The nation barely blinked as 11-year-old Nestor Nieves was stabbed to death outside a Springfield, MA movie theatre by another boy his age. Subsequent news reports indicated that Nieves was going to the movie with a girl that the other boy wanted to date. “That other boy was jealous and got mad,” said his stepfather, Angel Herrera.
In recent years, this kind of event has been described as “youth violence” rather than what it really is: male violence. Also, with the exception of Columbine, all the shootings of recent years have involved some kind of dating violence - usually a girl wouldn’t go out with one of the boys. With the exception of Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally’s Boston Globe column, media analysis of these tragedies usually missed this important point.
I also went to middle school in Springfield, and I learned many things there and elsewhere about what it means to be a man. There were some good lessons: be strong about your opinions, stand up against injustice, take initiative rather than standing back, and so forth. But there were some lessons I could have done without: always have a girlfriend, always have the biggest car or make the most money, don’t show vulnerable feelings. If a girl doesn’t want to kiss you, kiss her really well and she’ll “melt”. If your girlfriend doesn’t do what she “should”, it’s all right to bring her into line. And if she’s going out with someone else, you have the right to a jealous, even homicidal rage against that other person - or against her.
All the popular guys in the Springfield middle school, as in the other schools I attended, embodied these qualities. They were the guys I wanted to be like, and I tried my hardest to embody what Katz calls the “Tough Guise”. These same role models were on TV, the movies, and in our popular culture. Any guy who deviated from this got labeled a sissy, gay, or somehow girl-like (the worst thing to be called as a young boy, which is a problem in itself).
I for one am sick of it. One of the reasons our sons are killing is because we have encouraged it. One of the reasons our brothers and fathers have abused their wives, girlfriends and partners is because we haven’t said, with a unified voice, that this isn’t a “manly” thing to do. We need to do more work to change what it means to be a man, what it means to be one of the “cool” and popular guys. Towards this end, I propose this Men’s Manifesto.
We will be our own role models, and the role models for other men and boys. Rejecting some of traditional masculinity, we will embrace what is useful to us and sometimes create new definitions of what it means to be a man.
We boys and men claim the right to define what’s “cool”. It doesn’t have to be aloofness, toughness, unreasonable jealousy and possessiveness. We declare that it’s “cool” to be tough sometimes, and vulnerable some others. We declare it “cool” to support the women (or men) we date in their independence - love isn’t about control, and sex isn’t about coercion.
We will stand up against injustice. We will speak out against it, and will listen without defensiveness when it is pointed out in us. Rather than hiding behind “I didn’t mean to”, we will listen to the effects of our actions, not just point out our intentions. Strength as men will be measured not just by how many bar bells we can lift, but by how well we can listen.
We will not use homophobic, sexist, racist or other oppressive slurs to gain the upper hand with someone else. And when we’re called sissy, fag, girly, etc., we will take it as a compliment. Strength as men will not be measured in opposition to women and things female, but in unity with those things.
We will be men in this way with determination - sometimes quietly, sometimes proudly, and always unapologetically. We will write country western, rap and rock songs with these voices. We will raise our sons this way, and raise our daughters to be strong and articulate. We will refuse to accept it if others say this isn’t the way to be a man - this is our way to be men, and we will not be denied our self-defined manhood.
We are sick of violence from intimate partners. Gay men, bisexuals, lesbians and transgendered folks all have the rights to joyful relationships free of violence and control. Since most of this violence is males controlling females, we pledge to never commit, condone, or remain silent about this violence. We choose to respect, listen to, seek equality with and share power with the women in our lives, and to encourage other men and boys to do the same.
Nestor Nieves didn’t have to die. The other boy could have gone and talked to his friends about how jealous he felt, how frustrated he was that the girl went to the movies with someone else. We must stand with both of these boys before these things happen, and stand with each other as we boldly define a new form of manhood.
Ben Atherton-Zeman is a spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism and the author of “Voices of Men” (www.voicesofmen.org), an educational comedy about men’s violence against women. His email is [email protected].