Jesuit John Powell wrote a little book entitled “Why I don’t tell you who I am” in which he explained that “that’s all I have and you might reject me”….Protection of our deepest most private self is hardly unexpected in a world of cruelty, meanness, flaunted and faux superiority and masculine bravado.
Never mind that there are “mean girls”; that is a situation for women to confront. We men have our own meanness, cruelty, bullying, and a stubborn fixation with the archetype that keeps this kind of attitude, behaviour, perception and outright abuse of power alive, and as the evidence indicates, growing.
A sensitive piece in The Atlantic’s most recent edition, tells the world that Joe Biden has struggled with a speech stutter from his youth. Written by another stutterer, John Hendrickson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, the piece tellingly urges the presidential candidate to “say it” that he does indeed suffer from a stutter. Hendrickson, though, is not sure he wants to hear his subject utter those words for his personal benefit, or if he believes Biden would relieve himself of considerable public scorn, anguish, criticism or scepticism.
Holding to the heroic role model of having worked with and overcome his speech impediment, Biden speaks privately with those who suffer from the same difficulty. Asked whether he thinks he would evoke pity from voters if he declared his “truth,” Biden wonders out loud how people could or would have pity for someone as fortunate, almost gilded as his life has been. Naturally, following his viewing of The King’s Speech, the inspirational film about the struggles of King George VI to overcome his own stutter, a neurological condition pertaining mainly to men, Biden noted that he had, without knowing anyone else who did, for years written speeches in a form that separated difficult words on the page with spaces in the copy just as he then learned the King had also done. The same night Biden watched The King’s Speech, he also left a recorded message of remembrance and reconnection on the phone of his speech therapist.
In a series of pieces about denial by men of any mere hint of weakness, vulnerability and the implications of such denial, personal connections to the trope seem relevant. My father suffered from a serious stutter, especially when he was at home, where the emotional, psychological ethos was often highly tense, even threatened by intemperate, unsuspected and mostly disconnected from the current reality emotional explosions from his wife, my mother. At work, where he supervised a staff of a dozen men and women, and gracefully and graciously served customers for over half a century, he speech was flawless, uninterrupted and imbued with integrity and authenticity.
As an adolescent, however, my impatience with his long pauses in his speech provoked what can only have been the most disrespectful and hurtful interjections, filling in his missing words. Only much later, when I learned of another colleague who also suffered from a life-long speech stutter, and who worked with neurologists to produce a device that through experiment proved adequate to the almost complete eradication of the struggle, did I secure the device and offer it to my father, in the hope that it would have the same result for him. The device consisted of a small plastic box containing batteries attached to a wire collar placed around the neck. A simple switch initiated a minor electric current, essentially a ‘shot of warmth’ into the neck when the wearer came upon a word difficult to say. My colleague demonstrated such a strict commitment to proving the value of the device that he read for three hours each night, with the device attached to his neck and his thumb on the button. The experiment was so successful that he then secured a weekly three-hour hosting post on a classical music show on radio station CFRB, then one of Toronto’s most powerful and most listened-to AM radio station. Listeners would never hear a speech pause. My father, having passed his sixty-fifth year when he received the device, was either unable or unwilling to commit fully to its use.
Whether Joe Biden will actually pull the curtain back from his stutter in the middle of his third campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency is still a matter for speculation. Having maintained his ‘silence’ (really his secrecy) in the face of a youth when he was dubbed “Stut” and considered by many to be less intelligent than his peers, and especially humiliated by a Catholic nun in speech class, there is reason to doubt his full disclosure. Surely, however, as with the more sensitive and responsible approach to public disclosure and acceptance of autism, Biden’s public accounting would go a long way to his own psychological and emotional relief, as well as to the prospect of public shame for having shamed him (and millions of others) throughout his life.
Shame, inevitably linked to anger, humiliation, and possibly even to revenge, while not exclusive to men, is a prominent experience given our deep and persistent consciousness of how we appear to other men. And there are so many ways by which men “attack” other men for our being different from what is considered ‘normal’ masculinity. Considering many of these ‘attacks’ as a pathway to ‘manhood,’ the kind of manhood that can stand up for itself, will not be pushed around, will not tolerate shaming, insults, taunting or worse, a black eye, men (and their mothers and fathers) for centuries been engaged in a hot-house that nurtures the weed of revenge, and not the flower of turning the other cheek. And that kind of cultural ‘gardening’ begins with a conception of human beings (or is it mainly men?) as mostly sinful, flawed, imperfect and mostly to be defended against, not primarily accepted, honoured, trusted and respected.
Of course, the church has a giant share of culpability in this regard. In its attempt to cap any hint of arrogance, and to ensure the pre-eminence of humility among “believers” (not to mention the church’s need for control of members), as the sine-qua non of discipleship, and the purity of that obedience to the will of God, it has paradoxically generated centuries of natural, inevitable and uncontrolled and uncontrollable push-back. Physics posits that for every action there is a equal and opposite reaction; human nature suggests that whatever we hate we become. Extreme and absolute anything, is, apparently, according to the universe, the first seedling in generating its precise opposite. If I hate someone or something, I am much more vulnerable to incarnating that very “thing” that I hate.
However, to posit a view of human nature that begins with, and ends with, an expression of love, especially in the current cultural climate, is to flirt with social ostracism. In order to begin with love of another, one has to have an unwavering sense of one’s own person, not as an incarnation of perfection certainly, but as an honourable, trusting and trustworthy being. Quakers speak of the ‘divine light’ being within each person; some Christians speak of the “image of God” within each person;…and yet, our social conventions start with, (and continue long after childhood and adolescence), sanctions, punishments, accusations, judgements and shaming.
We, and men are especially implicated in this dynamic, shame others and then dismiss the shaming as a joke, a dissing, a kind of ‘arming’ the other for the field of battle, the journey of one’s life. As far back as 1854, Henry David Thoreau, in his historic treatise, