Ecological Masculinities with Paul Pulé – PART 1
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Welcome to the “Conversations in ‘Deep Times’” podcast series, where our aim, as a companion to the Deep Times journal, is to highlight the Work that Reconnects and its facilitators, as well as other practitioners, scholars and creatives from the wider community who make a significant contribution to the Work and the deep changes taking place on our planet. These podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece, including relevant links in the show notes for you to further explore.
In this inaugural episode of our podcast series, Deep Times Editorial Team member Erin Holtz Braeckman interviews Paul Pulé, an Australian scholar and activist specializing in men, masculinities, and their impacts on Earth, others and self. His research and education efforts are dedicated to creating a movement of systemic transformation for gender justice, environmental care, and a sustainable world.
Erin Holtz Braeckman: 0:02
Paul Pulé, welcome and deep gratitude to you for taking the time to be with us here today – I understand that you have just newly moved to New York City…what brings you to North America?
Paul Pulé: 0:17
Well, firstly, thanks for having me; it’s actually a real honor to be having a conversation about my work with you all – in particular Joanna’s work has been extremely influential for a lot of years. But the reason that I’m in New York City right now, which is also connected to the reason I do the work that I do, is because I’m staying with my uncle. We have a very close relationship; in many ways, we sort of function more like brothers than an uncle and nephew. He needed for somebody to come and take care of his apartment while he was away in Mexico on holiday, and I needed a place to write while I’m making my way slowly back to Western Australia, which is my home originally. So, I’m doing a bit of contemplating from here about how it’s possible for me to get back to Australia without flying…and I’m thinking about sailing.
Oh, my goodness! Well, Paul, I think we may have to do a second interview at some point in the future. See how this turns out?
I’m not sure if I’m going to do that yet. That’s a big adventure! But that’s part of what I’m doing, by being in New York City.
That’s wonderful. I can’t wait to hear about your journey. We felt your work in ecological masculinities was integral to feature in our current issue of “Deep Times” and its theme of “Unraveling Patriarchy and Shifting the Paradigm”. Would you share with us what ecological masculinities is and seeks to do, and how you came to this work?
If you don’t mind, I’d like to answer the second question first, because it kind of lends itself quite nicely to why I do the work that I do, and it also is connected to my relationship with my uncle and my dad.
So, our family were post-World War Two refugees – Maltese-Italians on my father’s side, and Lebanese-Maltese on my mother’s. I’m the first generation born in Australia and growing up in Australia. Part of the reason that my families on both sides went to West Australia was because the weather was the same; basically, a Mediterranean climate. As we are experiencing right now, war is devastating – as will be the case, I think, for many Ukrainians – and one of its consequences is a fracturing of family relationships and connection to a place, to land, to home. Our family was very much a part of that, and in the 1950s, my father and my uncle were very, very much a product of the complexities of that change – that forced change. My father was impacted more so than my uncle; being shorter, olive skined, dark haired, and accented he wasn’t received well by the British Australians. And that hurt was passed on to me, I think quite a lot – the combination of the war trauma, but also the way that my father grew into trying to make a new life for himself as a young boy.
Growing up, I was part of a whole generation of first generation born Mediterraneans in school, and so I was kind of surrounded by similar kids with similar stories. But I got “the hurts”, as is often the case, by inheriting it from the stories and the upsets and the ways that people behaved. One of the things that came out of that was it was pretty evident to me that it was difficult on the men in my family’s life; it was difficult for them to find a place for themselves in Australia as refugees, as migrants. And one of the ways that that showed up was a combination of “the hurts” or the feeling misplaced, combined with the Mediterranean machismo. And if you think of those two things, it creates a perfect storm for being quite vocal and passionate about expressing oneself culturally, as well as then also having quite a lot of anger, sadness, grief, and loss. We’re seeing this on the TV right now – those exact same hurts are being laid into Ukrainian children, Ukrainian women, Ukrainian men, Ukrainian non-binary people.
