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A history of violence perpetuated


I wish I could tell you who I am, and where I grew up, but I can't. Not without risking my safety, or that of my family.

The threat was clear, you see.

It was right there on a utility pole, in black and white: the silhouette of a woman beating a small child, her fist raised in fury. And the message beneath: "Just because it's your kid...doesn't mean it's your punching bag."

Ironically, or tragically, the whole enterprise felt like a punch in the gut. I thought of my mother, my aunts and uncles, my grandfather---all abused by my grandmother.

My family's stories are the worst kind of unforgettable: broken ribs, cigarette burns and scalps split open with steel-toe boots; being gagged and bound in bed for the night or locked in a rat-infested shed, chased into the woods at gunpoint or forced to outrun a moving car. Christmas toys burnt in the woodstove. Family pets drowned, poisoned, shot. Dirty clothes, no doctors, no friends.

I understand that women can be violent, and that these violent tendencies are rarely met with a measured, appropriate response by communities or law enforcement. I've spent my life bearing witness to this dangerous aspect of our culture's status quo. But this poster and its creators have it all deeply, terribly wrong.

When I followed the lines of the violent silhouette stapled to that pole, I didn't feel a sense of solidarity or empowerment; nobody had my family's back, or mine. Instead, I was overcome with fear, shame and the sense of a clear threat courtesy Men's Rights Halifax (MRH), a fledgling group of men's rights activists (MRAs) headed by one Sammich Heist.

I felt threatened because the reputation of MRAs precedes them. Men's rights and liberation groups have a long history in our society, some of it in solidarity with women in the struggle against harmful gender stereotypes. But the contemporary MRA movement isn't that kind of entity; Halifax should be so lucky.

In an interview with MRA website A Voice for Men, Heist explains how he "ended giving up on local women after getting dumped too many times when they figured I wouldn't roll over on command." He goes on to express sympathy for a friend who was "dating a borderline for quite awhile." The best I can figure is that this is some kind of dehumanizing synecdoche for a woman living with borderline personality disorder.

MRAs have a bone to pick with a handful of imagined challengers to traditional male entitlements: feminism, feminine wiles and women in general. MRAs blame these foes for insecurities and identity conflicts that may have plenty to do with patriarchal gender stereotypes and a stagnant, stratified economy---but very little to do with feminism or the advancement of women.

If you haven't heard of Anita Sarkesian or Stephanie Guthrie, now is the time to look them up---before MRH gains momentum and begins attacking Halifax's brightest young feminists and activists. Sarkesian and Guthrie each challenged aspects of the misogyny that circulates throughout our culture, and for that they paid dearly: online bullying, harassment, sexual slurs, death threats---much of it at the hands of self-professed MRAs.

So here I am, trying to sound the alarm about a group with a dangerous outlook and an even more dangerous code of conduct, while knowing that if this piece included my name, they'd use my grandmother's violence to come after me and the people I love. They'd say I'm cut from the same vicious cloth, since I obviously don't know how to keep my mouth shut or mind my business. They'd take aim and fire simply because I'm in their way.

What the MRA movement fails to understand is that my grandmother was able to go on abusing her family for decades because of our culture's rigid gender stereotypes and the patriarchal nature our most trusted institutions---not in spite of all this. My grandmother was able to use her family as punching bags because my hometown, law enforcement and the mental health profession have, historically, struggled to reconcile this kind of violence with a "womanly" disposition. 

Patriarchal stereotypes cloaked my profoundly disturbed grandmother in the sheep's clothing of fragility, delicacy and maternal instinct---none of which she possessed. These stereotypes failed my family, not feminism. I challenge Men's Rights Halifax to entertain my claim and confront their complicity in a social system that damns non-aggressive men to brutal, one-dimensional macho stereotypes, just as it damns violent women to a stultifying lie that would deny them rehabilitation.

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