What does it mean to be a 'good man'?


I’m just going to throw this out there because, as far as provocative truth bombs go, it’s been ticking away for too long.

The universal male decency we keep hearing about is largely a myth.

Sure, most men might not be bad. But it takes more than ‘not being bad’ to be ‘actually good’.

Let me backtrack a minute.


Whenever conversation is raised about patriarchy, violence and the lack of equality that still permeates our society, I find myself inundated with messages or comments from men offended by the discussion of male perpetrated violence. Most men, they take ostentatious pains to remind me, are ‘decent’ - so why do I insist on tarring all of them with the same brush? It’s not fair and it’s not true. If I want their ongoing support, I had jolly well better start being nicer to them.

Leaving aside for a moment the arrogance it requires to listen to a conversation about the gendered violence suffered by women and make it about their hurt feelings, let's define what they mean by 'decency'.

Is it in the number of men who stand by while sexist jokes are made because ‘it’s meant to be funny’? Is it drawn from those folks who want women to know that even though they’re not saying it’s their fault, they shouldn’t have been drinking so much? Is it found in the proportions of dudes who talk about how it’s women’s own incompetency that’s holding them back from sitting in positions of power or being paid equal wages for equal work? Is it in the number of men who wax lyrical about how ‘ugly’ women are when they express a robust opinion, or dare not to pluck and preen their bodies in a way that ‘all’ men find pleasing?

No, apparently all it takes to be considered a ‘decent bloke’ is to take an each way bet at doing nothing - nothing to perpetuate oppression, and nothing to stop it. Worse, such ‘decent blokes’ want to be rewarded for this lack of action, an expectation that not-so-subtly reveals the very same entitlement that serves to perpetuate gender inequality. Translated, what they’re really saying is, “Praise me, because I have refrained from behaving in a way both you and I know I could get away with if I wanted to. Please may I have my cookie now? Actually, just give it to me.”

Too many of us labour under the assumption that behaving decently is simply a matter of not actively discriminating. Aggrieved justifications of personal goodness are mounted by those on the top of the pile so that we might congratulate ourselves for not abusing our privilege, rather than ponder how unfairly it was bestowed in the first place. Meanwhile, tiny microaggressions are committed and reasoned away by the overarching tolerance that we conveniently confuse for equality.

So it is argued that we cannot be racist because even though we make sweeping generalisations about the mysterious ways of non-white folk, we don’t burn crosses on their front lawn; that we cannot be homophobic, because even though we don’t think gay people ought to be allowed to marry and ‘no one wants to see that in public’, we don’t want them imprisoned; and that we cannot possibly be misogynists, because even though we think women should take more care with what they’re wearing and we laugh when someone tells a sexist joke because humour makes the world go round and think feminists have gone too far, we don’t personally beat up women or sexually assault them. (Note: I use ‘we’ to refer generically to people who lucked out in the social privileges lottery. For race and economic status, I include myself in this category.)

This is apparently what ‘being decent’ looks like. It’s a conditional expression of privilege that pays lip service to equality but doesn’t actually go out of its way to defend it, and whose benevolent support ends the moment it asks us to actually do something. Worse, it balks at this request for demonstration, as if it is enough for our decency to remain an impotent figurehead, and an insult worse than all the discriminations put together to challenge its legitimacy. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a man tell me that if I want his support to continue, I had better start being nicer to him...well, then I wouldn’t have to worry quite so much about the wage gap.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.” It seems particularly appropriate when discussing the inaction of otherwise inoffensive men when it comes to misogyny and violence (and indeed, there are lessons in this for all of us who experience privilege, whether its that of race, (dis)ability, gender identity or economic class). Doing nothing, be it bad or good, is not enough to actually respect the concept of equality. Real action is required, even when it feels makes you feel awkward, even when it ruins the mood - even when it might shift the target of ridicule onto you.

