Counting Down The FOLD: Jamil Jivani

Photo credit: Wim Van Cappellen

Jamil Jivani an author, Yale-educated lawyer, activist, community organizer and he’s back in his hometown, Brampton, for the Festival of Literary Diversity’s opening gala, From Boys to Men, taking place May 4th, at 7pm. His book, Why Young Men: Rage, Race and The Crisis of Identityis available now and we had the opportunity to sit down with Jamil to talk about the book, toxic masculinity and the challenges that many young men face today.

All weekend passes are still available online at the Festival of Literary (FOLD) website and tickets for tonight’s opening gala are still available.

How would you define toxic masculinity and vulnerability for men?

When it comes to masculinity, what’s helpful to think of as toxic, is teaching young men or boys that the way to be a man is to limit your own voice. That’s a toxic way to raise children, yet it’s how a lot of us experience life, which isn’t to say that everything a young man does is legitimate or worth encouraging. It is to say though, that we want to create a world where a free exchange of ideas and beliefs are available to our young people. They are constantly speaking for themselves, having their ideas challenged and being better off for it.

It’s tough for a lot of men to communicate. We have a hard time being vulnerable, knowing whether that’s a side of ourselves that men will receive in a positive way or in a way that encourages dialogue. It’s hard to know who you can be open with in your peer group about those feelings. You want to be perceived as with the crowd, so if everyone else is being unemotional and not sharing how they feel, it’s hard to be the one who starts that. You don’t want to leave yourself hanging. You also may lack the language.

Can we call it a conversation when much of the time it’s those who have been victims of toxic masculinity, (women, Trans and gender diverse people) are re-writing what it could mean?

We have a stake in each other’s way of existing in the world, too. Certainly we would like to get to a point where we have the broad diversity of human experiences accounted for in every important conversation we have but in the imperfect world we live in, we also don’t want to make people, and in this case with masculinity, feel like people don’t have an important role in the conversation. In the absence of male leadership whether it’s at home or in community orgs or initiatives there will be times where women have to take the lead and I think that in terms of practicality in making things better, that’s important.

Even in the work I’ve done with young people, we want to make sure that they’re put into positions that allow them to lead and ensure their experiences are well understood by adults and others who influence their lives. We also know that at the end of the day, in order to create a positive role for young people, their parents, teachers, police officers and social workers have an important role to play. It’s a balance of being inclusive but also recognizing that we’re all in this together, so-to-speak.

If someone were to approach this issue with the question of how to be more open to different dialogue about masculinity if they’re feeling defensive, what would you recommend or say to them?

Masculinity, and just like femininity and other parts of our identity mean very different things to different people. Specifically, to use an example, there are men who will credit the responsibility they feel to their families and communities to have a good job that can provide for themselves and others or work hard and be a good father to their sense of masculinity. If we try to have a one size fits all sense of what masculinity means to other people, not only does that edge out the diversity of the ways people experience it, we also run the risk of making people self-conscious about the good qualities they associate with it.

When it comes to just having that conversation, what’s really important is starting from a place of asking what it means to people we’re talking about. It’s a balance I talk about in the book, with the initiative, My Brother’s Keeper.

What I find so impressive about what President Obama’s coalition did is the focused on the milestones that a young boy would need to go through in order to have an increased likelihood of having positive experiences in adulthood. Those milestones were focused though, on what would enable a boy or young man to find their own destiny. It’s about saying that we know you need a certain level of education and to stay out of the justice system, while having a marketable skill set to get a job. The kind of job you want and things you might want to study in school or the way you imagine having a family was all see as an individual activity. That balance of what our boys and young men needed to feel supported without feeling constrained because we know the diversity of masculinity and how it’s experienced is what we need to keep in mind when we have conversations about masculinity.

It’s about having enough conviction that we can stand for something and say, “This is what a good society that supports its young people looks like,” but without overprescribing meaning onto people. I hope that what comes from this moment of thinking about masculinity and gender is a real appreciation for the diversity of how people experience the world.

Seeing masculinity expressed in so many different ways, especially being part of the Queer community as I am, feels like such a great thing, but people don’t often talk about it for those wonderful things. When we hear it, we tend to tune it out. What does that mean for you?

I try to think of masculinity as a fluid idea. There are two ways to think about it in that it’s what the people who are talking about it have decided men or people who identify with manhood view the performance of that gender. That’s fluid and adjusts, even in our own culture. For example men staying at home while their partner went out and worked is so much more acceptable now than 20-30 years ago; That’s the part of masculinity that’s fluid.

You also have the less personal element of it in that there’s a history and set of social norms, in addition to cultural understandings that might not necessarily resonate with every person’s experience. Certainly though, we can look at history books and histories in the world and see that there are some masculinity issues at play, even if we don’t identify with it. I can say for instance, that I believe it’s important to have people organize around the challenges that young men face and be able to talk about them, whether it’s at a grassroots or policy level. I can however, also say that I understand why starting a men’s association at a university for example, is uncomfortable and might not be very effective given the history of masculinity. That’s how I can reconcile the personal experience of it, with the history that might not have anything to do with me individually but certainly there is a masculinity that’s independent of my own subjectivity. We can’t ignore that there’s history and politics attached to the idea as well.

