• Emilio Singh

Just One Word: Trash

Ordinarily, I would start this post with a joke of some kind. However, given the subject matter, I think it is in better taste to just be honest and sincere and leave the jokes for future posts making fun of the police.

Men are trash. It's a controversial statement and the subject of this JOW. In South Africa, the news cycle has recently brought forth more horrific stories of the violence, abuse and suffering faced by women in this country at the hands of the men. I do not think it is said lightly that women in this country are facing a unique and horrific siege of themselves, their bodies and their personhood in a way most men are completely incapable of understanding. What is being done?

I see "men are trash" or #MenAreTrash. It's in the stories of women who are beaten or killed by their boyfriends and husbands. Women who get killed just for going out into public to do business. From teenagers to the elderly, it seems like there is no end to the torrent of abuse faced by women in this country.

So the purpose of this article is to talk specifically about why "men are trash" is important. Why it matters, why we should say it, and why it represents a deeper problem in South African society as a whole. My goal, hopefully, is to educate. I cannot bring justice to the victims, but I can educate people about the problem as well as to highlight the problem in the wider context of patriarchy in the society at large.

Before I get to the wider points, I would first like to talk a bit about some personal context. From my perspective, I did not initially understand the statement "men are trash." I was introduced to the hashtag on social media, and the resulting conflagration of opinions and attacks circulating between what can now be sorted into two groups. The first group were proponents of the hashtag. They openly declared it and the second group opposed them. While, there was always a certain misogynistic element that opposed it on the grounds of their usual hatred of women, these men were rarely involved in the conversation without being shouted down quickly.

The second group largely consisted of people who opposed the idea that the use of the phrase "men are trash" was helpful to the overall cause, namely that of addressing the suffering of women in the country. This group, to their credit, were also against the violence and abuse suffered by women but they also did not believe that the hashtag did anything more than inflame tensions.

From this group, I think we could say they have the liberal mindset to the nature of the problem and its solution. This kind of argument, I feel, has two important facets that it emphasises. The first is that the violence and abuse must be caused by individuals acting as individuals without an underlying systemic cause. The second is that the hashtag would otherwise alienate men from the conversation because it includes them in the category of the men who are actually doing the violence and abuse.

As a leftist, I have to admit I find both of these points very unconvincing, and in some ways actually harmful to the overall dialogue and so later on, I will devote a section into providing rebuttals to it, and other similar arguments I saw. But right now, let me get into the rest of the article.

South Africa has a problem with violence against women. In a report released by the South African Department of Social Development, they outline the problem of gender based violence in the country that is targeted primarily towards women and children. This and others like it paint a very grim picture for life as a woman in the country. We are so far advanced in the problem that South Africa is one of the capitals of the world in violence against women [1]

And yet despite all of the evidence, very little is being done about it in the wider society to address the problems faced by women. It seems that we are either living in denial for the problem whose symptoms are plainly manifested or that we are living in despair for a problem that does not want to be fixed.

The question is why?

I want to outline here 2 factors that I believe contribute to the problem in ways that I think are plainly evident in the society of modern South Africa. This is not to say that these 2 factors are the entire reason for the problem. Far from it; gender violence is extremely complex and the reality of it, is often much more complicated than can be discussed in a single post.

1) Extreme Inequality - It is no secret South Africa is a nation of extremes when it comes to wealth inequality. Based on work done by the UN, poverty is one of the leading contributing factors that affects violence against women [2]. It should be no surprise then that in a society as deeply unequal as ours, that this poverty is behind much of the violence and abuse suffered by women in the country as a whole. Poor women are made easier targets by their poverty. They cannot access opportunities, resources and means to seek help, and are more likely to face abuse at the hands of partners with economic leverage over them. Just like general poverty traps people into cycles of harm, poverty traps women into cycles of harm they are even less equipped to escape on their own. Not to say that women of means are totally free from this either; they also experience abuse but generally speaking poverty is a huge factor.

