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Learning from Chris Norton over three decades—Part III

This is the third of a three-post series on the pro-feminist and activist Chris Norton by Michael A. Messner.

Flash forward to 2010. I was now a full tenured professor. I was working with two young male Ph.D. students who in some ways reminded me of myself thirty years earlier—inspired by feminism, wanting to have an impact on the world. Both Tal Peretz and Max Greenberg had, as undergrads, gotten involved in campus-based violence prevention work with men. Unlike three decades ago, this work had become pretty much institutionalized; a guy like Tal or Max now can plug in to a campus or community organization, be handed an anti-violence curriculum, and get to work with boys and men. I figured this was a great opportunity to do a study with these two guys, tapping in to the roots of men’s work against gender-based violence in the 70’s and 80’s, and contrasting it with the work being done today.

Of course, I thought of Chris Norton and Men Against Sexist Violence (MASV). I located Chris online. Ever generous, he agreed to be interviewed. In December of 2010 we went out to lunch, and did what older guys do: caught up on each other’s lives, shared our hopes, fears, and challenges we’d faced with our kids, commiserated about our ageing bodies. On this latter topic, Chris had more serious news to share than I. He was facing, with strength and optimism, a liver transplant in the near future.

We returned to his home, and settled in for the interview. We fell right in to a nice conversation, and I used bits of the transcript of my 1980 interview with Chris to prod his memory, and to probe ways in which he’d changed, or not, since then. Most interesting to me were his reflections on the work that MASV had done so many years ago. He joined the several other MASV men whom I would eventually also interview in saying that he was very proud of the work the group had done. But in retrospect, he said he wondered how effective they’d been, and figured that if the group had it to do all over again, they might have done their work differently:

“I don’t think I would go at it at all the way we did then, ‘cause I think in some ways, … I think we were doing something to prove something to ourselves and other people of our age group, and I don’t think we were thinking about, like, what’s it like to be a teenage boy in high school, and what are these images going to do to you when they’re shown up on a screen, and is it going to have any of the effect that we’re hoping to have? And I think it would have been really good to kind of get guys to talk about, well, there’s issues of bullying, issues of, you know, being popular, not popular. I mean, it seems like there could be a lot of things that could have been much more valuable, ‘cause in some ways, I think we almost had this stick and we’re going to beat you over the head with this thing. And… perhaps if they felt like they were more understood, maybe they could be more understanding of women and, and where women are coming from. And I think that would be more the way I would go about it now.

[Back then], we were really just making it up, I mean, it was the seat of our pants… we felt like we should be doing something. We were feeling like we need to be also talking about the same things that the women were talking about—but we basically just took their analysis and presented it. You know, it didn’t—it didn’t feel like it was coming from our core, you know, from who we were, other than maybe from our guilt.”

Part of my goal is to encourage today’s anti-violence activists to re-connect to that larger vision. It is stories from this generation of activists like Chris Norton that help to keep alive this larger vision.

Chris’s statement very neatly encapsulated about thirty years of change in the ways that men now approach doing violence prevention work with boys and men. It is important to chronicle the grassroots of this activism—set in place in the 70’s and 80’s by community groups like MASV— and its foundations of positive social change. It’s also important to honor this activism because today’s younger activists, however savvy and pragmatic they may be about the ways they approach boys and men with their message, may also have lost something very important that earlier activists like Chris Norton had: a grounding in a larger view of social change that viewed their efforts to stop sexist violence against women as intricately connected with efforts to humanize and bring justice to the world. For groups like MASV, feminist work with boys and men, Chris explained, was an integral part of a larger transformative movement:

“… an important way of sort of humanizing socialism, or getting rid of some of the hard-edged more Stalinistic tendencies that some socialist movements could have. And it also just made a lot of sense [for] those of us too, who also were rejecting militarism and the traditional terms of being masculine or man, and were looking for some kind of a new way—when I came to Berkeley initially I was involved in the anti-war movement, and lived in communal houses, and we’d gotten involved in the food conspiracy, and—it was all part of this whole, you know, sort of community, alternative society in a way that we kinda’ felt like we were creating it back then.”

In retrospect, like many radicals of his generation, Chris expressed frustration with the current prospects for transformative social change.

“I think I’ve retreated some degree from utopianism. But I do feel that it’s definitely possible to have a far more egalitarian society than we do. And I just, I feel like—and that’s part of my frustration too, is those of us who feel that way haven’t found ways to be very effective in putting forward that vision and, and making that vision something that’s attractive to people, and making people realize that what we’re living under is not actually that great for a lot of people, and it’s very difficult for a lot of people.”

Part of my goal is to encourage today’s anti-violence activists to re-connect to that larger vision. It is stories from this generation of activists like Chris Norton that help to keep alive this larger vision.

Featured image credit: Between the Door and the Street, Suzanne Lacy, Installation at the Brooklyn Museum by the Brooklyn Museum. CC0 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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