A cooler approach to men's issues - Macleans.ca

A cooler approach to men’s issues

York professor and Waterloo student deserve a closer look

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A men’s issues event I reported on in March at the University of Toronto drew masked protesters who were there to intimidate people, city police there to keep things in order and it was, inevitably, delayed by a fire alarm. What followed was a rather lightweight critique of women’s studies from University of Ottawa professor Janice Fiamengo.

I was pleased that free speech prevailed, as it was by no means assured. A lecture a few months earlier hosted by the same men’s issues group, The Canadian Association for Equality, was almost shut down. Protesters accused professor Warren Farrell of “hate speech” for, among other things, his controversial views on date rape.

CAFE will host another provocative professor, Lionel Tiger, tonight in Toronto. That event will be at a private venue off campus where the group will raise funds for a men’s centre.

What I didn’t point out at the time of Fiamengo’s talk was my disappointment at how excessively emotional people dominated the Q&A session and the fact that Fiamengo didn’t offer much evidence to defend herself when challenged. Rather than debate, the Q&A turned into one person after another stating how they were victims of misogyny, homophobia or the family law system.

University taught me that one person’s experience is just that: one person’s experience. What’s needed to move forward on men’s issues—underachievement in education, higher rates of suicide and an apparent anti-male bias in family law—are calm debates that invoke actual research.

It was easy to leave Fiamengo’s talk or read media coverage of the Ryerson Student Union’s decision to block a men’s issues club and think there is no hope for advancing the discussion.

But there is. Some people who weren’t at Fiamengo’s talk have been doing their parts to advance male studies by focusing on disseminating research and moderating inclusive debates. Their approaches deserve more attention than they have received, so here’s a brief introduction.

Robert Kenedy, a York University sociology professor, has been studying men and masculinity since he was a graduate student in 1989. His approach involves interviewing hundreds of people before coming to conclusions. While his books on fathers aren’t bestsellers, they carry academic weight.

He’s hoping to gather and publish more research as an editor of New Male Studies, a journal he and colleagues launched last year. It’s not the same as Farrell’s and Fiamengo’s approaches.

“We’re not anti-feminist,” he explains. “We’re more interested in the positive issues of looking at men’s health [and] looking at fatherhood from a very constructive point of view.”

I’ve read several articles. Like many new journals, the submissions vary in quality. But it’s a start.

Kenedy has also done his part to moderate discussions on campus. In his seminar Men’s Movements: re-examing Masculinity, which ran from 1991 to 1997, he brought in a range of speakers from feminists to father’s rights advocates. “I didn’t have an opinion,” he says, “because I wanted everyone to have a say.”

While his push for a new male studies course at York hasn’t yet been successful, he continues to teach a variety of perspectives on men and families in his introductory sociology classes.

Last fall, Kenedy facilitated a discussion group on men and masculinity at York, which he and a colleague moderated much like his classes. “We insist on everything being very inclusive,” he says. They talked about fathers, his pet subject, but also health and gay and transgender issues.

When people said dicey things, he reminded them of the need to maintain decorum and put forth evidence to back up claims. There was, unsurprisingly, a group of graduate students who tried to stop him from holding the initial discussion, but they weren’t successful and the series went ahead.

Arjun Rudra, a 21-year-old legal studies major at the University of Waterloo, has a similar approach. He was surprised when a professor told him there are no male studies classes, “and never will be,” so he decided he will start a men’s issues group this fall. He had heard about similar clubs at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph and the one notoriously blocked at Ryerson.

Rudra sounds like the perfect facilitator. He is not personally aggrieved by divorce, nor is he anti-feminist and he says gender relations on campus are pretty good. He plans to reach out to the women’s centre and the Gay and Lesbian Organization on campus before his club begins.

That’s not to say he isn’t worried about a backlash. “A few of the people interested in joining me for this club backed out because they were worried about being called names,” he says.

But he plans to go ahead. He sees it as the right thing to do. “I think about my own son, if I ever have one,” he says. “I feel the discussions we have right now will help improve his future.”