Suggestions that men open up to our own vulnerability, weakness, uncertainty and also to the insights that can and will only come from those moments in our lives when we suffer any kind of objection, rejection, discipline, and ostracism will seem paradoxical to the millions still struggling with accommodation, integration, acceptance and the flow of that energy.
So much human energy is being spent in various initiatives designed to integrate individuals into their families, into their day-care, into their sports teams, in what is a broad-based social commitment to what in Canada the constitution calls, “the peace order and good government” of the nation. Each of these efforts, some of them experimental, others quite seasoned and traditional, merits the study and exploration by all policy writers in all organizations, especially among educators, law enforcement, the athletic coaching fraternity and all those engaged in the broad field of social work, psychology, psychiatry and even, or perhaps especially the clergy. Conforming to the expectations of others, starting with the first few months of life, it turns out, is a central theme of each individual’s existence.
Of course, the earliest experiences of a young boy with his family begin to imprint those “nurture” patterns on his perceptions. Instant attention to the most immediate irritation from the child is an almost hourly “demand” on the parent. And the decisions made in those early moments, like the angle of the tennis racket, simultaneously illustrate and foretell future responses that seem to be “successful” in quieting the child, or not. Holding, making determined eye contact, touching, the tone of voice, the time-lapse between the first cry and the parent’s response, the duration of that response, even the confidence of the parent to discern the child’s need and the length and depth of response are all factors that begin to set patterns that will carry over for decades.
Trust, reliability, security and safety, in the child’s terms, are almost exclusively within the purview of the parent of the young child. And while each child’s needs and sounds are unique, there is also a difference between the intensity of a male baby’s early irritation and then anger and that of his sister, unless there is a complicating illness, or symptom to be considered. Into this vortex of intimacy between parent and child, naturally and undoubtedly unconsciously, enters the whole history both of the parent and the culture of his/her family of origin. Loud and heavy-handed experiences, as perceived by the now parent, from his/her childhood will play a part in the predictably less loud and more moderate and modest interactions with the new baby.
Unless otherwise impeded by specifically diagnosed physical ailments, the new born will “warm” to the affections, soothings, smilings and nurturing of the parent’s arms, eyes, voice and attitude. The opposite is also predictable: parental irritability, impatience, harshness and general attitude can and will impact the child negatively. And, surprise, both boys and girls need such intimacy, perhaps even in inverse proportions to the social myth that “girls” are more fragile, more needy and more appreciative of warm nurturing. Research indicates, sadly, that many mothers look into the eyes of their young daughters more frequently and for longer periods than they do with their young boys. Dads too have a significant role to play in their chosen and respective interactions with both their boy and girl babies.
Parents, especially mothers, of young boys imprint signals about the female voice, image, character, expectations and trust-worthiness that will, like indelible ink, remain in the synapses, and in the “gut” of the young child for the rest of his life. For young boys, these early messages will inevitably inform their deeply buried “gestalt” of the opposite gender. And such a “gestalt” will shape their unconscious perceptions of each and every female the child encounters henceforth.* And, whether these early impressions are reinforced by future encounters with female teachers of a strident and perfectionistic anality, or hopefully with moderating, accepting and mentoring female teachers who, themselves, have minimal issues arising from their early experiences will help to shape the young boy’s relationships with women for a long time.
Of course, as the young boy grows, takes in other impressions from the wider world of child programming on some screen, and through interactions with peers, both male and female, he will evolve a kaleidoscope of impressions of how the world “works” and how he “fits” into it, or not. This point of interface between the individual child and the “world” of his family, his day care, his soccer or hockey team, and his classroom and playground is the point at which the racket of his person receives/accepts/interprets and then strikes the ball of the other in his personal tennis game. Not to reduce human experience to a tennis match, especially the competitive aspect of the game, (although that aspect seems to attend more human interactions every day), yet, the racket-ball concussion is an useful analogy for the physical, social, emotional and even intellectual encounters of one’s life.
We have, in essence, constructed a culture based on a skill set that determines whether each young boy (and girl) will thrive, will develop, will inculcate the values that will be necessary for additional growth and responsibility. And this skill set needs an original, unique and nurturing ethos in which to develop. Whether based on some athletic skill, or artistic skill, or a martial arts skill set, or some digitally-based or math-science skill set, through the discipline dedicated (and supported) to the attainment of a degree of proficiency, the child will come into contact with others who share his passion. Identity, unfortunately increasingly every day, seems dependent on the mastery of some skill set, both to satisfy and to gratify the needs of the parent, and then the mentor and teacher, the coach and eventually, with a potentially smooth glide-path into part-time employment, further education and permanent employment and family life. At least the social and educational systems seem to champion the skill-set achievements, although, there are signs that some early athletic activities are less focused on competition and winning/losing than on “having fun”…and not incidentally providing a safe place to meet, to greet, get to know both self and others, and to experience both acceptance and welcome, on one hand, and potential rejection and alienation on the other.
