Saturday, May 17, 2014

How "being a man" infects public discourse

Since we began this little project, with observations, reflections and even a few recommendations, we have consistently noted the appalling stereotypes on which the political culture, supported and sustained by the advertising and marketing and increasingly the academic cultures, rely for their brain -washing of the people for whom they hold their positions.
Policy papers, detailing the data on which options are proposed, are routinely devoid of the individual human stories of desperation, poverty of spirit and poverty of opportunity. We regularly detach reports on unemployment, domestic violence, international terrorism, civil wars and even biological pandemics from their origins in conditions for which we do not wish to take full responsibility.
Even education, that core and cornerstone of all "developed" cultures, as a subject for journalistic and documentary analysis, is too often, if not always relegated to the "Family Section" of the daily newspaper, or in more trendy publications, the "Life" Section. It is as if the ways we choose to live our lives, including the culture of our language, the conventional norms of what we consider success and failure, the kinds of role models we put under the spotlight/microscope, the 'style' choices we make are completely disconnected from our political choices.
Perhaps many of these 'divisions' are taken in order to more easily categorize which 'section' of our papers the advertisers wish to have their dollars/ads meet their niche markets. Those reading the "lifestyle" section traditionally and stereotypically have been women and so decorating companies, furniture companies, and even cosmetic companies, jewellery companies and travel companies, with perhaps a few auto companies would like to have their ads placed in these sections. In the sports sections, stereotypically followed by male eyes, advertisers like beer and alcohol companies, deodorant companies, sports equipment companies and the like would pay more to have their ads appear there.
It is in the "pay-more" and thereby generate more "profit" in the short run culture, based on the sales this week, because every advertiser knows that the buying public has a planning cycle, for purchases, of little more than seven days, (perhaps in home improvements and real estate, the cycle might extend to ninety days) that we have willingly embedded many of our attitudes and perceptions that bite us in our backsides, that sabotage both individuals and our culture, not to mention our public finances.
Little girls learns very early that boys like and play with different toys then they play with. Little boys learn, even more quickly, that in the schoolyard, acting in ways that are similar to, if not identical to, the ways girls would act in the same circumstances, is a quick path to ridicule, if not complete isolation and alienation from other boys, and perhaps even from most girls.
These stereotypes, born and incubated in the home are perpetuated and reinforced by the school system, whose co-dependence on the approval of parents seeking an educational culture that reinforces the home cultures of the neighbourhood, not to mention the political pandering to the taxpayer/parents who are paying the salaries of teachers and administrators. Gender roles, embedded in the sports teams allocated to boys and girls continue to reinforce the gender role stereotypes: males play "tackle" football, while girls play field hockey. There are, admittedly, significant examples of merging, for example in womens' ice hockey, a sport long played by boys only; nevertheless, once again the rules are quite different, with little or no physical contact in the women's game, and the men's game clinging desperately to the rough and ready physical, including, in our view, excessive violence, revenge and retribution.
In a garden/culture in which how men behave, and perceive how they must behave, if they are to maintain their social status as men, the phrase "man-up" is often used to encourage and support the stereotype. And this includes how men articulate their pain, how they articulate their goals in life, how they articulate even their leadership aspirations, and how they articulate their policy positions if they chose to enter the political arena. Macho men, for example, find historically more role opportunities in movies and in television than "evolved" sensitive, and clearly "too complicated" men do. Only recently, are we beginning to witness television shows, like "Last Man Standing" in which the male perception has, ironically, some value in establishing and comprehending some of the complexity of human relationships, including those between mothers and daughters. Humour, once again, is the sugar on the pill that makes swallowing it more palatable. "Two and a Half Men" and The Big Bang Theory drew audiences into a plethora of situations in which the male awkwardness, and the male stereotypes were sketched in relief, and coloured with self-ridicule, another of the humorous "codes" for presenting men as "able to laugh at themselves".
However, as one who inhabited English classrooms for a quarter-century including the habitual and expected 'theatre' and writing extra-curricular assignments, I also sought opportunity to coach basketball teams, football teams and even unexpectedly cricket teams. Often I encountered behind-the-back criticism from the 'jocks' on staff, because 'what would an English teacher know about basketball, especially when compared with physical education graduates'?  As a young kid, many of whose hours were spent practising the piano, I frequently encountered slurs like "fag" and "girlie" from other young boys (never from girls) whose ridicule provoked over-reactions from me like too much swearing, in a vain attempt to 'be a man'.
From a competitive perspective, when entered in music festivals, I was so focused on my own performance that I rarely if ever considered other competitors as 'enemies' but more as colleagues engaged in the same pursuit. On the basketball court, of course, I wanted my teams to win, but never at all cost. I held out the now apparently phantom vision of 'team players' who supported each other, who got to know each other, respected each other and sought to commit to a common goal, while also pursuing the championship trophies and the recognition that winning brings. Individual stats were always trumped by collegiality, comradeship, bonding and friendship among the players, in my perhaps perverted attempt to blend life skills with basketball skills.
