Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fragile masculinity and the culture of stereotypes that sustains it

Men are told all their lives what it takes to be a man. It is a form of psychological abuse. Even as adults, men are still expected to constantly re-apply for eligibility to their gender. “Toxic masculinity” is a term that muddles male behaviour with male identity, and is often simply reduced to “masculinity” as being inherently toxic, a theme that was recently pursued by writer Zach Stafford in an article for The Guardian.
The phrases “man up” and “grow a set of balls” shouldn’t actually mean anything or have any motivating effect. If you gender-flip these terms they become nonsensical. They “work” by poking at a pre-existing trauma.
Masculinity can be a real and significant wound for men. Some are lucky and have not been heavily abused because of how they “perform” masculinity. Others have, and some choose to rebel, but the code of male behavior makes finding allies and giving and receiving support as good as impossible. The rules forbid men from reaching out for help, asking for emotional support, and/or being vulnerable. Which means among other things that there is no one to help them unpack threats to this identity. That’s the trap.
Masculinity is a gender tyranny all of its own. If you live in the city, if you watch television, if you spend time in the public education system, you get a barrage of conflicting messages about masculinity. Boys grow up seeing society reward and punish male behavior in ways that are confusing and contradictory. On one hand, boys and men are told that violence is their problem to solve, and on the other they are punished and ridiculed for showing emotions in a society that throws megabucks at the exhibition of violence that is professional boxing.
When young males are told to police each other for reasons that are found to be misrepresented or distorted, they are likely to adopt behaviors that hold the most favorable reward versus punishment.
Parents are blamed for sending the wrong messages. Boys and men are blamed for sending the wrong messages to each other. Men take society’s messages on to carry shame, guilt, and self-hatred around with them for things they never did. The magnitude of this pain is largely undocumented.
The way men are rewarded (or not) for their behaviors is a big part of what we call male “privilege”. You earn the privilege by demonstrating the behavior. But privilege is situational, and highly dynamic. This is not reflected in the way privilege is often spoken about. This system of privilege is not something that men who have broken its rules can simply re-access at any time. We are talking about life choices, choices about presentation and behavior that make up the difference between authentic and inauthentic, life-affirming and soul-destroying, for those who own the choices. This system of privileges also relies on reputations, that cannot simply be unmade and remade with the wave of a magic wand.
The truth is under everyone’s noses, and yet men can feel hammered away at, as if constant pressure to change will somehow help them. The male can become like an invisible gender, their privileges overstated, their gender struggles ridiculed. Men need your help, not your ridicule.
(By Arthur Dunmore, The Good Men Project, January 7, 2016)
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And that help will not come from a political culture that takes for granted the stereotype of male dominance, male oppression of women, male irresponsibility and male insouciance, linked to the stereotype of the female victim, the female innocent, the female underclass, the female eunuch, as embedded in each and every conflict between the genders.
And it is men who need to grow up and accept the fact that we are participating, in too many cases, inside the boundaries of these two stereotypes. We want to "do the right thing" especially when we are in places in which the politics of gender equality demands that we change the demographics, the remuneration packages, the status and power ratios and the vocabulary about how the genders relate to each other.
Policy and politics will and do inevitably dismiss the distinctions that accrue to each situation. Policy and politics tend to paint with a very broad brush, not a brush that digs for, uncovers and sheds light on the nuances of each situation.
What we are watching is a cacophony of serious complaints from women drowning out the due process of really seeking out all sides of the "story"...
This not a defense of people like Cosby, who, if the dozens of stories about drugging women for sex are proven true, ought to be punished with the full force of the law.
This is not a defense of the too many male partners who, failing both themselves and their partners, have failed to acquire and to deploy both verbal and physical messaging that depicts the full truth of the full range of their emotions, without endangering the female partner. Those high school literature classes in which the nuances of human relationships were painted in colours and perspectives that shed light on the human psyche, including the male psyche, were not, after all, "just for girls". They were the stuff of the kind of experience that would follow and derail many of our lives for the remaining decades of those lives.
However, when a female cries "foul" against a male, the motives of that female, like the motives of any cry of abuse are an integral part of the resolution of the "conflict. And that process is necessary and too often missing both in the resolution of domestic conflict that has reached the level of public law and enforcement and in the formal legal addressing of such conflicts. When a man is offended, especially by a woman who is deeply engaged in his life, he may sulk, go passive aggressive, seek false solace in another drink, another woman, another compulsive activity. Too infrequently will he either search for or find the patience, even after counting to 10 or 100 or even 100, to ask for a peaceful and quiet and self-disclosing conversation that explains his frustration, his feelings of being demeaned, his feelings even of anger. His fragile masculinity, aspects of which are detailed above, too often relegates him to patterns of behaviour that are so deeply embedded in both his psyche and the culture in which he grew up, patterns that perpetuate the reductionistic stereotypes and deepen the potential for another unresolved gender conflict.
When a female is offended by a male who is deeply engaged in her life, she will often report her offense to her 'sisters' (both biological and social), and if the offense is more serious, to the 'authorities'. And while the protection of the legal system is warranted in some cases of domestic abuse, there are far too many reported cases that keep law enforcement chasing situations that do not warrant their full attention. And the culture, through its usual agents like the media, the entertainment industry, the advertising industry, and the churches, promulgates a kind of " female as victim" archetype as a first mental approach to any reported gender conflict. As a culture, such retreat to the politically correct stereotype, female as victim, male as offender, will never resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of either party.