James Hillman’s work in The Acorn Theory, as well as in his other works, shines a light on the biography as both integral and essential to an individual’s perception of himself and his place in his world. The biography necessarily includes and “integrates” all of the events, persons, achievements, failures, losses and the imagination of the person, including those signals of the special talents, metaphorically encapsulated in the person’s “acorn”. Whether the parents, or the teachers, or some peer or role model perceives, or signals the “special” quality of each individual, the capacity to grasp, and to honour this uniqueness lies at the heart of much of human identity, achievement and self-confidence.
If a child perceives, or even intuits that he is not wanted, not known, not engaged and especially if he feels ignored, immediate nervous system circuits “go off” that send messages inside his own head that “there is something wrong with this picture” even before he might be able to articulate these words. If he perceives that those close to him are struggling with their own “selves” at his expense, he quickly learns both where his place is in the current tumult and whether and where he might be able to have his own needs addressed. A naturally innate rebellion of some size and degree will accompany most adolescents, depending on the unique circumstances and his perception of the target of his irritation, sense of injustice, need to belong, need to be recognized, or even need to help. And the system of justice, education and health have traditionally tolerated this rebellious “acting out” unless and until it over-reached some legal, or civil boundary. The process of hormone development in adolescence, both its alacrity and intensity, is a norm with which western culture has done a fairly remarkable job of accommodating. However, if the process is impeded, restricted, thwarted or denied, there is no doubt it will erupt, probably destructively, later in the thwarted individual’s life.
While hardly prescriptive, the preceding outline of a young boy’s early life is prologue to opening the door of the explorer into the darkness of male anger, that seemingly radioactive explosion whose half-life is still unknown, unpredictable and too often unmanageable. Certainly not restricted to males between fifteen and twenty-five, male anger nevertheless is a “force of nature” with which angry men and the rest of the culture will continue to have to respond. Its roots can be as simple and obvious as racial bullying, gender bullying, physical oddity bullying, profound poverty, linguistic impoverishment, cultural ostracism. Less obvious, but potentially equally impactful, is the role of parental default, including absence, abuse, sexual abuse or even social media bullying for whatever real or imagined motivations or revenge.
Most, if not all, of the incidents of masculine anger, contempt, hatred, and the ensuring violence could, if we were patient, diligent, and more interested in prevention, as a culture, than in immediate, fear-based, so-called “deterrent” punishment (much of which is demonstrably NOT a deterrent), bed traced back into the early life experiences of the “guilty” individual. His fears, his self-loathing, his alienation, his impressions of his own identity and how it simply appears to him to be abhorrent to others in some way, or his belief/perception/conviction that others are, themselves, abhorrent to his view of how the world should be are likely to lie at the heart of his “nuclear” explosion. Case studies, for the purposes of the sentencing, while useful, are nevertheless, less detailed, less compassionate, less disclosive because of the secrecy of the individual and the time and cost of the recording biographer, will not comprise a full biography. Of course, in the most serious cases, the courts (for the culture) require a psychiatric assessment (For the purposes of these notes, the cases of the sociopath and psychopath and the most violent sexual offenders have to be considered “off limits” given the limited numbers and the highly complex issues they incarnate. More research could, potentially, include evidence and analysis and that lead future cultures to prevent much of the anger and violence of even these individuals.)
The North American “obsession” for the “bullet” of conviction and incarceration of primarily young men, of primarily minority black, brown, indigenous young men, especially when compared with their “white” counterparts engaged in similar acts of lawlessness, illustrates a cultural contempt both for those young men and for the acts they have perpetrated on “our” dominant, colonial establishment culture of law enforcement. We have adopted a long-standing posture of “eliminating” the complexities we simply do not understand and do not care to become fully familiar with and to fully embrace. And we rationalize our complicity through such pathetic social and cultural placebo’s as “public safety” and “removing the threat and endangerment” of these terrible young men.
Regardless of the relative poverty or affluence of the North American family, and regardless of its racial components, its religious roots, or its ethnic identity, all families are living in a culture saturated with socially acceptable and fiscally and economically sustained and enhanced, as well as politically motivated establishment-induced-and-funded violence. Everywhere we all look, listen, overhear, read or seek entertainment, we are being fed a cultural menu and diet saturated, not only with cholesterol and sugar and salt that threaten our very longevity, but with open, blatant, unremitting and irredeemable violence. Whether in the guise of law enforcement, national security, corporate malfeasance, religious imperialism and colonialism (known in the religious business by its benign and highly moral and ethical name of “evangelism”, often deployed through the penetration of shame and guilt), the abuse of power saturates the contemporary neighbourhoods, streets, boardrooms, and political corridors and offices of the highest echelons of power. And young boys are watching, listening, learning to participate, whether vicariously or directly, in and through gangs, drug deals (to ameliorate their personal, social, psychic pain), video games, recruitment to various “cells” that are themselves dedicated to their personal and collective perceived victimization.