Because, Good Men, every time do nothing in response to tired sexist jokes or victim blaming or discussions of ‘provocation’ in regards to gendered assault, you’re actually supporting the system that continues to oppress women. Sure, you may not be telling the joke (although plenty of ‘decent blokes’ have an arsenal of those). You may not have actually committed the sexual assault. You may not be beating your partner. But your silence and inaction condones these things in the minds of those other ordinary people who mistake the lack of condemnation for a green light. Do you know one of the reasons it’s not okay to laugh at jokes about rape victims? It’s not just because it’s extremely insensitive not to mention despicable - it’s because treating rape and its victims like they are fodder for humour tells perpetrators that what they did wasn’t really that bad.

Unless you are vigilant every day about standing against gender discrimination and misogyny - and that means stepping up, being a proactive bystander and speaking out against ideas and behaviours that perpetuate misogyny - then I’m sorry to tell you that you are not a decent, good bloke. And when you threaten to withdraw your support because you’ve been made to feel bad, all you’re doing is reasserting your own socially gifted dominance.

And frankly, that doesn’t sound very decent to me. You might not be a bad man - but unless you’re doing something to challenge and change the world we live in for the better, you’re not a good one either. All you are is an ordinary person, doing nothing and holding your hand out for a cookie that you do not deserve.



  • Spot on.

    Date and time
    February 18, 2014, 12:25AM
    • Thanks for outlining your position, I'm proud to say I'm one of your 'decent blokes'.

      The idea that you seem to be putting forward here that I not only need to refrain from any discriminatory or bad behaviour but I'm somehow now to blame for other people's discriminatory or bad behaviour is a position that I totally reject.

      We are all autonomous adults who are personally responsible for our own actions and should be judged on those actions alone. The idea that I need to suffer for the sins of others is anathema to the notion of true equality.

      Freddie Frog
      Date and time
      February 18, 2014, 7:52AM
      • It goes into other areas. For a lot of our boys and young men, the bar is set so incredibly low for them by their parents, sporting coaches and other teachers that it is frustrating working with many of them.

        As a teacher working with boys, I see it constantly: assignments completed on-time deserve an A, regardless of whether or not the student's work shows evidence of discerning, original thought or a high degree of polish. Any boy who doesn't get a detention or suspension deserves school or house captaincy, regardless of whether or not they actually do anything from the school or show leadership above others. Their parents give them this impression: they get treated to special weekends away and dinners out for not failing every subject on their report card, and they are first to fire a missive at teachers who dare to not reward lazy, sloppy work. (Typical disclaimer: I don't teach girls, not sure what it's like to work with them, I'd hazard a guess to say slightly different.)

        Good is the presence of good: not the presence of ordinary in the absence of bad. I am blown away by many young men who show tenacity and passion beyond what I myself even have, and I see tremendous work done in and out of class for academics and community service. But whoever told young men that "nice", in the absence of work ethic, action or real goodness, would do deserves to be slapped.

        Date and time
        February 18, 2014, 8:00AM
        • I agree it is frustrating when usually-male commentors seem at pains to point out how not all men are as bad as Adrian Bayley. It's irrelevant, derailing and self-centred. But I just can't agree that men, and logically women too, need to have this constant vigilance about sexism and speak out every time they feel the smallest tingle of offence to be considered category "good". This is a recipe for burn-out and exhaustion. I work with victims of crime and hear some horrific stories. The same people can turn around say the most offensive and seemingly irrelevant things. Am I going to start arguing about racism with a rape victim? You've got to pick your battles, and that doesn't make you a "bad" person. It's just not that simple. Another example that springs to mind is from when I worked with parents. Many of them would berate themselves for not doing x, y or z thing for their child - not reading to them enough, not asking them to do enough homework, letting them eat too much sugar. Did that make them bad parents? No, it made them good-enough parents, which was all the child really needed. I'm aware that these examples aren't perfect, but I'm trying to illustrate how separating the world into "goodies" and "baddies" isn't particularly helpful.

          Date and time
          February 18, 2014, 8:56AM
          • Quick to judge Clem? One of the reasons that guys recoil from the arguments you often make is because, while your message is generally sound, you paint it with the broadest strokes you can, when the spectrum of human interaction is far more subtle and nuanced.

