With more women claiming power in the political arena and other parts of life, more men appear to be threatened by that power. Some men are silent bystanders and some do not notice as other men verbalize angry discontent about and toward powerful women.

I noted there was a bystander present in July 2020 when Rep. Ted Yoho threw a misogynistic slur at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rep. Roger Williams stated that he neither participated in the exchange nor heard what was said. His office affirmed that Rep. Williams “would have immediately condemned that type of language towards any colleague.” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez brilliantly took care of it then and later.

Rep. Williams was a man proclaiming to be oblivious to another man’s bad behavior, pretending not to see it to avoid complicity. I believe Rep. Williams was a silent bystander, a chance spectator physically present during the anger-filled encounter, yet innocent of taking part in what happened.

Ted Yoho

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., seen in 2017. Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite

As a mental health practitioner for over 20 years, I am trained to be curious about behavior. Though men do not tend to seek out counseling, of the over 2,000 men I have counseled, there is a unique subset who are willing to share their fears, sadness and anger. These men are ideal candidates to ask about how they bear witness to the abuse by others.

There is early training for many men to be silent bystanders. One client describes being a young boy bullied into submission by his father and being told over and over, “Man up, I’ll give you something to cry about, and suck it up.” Over time, they stop recognizing their pain, look away from their hurt and are unable to acknowledge others’ suffering. It becomes impossible to say no to the alpha man. Men learn very early to stand down to men who have power.

Boys grow into men conditioned to be oblivious, unmoved and unaware of the pain and suffering of themselves and others. They appear cold and uncaring, though in truth, they feel deep pain. Masculinity becomes toxic when it prevents men from showing their hurt out of fear of being seen as weak and vulnerable. Another client avoids going to doctors. “I hurt, but it is not that bad. I would rather suffer and not be a bother to others. My pain is not significant.”

Compassionate male role models, who believe in intervening when abuse occurs on their watch, teach boys that any effort to interrupt abuse is worthwhile no matter the possible consequences of rejection, abuse, abandonment or withholding of love. Another client shared that as a child, while attempting to interrupt a girl’s bullying, his membership in the boys’ club was questioned by other boys, though later, his father expressed pride in his courage.

In recounting men’s stories, I in no way mean to minimize women’s suffering or to imply that women cannot stand up for themselves. Women do not need men to protect us from harm; we are powerful enough. I want men to claim their place as an ally to women, to men and themselves.

Violence damages not just the intended target, but also hurts (and implicates) those who witness it. Men who stand by and see the abuse of others not only participate passively in the violence, and they do not learn to stand up.

Communities can nurture young boys into tender, loving men who are conscious and stand boldly against all violence. I invite men to share their pain, and I listen. I encourage them to learn self-care and self-love. I teach men how to listen to the suffering of others. I teach them to cry or to shake with fear. I encourage them to join a men’s support group.

There is a cost to society when we raise boys to ignore pain, rather than seek comfort from themselves or others. When a young boy is afforded membership in a society where the experience of empathy is a natural response to pain, he is likely to become a man who can show compassion for other’s suffering.

Rep. Williams saw and did nothing to intervene. It is never too late.

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