Last week Stanley Fish wrote insightfully in The New York Times about the “implicit affirmation of a code of manliness” with “stand your ground.” The law, Fish wrote, “is more than a declaration of a right; it is an injunction—stand your ground, be a man.”
As a longtime global women’s-rights activist, I see the perils of this kind of injunction every day in my work. I’ve seen over and over how this culture of “toxic masculinity”—the same culture that encourages men to “stand your ground,” no matter the consequences—enables all manner of violence, including violence against women.
Following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, we have, as a nation, begun to examine how such a killing might have happened and how such a verdict might have been delivered. Race has been—and should continue to be—at the core of most of these urgent conversations. But I believe we should also be talking about how outdated, limited, damaging notions of masculinity lead men to believe they must “stand their ground,” even if it means hurting others, and even themselves.
Long-held cultural definitions of manhood in this country are linked and limited to certain expressions of strength and power: showing fear or “feelings” is associated with weakness, wussiness, “crying like a girl.” And presto: “manliness” positions anything “feminine”—women —as inferior, even threatening. These beliefs underlie many misguided notions of force and, in this and other worst-case scenarios, a distorted desire to “stand one’s ground”—to protect not just one’s safety but also one’s “property,” even one’s “manhood”—in the face of perceived threats and fear. And it’s also often women themselves who are the targets.
Violence against women remains one of the most widespread and socially tolerated human-rights violations of our time. Even in the United States, despite legal, judicial, and cultural efforts to protect women, a woman is battered, every 15 seconds, by a partner; 83 percent of girls ages 12 to 16 experience some form of sexual harassment in their public schools. Both the stats and the culture tell the story: young athletes in Steubenville, Ohio, not only raped a young woman, but then took to social media to broadcast and brag about it. The coach who protected the players had his contract renewed.
Broadly speaking, it’s that same culture came into play the night Trayvon Martin was killed, that enabled George Zimmerman to flout authority, to defend his territory. Effective courts, cops, and laws (laws other than “stand your ground”) are essential to ending violence, but they are clearly not enough. In order to end violence against women and men, we need collective action to challenge norms and change culture, including the culture that tells men they must, at all costs, never back down to anyone.
Amid my fury at the systems and attitude that led to Zimmerman verdict, I have been encouraged to see the number of men who are standing with Trayvon and against violence. I’m encouraged because the type of violence perpetrated against Trayvon and the type of violence perpetrated against women are connected and learned—and thus possible to unlearn and bring to an end. Men and women must work to examine and erase the toxic brand of “masculinity” that hurts us all. In this way, we can stand our ground against all violence and build a safer world, together.