Even when I entered seminary, and sought understanding and appreciation of what it meant to  be a man in a world now saturated with the feminist movement, I found that these stereotypes abounded. The focus on "feelings" and the complexities of human emotions, the primary focus of pastoral education in both chaplaincy and counselling modes, was rejected by those seeking to "save the world" of most male candidates. Even, or perhaps especially, among the hierarchy, the bishops considered how much money and how many people were being recruited much more important than how individuals were growing spiritually, both men and women. In fact, the pursuit of spiritual growth was not even on the radar of most bishops of my experience. The maintainance of the buildings and the budgets, the investment and foundation accounts and the career paths of those 'rising stars' who sought election as ecclesial leaders were their primary focus, and occasionally they would venture into some public expression of grief and tragedy, in order to better "position" themselves for public notice and personal gain. Liturgies, the Sunday morning homilies and eucharists, which demanded and frequently failed to evoke hard study and careful preparation, suffered at the energy put into seeking public exposure, meetings with community leaders and political liaisons for personal and political ambition.
And, unfortunately, female clergy too often also adopted this approach, as they perceived their own career paths would be determined by following the same gender  stereotypes. If they were going to take over the institution, they would have to first strive to emulate and even surpass the men at their own game, and then make the changes they considered necessary.
Men who are insecure in their own masculinity, and we would venture that this includes a majority of men, too often strive to be competing with the image of weakness that they perceive comes from showing their "soft" and caring and in their eyes, effeminate side. Too often, men draw back from expressing deep and authentic feelings so that they will not 'be taken advantage of' by both men and women. Too often, too, they consider 'giving in' to their female partners as 'dropping the ball' on their own masculinity. Shopping, chick flicks, theatre and musical performances and even some travel have been "out of bounds" for men,  because they would prefer to be hunting or fishing, or drinking with the boys. The television show, Red Green, has made an indelible imprint by focusing on male insecurity and often awkward stubbornness. And there is much to laugh "at" in male hard-headedness, as there is much to laugh at in male testosterone. However, there is also much to warrant concern in a social culture that only or even primarily uses men as the "butt" of its comedy, especially when that comedy is dependent on the male stereotype of raw, hard and inflexible power.
It reduces all men to a mere cardboard cut-out of their finely tuned and highly complex humanity.
It also reduces the expectation that women have of how to relate to their male partners. And in too many cases it renders too many men obsolete, at least in their own minds and hearts.
It is long past time when the words we use, and the perceptions of gender including gender roles and expectations and the family and education systems that perpetuate and potentially enlarge those stereotypes are included in the hard news of the day and the week and the month and the year in both a formal and informal way. We can each become much more familiar with our own gender identity, and comfortable and willing to share that identity, with respect and honour, with each other. We can also make gender equality, not only in the policy and pay equity spheres, but in the ways we speak and relate to each other more accepting of the realities of both genders, and that includes respecting masculinity in all of its complexities.
Failure, on our parts, individually and collectively is really not an option because regardless of how much money we pour into various public issues, at their core we will continue to face both men and women across the negotiating table, in the courtroom, in the laboratory and certainly in the classroom. We need more male teachers, at all levels, and more male social workers and more male nurses and more male clergy and more male leaders who are comfortable in their own maleness. And in order to achieve even some of these goals, we need to open to the complexities of masculinity, and that starts with men accepting males who are different, who are artists, and musicians and actors and dancers, and enlarge the hall of heroes that inhabit our consciousness.
The Good Men Project is dedicated to the enhancement of masculinity, in all of its forms and manifestations. And here is a recent piece dedicated to the elimination of the phrase, "Man up" from our conventional vocabulary.
We know now, for example, that a belief in rigid gender roles are a contributing factor in men’s violence against women. Domestic violence is far more prevalent in relationships where one or both partners enforce narrow definitions of their gendered responsibilities, particularly where child rearing is involved. (Hattery, A., Smith, E. (2012). The Social Dynamics of Family Violence).
Whilst we see a growing awareness around how this language and these beliefs benefit men and disempower women; there is another side. It’s a side where men are suffering, and they are suffering profoundly. If we believe that ‘having balls’ is the ultimate affirmation of courage and success, and being a ‘pussy’ is the exact opposite, we are buying into a language and a system which continues to not only hurt women, but men too. The male fixation with avoiding ‘feminine’ characteristics is literally killing us.
In 2012, approximately 2500 Australians committed suicide. 1900 of them were men.
Not only are suicide rates amongst men nearly four times higher than women, men are also falling behind women when it comes to work and career. A recent study showed that women are succeeding in positions and industries traditionally seen as the ‘male domain.’ By contrast, men are showing little, if any, growth into traditionally ‘female’ spheres of employment. These notions of rigid gender roles are nothing new. Female leaders and feminists have been exploring and challenging them for decades. But so often when men hear the term ‘gender’ – or even worse, feminism – we either tune out, or feel we are under threat – as though at any moment, our tenuous grasp on masculinity could be taken away from us. But looking at the data, we realise this version of masculinity – with its balls and its hard cocks and all the language we use to perpetuate it – has been hurting men for as long as we’ve been subscribing to it. (By Alex Mills, Man up: Words that help no one, Good Men Project, May 13, 2014)
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