There’s been a lot of talk, both for and against, NZ opposition leader David Cunliffe’s recent public confession that he is sorry to be a man. While I admire his intent, I think his choice of words let him down and weakened his message for several reasons.
Firstly, personalising the message made it all about him and took the focus off women, for whom he was trying to advocate. He would have come across more genuinely had he apologised, on behalf of men, for the violence and abuse women endure from men.
Secondly, Cunliffe’s apology for who he is — a man — indicates shame. Researcher Brené Brown is very clear, in her discourse on shame, that shame inhibits change. You simply cannot change your behaviour if you feel bad about who you are. The antidote for shame is the admission of vulnerability. Men, in particular, are nurtured to be invulnerable — which of course they aren’t — and so many if not most men feel shame about their vulnerability.
This is where Cunliffe’s apology went awry. Any man feeling shameful about their vulnerability will have subconsciously been reminded of it. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness,” says Brown. Discomfort and the reasons for it are, for men, seen as weakness and will often be played out through anger and violence.
Another gaff for Cunliffe was the “man up” challenge. The Representation Project has made a film about the impact of the misrepresentation of masculinity on boys. Telling men to “man up” is telling them to do exactly what they’ve been falsely led to believe — that they are invulnerable and that violence leads to respect.
Finally, unwittingly, the Labour leader incited the “not every man” rebuff, which totally sidelines the issue that men, as a whole, need to take responsibility of the fact that violence against women is a male issue. Instead, he has created the senseless debate over whether all men are violent to women, which is obviously untrue. But all men need to be concerned that a lot of us are.
So good on David for trying to take on the Goliathian isssue of male violence against women. Unfortunately, by misrepresenting the issue’s complexity, he may have had less of an impact than he could have.