His Finest Hour: Under pressure from TV3's Patrick Gower, David Cunliffe not only refused to step back from his "I'm sorry I'm a man" speech to the Women's Refuge Symposium, he actually pressed forward with a passionate defence of Labour's plan for reducing domestic and sexual violence. True leadership has nothing to do with following the line of least resistance.
“PLEASE TELL ME I’M DREAMING”, texted a friend of mine. “Please tell me that David Cunliffe didn’t just apologise for being a man.” I stared at my cell-phone in disbelief. Was he joking? Why would the leader of a political party languishing in the opinion polls alienate at least half of the voting public? Why would he hand his opponents such an enormous cudgel? As if his party wasn’t already battered enough?
Later that day, at the pub, the guffaws and the jokes continued. I have to confess, I contributed my fair share of them. I would also point out that although all of my drinking companions were lefties, by no means all of them were men. This was equal opportunity ridicule.
So what was going on here? Why were a tableful of seasoned leftists – male and female – and all of them well-versed in the facts and figures of domestic violence in New Zealand so unanimous in condemning the opening sentences of David Cunliffe’s speech to last Friday’s Women’s Refuge Symposium?
It might be useful, here, to remind ourselves of his actual words:
‘‘Can I begin by saying I’m sorry – I don’t often say it – I’m sorry for being a man, right now. Because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children. So the first message to the men out there is: ‘wake up, stand up, man up and stop this bullshit’.’’
You see? Written down in full and contextualised, Cunliffe’s words don’t look all that silly – do they? Indeed, you might even say they look rather brave.
None of us seated around that table at the pub, and no intelligent person reading Cunliffe’s sentences anywhere else in New Zealand, would dispute them. The perpetration of psychological, physical and sexual violence is overwhelmingly a masculine phenomenon. And while not every male is guilty of assaulting and/or raping women and girls, the violence inflicted upon females by a minority of males does contribute to the maintenance of a patriarchal culture from which all men derive benefit.
Patriarchy and Imperialism are closely related, so perhaps it would help to elucidate the role that violence plays in shoring up our patriarchal culture by elucidating the role it played in shoring up the British Empire.
It is said that the entire Indian sub-continent was kept in the thrall of Great Britain by an imperial administration of fewer than 100,000 men. By no means all of these men were engaged in the brutal business of repression. The majority were well educated, thoroughly decent civil servants who would never have dreamed of flogging a man to death, or presiding over the slow starvation of an entire province. Such dreadful acts were carried out by others: by soldiers and policemen. Deplorable, of course, but necessary – if the British Raj was to survive.
Is that why even we lefties buried our heads in our hands upon hearing Cunliffe’s words? Because we knew, instinctively, just how outraged “ordinary” men would be when they heard them?
Not because these other men were in favour of hurting women and children, but because, however ham-fistedly, Cunliffe had acknowledged all men’s complicity in the myriad acts of violence and intimidation that mandate the equally numerous acts of female-to-male deference and acceptance by which the patriarchal individual defines himself.
The exercise of power and control constitutes the common coinage of both patriarchy and imperialism. And, no matter how thoroughly we attempt to conceal them beneath the draperies of romantic love and the “White Man’s Burden”, the true character of their brutal transactions cannot be hidden.
All men (and, I suspect, an alarmingly large number of women also) learn to both see and not-see the effects of domestic and sexual violence. We recoil in horror from the murdered wives and children but find it next to impossible to recognise the manifest evil in the perpetrators – the men invariably described as “just an ordinary bloke, a good family man”.
But, in portraying these “enforcers” of patriarchy in such chillingly normative terms we confirm (albeit unconsciously) our own participation in the dark secret that Cunliffe shouted to the world.
That these horrors are of our making – men’s making – and will persist until, acknowledging the role violence plays in preserving our patriarchal privilege, we can all say: “I’m sorry for being a man.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 July 2014.