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Best of 2013: Lament of the 21st century man

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'21st Century Man' by Chris Johnston. A 21st century man sees a horrific version of himself and his world reflected back at him from a shop window.He doesn't like what he has come to stand for.

He knows that he's fortunate to be born in the right time and place, with the right gender and skin colour, to make him one of the privileged in this world. He knows that he's the beneficiary of a history that has given him wealth and status, while depriving that wealth and status from others.

This history haunts him. There is the dispossession of the Indigenous people, which means even the property he owns is tainted by the fact that it was never legally obtained to begin with.

There was, and is, the exploitation of people and resources in other parts of the world, which adds a human cost to the economic prosperity he enjoys. The relative peace in his home country stands in stark contrast to the world wars his fellow countrymen fought on foreign lands, and the continuing conflicts in less fortunate countries. He might want to forget all this, but the boats that continue to arrive on his country's shores jolt his conscience.

His body itself is a symbol of his inherited power and privilege. He hears women talk about being afraid to go out at night alone, and is conscious of the hunched shoulders of women he passes on the street. He sees the great strides women have made in the workforce, yet sits in management meetings where nine out of ten leaders are men. He reacts angrily at stories of domestic violence, but knows that the anger he feels carries the same seeds of that violence. He sees bikini clad women on his television screen and feels guilty at admiring their bodies.

The power within him both seduces and scares him. Fences are built around his property, just as borders were created around his country, to mark what he owns, and to keep out those who don't belong. As he drives around the sprawling city in which he lives, he sees the pollution filling up the waterways, the smog hanging in the air — the consequences of seeing a place as a possession to be cordoned off and exploited. He wonders if the obscenities he hears when he goes to the football are just a different form of that pollution.

He was brought up to think coldly, to analyse a problem and come to a logical solution. He stays late at the office to meet the deadlines his boss has given him, while wishing he could be there to read to his children before they go to bed. He watches while his company brings in labour from overseas to keep down wages. He invests in stocks, and follows the news stories of global economic crisis. He believes in capitalism, but wonders if there would be fewer unemployed people, less talent and potential wasted, if our society weren't so calculating.

He also knows that what he has come to stand for doesn't have to be what he is.

So he listens. He sits in silence while those who've been hurt share their stories. He opens his heart to Indigenous people as they share their stories of dispossession, and the continuing pain inflicted by vilification. He goes online to learn about the suffering of people trafficked into slave labour. He hears women talk about the double-standards placed on them, and the way even our language continues to marginalise them with words like 'bitch' and 'slut'. He tries to see how his own words and actions contribute to these problems.

He doesn't let the burden of making the world a better place sit on the shoulders of others. He knows that if men are to become better they need to have better role models, and that it's up to his generation to provide those role models. He provides spaces for the voices of the powerless to be heard, and takes up their cause when his turn comes to speak. He finds women he admires and looks to them for inspiration. He tries to change the way he interacts with other men, to show them that there's strength in being vulnerable and open about their feelings.

He doesn't mourn the passing of the age of patriarchy, but instead embraces an age of joint stewardship. He understands that his role is not to protect people by placing walls around them, but to allow them to flourish by ensuring they're free to become their best selves.

In his relationships at home he shares all the roles, caring and providing along with his partner. At work, he's as concerned for the good of the organisation as he is about his own success. In his dealings with others he seeks to be generous rather than just fair. He also knows that if his actions poison the environment, or have a negative impact on the economy, that no one will benefit in the long term. And he tries to embrace the idea that the greatest form of leadership is to wash the feet of sinners.

This 21st century man doesn't like what he has come to stand for. But he knows that he can be redeemed.

Michael McVeigh headshotMichael McVeigh is Editor of Australian Catholics and Province Express. He is also senior editor at Jesuit Communications which publishes Eureka Street, Madonna, and Finding God's Traces. This article was originally published on 9 July 2013.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, 21st century man, racism, sexism, middle class guilt



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I think this article is spot on.

ian purdue | 06 January 2014  

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