Asking men to acknowledge their individual unconscious has be more than a little quixotic. Asking men to pay more attention to their emotions, learning the nuances between and among them, articulating them in mature and reasonable language without inferring insults, an effeminate nature of them, or a fear of being considered an inferior male also has to be quixotic. As for intuition, well that is a case all by itself.
An unconscious, emotions, an intuition….these are as important attributes of men as well as of women, whether men are willing and able and free to acknowledge their existence and importance or not. So why is there so much resistance?
A masculine epistemology begins and end in many cases with the empirical facts that mount a case before the senses of any man. Sensate and dedicated to mastering the details of what the senses experience and require, in order to proceed to “intervene” in whatever the situation might be, in order to generate more empirical evidence that justifies the original “premise” or “diagnosis” or “assessment” of the situation is not only the preferred approach to any situation, it can be judged as the “default” position of most men. Whether “dominance” is an innate and determinative trait of masculinity or not will be a subject of debate for eons. Nevertheless, there is at least more than adequate support for the notion that the exercise of power, including power “over” whether based on the needs of the dominant male or based on the needs of the exigency is a starting point for many if not most males in their assessment of how a situation is, has been or will be handled.
The capacity and willingness to compare the relative “strength” of an argument, a person, a policy, an agency or organization, an education/university degree, a product/service seems to be the sine qua non of the vernacular of practical sense. Consumers do it, teachers do it, doctors do it, lawyers do it, accountants do it, employers do it, employees do it, even husbands and wives do it…we all do it!
Comparing the “strength” of anything/person/idea/value/belief/nation/language/ethnicity/history/economy seems to drive most conversations in most venues. Practical sense language motors the transactional engine operating in by far the vast majority of interactions on the personal, organizational, academic, jurisdictional, national and international stages of human lives. It is the perception and language of our individual and our unconscious lives that “spooks” the prevailing dominant language of practical sense. In the domain of the unconscious reside words/notions like motive, attitude, sensibility, emotion, fear, dream, intuition, belief, memory, bias, prejudice, love, contempt, self, God, death, reputation….
And the significant difference between the “sensate” language/perception of practical sense and the notions of the unconscious is the capacity to contain, measure, evaluate, assess and compare and regulate them. In the sensate category, notions are measureable, predictable, comparable, and rendering the concept (belief?) that they can be controlled, managed. This capacity to control renders the user “in charge,” a state in which most men feel more comfortable. However, the unconscious nevertheless continues to hold sway, whether it is recognized and accepted or not. The degree to which it is denied, paradoxically, and ironically, elevates the level of its influence to sabotage. And self-sabotage, while not restricted to men, (women are also subject to its deceits) continues to plague the lives of millions of men.
How do men commit acts, beliefs, perceptions, words and relationships that illustrate self-sabotage?
Well…..where to begin?
For starters, we live involuntarily in homes in which too many parents consider us “weak” if we cry when we are injured, or offended. We also live in homes in which physical affection and attention from mothers is exaggeratedly dedicated to daughters, on the premise that mothers fear raising “unmanly young boys”. It is not that we individually initiate these attitudes and behaviours but more that they establish a “platform” on which we build our perceptions of ourselves as young boys. The sensibility of our sisters, being valued highly by our mothers, by inference, paints young boys as “less humane” and “less compassionate” and “less caring” and “less empathic.” Significantly, too, our fathers in too many instances are either ignorant of these exchanges of boys with their mothers or remain silent in their face, thereby assisting in their perpetuation, normalization and embedding in the conventional culture.
