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Toxic masculinity: How 'these things happen in Australia'

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We need to talk about toxic masculinity and examine its role in the subjugation of women and in violence against us and why "these things"keep happening in Australia, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IF WE UNDERSTAND the term "toxic masculinity" to refer to the 'assertion of masculine privilege or men’s power', as sociologist Professor Raewyn Connell suggests, there have been two outstanding examples of such assertion in recent days that ought to give pause for thought.

The first was brought to us by an ABC's Four Corners episode titled 'Inside the Canberra Bubble'. The program examined the sexist and misogynist culture of Parliament House, using as examples the behaviour of Attorney-General Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure and acting Immigration Minister.

Both senior ministers in the Morrison Government can reasonably be charged with asserting their male privilege and power in their dealings with women — Porter since his university days and Tudge in his affair with his media advisor, Rachelle Miller. Porter’s contempt for women is evidenced in the derogatory language he employs over decades. While Tudge – somewhat bizarrely in one instance – demonstrates his power and dominance over his lover by demanding that she walk by his side into a function as if she is a piece of property he’s acquired to impress an audience. His wife, meanwhile, is at home with the children.

Rachelle Miller has apparently lost her new job after speaking to Four Corners about the affair and the difficulties of negotiating the toxic workplace in which it occurred. Tudge, in an outcome that should surprise no woman, remains in employment as a Minister of the Crown.

His boss, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, himself accused of misogynistic tendencies on more than one occasion, declared he would take no action against his ministers because “…these things happen in Australia”. “These things” being sexual harassment, exploitation, hypocrisy, injustice, silencing and bullying.

Women across the country were left unimpressed by the PMs observation, largely because the fact that “these things happen in Australia” has been one of the central complaints of feminists for at least the last 40 years.

Morrison, Tudge and Porter repeatedly demonstrate contempt for women — and any woman who calls them on this will pay a high price. They are far from alone in their attitudes; however, they are at the highest level of government and this matters. The culture they enable in Parliament House is toxic. It is not a safe workplace for women.

Toxic masculinity assumes male privilege and entitlement. The domination and control of women is an expression of these traits through use of language, control and violence, on a continuum that ends in slaughter.

The second example of toxic masculinity concerns the murderous actions of the Special Air Service Regiment in Afghanistan. An elite special forces unit of the Australian Army, the SAS has been under investigation for war crimes allegedly committed from 2006 to 2016. Justice Paul Brereton found there were 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants were unlawfully killed, including children. There were 39 individual Afghan victims of summary execution. None of the alleged killings took place in the heat of battle. There are 25 alleged perpetrators — 19 of them have been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.

The Brereton report describes the practice of “blooding,” in which young special forces soldiers were ordered by their patrol commander to execute an Afghan detainee as their first kill. A warrior culture is blamed for the atrocities perpetrated by the secretive, exclusive “alpha male” units. However, as warriors are traditionally brave and experienced fighters who observe the rules of war, the use of the term in this instance seems wildly inappropriate.

A belief in their exceptionalism fuelled the soldiers’ actions. A belief in their entitlement and privilege fuelled their actions. A belief in their right to dominate and control fuelled their actions. This awful series of events is an example of toxic masculinity that knows no restraint, shrouded in secrecy and protected by silence.

War is instigated and waged by men. Men are predominantly the practitioners of organised violence. Men create the institutions and cultures that deliver violence. While there are women who support these practices in a myriad of ways, it is men who make war possible.

There are thousands of family members and friends whose lives have been devastated by the actions of the SAS in Afghanistan. I count among them the bereaved, and the witnesses both military and civilian who are forced to live with the intimate knowledge of atrocities in which they had no part. I count among them the perpetrators, who surely must have lost all humanity. I count among them their families and friends who must

struggle to live with the knowledge of what their loved ones have done. There are no winners when toxic masculinity dominates. There is only suffering.

We need to talk about toxic masculinity. We need to examine its role in war. We need to examine its role in the subjugation of women and in violence against us. We need to understand that interrogating toxic masculinity is imperative if we are ever to change the current order of things.

This is a call to recognise, identify and name a specific force that is entirely destructive to both men and women. This is not a call to demonise men. It’s not a call to demonise masculinity.

Whether the toxicity dominates in the workplace, the home, the theatre of politics or the theatre of war, it is constricting and dangerous.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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