            Yes- a lot of people are secret sexists or simply indifferent. But I submit that a lot more are just shy of the spotlight, and that doesn't meet your definition of "decent" because it doesn't get any attention from columnists. Perhaps some men don't stand up in public because they are equally afraid of the kinds of men who cause these problems- they tend, after all, to be alpha male types. Perhaps they make a quiet difference by encouraging their wives and daughters to be everything they can be, working from home to look after the kids and encouraging their sons to grow up with respect for women, or encouraging female staff to excel. This might not manifest itself in public in the ways that you demand, but it doesn't mean that every bloke who isn't out there with a placard or on the campaign trail is not a decent bloke. It just means that we go about it in another way.

            Mildly irritated
            Date and time
            February 18, 2014, 9:11AM
            • Clementine, while I agree with the idea broadly that much of the current gender inequality is perpetuated implicitly by the inaction of blokes who won't push back against the status quo:

              You really can't keep escalating your chains of logic from the relatively benign 'laugh at a sexist joke,' (which someone can do and go on to feel genuinely bad about) into 'victim blaming' and other specific and targeted emotional abuse. They may contribute to the same problem but they aren't the same thing.

              It's the same as your hyperbole in saying that 'we' don't want gay people to wed, but at least they can stay out of jail'; most Australians are in favour of gay marriage rights, just as most Australian males would find the idea that a rape victim 'provoked' the attack with what they were wearing utterly reprehensible.

              You can talk about these things - we need to talk about them. It happens. But the Australian Male isn't that guy. That guy's out there, and he's an arse, but if you genuinely want a dialogue with Men you need to give us a little more credit.

              Date and time
              February 18, 2014, 9:11AM
              • People. We are all people. Passing judgment on others adds nothing to the conversation. Here's a thought..... treat everyone the same way you want to be regardless of difference.

                Date and time
                February 18, 2014, 9:15AM
                • Thank you Clementine.

                  It's men who think the only thing they need to do to be a gentlemen is to insist on getting into or out of a lift after women or holding a door, but will stand by and watch a good friend of theirs sexually harass a women, and even make excuses for their behaviour (you know the ones, "boys will be boys", or "he's had a tough life, and that's just how he is").

                  We're ok with the doors & lifts, really, we can work them. What we need more is for men to call other men out on their behaviour, particularly if it's a friend.

                  Date and time
                  February 18, 2014, 9:19AM
                  • The problem what that argument is that you've decided what 'good' and 'decent' means for you, and then run the entire argument as if your definition is the only one that could be correct. You know 'the truth' about what people think and why they think it.

                    What if someone disagrees about what you mean by 'good'? Does that very disagreement mean they are 'bad' by definition?

                    What if my idea of 'challenging the world' is to insist on a gender-neutral meritocracy, starting right now? No Ministers representing only one gender, no preferential maternity-only leave, no gender-segregated sport. Absolute equality of opportunity, not about gender, or species, or biology, but based on level of sentience, capacity to feel and understand suffering, and amount self-awareness.

                    I've made my own choices, derived my own ethics and morality by dint of several decades of study, research, personal reflection, experience and learning, and I am rather offended by the assumption that if my ideas of right and wrong don't agree with what's in your argument, then you are right and I am wrong.

                    That's why a lot of those men you criticise get upset. Not because of 'hurt feelings', but because the entire argument is framed as 'this is right, if you disagree you are not only wrong, you are a bad person'. Absolutism is a bad idea in religion, it's a bad idea in politics, in war, in nationalism and in any other 'ism' you care to name.

                    Date and time
                    February 18, 2014, 9:31AM
                    • And with this I agree, unfortunately even mediocrity is rare and as a result of it the levels of good are rather low.
                      Having said that, in my experience the percentage of woman who actively speak out against anti men gender discrimination is almost non existent.
                      So, what does it take to be a good woman?

                      Victorious Painter
                      Date and time
                      February 18, 2014, 9:37AM

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