It’s a gorgeous winter’s day at the Byron Writers Festival when we sit down with Australian journalist and author David Leser, to discuss his most recent book Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing, a study of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the age of #MeToo.
It’s an insightful text, ambitious not only in its breadth and depth, but also in what I perceive to be the central conflict at the heart of its existence: Can a man really write compassionately about the manifold injustices faced by women?
Apparently yes, they can. Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing is a thorough journalistic investigation into the roots of patriarchy and its misogynistic consequences, but where it shines is in its ability to demonstrate that men really are capable of identifying and unpacking their own privilege, and not just listening to, but understanding the positions and feelings of women today. Frankly, it’s a relief. And it all began with a viral 2018 article written by David for Good Weekend.
“It was the biggest response I’d ever had in forty years of journalism,” he says. “I received thousands of emails, Facebook messages, tweets, texts, people asking me to expand on [the article], and I then got approached by a publisher, and then another publisher indicated they wanted to publish the book so, yeah, I think it was just that the story struck a chord with a lot of people.”
This is unsurprising, given the global scale and deep fervor of the #MeToo movement, the unprecedented unburdening of millions of abused women worldwide that ostensibly kicked off with the Weinstein scandal in 2017. But more than that, David’s article received the attention it did because of the genuine depth of understanding exhibited by its author, someone who, for all intents and purposes, was watching everything unfold from over the other side of the fence.
“As a journalist of forty years, I’ve covered a lot of big stories and this was the biggest social movement, apart from the civil rights, in my lifetime and I wanted to understand it,” David explains. “I wanted to understand it as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a friend to many women, as a colleague, I wanted to understand things that I thought I knew but I didn’t obviously know.”
It ended up being quite the learning experience for him.
“I thought I was a progressive man, and I had worked for brilliant feminist editors and I’d written for years about women, as the senior writer of the Australian’s Women’s Weekly and a profile writer for Good Weekend, and I thought I was actually awake to the howls of discontent from women,” says David.
“But I wasn’t. The #MeToo movement woke me up to all sorts of issues. I mean, what was it like to actually be judged by your sexual attractiveness? What was it like to be objectified on a daily basis? What was it like to fear dusk and night and going to your car alone, and walking down a street? What was it like to be silenced or ignored or have your ideas taken by a man and adopted as his own or to be paid less for doing the same job, often better?
“And I don’t think I’d ever really had what I called a radical empathy, a moral imagination, that I should have had. And talking to my daughters and talking to my friends and talking to women all around the world as part of my research for the article and the book, I came to see with fresh eyes, in a way, the extent of this systematic violence over centuries. And my article, but then more particularly my book, was an attempt to understand this and to examine the origins of it best I could, and so that’s what it became.”
From ancient human societies to the social media age, Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing explores the origins and evolution of misogyny as best as it can within its 297 pages. And one of the more unflinching looks at the pervasive nature of gender inequality comes in the form of the author’s examination of his own behaviour, in the aptly named chapter Augustine Confessions. David explains why he included such a personal take on the subject.
“Journalists have a wonderful knack of looking at other people and not at themselves,” he laughs. “And they have a wonderful facility for finding the flaws in those that they write about or report on and never looking at their own. And I didn’t feel like this was something that I could just write about as happening outside of myself. I am a baby boomer male, I am white, I am middle class, I am middle aged, I am part of that demographic that has hurt women.”
He quickly disclaims.
“I mean I’ve never physically hurt a women or abused a women or harassed a woman! But I’m part of a culture. You know, I’ve heard sexist jokes about women and not said anything, I’ve listened to misogynist talk and not said anything. You grow up in a country like Australia where sport and sex are the ways you define your masculinity. There was all sorts of things that I needed to learn and own up to.”
One of the things David owns up to – rather painfully – in the book, is that during his marriage, he believed his own needs, projects and ambitions were more important than his then-wife’s.
“That was really hard realisation to accept,” he shakes his head. “It was hard to truly come to terms with, because the better part of me would never want to diminish the person I loved or dim her lights in order for mine to shine brighter. There’s no part of me that would want to do that consciously, but unconsciously that’s what I did because the truth of it was that my job was more important to me then hers and my needs and projects were more important, and I’m not blaming my father or his father, but that’s what I drank in from a culture where that’s how men define themselves.”
The book takes a close look at the culture that men around the world are growing up in, this tendency towards toxic masculinity; the idea of men as superior, the burying of anything tender, empathetic and compassionate in men under a blanket of macho hardness and contempt, and how it negatively impacts the world – and especially women. David feels, quite rightly, that we need to understand the cause of male violence in order to address it.
“This is global, it’s rampant, it’s pervasive, it’s endemic or whatever word you want to use,” he declares. “It’s in the system, it’s in the water supply, and what I want to know is what’s created it, because unless you know the causality of it you can’t deal with it. How is it possible for a man to lie on a woman and rape her, while she’s begging him not to, and be completely indifferent to what she feels? How does that actually happen to someone who probably was a sweet little boy? What has happened within the models of masculinity that we have created, to produce that complete severing of a person from their heart and from normal emotions of fellow feeling?
“One point two billion women in the world have been sexually abused or assaulted,” David continues. “One woman a week will be killed by her partner or ex-partner, this is just staggering and shockingly extreme. At the same time, we also have met young men topping themselves and suffering from extreme mental illness and mental dysfunction and where does that come from? I think we need to look at both – it’s not a zero-sum game – I don’t think we are incapable of having compassion for both, without excusing bad or criminal behaviour.”
So what’s the solution then? Empathy is a big part of it, according to David.
“Being taught empathy from very early on can help,” he states. “Why do we learn maths when we’re young? The need for it has diminished almost to the point of being irrelevant – we can do all that at the press of a button but what we haven’t got, as compulsory, is learning about empathy, connection and intimacy, and I would like to see that taught to boys and girls. And the other aspect to that is understanding that the rigid definitions of masculinity do so much damage to boys. So, I think if you shame the idea of being tender and being vulnerable or owning up to your insecurities, if you shame that in a boy what that culture does, is it represses or it removes some of the most fundamental emotions about being human. So, when you grow up, if you haven’t had access to those emotions is it any wonder that you explode?”
While a difficult and complex subject, it’s not all doom and gloom. With the global conversation changing (quite quickly) to include those who have traditionally been voiceless, the collective consciousness is starting to shift. And with more writing, talking and – most importantly – listening going on, hopefully we’re at a watershed moment in history where these old, harmful social modalities are on their way out. I ask David what his vision for the future is, if we continue along the same trajectory of understanding and growth. He thinks for a moment, finger on his lips, before answering.
“What I would like to see is that we are able to live in collaborative, cooperative, harmonious ways where empathy is actually a given, where we are able to hold the idea of uncertainty as a principle, and understand that being here is an incredible privilege,” he says. “I think we need a revolution of the heart and soul, and I think that one of those ways that we can do that is looking at masculinity and how it’s defined and allowing boys the full range of their emotions, because if they’re allowed that then they don’t become dangers to others, themselves and the world, which is what we’re currently seeing.”
Handing the men and boys in your life a copy of Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing might just be a damn good start to the revolution. It’s out now.