My mother is a wiry-thin black woman who - soaking weight, with rollers in her hair and wearing a pair of roller skates - only weighs about 110 pounds. My father, on the other hand, was around 6 feet 2, 220 pounds, a former Golden Gloves champion, and a ex-Marine. Therefore, as a child, I simply could not picture what it was like for a man, particularly this man who appeared to be a giant to me, to hit a woman, let alone my mother. But he did.
What makes a 34-year-old man, walk into his estranged wife's job, douse her with gasoline, and then set her on fire? What makes a 28-year- old man go on a shooting spree, killing 10 people including his mother?
As a professional working with men in areas that include domestic violence, I know that there are many theories out there. Too many to account for in this short blog.
To put men into the best position to choose other alternatives, it is essential that we start talking to boys about how men use violence to address, but not solve, problems. Like the age-old adage, "To a hammer, everything looks like a nail," violence becomes the signature tool in men's toolbox that we use to try and fix our problems. We choose violence in part because we know that violence works, but also because it is one of the few emotional pathways through which men give themselves permission to express themselves. I vividly remember one man in a jail group who asked, "What do you do when you get to the point where you just don't give a "expletive" and you want to take everyone out?" One man in the group, trying to be supportive said, "Just think about the people who love you." To which he immediately replied, " It's during those times when those are the people I want to take out the most!"
The room went dead silent because the staff and the men in the room knew this man's particular personal history, which included severe forms of domestic abuse and gang- violence. He was often quick to say that he was an ?equal opportunity abuser? and the group knew he was sincere in his question and serious in his response. After his comment had settled in, I offered up the suggestion, "When you get to that point, why don't you invite whoever it is out for tea and coffee." The man thought about it for a second, and then burst into laughter. The sheer absurdity of that example in his mind illustrated that even though he felt he had gotten to a point where he didn't care, he actually did! Violence was the tactic he would choose, precisely because of the results it would achieve and the perverse emotional catharsis that it would serve. We must do a better job of identifying and addressing a bevy of "negative" emotions that men are confronted with such as anxiety, depression, and fear which all get channeled into anger or rage.
It is equally important that we give men the tools to engage their friends who are abusive. Far too many men believe in "drunk therapy", where they assume that taking their friends out to get drunk is the best way to stop him from being violent. The first problem with this type of intervention is that men are often more concerned with their friends potential legal problem than they are in the safety of the women involved. More importantly, taking the friend out of the house does not address the issues of domestic abuse. Similar to the time when the police would to come to a home where there was a report of domestic abuse and have the man leave the house for a while to "cool off", these so-called ?time-outs? are temporary measures at best, and at worst, promote an idea that men cannot be responsible for their own behavior when they are upset. This does not mean that there are not times when it is advisable to remove a friend from a volatile situation. However, a true friend must see the long-term consequences of abuse, be focused on the woman's safety, and be more concerned with the children's emotional and spiritual lives than his friend?s legal problems.
The way many men- especially African-American men have responded positively to the ?responsible fatherhood movement? provides clues that can be used to move us in this direction. First, we can tap into the profound joy that comes from loving and raising a daughter. World-renowned historian Robin D.G. Kelley allegedly once said that, "Every man with a daughter is by definition a feminist." I doubt this is true, but I cannot tell you how many men end up viewing women differently based on their experience of raising daughters. This personal insight has to be expanded into a larger political commentary about how men view females. Second, many men have a visceral reaction to the idea of not being the type of father to their children that their fathers were to them. I constantly hear men talk about not wanting to make the same mistakes that their fathers made, implicitly acknowledging the type of abuse children suffer when they do not have active fathers involved in their lives. This is also a potential indictment of the abandonment and physical abuse of their mothers that men often witnessed as children. Men have to make these linkages in both their private lives and in their public statements about ?responsible fatherhood?. You cannot be a responsible father and participate in or condone violence against mothers!
I have a teenage son of my own today, and if his father and other men in his community have done our jobs well, by loving him and holding him accountable, he will understand that he can never be the type of husband, father, friend, progressive, and "strong black man" that we know he can be, as long as women and girls are the victims of domestic violence.
Jewel Woods is an author and a gender analyst specializing in men's issues. He is the Executive Director of the Renaissance Male Project Inc, an advocacy and accountability organization for men and boys.
A different version of this appeared on TheRoot.com