Why I Won't Wear A White Ribbon

by Adam Jones (1992)

[Published in the MERGE Journal, 5: 5 (1992.)]

On a frigid December day three years ago, while Marc Lépine was roaming the classrooms and hallways of l'École Polytechnique in Montreal, I was a couple of kilometres down the road, laughing and sharing a few drinks with friends.

We heard the first reports on the evening news. But the real horror sank in only the next day, as the dimensions of the slaughter became clear, and the analyses - and recriminations - began.

Several days later, I joined tens of thousands of Montrealers who queued, some for hours, in subzero temperatures to file past the caskets of the victims. The crowd was a cross-section of Quebec society: male and female, young and old, anglophone and francophone. For a day, Quebeckers were united in grief.

The dignity of those proceedings stood in stark contrast to TV images of demonstrations across the country: the megaphones, the slogans, the wild assignations of blame. I was struck by many protesters' readiness to exploit the trauma of victims' families and friends for their own narrow, exclusionary political ends.

The sour aftertaste of the diatribes lingers on in many of the commemorative projects surrounding December 6. It's the main reason I refuse to join in the national White Ribbon Campaign organized by a Toronto men's group. The campaign seems based on a notion of universal male guilt. It's a framework that does little to honour the victims of the massacre, and nothing to acknowledge the real pain most men felt in the wake of Lépine's rampage.

The claim that all men must share responsibility for the violence some men do to some women has become a veritable mantra over the last several years. Almost no-one has bothered to examine its foundations, or criticize the hypocrisy of its exponents.

White Ribbon campaigners seem to think the pain a man feels over December 6 is suspect or illegitimate, unless it's accompanied by guilt. In the aftermath of the massacre, it was all too easy for men to imagine their wives, daughters, lovers, or friends among those mown down by Marc Lépine. For some men, that loss was a sickening reality. But men - all men - are now urged to feel kinship with the Polytechnique assassin. Their grief is only valid if some of it is devoted to mourning the part of them that's allegedly capable of such acts.

To counter this framework, let me make a couple of brief but, I hope, obvious points.

If men don't share the fear, it doesn't mean they don't share the risk. What does the White Ribbon campaigner say to men who have been brutalized by assailants who are also male? Are those men responsible, in some way, for their own victimization?

The White Ribbon campaign is attractive to those of both sexes who view "female" sensibilities as superior to "male" ones. Among feminist activists, the campaign seems to appeal mainly to those who consider male violence against women and children the only violence that matters. These activists often view progressive men as mascots or token presences - not as allies with diverse and critical perspectives to contribute to a common cause.

And when will the men behind the White Ribbon Campaign realize that their apologies for being born the wrong sex can never be abject enough to satisfy the extremists? We saw vivid evidence of this in last Friday's Globe and Mail, where two members of the Toronto-based Nurses for Social Responsibility accused White Ribbon folk of indulging in empty symbolism that "minimized and trivialized" male violence against women.

I'm not dismissing the explicitly political dimension to Marc Lépine's actions. Nor do I deny the more subtle and personal politics of domestic relationships that leave many women wounded or killed by men terrified and infuriated by "their" partner's desire for independence.

But given the pervasiveness of violence in our society, there's something tawdry about the simple-minded formulations of the White Ribbon campaigners.

On December 6, I will remember the victims of l'École Polytechnique in my own way. I'll commemorate them as precious and courageous human beings cut down in their prime. I'll honour them, too, as pioneers: women whose presence in a Faculty of Engineering was positive and liberating.

But I won't be wearing a white ribbon. For me, it would be a badge of shame - a shame I don't feel.

Books about men's studies from Amazon.com

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if the author is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.