2) Legacies of Social Conservatism - It should come to no one's surprise that South Africans are generally socially conservative. Legacies of colonialism, imperialism and tribalism mean that across races, each group in the country has conservative trees whose roots run deep into the past. A lot of this is based in religion such as with Protestant Dutch Churches but it could as easily be found in the pre-industrial tribal systems with male chiefs. In many ways, colonial rule imported many ideas about the structure of society (including the role of women) into this country and that legacy has strongly remained.

Basically, the culture of this country (as is many to be honest) is rooted in socially conservative legacy whereby women are relegated to subservient, or lesser roles. These cultural legacies largely remain, in the society and these will no doubt influence the way in which men and women interact and see themselves in society at large. The past was obviously patriarchal this legacy persists today because it was never meaningfully dealt with. To borrow from Newton, a society's culture will remain as it is, unless acted on by a social pressure to change.

Monarchies do not simply collapse on their own accord and so, patriarchal structuring of society does not change unless acted on, by equality movements like feminism. And in an honest look at this country, we have legal protections that have never meaningfully transformed into social protections.

I doubt, at this point, there is much disagreement with the facts as they are presented. South Africa is deeply unequal and also socially conservative and thus women experience a form of oppression where their oppression and bubble over into violence at seemingly a moment's notice.

So now I imagine, if you don't already buy into the premise, that you might be wondering why it's "men are trash" instead of something else. So I would like to present a model about how violence against women can be systemic to answer this question.

The model presented below is constructed based on my own intuition and understanding and should not be taken as academic gospel. It does however serve as a way of explaining how a system of violence would work. There are other academics whose work is more valuable in this regard.

Model of Harm

The model of harm is a way of understanding how exactly we got to this point where we are today.

The model is, I think, fairly simple. The basis (layer 1) of the model is how the society sees women. How a society perceives women, will inform the ideas it has about how to construct womanhood in that society and it's from this seed that the the society manifests the next step: policy. From how the society constructs the idea of women, it constructs its laws and social systems that affect them. This in turn filters to the way in which that society delivers the expectations of women and their role in society back to them. The third layer directly feeds back into the first since how women are depicted and found in the media space of a society will influence their expectations and norms. From there, the next step is to see how the projection of these expectations manifests in real interactions between men and women. Specifically, the people (and men specifically) raised in the society with its media will then project the behaviours they are conditioned with onto the people around them. Finally, these attitudes eventually coalesce into the tip of the pyramid, which manifests the most serious and obvious symptoms of its existence: grievous bodily harm.

As a practical example, we have to consider we have inherited strange gendered ideas from our cultural legacy. For example in many households, the gendered expectation is for women to be the homemakers while the men work. In this way, this simple expectation is manifested in the employment equity and opportunities of women. We expect women to be homemakers and domestic servants, and so their position in the workplace is seen as an intrusion by men. Women receive less access to the resources and means to achieve work outside of the home, and those that do, face pressure from society to conform to a traditional maternal role (like child-rearing and working).

This translates to the media layer where women in the workplace are depicted not as the norm, but as a particular oddity. In films and tv, women subordinate their careers for their roles as mothers while men are never depicted to be needing to make the same sacrifice.

Women, seen as outsiders to the traditional male working space then face a multitude of problems. Harassment in the workplace becomes part of their experience of the workplace and then, from there, it's up to their individual circumstances as to the level of victimisation they will face. At that point, it's already too late. They then must survive the system they've been entrapped in.

It's the top layer most people fixate on because it is the most visceral and apparent, but clearly, as the model shows, it's the one that represents the symptom of the wider illness, not the illness itself. It's the terminal point of the harm process where the woman is most hurt, but also hurt in ways that make recovery the hardest. Our goal as a society should be to address the lower layers. In changing how our society views women, we will change how women are treated. We can't meaningfully expect the reverse to be true. We cannot change how women are treated, without first changing their gender expectations, norms and roles in society. Fighting for their liberation as people, their acceptance as equals, is how we change how they get treated. Our society will not treat women as equals worthy of protections that should be afforded to all people, if women aren't seen as people in the first place.

