Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Alpha Male, an archetype whose time has long past

Starting with a posture that includes understanding, compassion, empathy and the openness to that kind of authentic acceptance, when dealing with any human interaction infused with tension and conflict, rather than the kind of rage that blurts out in too many contemporary tense moments, sounds idyllic, utopian and utterly delusional.

Would it limit the degree and the extent to which revenge characterizes our current attitudes and discourse? Who really knows? Yet it just might.

Oh, I can already hear the voices in the ‘cheap seats’ crying out, “Look at what happened when the U.S. started communicating with children/students solely in a positive and supportive manner! The kids turned into psychological dependents, believing or at least thinking they could do anything, when they could not even pass the basic tests in their classroom.”

And while that is true, starting with a basic premise that conflict is the expression of a wound from a different time and place is not the same as telling the kid he can do no wrong, or that he can do anything, including math, science, languages or abstract thought. Let’s separate cognitive development from emotional/psychological development, and start to look at the driving forces behind most human conflicts.
Each of us is afraid of failure, and each of us defines failure in our own unique way, much of that definition coming out of those portraits of failure our parents held as fixed and determinative. And while fear is a highly radioactive motivator, it is not necessarily a healthy, ethical, moral or developmental motivator. And as the commercial reminds us, “Managing was all I was doing!”….as in managing our fears, as opposed to confronting them honestly, courageously and compassionately.

And in a culture dominated by stereotypical forms of masculinity, fear, anxiety, nervousness, vulnerability, illness, failure and especially death are emotional, social, political, career and familial taboos. Not surprisingly, those very things we deny, avoid, and fail to acknowledge take on a power far in excess of their reasonable significance. Repressed, buried, ‘forgotten’ and expunged from our family history and memory, fears and vulnerabilities, anxieties and even socially unacceptable behaviour, most often with names and faces (“Uncle Charlie was a drunk”, for example) our fears have the capacity to exert highly toxic and iron shackles on our psyches, individually and culturally.

Invincibility, and the belief in its life-long presence, unfortunately, is not restricted to adolescent males; it seems to be an integral component of the hard wiring of western masculinity. And the “costs” are substantial, and continue mounting. We teach boys and girls the “facts” of how to be an honoured member of each respective gender. And we have been doing this for centuries; and while the trend-lines are moving at a glacial pace, we are still living with some self-destructive cultural archetypes around the perception of healthy masculinity, held by both men and women.

The contemporary fixation on “me” and on “winning” and on “success” crosses gender lines, and seems to have opened the gates of masculinity to the other gender, in their pursuit of positions of power influence, income, status and what is generally defined as “equality”. Many women have discovered their “animus” that unconscious masculine component of their psyche and, clearly they welcome both the discovery and the results. From a political perspective, this goal of gender equality makes sense; yet, a similar and balancing shift of the feminine attributes toward the masculine side of the gender equation is so resisted by most men. Others men, fortunately, have begun to acknowledge their unconscious “feminine” anima, as Jung theorized. However, as one firefighter put it, when asked about support services, like Employee Assistance or Chaplaincy, for the crew following a traumatic rescue, “If anyone sought professional help, he certainly would not tell anyone else on the crew!”

Masculine resistance to their own gentler, more sensitive and more empathic sides, including their learning the language to express the complexity of their (our) feelings, remains one of the major stumbling blocks to equality. So long as men are driven to prove their “masculinity” their sex-appeal and their need for power over others, there will continue to be a litany of male names in headlines the notoriety of sexual abuse.
And while there have been serious attempts to “get men to talk” about their feelings, both in therapy and in less formal settings, it is still a truism that men prefer to “act” out their feelings, including their feelings of love and devotion. Stories abound of young boys earning money for good causes by volunteering at a very early age, when, if they had been asked to name or detail their emotions, most would have drawn a blank.

It says here that, unless and until a specific woman enters a man’s life, and together helps to develop a relationship, including “taking that man’s hand and walking him into and through very unsettling emotional experiences like the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or the loss of an exemplary reputation (probably through some form of self-sabotage), men will continue to “skate” around the boards of the rink of their own heart. They will demonstrate a degree of creativity in their avoidance rationalizations, their excuses, their resistance and the associations they make with “girly” men of their acquaintance.

Straight men, it seems, are quite literally terrified of being thought of as less than “real men”,….and that includes being considered gay, the worst and most damning “accusation” they might ever hear, from their own perspective. So long as this “fear” (and there really is no other way to depict the obsession) continues to play a prominent role in the psyches of mothers, fathers, teachers, coaches of athletic teams, employers and other community leaders, there is very little prospect that young boys will learn both the advantages and the excitement of multiple masculinities, each of them accessible to all young men.

The movie is somewhat out of date now; yet Dead Poet’s Society illustrated a highly damaging theme in many adolescent male lives. A male student really aspired to become an actor, yet was seriously wounded psychically by his father for his choice. Whether there are still such human dramas playing out in high schools across North America today, I really do not know the data. However, I do know that red-blooded masculinity still seeks opportunity to show off, to bully weaker young men, to compete for the most beautiful young woman on campus, and to exude a confidence that far exceeds his capacity to match it with his self-respect[ja1] .

Churches, too, especially those of a fundamentalist, literalist, evangelical bent, champion the Alpha Male as their choice of traditional masculinity and in their clinging to that model, go a long way to preserving it among a particular demographic. The NRA, by propagating their “only a good man with a gun can stop a bad man with a gun” slogan, has succeeded in sustaining and even enhancing the Alpha Male model, armed as he is as part of his identity. The NFL’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the correlation between the tackles on the field and the literally destroyed brains that show up after many careers end, and their tardiness and reluctance in penalizing direct head hits with meaningful punishments, illustrates another of the many “established” institutions that keep the Alpha Male archetype seducing young men. Of course, the military is another of society’s established institutions that keeps supporting and enhancing the Alpha Male model, as do many law enforcement bureaucracies.
And the Alpha Male operates not only in person-to-person encounters and relationships, it also has a magnified influence on policy design. Alpha Males look for the quick fix, the hard power response, the most heroic approach, whether or not such approaches are the most likely to be effective. It is a conflictual, confrontative and also turbulent approach without the benefit of nuance, subtlety, collaboration and a long-term perspective. One of the most visible pieces of evidence of this nano-second response is the daily crawl of stock prices, and the daily inclusion in the news broadcasts of stock market vicissitudes, even though this data is one of the most neurotic and frightened indicators of the day’s news.

And then there are the bear and the bull markets…and the most voracious appetites for accumulating wealth, power and the status that accompanies these pursuits, all of it staking out one’s territory and enlarging that turf.

Among very few men only is there a real and comprehensive conversation about how all males are “tarred” with the same brush as bullies, and testosterone-driven monsters and, given the male preference for ‘action’ as the representation of their thoughts and feelings, some are taking active steps, without the blaring headlines and the neon charges of abuse by women. Men are, as predicted, essentially mute in the public discourse about gender relations and conflicts.

They do not want to exacerbate the already boiling cauldron; they do not want to justify the mis-steps of their peers; they do not want to fall into the trap of being another headline; and for many, they are muzzled and confused, as to how to participate in a healthy and healing and reconciling manner as supportive men and welcome and equal partners with women.

Perhaps, this could be a moment in history from which men might ‘recover’ their voices, legitimate their needs and join a highly radioactive discussion, without fear, without the need to overcompensate and definitely without the need to  “win” the day.

As it stands today, there appear to be no ‘winners’..neither men nor women in the current turbulence.


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