Not having a father figure around gave me a particular kind of insight into how masculinity is understood and taught and passed on. What I mean by that is, because my father was not around very much and the specific moments he was, as I mentioned in the book, were centred around seeing him interact with the police or with my mother in very uncomfortable ways. Some of the conversations we had about his struggles to be present in our lives, stand out so much and because there were so few, they became definitive in how I perceived men and how I felt men were supposed to experience life. For instance the idea of being harassed by police officers was kind of like a right of passage in my mind. I grew up thinking that it’s what my father went through and that will be how I know I’m growing up.

His absence however, meant that I didn’t have a more complex sense of what men go through in that more of your life will be about interacting with your kids and your partner. You’ll be worried about bills or talk about going on vacation and be happy. Those are the everyday and less exciting things that people do. I never saw men go through that, so I wound up with a sense of masculinity that was always very sensational and somewhat like the things you’d see on television or hear about in music, not the everyday things people do if they’re trying to have healthy families and healthy communities. My experience of growing up and seeing that masculinity is far more complicated and that there’s more to it than anecdotes in a book, took me years to get that level of experience and know enough men who did stay with partners, look after their kids and look after the bills while doing the simple things I never saw someone do while I was a kid.

My definitive experience was going from a very narrow view of what men do and what they feel or say, to a much broader view where I saw that men do a lot and have their own strengths and weaknesses, having more than just one way of thinking and feeling.

The challenge that we all face in most matters of identity is how do you embrace diversity while standing by principle. I talk a lot about male and female relationships in the book because whether it’s between my Mom and I or my Father and I, or other men and their significant others, I know there are many men who may go their entire lives being single. They might not have kids or be in same sex relationships. This is where you find the challenge of talking about masculinity that’s inclusive of all those other ways of being men while also talking about the core challenges that face a large enough number of us that we have to talk about them. It’s about trying to understand how to talk about inclusiveness and the problems we need to solve.

Should we build bridges between identities so that masculinity is its own identity of sorts, to address the many issues surrounding it?

The challenge I think about a lot is how do you build bridges without simultaneously creating more islands. The concept of intersectionality for instance, is an incredibly useful way to appreciate the complexity of the way we all live. Even people who think they only have a one-dimensional experience, if applying intersectionality, would find they’re far more complex than they think. I see an action though, that leads to the categorization of identities down to the point that you wonder what it is that binds us together enough to actually have a real genuine interest in the the well-being of another person.

Its’ a real threat to our ability to have dialogue because if we’re constantly saying we’re carrying about 5-10 identities with us, I tend to think the best way to organize a society is ranking your top identity being the one you share with as many people as possible. It’s how you get invested in the wellbeing and progress of other people. I get concerned sometimes that the more we divide our identities down to different markers, the harder it is to look at another person and feel connected to them so that you want to learn about what makes our lives different and help wherever I can.

There’s a need to embrace individuality more, which is allowing us to express and be ourselves, while anticipating that may come in many forms we may not always understand. This is an idea that I think is missed in conversations about identity issues and sometimes with good reason if we’re talking about group and collective experiences. The individual is however, at the end of the day, what makes us the most like each other, regardless of life experiences. I talked in the book for example, about the young Muslim man in Belgium who is relatable but not many people can see his life experiences in theirs. It’s very different for them and the same goes for talking about a young white man and whatever angst he might feel. There are people who will cynically see struggles of white people through the lens that others have it worse than you and can’t get past, even if that angst is very relatable to people across a broad range of identities.

Trying to overcome biases is something I concluded that at some point we have to put ourselves in the position where we say- you can be vocal about your opinions, while being respectful and willing to learn but you certainly shouldn’t feel like you can’t participate in a conversation because you don’t have the right identity marker. I think we need to get to that place in order to build bridges that are true bridges and not just further fragmenting us than we already are.

Do you think that this isolation of and closing the door to those experiences because they don’t have the right identity markers, harms young men?

Absolutely. The minute you say to someone that a characteristic is required to validate an opinion or argument, without focusing on the actual opinion or argument means that you’re essentializing people. The idea then becomes that you’re only allowed to for example, allow Black people to participate in a debate, there’s only certain kinds of positions you’re allowing Black people to take because we’re associating them with a particular worldview. Then all of a sudden if you don’t have that worldview, you’re not authentically Black or seen as legitimate compared to others.

For young people that is a very constraining way to grow up, especially because it fails to recognize that younger generations will see their identities and other people’s identities different than we are. That’s probably a good thing because if society is moving in the direction it should, then we are going to be living in a more just and fair world and they will see things differently because of that. When we put people in boxes because of their identity, we’re also pushing back against whatever uniqueness or individuality or perspective that young people cna bring to the table which denies their voice.

