Of murders, suicides, and men in crisis


Of murders, suicides, and men in crisis

Donna P

Thursday, January 16, 2020

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Two incidents occurred within 24 hours of each other this week and four lives have been lost – three dead and one in custody. I send condolence to the families of all involved in these incidents and wish them comfort at this difficult time.

Once such incidents occur there is usually lamentation for the female victim and equal amounts of condemnation for the usual male perpetrator. But what exactly are we dealing with? My colleagues Drs Christopher Charles and Herbert Gayle from The University of the West Indies have been conducting research on this problem, providing data confirming that almost 90 per cent of all perpetrators are male and more than 70 per cent of all targets are female. The majority of the perpetrators and targets are from the working class and in more than 85 per cent of the cases a gun is involved. In all cases, the men were older than their female targets and usually in a dominant economic position. The power domains are clearly tilted towards the men in these situations, yet they are unable to effectively deal with the emotional fallout when a wife, spouse, babymother, or girlfriend decides to end a relationship or engages in an extra-relationship affair.

Discussions around these activities generally refer to intimate partner violence (IPV) or gender-based violence (GBV). Interventions or solutions focus mainly on providing resources aimed primarily at women (and their children) who are enmeshed in violence-prone domestic situations. Here, I must commend the very comprehensive work of the Bureau of Gender Affairs to eliminate GBV and IPV in Jamaica. Yet, from the perspective of my work on gender, in particular masculinities, this specific issue of murder-suicide is connected to hegemonic masculinity and male identity construction, especially among the working classes.

My doctoral work examined the mechanisms underlying male identity construction in Jamaica, using the graphic and hard core themes in dancehall culture to assess the manifestations of hegemonic masculinities. That work, presented in my book Man Vibes, also pointed to a softening of hard core male identity in response to national and global changes during the early 2000s.

Today, challenges with male identity construction continue to deepen as Jamaica moves into higher levels of development that facilitates better and more educational and economic opportunities and new ways of socialisation for women without any clear balancing out of this equation for many men.

Many Jamaican men are operating with dated socialisation paradigms that promise them dominance and power, while women are operating with contemporary variables that promise them equality and independence.

My “Transitory Masculinities” lecture, under the ambit of the 2019 Annual Gender and Development Lecture at the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts, explored this growing trend of murder-suicide as wedded to the changing social and gendered environment where men identify fatal endings as an escape hatch along a route that seems truncated or closed off. If explanations in the traditional media reports and on social media around each incident are to be believed, then it is the out-of-sync behaviours of women that trigger these murder-suicides. It puts a final seal on a troubled situation in which codes of hegemonic masculinity promoted a hard core version of male identity as the ideal, and cemented it across all socialisation platforms, beginning in the home.

Here, the heterosexual woman in this framework is to always be supportive and submissive, regardless of her educational and/or economic status. But, with the contemporary ideas about independent womanhood proliferating in the same socio-cultural space, many women are socialised to understand that they have been freed from the restrictive grips of male ownership. So, more women are owning homes, buying and driving cars, setting up businesses at all levels, and gaining higher levels of tertiary education — all making them more truly independent. Women have changed. But this clashes with the socialisation of men as many Jamaican men continue to be socialised into dated gender paradigms that promise them dominance and power, regardless.

This multifaceted issue is characterised by a complex mix of inter-personal and intra-personal interaction, and complicated by personal identity construction in a shifting national and global environment. They all impact how numerous men imagine their roles in the society, community, household, and intimate partner relationships. Aren't they dominant and in charge because they are older, wiser, and provide more or all the money? Aren't they dominant just because they are men? Shouldn't a woman always listen to her husband, spouse, babyfather, or boyfriend? Isn't this how it has always been? “Nuh man run things?” Isn't this in the Bible?” “If my wife, spouse, babymother, or girlfriend suddenly changes the relationship dynamics, what is the appropriate response?” “Who do I talk to?” “Where do I go for help?” “Am I still a man if I feel emotional about it?” “If I cry or get depressed, will my friends/family laugh at me?” These are questions that many men ask and to which they have no response. These are some of the questions for which we must begin to provide clearer answers. To stem this overflow we must provide the solutions.

Any solution to this murder-suicide issue must primarily target men as potential perpetrators, not just women as potential victims. Strategies must be put in place to target male identity formation, in particular working-class masculinities, as these men are least likely to seek any form of emotional support. This is a long-term approach.

I worked briefly with Fathers Inc, the brainchild of the late Professor Barry Chevannes, and also with male parenting activist Lanny Davidson of Fathers in Action, but I am unaware of any other male-specific entities or groups that exist to support men in crisis.

Second, this issue must also be tackled as a mental health concern. Family, work, life, and other gendered, economic and environmental factors in this new world create higher levels of depression, anxiety, and related mental health problem in Jamaica, where all forms of mental illness are negatively stereotyped as “madness”. No man wants to acknowledge a need for counselling or confirm a desire for someone to help him work out a pressing emotional or psychological issue. And, unlike so many women, with their army of supportive female friends and family members just one phone call or WhatsApp away, aside from their mothers, most men have no true source of emotional comfort once their relationships fall apart. Men internalise, suffer in silence, and can eventually explode into fatal bouts of rage. A free Helpline for Men in Crisis, staffed with trained individuals, should be established as a matter of priority. Men in crisis need someone to talk with in a non-judgemental environment, and, where necessary or possible, who can provide them with referrals for additional support.

Third, a strong national public education campaign is necessary to provide a range of gender-specific information targeting male identity construction. This campaign should also encourage a culture of intervention, aiming to reduce the bystander effect that has become part and parcel of how Jamaicans deal with what is “man and woman business”. Dancehall culture, often stereotyped as the “cause” of all ills in Jamaica, instead of as a repository of information about the most pressing issues in the society, remains a viable and accessible popular cultural framework that can also be employed in this regard.

Fourth, media houses must be encouraged to reduce the explicit, detailed and very graphic reportage on these very real incidents and to, instead, increase the focus of the same stories on existing solutions and avenues for relief and support to reduce replication of these incidents, even while most of the research focuses on suicide. For example, concerns with Goethe's 1774 book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, acting as a guide and spawning a wave of suicides after its publication led to the banning of that book. Research on the Werther-Effect explored imitative and copycat suicides, including Kenneth Bollen's late 1970s study of television news stories in the USA confirmed a spike in suicides within a few days of intense media coverage about a similar act. The World Health Organization's updated 2017 handbook, Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Personnel, responds to this concern and provides critical guidelines for how to engage with these reports without triggering a wave of similar incidents.

As we work to break the back of crime and violence, we must bring men firmly into the front line of the mix of solutions in this murder-suicide, domestic violence, GBV, and IPV debate.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.

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