One of the things that happened for me was that I found myself feeling very safe – receiving a lot of head strokes, being encouraged to be a little bit naughty, by the women in my family when I was in the kitchen (and being fed copious amounts of food, as you can imagine, being of Mediterranean heritage). But when I was with a man, there was a lot of posturing; a lot of discussing with each other about how we’re making good with the new life. And I remember that from a very young age. Then, if someone didn’t get what they wanted, or there was an upset, it would often become quite vocal and passionate and sometimes violent. That tension between feeling very loved and nurtured and cared for by the women in my life, but then also feeling quite afraid and not sure how I fit not just with the men in my life, but also in the country that I was born into, left quite an impression on me about “there’s something going on here that I don’t understand”. The places where my father in particular was the kindest, the warmest, the most generous, and the most loving, where he was able to show that the best, was around building things, and growing things in the backyard, to make the life that we had created for ourselves good.
So, I became quite handy, and I actually ended up building my own carpentry business after I finished my PhD, to take some rest from academia. But I worked with tools and building things for most of my young years, becoming very good with my hands. And I also became very good at cooking from the love and care of the women in my family. So, I have this kind of interesting mix of my family story – quite a lot of trauma – and me noticing at the early stages of my adulthood that I had a choice to make about how I was going to be as a guy.
I started to act out, as I had learned to, in my first dating relationships. I’m not proud to say that I said, and I did some things with my first partners that weren’t just regrettable, but were reprehensible, really, if I think about it now, as many young men do. I’m glad to say that I never put hands in anger on a partner, but I certainly did the kinds of things that we typically think in dating as abuse. But there was a little voice that was going off inside of me, where I was able to hear for some reason, which basically said, “Paul, why are you behaving like this when you know what it’s like to receive it?” And I got that voice early enough, and strongly enough that I started to ask the kind of questions that led me to this work in ecological masculinities. The men in my life were clearly extremely loving and caring, but the way that they were showing it would often come out in ways that, in some cases, were terrifying. I could tell that I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be loving and caring, but in a different kind of way. So, I started asking questions from a pretty early age about if it’s not this, then what is it? If it’s not going down this road, then what road do I want to go down? And it was at that point that I left Australia in my late teens -19, I was – and came to live with my uncle, who was living in New York at that time. And he and I have remained super close ever since.
Ecological masculinities really is born out of the crucible of a first generation born migrant kid’s story, really. And what it’s about, essentially, if I could put it into one sentence, is how can we as men, and how can the masculinities that are in all of us, be more caring towards the Earth, towards each other, and towards ourselves at the same time? How can we do that? And that’s really the fundamental question that I’ve been asking. Since those days, my late teens (I’m now middle aged), I have found a way to make a career out of it. I have found a way to write books to educate to build relationships with people. And I have done this work with Martin Hoffman, a very dear friend, colleague and co-creator. This is not my work – it’s not even our work; actually, we are just facilitators of a conversation that hadn’t been in existence until we found a way to put it out in the world. And now lots of people are criticizing, stretching, looking at it, and saying “I think it should be like this”, which is exactly what we hoped would happen. And the purpose of ecological masculinities is really to create a more caring world, which is very consistent with the Work that Reconnects.
Well, thank you for that, Paul. It is all so beautiful. I just need a moment to take all that in and say I honor your journey, I honor your path and the integrity out of which your work arises from.
Many are familiar with the quote (attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek) that states “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. Given that capitalism is a part of the patriarchy your work seeks to deconstruct, where have you found the entry-point into an overculture that, due to the conditioning of hegemonic masculinity, lacks even the capacity to envision a decolonized world? How has your work been received there?
Yeah, when I read that question, I was like, well, there’s a lot in that! So let me try and answer as much of that in as short a period of time as possible. I think that Jameson and Zizek’s quote basically is saying that we have a tendency as a species to put our attention more easily on the drama than on the solution. And so, to imagine a world that ends is easier to imagine a world that we transform, and the reason for it is, I think, actually pretty basic: a world that ends is a world that we’re not in – lights out, game over. A world that’s transformed means that we have to be firstly, responsible; secondly, accountable; and thirdly, willing to actually admit where we might be wrong and be willing to change. Now you compare that to snuffing somebody or oneself out. That’s a harder ask for most human beings, myself included – not a reason not to do the work that I do, or for any of us, but it is a harder ask. It’s a steeper climb. Because then you have to deal with yourself. When when the lights are out, you don’t have to deal with yourself. So that’s my response to the quote. Now how that relates to the overculture – which I’ve not come across before…I presume that that’s synonymous with “industrial growth society”…
Yes, it is. Actually, I attribute it to Clarissa Pinkola Estés. We’ll say a nod to Dr. P right here…
Okay. Excellent. So, “overculture” for me is basically synonymous with a “masculine culture”. And when I say “masculine” and “masculinities”, I mean the destructive masculinities, the hierarchical masculinity, the warmongering, the competitive inserting of oneself, the asserting of oneself. I’m not talking specifically about men, because those qualities are actually qualities that we can find in any human being. Especially in these recent days of culture wars, in light of a bigger threat to all of our freedoms, suddenly, we’re all able to see how we are more alike than we are different. And maybe that’s some of the blessing of crises moments like this. But the point that I’m getting at is that an overculture approach is one that’s very much enmeshed with a masculinist approach to the world one of inserting, asserting – I’m being phallic here on purpose. So, like pushing, literally pushing oneself into space. Now, what does that sound like? The Russian army, right?
