The Men Next Door

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Down the road from where I work a man committed suicide recently.

This is not a particularly unusual event, given the unfortunately high rates of suicide in this country, except in the same location a couple of months earlier another man gave up on his life in a most gruesome manner. Both of these men, an Iraqi and a Fijian, decided that their bleak chances of a decent, let alone a prosperous, life in Australia with the basic tenets of safety and security were completely diminished.

Villawood Detention Centre, where these losses of life took place, is an ominous political site where death and life have co-existed in a fragile bind for many years under the watchful eye of private security companies running the prison-industrial complex.

Nestled in the socio-economically gutted suburbs of southwest of Sydney the centre has become synonymous with what Professor Patrick McGorry terms "factories of mental disorders". The overwhelming majority of detainees are men — and moral panics around "ethnic" men still get plenty of airtime in mainstream media outlets. 

Asylum seekers, and men in general who don’t conform to a proper image of civility and class, embody the fear of the community at large because of their appearance and a perceived association with criminality. This was apparent in the egregious and hyperbolic sentiments expressed by some residents of Northam in Western Australia when discussing the proposed plans to house 1500 Afghan asylum seekers there. It seems that the community at large is more concerned with how women and children are treated, and rightly so, but their empathy cannot be extended to men who have endured the pressures of persecution in their home countries and their sense of well being with treatment in detention centre.

Hip hop artist and mogul, Sean Carter aka Jay Z, recently took part in a conversation at the New York Public Library with Cornel West. He talked about the alienating difficulties of growing up in the ghettoes of Brooklyn and intimated the sense of estrangement he felt without a father to emulate.

When the moderator asked Jay Z to talk more about the lack of a role model in his life, West interrupted to take issue with the term role model, arguing that it is an abstract notion that empties out the shameful embodied experiences that men go through due to a whole heap of emasculating factors. He pointed to how experiences of shame, trauma and grief are part of the dynamic of maturity to manhood. Villawood, where the dignity of asylum seekers is crippled, exemplifies this condition.

In his conversation with Jay Z, West invoked the solemn memories of burying his father with his siblings and the melancholic delight of listening to John Coltrane to make the general point that we need to see fathers as living and breathing social and cultural connectors in the kinship and familial structures of communities — no matter how they have led their lives. He movingly recounts how his father "believed in strength, not manly, macho strength, but strength of the spirit that resists shutting down in the face of disaster". And it is precisely this spirit that is nurtured with organisations where I work, for example at Fathers’ Support Service in Cabramatta, where we approach identity in terms of a holistic model of wellbeing.

Losing a job, losing your cool and hitting your partner, losing a friend or unfortunately losing your life are all disastrous in the sense of diminishing the social resources of hope and perseverance for men. They are hard to talk or write about unless you undergo them and it is supremely burdensome to see men as anaesthetised figures who are expected to just get on with it. This is especially true of social burdens placed on men who seek asylum and who are supposed to cope with psychological and physical conditions that have been deemed by the UN in their human rights reports to be less than inhospitable.

With White Ribbon Day celebrations last month, it is important to acknowledge the powerfully shattering effects of these disasters on men’s subjectivities — and to consider how they can be harnessed in a transformative sense. White Ribbon Day is the only national domestic violence campaign that aims at raising awareness of boys and men not to hit their partners. This is a great initiative but there are a series of assumptions here that work against men. It assumes that men are immune from being victims of domestic violence from women and other men.

Representations of men that are not steeped in patriarchal, misogynistic or homophobic overtones but that honour the intergenerational intimacies, rituals and knowledges of being a man should be promoted. Practices of typecasting for example on series such as Underbelly where Arab and Italian men are seen as exclusively engaging in gang activities or the endlessly surfing white boys on Home And Away need to be complicated with the diversity of men across ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and class.

In my team, we interact with men on a daily basis intent on re-claiming masculinity through a sense of pride and dignity. Initiatives such as Fathers Support Service Line, Beyond Blue or Mens Line are empowering for men because they use a strengths based approach where shameful experiences are incorporated into a new outlook that is built on social motion. What I mean by this that we develop cultural spaces and practices that allow men and fathers to display and affirm their autonomy and love for their children and their at schools through Dads and Kids Nights for example.

We should move away from pithy labels such as Sensitive New Age Guy or metro-sexual found in trashy men and women magazines that don’t capture the complexities of masculinity and modernity. Let’s listen instead to the records of Jay Z and Coltrane to really get what men are about.

It is important that both the government and the mainstream community recognise that gender, shame, ethnicity, mental illness, violence and public policy are forces which act upon each other. social theorist James Carey reminds us that "problems of communication are linked to problems of community". Ultimately, as a community we need to think of new ethical possibilities that bring about social and political discussions regarding men and their identities wherever they are located — be it in detention centres, on streets, or just the guy next door.

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