A prominent Australian journalist, author and public interviewer, as well as an important voice in support of women, David Leser is currently working on a book about the #MeToo movement, due for publication in 2019 by Allen & Unwin.
I caught up with David while he was in New York City to conduct interviews for the book – at the very time that Harvey Weinstein was being arrested.
A former Middle East and North American correspondent, David Leser is best known for his in-depth profiles and stories on social and political issues, and is the recipient of numerous awards for his journalism. David’s recent memoir, To Begin To Know: Walking in the Shadows of my Father, was short-listed for the Australian National Biography Award in 2015.
Catriona Mitchell: David, I know that when you were writing an in-depth feature article on #MeToo in Australia earlier this year for the Sydney Morning Herald, you were struck by the enormity of the challenge. This must be even more true for you now, given that you’ve agreed to write a book on the subject?
David Leser: You can’t take on the karmic earthquake that the #MeToo movement represents, the outpouring of distress and the backlash against it that we’re witness to, without being overwhelmed and humbled, and sometimes rendered inert by the enormity of it. Every human being has a story of loss and regret and betrayal and shame – that’s what it means to be human – so everybody has an opinion on this moment. To try and wrap my arms around this is completely overwhelming. It’s a kind of drowning; a drowning in the pain of the world.
Millions upon millions of women have been shamed and violated and abused and silenced for centuries. It is the oldest prejudice: misogyny. What I’m trying to do is give voice to the story as a man. As a man, I can’t speak for women, just as a woman can’t speak for a man, or a white can’t speak for a black, or a Palestinian can’t speak for an Israeli. In conflict zones it’s hard to put yourself in the other’s shoes, but you have to try, so what I’m trying to do is find the moral imagination and the empathy and the ability to walk – in the Biblical sense – in someone else’s shoes, and examine my own privileges, examine the ways in which I’ve drunk from the well of patriarchy myself. And to make this a personal voyage, as well as a voyage of reportage across geographical and cultural borders, to give voice to this moment.
Do you think it’s possible for you to gain real, objective distance from the patriarchy that’s inside you?
Inside me? It’s inside all of us.
I just feel that women experience a conflict between what we instinctively feel, and what the patriarchy tells us; and that dissonance tells us where the patriarchy is imposing something from the outside. I wonder how that is for men, because you aren’t necessarily bumping up so consciously against the rules of patriarchy.
Unless you start to listen.
Tell me about the listening.
Well it has to be a deep listening. And it’s hard, because it’s like telling a fish about water. And these are the codes and the laws and the narratives that we’ve inhaled as men, all our lives. To get some perspective on that requires ruthless self-interrogation.
Is there some sort of fragmentation of self that’s happening, as you’re going through this intensive interrogation? You’re dismantling the very structures that your identity is built on…?
It’s true. But without being arrogant about it, I feel like I’m in touch with my biases and failings, and the script that I’ve worked off that all men have worked off, even though masculinity varies massively from culture to culture. We’ve all worked off a script. Tim Winton talks about that script, and how a lot of men are made from spare parts: they’re given the pencil case full of colours as a little boy, and progressively as they get older, as they enter a male teenage culture, those colours get taken out and they’re left with just purple and black.
I’m aware of that culture that I’ve been part of, but I’ve had some things that have saved me… a father who loved me, who called me darling, who kissed and hugged me. Not something that a lot of Anglo men could say they had. I’ve been in men’s groups, I’ve got great male friends, we’ve examined these things.
So this is not a new interrogation for you.
It’s a more brutal interrogation.
“It’s a kind of drowning; a drowning in the pain of the world.”
What are you most afraid of, in taking this project on?
I thought I’d be overwhelmed, and I am. I thought I would drown under this tidal wave of daily news reports, and I am. I thought I would find it difficult to structure, and I am. I didn’t think that I could do this without going through deep crises of confidence and self-belief.
But at the same time, I think all that’s good, because the doubt is part of it. I actually have a strong belief in the uncertainty principle. To not know is actually a good thing. To not be sure where to shine the light. And that’s what’s happening.
Do you think that part of “toxic masculinity” is to pretend to know all the time? To wear that tough exterior, to prove one’s mettle as a man?
Absolutely. That’s the mask of masculinity. Most men learn, in one shape or form, to shut down their emotional life because it’s not seen as manly – in fact, it’s seen as the opposite. There’s nothing worse that a boy could be told when he’s young, than “you’re a girl.” That’s the greatest shame.
We all carry the feminine and the masculine within us, but we learn as boys very early on to shut down that archetypal feminine mode… and what does that say about the masculine view of the feminine?
Would you call that ‘archetypal feminine mode’ the feeling self?
I would. I would call that the feeling self, the collaborative self, the communal self, that I’m part of something bigger than myself… I would call it nature, I would call it the goddess, I would call it many things, rather than this thrusting, hemispheric, sovereign, independent, competitive masculine side. And we all need both.
We all need both, but what masculine culture has done in a lot of places is kill off or desecrate the feminine. If we’re doing that to ourselves internally, if we’re shutting down that part of ourselves, then we can do anything externally. This explains the #MeToo movement. You can do whatever you want to someone if you’re cut off from your feelings.
To me this is at the heart and soul of this whole discussion. You cut off your feeling life; you cut off the feminine, and you can do anything you like externally because you have no relationship to it internally. And your external life mirrors your internal life.
Are you getting a clear sense of psychological shift from the men that you’re talking to, for the sake of the book? Or is it too soon for that to be discernible?
I think things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster.
There are all those men who are angry and they will remain angry, and they don’t see any privilege in being a man, and they resent any narrative that presents them as being privileged. And there are men who are starting to listen, and wake up, and recognize that the lives of the women that they love being enhanced, is in turn enhancing their own life, and that you can’t have one without the other.
I want to be a bridge-builder in this exercise, because I don’t think we can do without each other. We need each other. How do you address the wounds of both? Both are in extraordinary pain. And for women to not recognize the pain of men – I understand why because they’ve been the victim of so much male violence – but I think it’s as troublesome as men not understanding the pain of women.
To say that openly might invite attack, at this point in time. But I think it’s a very important point to make.
I’m trying to develop very broad shoulders for this exercise.
“I think things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster.”
Because you’re grappling with such a fathomless subject, do you feel that you’ll be able to come to any kind of conclusive statement in the book? Or will you be satisfied with simply exposing the complexity of the subject?
I do feel that at the core of it, if there’s one kernel of truth – it’s about the respect for the feminine. There’s something in the water supply that has degraded and traduced and reduced the feminine. And I think that if we could develop a respect for the feminine… Every human being has both aspects to them, and for centuries, for thousands of years, we have created the woman as the vassal. We need to look at that, in order to heal the world, heal the planet, heal ourselves.
If you’d like to hear more from David Leser, you can see his website here.
David Leser was the subject of an early interview, in BRAVA Magazine’s launch edition, in a piece titled ‘In Support of Women.’ You can read that interview here.