An astute reader will notice that the model is structured specifically as a pyramid with the most direct, most visible acts against women situated at the top and more abstract and more invisible acts at the bottom. This is by design, and cuts to the heart of the message of this article. Simply put, when we see visible violence against women, when we hear of a rape or a murder, we are in fact only seeing the actual tip of the iceberg that is the systemic harm of women in our society.

The reason for this, is that by and large, the nature of the system acts like a funnel and a sieve. As something becomes more concrete in the society, fewer men tend to act on it. The number of men who, for example, post disparaging memes about women online, is exponentially higher than the number of men who will directly assault a woman in the street. And yet, one does not exist without the other. The less physically apparent an act of violence is, the more common it can be (especially with the Internet) and thus, these little acts build together a culture that will funnel some men upwards in the pyramid, where their expectations of women meet the brutal reality of them and violence ensues. This is not to say that heinous crimes like rape or murder are inevitable, or that men have no agency, they do. However, if the culture that men exists in, is harmful to women, it will eventually produce the most extreme symptoms of this.

Which leads us back to why we should say men are trash. The reason being, that all men are complicit in this overall system. We are not all rapists and murderers, but we are all a part of the system that produces them. When men joke about women casually in the workplace, when men complain about women in media, when men conceive of their own identities, it comes from a place that is poisoned by the harmful nature of our society.

It is not enough to not be directly harming women, that is the baseline of decency expected of all people. The more dangerous thing is apathy or indifference in the face of the less overt, the less extreme acts (or microaggressions) that contribute to the overall process. And the truth is that men are generally, however well meaning, ignorant of the way we exist in society affects women, or how women are conditioned (both by men and by other women) to act in ways that are against their own agency as individuals.

The best way I can describe it is to imagine the process by which a beach is polluted with litter. If the beach is pristine, then few people would say that a few pieces of litter constitutes the beach being polluted. But, if the beach were covered in litter and the sand not visible, we would say that without a doubt. Well, in practical terms, the beach is not generally polluted in big singular pieces of garbage. It's polluted through many little acts of pollution, that society becomes indifferent to, until we no longer see the lack of sand as a problem.

I will now discuss a number of rebuttals to the men are trash statement, from the perspective of ideology, but also in terms of practical strategy. I feel it's important to engage with this in the interests of spreading awareness.

  1. Men are trash will turn away men by accusing them of something they're not: We have to be suspicious of the legitimacy of this claim, in relation to how it would affect wider society. If a man is unwilling to understand the outrage behind men are trash, or the systemic oppression of women as reported by themselves in relation to it, how likely is it that such a man would honestly then believe in the structural oppression of women if they can't understand the outrage it manifests? The answer is that if a man cannot engage with the hashtag and understand the wider context, then such a man is likely to disbelieve that there is even a systemic problem in the first place and thus be unhelpful for the cause of justice in any event.

  2. Not all men rape or murder women: As mentioned above, this is true. Not all men do, but all men are complicit in the wider structures that lead to this. Men are trash is about acknowledging the systemic role men play in the oppression of women even if it isn't the most overt form of it.

  3. Why not something besides an obviously loaded phrase?: Based on speaking to women, I would say they have a legitimate claim to outrage. They live in a system that oppresses them and materially, this system has not changed because of men. Through inaction, indifference or malice, men as a social group have failed to help women achieve their true liberation. And of course, all social movements of radical progress must by definition, challenge the comfort of the oppressors. We could not nicely shout about the oppression of poc under Apartheid. Similarly, the time for civility in the fight for women's liberation is passed.

  4. This is a problem of Race X: Well, there are two points of consideration. White women are likely to be wealthier than women of colour. Wealth can insulate greatly against problems in a society but as the killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorious demonstrates, women of all races are vulnerable. Women of colour, who are generally poorer, are more often the silent victims ignored by the media and so media coverage of gender based violence is unreliable and sensationalised.

  5. Men are victims too: Men are legitimately capable of being victims. However the sociological trends indicate that women are victimised in far greater numbers and severity than men and so, as victims, women are allowed to express outrage at their oppression, in their own space. This does not preclude the victimisation of men, or their struggle in any way. I would further contest that in solving the problems faced by women, male victims would benefit directly since they are both victims that can be helped through the same methods.

