchal societies tell them from birth that violence is their birthright.
It is no surprise then that in societies where mass shootings are commonplace, such as the United States, the men who shot people en masse are likely to have been abusive partners. Feminist scholars and thinkers have long said that violence in the public domain is often indicative of violence in the private domain and vice versa.
Academic Shreerekha Subramanian, writing about Díaz for the online literary magazine The Rumpus, provides insight when she asks: “Can trauma and violation give you a free pass to somehow narrate your way out of the endless hurt you have bestowed upon your countless lovers, many of whom you have kept in a state of indefinite and muddled waiting that never reaches resolution?
“How does trauma shape who you are and what you do? Trauma repeats, is cyclical by nature, and so on and so forth. Hurt people hurt people.
“However, and perhaps because of the nature of the crimes and the fact that this substrata of humanity is paying for whatever it doled out, the men present a certain dignity and resolute opposition to justify trauma they enacted due to trauma they experienced.
“The linearity of that narrative, no matter how much structural theory and compassion I might pedagogically dole out toward a symbolic exoneration, the men refuse to cap to it. One trauma does not and should not become an alibi for the other.”
There is a constant demand for marginalised groups such as women, children and queer people to empathise with the violence patriarchy metes out but there is never the demand for men to do the same. Men are to be understood; the rest of us must simply understand and also bear the brunt of violence.
All this does is create fertile conditions for patriarchal violence to continue unquestioned.