Extremists however, take similar positions. Alt-right white supremacists for example claim that they have the authority of what a white man is supposed to be like. They want to recruit young men into that way of being in the world. ISIS and jihadists claim they know what a real muslim man is supposed to be like. There are gangs and criminal elements in our society that say, “We know what a Black man is supposed to be like.” They want a world in which we see people as homogenous and unchanging identity groups, that we are fixated into our identity groups and can’t have diversity within them. Studies show that there’s more diversity within identity groups than there are between identity groups because at the end of the day we’re all just people.

Are you creating a world where you’re telling young people to find their own voice, to go out there and be the best you can to make the world better as you see it, participate in our society, look at our institutions and say, I can lead those and I’m going to make this place better. I’m invested in this world I’ve been born into or are you making them feel excluded and pushed out and on the fringes. That’s a real choice we have to make. It’s not just our economy or culture and society. It’s also how we choose to talk about these things.

If we’re essentially saying to one another, “we’re not going to hear you out because you don’t meet this checklist that qualifies how your insights are valuable”, I don’t think that’s creating a world where enough young people can grow up and think, “I see this problem with our justice system and I want to do something about it. I’d like to think that any young person could grow up and think, “Yes, there’s a problem with our police systems and justice system. I have an idea and I’m going to go fix it.” I don’t think it’s helpful to tell some young people that they’re somehow not allowed to make this world better or have opinions on how to make this world better because of things that are mostly out of their control.

What would you say to someone who is young and beginning to feel like you did, which you mentioned at the beginning of your book, that this is me against the world and that this world is not for me, taking that attitude to protect themselves.

It’s very important for young people who feel angry at the world around them and angry at the people in their lives, frustrated by their circumstances, that they don’t take that moment as the defining moment to understand themselves because your circumstances can change, people around you can change and opportunities in front of you can change. You will change with those things too.

I would also say that a lot of navigating the world is understanding that you as a young person and young man are necessary for people in our society to continue. You are the future of many things so the world is competing to influence you and whether that’s influence you as a consumer, thinker or where you go after school or what arts you consume, what you believe in and what ideas you share with your friends. However insignificant you might feel, you are relevant enough that people are trying to influence you and affect who you are and how you see yourself. It’s important to remember that this is a competition of influences so not only do you have to walk around society knowing that there are different movements, ideas and businesses trying to push you in a certain direction (some good and some bad) but you also have to choose the right influences.

A big part of exercising your choice is how you spend your time. Who do you spend your time with and what are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching? Even when you feel most powerfess, that is still a choice you get to make. Emphasizing your own agency is important especially at a young age because a lot of the disenchantment and desperation comes from feeling like you have no control over your own circumstances. In many cases there won’t be but you will always have some degree of control and understanding where it is and how you can exercise it is really important not to lose sight of.

You did a talk with 514Talks. You mentioned that you wanted to do a lot with your lived experiences so what would you say to someone who is looking to address societal barriers with lived experiences alone. Much of the time you need education, money, funding or other barriers to make changes but not everyone has these “keys” to enter certain spaces.

Figure out how to marry those lived experiences with some skill that you have. Those skills don’t have to be academic or what you’d learn in school. They won’t even necessarily be skills that people think of as skills. If you’re someone who is an artist or if you worked in a warehouse moving boxes, or if you work as a professor or a student- whatever it is you wind up doing, you pick up abilities in how you spend your time, even if it’s just being really good at social media for example. You could also be a good orator. The key is to connect your lived experience with what you’re able to share with the world in terms of your abilities.

If you’re a welder or a carpenter and you take your lived experiences and combine those things, you could become a fantastic mentor and advocate for unions, and create space for young people and underrepresented communities to play a role in labor in organizing. We look at people in the trades and often don’t think of them as political actors, but they actually have an incredible influence by combining their insights on how people experience the world with the skills they have to open up new doors for people who might not have those doors opened otherwise.

The place we want to get to is that we’ve woven in the experiences of a diverse range of people in our society into the way our society functions, without leaving lived experiences on the margin where people don’t have a choice about being invited in or not. We want to get to a point where we make a choice and talk about life but it’s actually just baked into life itself.

What was your favorite part of writing the book and the process of putting it all together?

My favorite part was probably going to Belgium and doing the research on the ground there because the other parts of the book are so personal and weren’t the easiest to write. I really liked going to Belgium for the research though because I felt like there was a chance to take my personal insights and research, applying it to a place I’ve had little knowledge or experience, focusing on the similarities between people who might perceive themselves or be viewed by others as very different from each other.

I’m a big believer in trying to tell stories in a way that encourage empathy and action, so that you’ll want to see how relatable someone’s life is to your own, but what action could you take to make society better for yourself but also others at the same time. Belgium was where I got to think of these experiences and issues outside of myself. We sometimes want to believe that we and our issues are so unique that it’s hard for other people to understand us.

We do have problems in Brampton, Toronto, Canada, the United States and North America. But that doesn’t mean it’s so hard for other people to understand those problems, nor is it so hard for us to understand problems that people on the other side of the Atlantic might have. That part of the book pushes me to think differently and I hope that it does the same for others.