So, these masculinist problems have been with us for millennia, and as we are seeing right now, they’re with us still, in the most extreme of ways. And they present themselves in men, women and non-binary people, as much as they do in select kinds of individuals that we think of as being brandished all over the TV right now – the oligarchs; all men, all Russian, all white, all extremely wealthy, and they’re all secretive, hoarding power and control. So yes, there are people at the top of that pyramid of masculinist ways of being, thinking, and doing that tend to fit a certain profile – the rich white guy – but we’re not talking just about them; we’re talking about a whole construct that is interwoven with the way that we colonize ourselves. What I mean by that is how we separate ourselves away from our own nature, because we are nature. But also in the way that we have trained ourselves to colonize others. The British were brilliant at it, British Empire. United States has been brilliant at it. US imperialism. The Spanish Empire, Portuguese Empire, the French Empire, the Roman Empire. What we know is that all of these ways of being inserted, assertive, aggressive, competitive, have numbered days; they are not sustainable. And they’re not sustainable on three key levels: they’re not sustainable for the people who are oppressed and the places that are oppressed; they’re not sustainable for the resources and the places on earth; but even more importantly, they’re not sustainable for the people who perpetrate those ways of being. So, it’s a lose, lose, lose again.
There’s got to be another way – and that’s really what my work is about, is finding another way than the overculture, interwoven with a hegemonic approach to extraction of resources, domination of other people, assuming that “might is right” – the military industrial complex. I mean, goodness, we could go into a whole conversation about the convenience for the military industrial complex, and for the fossil fuel industries, for this war. Let’s not even start because it’s a righteous war in my opinion, for, good on the Ukrainians for standing up, go them. I would too, under these circumstances. But there’s also the subtext underneath and the longer-term implications ecologically and sociologically that we’re all already paying a huge price for – not just the Ukrainians. So, it’s finding another way beyond that. But the thing that’s really interesting for me is that, like with COVID-19, very suddenly money, political will, and unification across the aisle manifests in times of emergency. And the great hope out of this is that we are hearing from the United States – a very bad per capita polluter of carbon – is already talking about domestic energy security, that necessarily requires renewables, that is not fossil fuel dependent. It has taken this for them to actually come out and say it. And what that says is that they’ve known it for a long time. They just didn’t want to say it. And now they are. This is the new way. This is part of the new way.
Yes – if people could see me, I’m just continually nodding along here. Yes, yes. And yes. I want to move into our next question. It expands on this and goes a little deeper. But it starts with a quote from the wonderful Diné ceremonial leader, Pat McCabe, who’s also known as “Woman Stands Shining. And I’ve heard her say this many times before, but here’s the direct quote. “You think you know what masculine is but you don’t you think you know what feminine is but you don’t? All you know is how they behave in a power over paradigm. But if you were to take those same energetics and plug them into an entirely different paradigm, it would behave in an entirely different way.”
