Andrew O’Keefe: Why we need White Ribbon.

No-one has to be violent.

It’s a choice that some men make to exercise control over their partners, whether by beating them, or threatening them, or belittling them, or manipulating them in more subtle ways.  So, you have to ask why many men feel they need to control their partners. And the answer is that we live in a culture in which men have always been expected to be in control: tough, domineering, authoritative and entitled to power.

If we want to change that culture, the change has to come from men themselves.  We need men to be convincing other men that a culture in which men and women share the power equally is better and happier for both women and men, and that the bedrock of that culture is safety and respect for everyone.  As individuals we have the ability to show each other what respect really means in everything we say and do.  Every action we take, every word we utter, makes statement about the kind of world we believe in.  So if we want a society in which all women and girls are safe, men have to talk to each other, and to their boys, in ways that promote respect and equality and reject violence and control.

Watch Andrew O’Keefe speak about domestic violence for White Ribbon. Post continues after video. 

Video via White Ribbon

Now, that sounds like a pretty long-term project, and perhaps it is.  But I can already see the change happening.  Ten years ago, you rarely heard of men even thinking about this issue, let alone talking about it publicly.  Now we see tens of thousands of men and women every year taking to the streets, organising events in their workplaces, agitating with their representatives, and even speaking from the Prime Ministerial podium on the issue.  And most young people these days intuitively understand that women deserve all the same opportunities for success and happiness as men, and that violence is a major barrier to that equality.  But this massive cultural change doesn’t happen by itself….it happens because organisations like White Ribbon actively and constantly work to make it happen.

What do you say to a man or a friend over the less overt signs of domestic violence?  

I’d ask him what he really wants out of his relationship.  Does he want to be truly loved, or simply obeyed?  Does he want to really understand his partner, or just to be right all the time?  Does he want someone to share his feelings, or does he want to hide them away for ever until he feels nothing at all?  And does he want his kids to grow up thinking that it’s okay to manipulate and bully people, or does he want them to aspire to relationships in which they’re truly valued and appreciated?  Because they’re the decisions we’re making when we choose between collaboration and control.  Nothing gives you greater happiness and greater strength than being loved.  But it’s virtually impossible to be feared and loved at the same time.

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Of course, no two people are ever going to see eye-to-eye on everything all the time. Conflict is a part of every relationship   But how do I deal with that conflict?  Do I shout and swear and stomp around and call the other person horrible names: do I threaten them; do I shake them or hit them?  Or do I try really hard to actually listen to what they’re saying; to show them that I respect their feelings even if I don’t agree with them.  Most often, when we really try, we can work out a way we might both be right, or a way to compromise so we both get what we need.

Andrew and his wife, Eleanor. Image via Getty.

Why White Ribbon?

I have two little boys, Barney and Rory, and a little girl, Olive.  I know that if Eleanor and I raise them right, our boys will grow up to be fine men who are judged by the world on the quality of their characters and the merit of their deeds.  We hope that our little girl will be judged on the same things…but we also know that there’s a fair chance she’ll be judged on what she looks like in a pair of denim shorts, or what she’s prepared to do for her boyfriend in the bedroom as a teenager, or whether she can ‘grow a pair of balls’ in the boardroom, or whether she’s happy to play second fiddle to her husband all the time.  And we also know that there’s a chance she’ll never feel as safe walking home at night, or being home at night, as our boys will.  To me, all of this is a fundamental injustice. Why isn’t my daughter as safe amongst her friends as my sons are amongst theirs?  Why isn’t my gal-pal as safe in her own home as my mate?  Why should any person be robbed of their health, or their dignity, or their self-esteem, or their kids, or their life, just because of the lottery of their gender?

I have had a few experiences of people close to me living with abuse, and I know how incredibly damaging it can be.  Long after the bruises and breaks have healed, the emotional scars remain.  So of course I want my beautiful daughter to live a life without violence.  But as much as it would horrify me to think that Olive could ever be a victim of abuse, it would horrify me just as much if either of my boys ever thought it was okay to treat someone that way.  And I know that it’s my job to teach them what non-violent masculinity is, and my job to help create a culture in which all people’s fundamental dignity is respected.

There is no doubt that there’s a shortage of funding for frontline services.  The people working in those services are dogged saints, but they’re stretched to breaking point….they just can’t meet the need.  However, most of them also agree that we have to attack this problem from two angles: dealing with the effects of violence when it occurs and trying to prevent it in future.  And that’s what White Ribbon’s all about.  It’s not just awareness raising…it’s about changing our society’s behaviours, so that we can prevent men’s violence against women occurring in the first place. If we don’t do that, we'll spend the rest of eternity relying on our refuges and cops and hospitals and courts to mop up the blood and heal the wounds after the fact.  The White Ribbon method is this:

1.  Make people aware of the issue.

2.  Motivate them to want to solve the problem.

3.  Give them the tools to promote that cultural change in their own lives every day.

If you had one message for the men of Australia, what would it be?

Fellas, we have the power to change the world for the better.

If we want a world where the women we love are free to be safe and happy and successful, and a world in which we ourselves are free to be kind and compassionate and emotionally real, we just have to make the change in our own lives.  The way that we think about people and talk about people ultimately determines the way that we treat people.  So every one of us really needs to think about how we conduct ourselves in the world, both with our families and with our mates, and make sure that we're promoting equality and respect through our own actions.

We won’t get it right all the time - I certainly don’t - but when we do, we’re like that drop in the pond that ripples outwards in every direction, creating change that we may never even see.  And certainly that’s real power.

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