One of the most difficult aspect of teaching police ethics is attempting to convince the students aspiring to become police officers to abandon their fixation on their own preconceived "guilt" and "guilty party" prior to entering any situation to which they have been assigned. I know how difficult this process is, having attempted to achieve the stated goal of prior objectivity, not of a perfect nature, but at least of confronting both formally and privately, the raging stereotypes that dominate their world view. A similar paralysis afflicts too many men and women, both those in relationships and those who bear official responsibility for the organizations in which such relationships inevitably arise. And when the organizations, like the church for example, fall victim to the  blanket pleas of the female demographic to whom they "minister", and make every situation that offends their politically correct model of propriety and morality, fit their stereotype, for the purpose of defending their public reputation, those organizations put in danger both the female complainants and the male offenders.
The commencement of a male-female relationship cannot be automatically assumed to have begun solely from the "power" or influence of the male; the continuance of a such a relationship cannot be assumed to have continued because of the "power" or influence of the male; in fact, even a marriage whether healthy or not, cannot be presumed to be dominated by the male, even if that male is or was a "superior" in rank to the female.
And unless and until we can and do park such assumptions and presumptions from our attitudes, our beliefs, our perceptions and our formal and informal processes of considering any and all complaints,  both men and women will continue to be reduced to a mere shadow of their full personhood. They will continue to be mere "players" in a pre-ordained script written by others whose needs do not even approximate the needs and desires of the parties in a gender conflict.
By starting with the premise that all complaints result from male testosterone, male aggression and male obsession with sexuality, and by enforcing a culture that imposes such a perspective on our conventional beliefs, (stemming originally from a religious root of sexuality as evil, that emerged from the Garden of Eden), we shroud the female with a 'protective' force she neither needs nor wants, and we condemn the male to a reputational destruction that may not be deserved.
We will not, because we cannot, achieve either balance or harmony between the genders by adopting a political position and embedding that position in a soil of masculine domination based on physical strength, nor a masculine power  based on rank, nor a masculine offense based on biology.
Having been raised by a domineering woman, my mother, married to a meek and compliant (far too compliant for both his and his childrens' sake) father, I know too much about the  gender inversion of victim/offender that characterized my childhood and adolescence. In fact, as an abused male child, abused brutally and repeatedly by my mother, I am still processing the psychic wounds that are  burned into my memory and my world view. Passive aggressive default by my father, linked to an obsessive pursuit of perfection in parenting by my mother were and are a recipe for a highly distorted picture of the world, especially in the light of the statistics of the sociology of gender relationships.
However, this perspective is nevertheless useful when confronting the dual and competing archetypes of the female victim and the male aggressor.
And the reverse of the current sociological, if not pathological, distortion, to turn women into the aggressor and men into victims is not going to solve the issue either. It is only by pursuing the full disclosure of the panoply of facts, the motives and the attitudes and beliefs of both parties in any gender conflict, that we might be able to more fully realise the complexities and the gifts of both sexes, and the potential for the resolution of many of the domestic conflicts that inhibit the lives of all our children.
Having watched too many women seek and wreak vengeance on too many men, with the formal and informal compliance of too many other men, often out of jealousy, I am appalled that others are not either willing or able to 'see' this dynamic in play, in the theatre of gender politics. If and when a relationship goes south, too often the woman abandoned is fraught with despair, and inflicts her venom on the offending male, the most obvious and most present target of her hate. And if and when such vengeance is dismissed as legitimate, then all the men and women in the circle of information surrounding that drama learn that revenge from a jealous woman will be honoured, over the full disclosure of the truth. Even if a woman is witness to a relationship the details of which she finds offensive (without knowing the full truth) and then coaches the female to cry wolf, that witness is too often seeking revenge for other male offenses with which she has not dealt, for which the male is not responsible.
Even a woman who is neglected in her marriage is a danger to the men of her circle, insofar as her neglect is neither acknowledged nor foreshadowed if and when she pursues a relationship with a male outside of her marriage. That male is in the position of being both the "object" of her affections and the "projection" of her contempt for her male partner. And such insight is not part of the curriculum of men helping men to develop a health masculinity.
It is both complex and highly time consuming to fully investigate the details of all complaints. It is also dangerous because it could and often would disclose the fact that the male "offender" has not offended, did not intend to offend and was behaving in the full conviction of equal and balanced participation. Only after some separating event or announcement, did the woman's "consent" become a matter of debate, question and accusation.
And a policy of protecting women from offending men, as both starting point and rule or law enforcement, dramatically contributes to the reduction of the authentic masculinity and the authentic femininity of both parties to a gender conflict.
The emotional sensitivity of men is also devalued, even discounted, in the politically correct reductionisms of most of the discussion of gender politics, as is the emotional strength of women. Far too often, given both their biological reality and their early acculturation, women and young girls, develop a kind of balance, insight and foresight into the affairs of the heart that far exceeds that of most men. Of course they are not developing in this way to compete with men, at that time, yet their mastery of the inner life continues to plague too many relationships, given the aversion to such matters of the heart of their male partners. And men, for their part, are then left feeling "less than" or even "incompetent" when compared directly with their partner's insight and familiarity with the inner life. How tragic that too many women use this "power" over their male partners, in an obviously and predictably faulty attempt to achieve dominance; and how equally tragic that too many men either walk away or refuse even to enter into conversations about matter of the heart, given their built-in fear of inadequacy.
And the dance of competitive advantage continues to plague the question of relationship-building, negating or at least minimizing the potential for mutual growth and endearment through paths of full disclosure based on courage and not inadequacy or weakness, both of which tend to dominate the actions and attitudes within male-female relationships and more importantly, in the pursuit of public policy to regulate the most dynamic of human energies, the male-female tension.

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