Here are a few of the current and highly seductive, if highly addicted to violence “cells” to which young men are being attracted, through methods, promises, fantasies and propaganda on social media into the violence they perceive as their “answer” to their unique and desperate plight.
INCEL: a cult of committed young men who rage at their rejection by women (often, perhaps always, precipitated by their incompetent, irrelevant and disrespectful methods of attempting to inaugurate conversation and the development of relationships with women), a recent example of a young “incel” recruit (involuntary celibate) who killed several and injured many more by driving his van along a pedestrian street in Toronto.
ISIS: recruits, yearning for an opportunity to become heroic “killers” empowered beyond their wildest fantasies of their own “power”….incarnated and transferred to an external, addictive and highly punitive and vindictive religious cult dedicated to what mainstream Muslims consider a perverted version and interpretation of their religion. Many recruits who have killed for ISIS in the Middle East, have now returned to their home countries, and are living incognito in their communities, threatening, as CBC reported recently, to rise up if we are not treated with respect here in our home country. So the seeds of the original motivation for their initial recruitment have been nurtured and grown in the hostility of the Islamic terrorist battlefields when they tasted the thrill of killing, and now, having returned “home” they offer the spectre of more violence if they are “provoked” by a community that neither understands nor accepts their recruitment, their violent, and adopted identity and history nor their unimpeded re-entry into civil society.
TALIBAN: allegedly restricted to the streets and the battlefields of Afghanistan, these terrorists threaten the stability of that country, the prospects of a free and fair election and the stability of any future government that does not include their personnel and their demands. Dedicated to the restriction of, or prevention of the education of young girls and women, the imposition of sharia law, and the elimination of “western” influence and power, these outlaws, at least from the perspective of the west, threaten to deplete resources of NATO allies in the pursuit of an unachievable goal of peace and security in that land.
DRUG GANGS: those opportunistic young men who traffic in the trade and profit to be gained by the importation and sale of illicit drugs, feeding the insatiable appetite for those drugs among especially North American youth who themselves feel dispossessed, lost, alienated, abandoned and effectively trashed by the established education and social systems they have abandoned, willfully or involuntarily. Supporting their efforts, many of them now desperate and survival-based, are arsenals of guns, including assault weapons, themselves manufactured and sold by an industry that feeds both the underground market and the military sales of weaponry to American and Canadian “allies” like Saudi Arabia. These initiatives, on the surface included as an integral component of the GDP of both Canada and the U.S. and the source of both revenue and employment for honourable men and women, continue to provide the very instruments of both war and gang violence, all the while condemning the ravages of both and the human costs of the wounds and sacrifices in both theatres. And then there is the law enforcement aspect of these gangs, and the racism that comes driving into the encounters between police and young minority men…complete with fired bullets into fleeing bodies, and the impunity of acquittal of many of the offending officers. Inevitably, the trust and safety that are supposed to be incarnated in such law enforcement detachments, especially among the minority families and communities, atrophies before our collective eyes, as we all contemplate the impact on the futures of the other young boys living in those communities.
And, if these examples of violence are not enough, just turn on the television and watch the trailers for prominent dramas, saturated with their own violent scripts, shoot-outs, chases and violent seizures, ostensibly on behalf of a public alleged to be more “safe and secure” through the heroic efforts of these uninformed, or disguised officers of the law. And then insinuate the violent video games into the hands, eyes, ears and minds of millions of young boys, supported by their male parents, in an inexhaustible goal of “making young and strong young men” out of the offspring.
In Canada, a respected English department of a prominent university English Department offers a graduate course on the cultural implications, both positive and negative of the national sport of hockey, historically one of the most prominent and socially inculturated activities for young boys in every community in the nation. Should one opponent (the competition could be merely “friendly” as in shinny on a pond, or much more intense, with competitors vying for a spot on a highly advanced amateur team like the national team, or especially for a spot on an NHL team) commit an obviously premeditated act of violence on his competitor, that competitor, or his team-mates are expected to retaliate, as a matter of honour, in order to protect the respect he and his team deserve. Violence is considered an integral aspect of the game, and while the number and severity of violent attacks has been significantly reduced in recent years, whenever a fight breaks out, the crowd eagerly applauds, cheers and engages in the violence. The highest levels of women’s hockey, by comparison, is completely devoid of such violence, without compromising the skill, speed, and the entertainment value of the sport.
Young men, on reflection, face multiple complex influences when confronting their frustrations, and their rejections, and their ambitions…not the least of which is their resistance to the nuances and the usefulness of verbal and written language skills that come to them through film and through reading. Their universal consideration of experiences in the “literary” world as effeminate, by itself, constitutes one of the more glaring and blatant examples of the kind of blind, proud and self-sabotaging attitudes that continue to impale young men and boys on their own petard, not to mention the dangers and the threats such blind hubris, as a mask for profound insecurity, impose on the rest of society, especially their female partners.
Violence, anger and the accompanying actions are rarely an effective resolution for any conflict, and as soon as men come to that truth, openly and willingly, the better off they and we will be.