One could argue that the “Catch 22” of any reimagining we might do around patriarchy is that it arises from within the very paradigm it attempts to dismantle. In that case, any insight we might have into an alternative to our overculture’s hegemonic masculinity – including “the feminine” and feminism itself – is problematic. But “unraveling patriarchy and shifting the paradigm” has to start somewhere – and as we have all heard Joanna Macy emphatically state, “If it can be made by the human mind, it can be unmade by the human mind”. What criticisms have you faced and how have you contended with them? And I’m just laughing because of the face you made there…
Okay, well, I’ll start with the criticisms first, because it’s actually been quite a motivator for me – it’s one of the blessings of being born and raised in a Mediterranean culture; when I find myself in potentially conflictual situations, it gets my attention in a way where I usually turn towards it. I’m not an avoider of conflict. This one of the places where my, my cultural heritage has served me very well…
So, and I have found myself in difficult situations where I either can land as not feminist enough for some colleagues, or a gender traitor for others. And I want to say a little bit about that, because one of the ways that I got to this work in my early 20s, was that I started exploring the mythopoetic men’s movement, which I’m not associated with directly these days – I’ve distanced myself from it more as an observer and social commentator. But I found when I was doing the men’s work that there was an enormous amount of willingness to lean into developing emotional literacy, to finding language to express one’s feelings, to developing really intimate and close, loving relationships with other men beyond the homophobia, by getting through and beyond the homophobia, to actually have really deep connections. But that only went as far as actually helping those individuals in general, or those small localized communities feel better about themselves and do better in the world.
What was missing was a structural analysis of masculinist behavior. And because that was missing, it’s become more possible to have these conversations as time has gone on in the structural problems that we’re facing – the climate crisis, or a return to a Cold War, to hot war; potentially, we may actually end up in a hot war three, World War Three. These are the kinds of situations that often were put aside as not part of the work. And the work needed to be getting men to feel good about ourselves, because we’re feeling badly about ourselves, and get us to stand up. Yes, important, but there’s also the impact that men have on the planet that as the worst actors, the tip of that hierarchy. And I was not experiencing enough of that being woven into the work. It was difficult for me to sit easily with it, and I think that the uneasiness was because I come from where I come from – as hypersensitive to the structural issues.
So, I often found myself at odds with certain individuals that would think of me and the work and the questions that I was asking as a gender traitor (it’s actually a thing in masculinity). Studies show that I was being a traitor to my manhood by asking these kinds of questions that I was not man enough, right. And on the other end of that, at conferences I’ve sometimes being taken to task – and in some cases, probably rightly, so – by individuals who found me having a degree of empathy for finding ways to reach what I refer to as the “tough nuts” – the harder to reach, the “non-low hanging fruit”, the “high hanging fruit”; of finding ways to reach those individuals with the message of an ecology causation, a relational approach to the world. So, I use the term ecology and relationship interchangeably. I don’t think of ecology as tree hugging; I think of ecology as a science of relationships. What I’ve been looking for is ways to be able to maintain open dialogue – even with people who might think of me as a gender trader. Now, that’s not with all of those individuals; there’s a time and a place where I set a boundary for my own mental health. But there are individuals in that harder to reach group that are reachable. And the place where they are reachable is by working with the narcissism to unpick itself. In other words, starting from a place of “how has this way that you have been impacting you terribly”, first? That’s strategic. That’s a strategic approach.
But when I share that with some circles, particularly very gender politicized circles, some individuals find that reprehensible because it means that I’m willing to find ways to engage with some individuals that would ordinarily be thought of as your opposition. And the place that I’m coming from there is believing that the more bombastic the bluster, the thicker the armor, the greater the vulnerability underneath. There are some individuals who, if I’m skilled enough, compassionate enough, and patient enough with myself – not so much with the issues, because I don’t think we have the luxury of being patient with the issues, but patient enough with myself – to find ways to slip through the cracks between those sheets of armor and reach the spot where the soft stuff is underneath, that’s the place where the tears flow. That’s the place where the individual weeps for the loss of what it is that they really want for themselves and their loved ones. There are some people that have been so hurt by that horror, that they don’t have the capacity to be able to do that work. And that’s completely understandable. And totally okay. It is not their job. But it might be mine, at least partly mine, because I know how to slip through in certain places. And I also know where it’s too much and where I need to set a boundary and say no, and I think that the Ukraine situation is a great global example of that. You don’t have tanks rolled into your town uninvited, period.
Show Notes & Links:
Paul Pulé’s website: https://paulpule.academia.edu
Men, Masculinities, and Earth: https://books.google.se/books?id=_Ik7EAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=sv&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
Centre for Global Learning – Coventry University: https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/global-learning/about-us/
Starfish Collective: https://www.facebook.com/starfishcollective.se/
Dragon Dreaming Institute: http://www.dragondreaminginstitute.org