The history of men deferring to their female partners, in matter of emotions, intuition, sensibilities, even love (especially in our use of language to express how we feel) is legion. Whether our rationalization scrapes the bottom of the barrel, like a family medical doctor who declared “women do it so much better” when confronted with the notion that men can learn to express their/our emotions, or whether we “excuse” ourselves from the language of the unconscious, including our loves and our fears because we are overcome with their power and afraid to acknowledge that truth, or whether our reticence has a different base, men nevertheless resist conversations that even might expose their/our interior life. Intimacy, as we all know and recognize, is both a primary need and an elemental fear. Our fear, however, for men, too often tends to prevail over our “need” in another of our unconscious self-sabotages. Considered simply “the way men are” (awkward, shut-down, shy, private, self-possessed, ‘the silent type,’ focused on task/profession, protectors, defenders, rescuers, “head” of the house, strong, a fighter, no push-over), our culture continually and persistently endorses the “alpha” male model of masculinity.
And when a culture endorses a stereotype like this, including endorsement by the vast majority of women, whether that endorsement is expressed overtly or covertly, men make it a significant ideal to aspire to attain. Men, by our persistent, collective silence and commitment to present ourselves as “alpha” males, however we feel that “characterization” fits our sense of our self, risk self-sabotage either in silence or open commitment. And in organizational structures, even the most simple act or word that “smells” of strength will be noted and repeated immediately by those men in power by a new recruit. The blinding paradox of supervisors/employers/hiring agents who overtly express a strong preference for “strength” (alpha male) while silently, secretly and imperceptibly, even unconsciously demanding total obedience of even the most minute rule or regulation seems baked into the cake of men relating to men. And, more recently, women executives, ambitiously climbing the corporate career ladder, have demonstrated a similar divided-self.
Hunters, fishers, mountain climbers, adventurers, pioneers, policemen, firemen, builders, surgeons, astronauts, fighter pilots…professional athletes….there are so many obvious examples of roles for men seeking “power” to fill. Social endorsement of the roles especially focused on the risks, the dangers, the drama, the urgency and emergency of many of these roles is especially seductive for many young men who see themselves through the lens of the culture around them. Uniforms, rank, hierarchy, income, status, and then “public respect” are highly motivating sensate rewards for aspiring young men. Traditions built on many of these rewards, including the total obedience to a “code” as another pathway to perfection, are also highly influential for young men who “want to make something of themselves”…and avoid the kind of social derision and contempt they witness directed toward those who “got a job,” “bought a truck,” and “liked their booze (or their preferred medication) too much.”
And therein lies another of the hidden ways by which men sabotage ourselves: we too often divide into two options the road ahead. We are sadly and tragically hard-wired, it seems, to reduce our options to one of two, especially as young adults driven by the need to decide. After all, deciding, and not being uncertain, is another of the dangerous stereotypes that happen to define normal masculinity. I recall, as a junior undergrad, encountering the family doctor on the street, in the midst of a serious cold. I asked if he could recommend an over-the-counter product to address the symptoms. After providing the name, he immediately jabbed his tongue into my eyes, “When are you going to decide what it is you want to do?” as if my failure to announce a decision demonstrated my failure as a man. Uncertainty, ambiguity, probing, and even deferring decisions, as well as “not know the answer” are all signs of weakness, as portrayed by the conventional culture. The sooner a young man decides, and then announces that decision, or enters a visible role, the sooner he is considered to be a “good young man” in the eyes of the local community.
And then, in the performance of the duties of whatever vocation, the capacity to see clearly the issues that have to be faced, reduced to a minimum of two options, and then deciding on which option is preferred, such executive capacity seriously supercedes the public assessment of whether it was the best/optimum decision. Men are enculturated to be decisive, ambitious, clear-thinking, clinical in our pursuit of clear goals and objectives and thereby responsible. And responsibility trumps creativity, imagination, taking into account multiple variables in assessing situations, and prevarication and indecision, procrastination and “impotence”. We have all read, at least superficially, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and learned about the tragedy of being indecisive and then impulsive and prone to be rash. Similar to the futility of Quixotic ambitions, considered out of touch with reality, men in literature like Heathcliff, Willy Loman and his sons Happy and Biff, and the dominant characters in novels like Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we men are inoculated into perceptions and attitudes that illustrate a preference for “responsibility” and “dependability” as opposed to models that illustrate any sign of unpredictability, authentic rebellion and creativity, and even irreverence for authority.