  6. Am I trash even if I haven't done anything wrong?: Blaming every single man, as an individual, is contrary to the point of a movement about systemic oppression. Trying to focus on men as individuals, ignoring men as a social group, ignores the actual problem and prevents a solution from being formed to address it. In this way, just as it is up to every woman to face her oppression in society, it is up to every man to evaluate his own position in society and how he could be contributing to the harm. Furthermore, it is very telling of a man's character if he is more concerned with the social backlash against systemic misogyny affecting him directly than by the existence of systemic misogyny against women. Men are trash exists only because the conditions of women are so harmful. Silencing women about their suffering is not going to make their suffering go away. Only by being honest about ourselves as men, as individuals and as a social group, can we actually address the problems faced by women.

  7. We should use the death penalty on men who rape: This is not actually a helpful suggestion. As mentioned, the problem is systemic. In principle, killing all of them men would fundamentally change the system, but that's hardly what the women advocating for men are trash would suggest. Killing individual men, does nothing to change the fundamental reasons why they rape and murder. Research shows that capital punishment does not deter criminals from crime [3]. Instead, it distracts from the real problem which is the overall culture as I mentioned. That is not to say that men who commit these acts should not face punishment, but that a solution that does not seek to change the culture of society will never kill enough men to stop the harm men do to society by the nature of the punishment.

  8. This is anti-men misandry: This is a particularly bad message as it demonstrates a misunderstanding of, or perhaps an unwillingness to engage with, the actual content of men are trash and what women are saying. It is easy to dismiss the hashtag in a reactionary sort of way but that demonstrates that as a man, you are not willing to seriously engage with women about their issues. I believe that any man that does, would be confronted with the reality of the oppression of women. And such a man has only two choices: be horrified and try to help or dismiss it. There is only one actual option for a genuine, caring man.

It is also important (vitally so) to discuss solutions. By now, you are hopefully on board with the movement as a whole and are likely indignant about the state of society? The question of what to do is in some ways extremely easy, and incredibly difficult to answer. Of course, dismantling the system I have presented would largely solve the problem and that might seem easy, but in truth, it would be one of the most difficult social challenges facing any society today. As such, it is largely beyond the ability of individuals to affect. It is only together, working in concert, can we hope to make the necessary social progress that one day renders this awful reality a distant memory.

But there are things you can do (especially if you are a man) and I will list them here.

  1. Challenge the simple things - As described above, the problem starts with relatively small and harmless things. What might be harmless jokes or comments, all contribute as part of a wider experience. Stop them, or challenge people that spread them.

  2. Let women speak their truth - As men we often talk over or to women, even when women are speaking about their experiences. Listening authentically to the experiences of women about their lives will go a long way towards building necessary empathy.

  3. Believe victims - Far too often, victims are silenced or never come forward in apathy of a system that has no interest in believing them. Listen to the victims, and take them seriously. Affecting greater social response in the form of the criminal justice system is part of the solution; far too many men do not experience any repercussions for their actions.

As a note, I'd like to invite any women readers who are interested in sharing their experiences or stories to contact me and I would be happy to host your experiences on this platform, however small it is.

There is no easy way to close this article. Women in South Africa face a daily experience from the society around them that is in many ways akin to being a prisoner. They live in fear of violence, death, and a myriad of other harms at the hands of men they know, and that they don't. Men are complicit in producing this structure alongside the additional factors would only worsen it.

It cannot be remedied through passing a law. It must be remedied through the work of everyone, especially men, in confronting the legacy of the system of harm we have inherited, perpetuated, and live in. Men are trash, and it's long past garbage day in South Africa.


[1]: Ronet Bachman, Violence against Women –A National Crime Victimization Survey Report, 1994.

[2]: “Women and Poverty.” UN Women, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/end-violence-against-women/2014/poverty.

[]: Lamperti, John, Justice Marshall, and Richard M. Nixon. "Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?." URL (consulted 17 May 2004) http://www. dartmouth. edu/~ chance/teaching_aids/books_articles/JLpaper. pdf (1994).

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