The recently disclosed human insults and abuse by men of young hockey players illustrate the depth of both the secrecy and the self-sabotage of men by men, themselves sabotaging their exercise of their responsibilities as coaches. It is not only that emotional and physical abuse occurred; it is more significant that such abuse remained closeted inside the hockey culture that merely reflects too much of the corporate, institutional culture of secrecy.
Raised in dysfunctional families, many men know all too well when to keep their/our mouths shut about what is really going on inside our homes. Undoubtedly, young adolescent men historically refrain from disclosure of the conditions under which they live, while young women are more likely to seek “support” from their peers. For young men, such “sharing” would be a nefarious act of betrayal of the honour of the family, and would also indicate a degree of weakness leading to social contempt for being a whiner, a complainer, and a wuss. It would shine a kleg light on one of the most detested of masculine fears: tattling, whistle-blowing.
So, locked between the leg-iron of obedience to the honour of the family, transferred later to the “honour” of the boss and the institution, and the vice of truth that would expose serious malfeasance of the parent, corporation, church, school or repair shop, fully aware that to break the “silence” would bring irreparable harm, even violence from the responsible authorities. It is not a surprise that protecting the whistle-blower is a law only recently enacted, and still not enforced full-heartedly, by those in power, manly men, who fear exposure of their worst attitudes, words, behaviours and prejudices.
Silence, adhering to the “code of silence” applies to a plethora of public roles. We are, as a culture, literally and metaphorically, terrified of exposure of our weaknesses, our failures and our betrayals. Finding safe space in which to unburden ourselves of such pain grows increasingly difficult; friends, especially men, are wont to reveal the details of their/our private life to another man, given our early life of preserving the confidentiality of our homes. We worry that such information will not remain secret and sacred between the two “friends;” we also fear that in disclosing our pain the other will consider us either or both lying or effeminate/weak.
And an aversion to weakness, vulnerability, failure, imposing unwarranted conditions on others whether they are employees, colleagues, associates, betrayal of colleagues saturates the culture of all organizations. And this aversion, this almost absolute refusal to acknowledge responsibility, for fear of being discarded, punished in an inordinate manner, avenged and scarred forever now pervades our culture. It says here that the roots of this aversion are entangled under the western tree of masculinity.
Our shared refusal to come to terms with our unconscious, to find the safe places in which to bare our unconscious in safety and in confidence, and to confront wrong when it is emitted by those in positions of responsibility serve as a cultural entanglement from which we will have to engage all of masculinity in order to escape.
As a professional sycophant to bosses from mid-teens to mid-forties, I was mis-construed as a “company man” whether I really was or not. Specifically, I learned to comply with the culture of an Ontario private school where old boys occupied “board” seats had more power and influence than a young faculty member. Did I protest? In the other way available, I left, after three years. I also accepted whatever curricular timetables we assigned by principals, in the belief that I had no other options. I more than over-compensated a sense of unworthiness by throwing myself into multiple extra-curricular activities, as a way of distracting from having to face my own demons, my own fears and my own unfulfilled ambitions. I deferred from domestic conflict almost imitating Hamlet, uncertain of the outcome of full-throated confrontation until I exploded in defiance and termination. In the church, of course, I was baked into the culture of total compliance and absolute obedience of the hierarchy, even if and when they/he failed to discharge the responsibilities of orientation to the full truth of any assignment, and/or failed to support in the performance of necessary decisions when trying to “right-the-ship” of parishes that were almost certain to flounder on the shoals of unacknowledged and unresolved vengeance, jealousy or fear.
Only much later was I able and willing to face my own failures of omission (self-sabotage) and of commission in how those failings impacted others, for which I am deeply sorry. There is no way to separate one’s self-sabotage from the impact such behaviour/attitudes/words/perceptions impact others, including one’s most intimate family.
Whether men can or will see the limits of our individual and our shared perceptions remains mute. That we can and will, however, is clear. This petition calls for a conversation among men about how we might more consciously acknowledge and accept our sack of memories and traumas we have been secretly lugging around for too long.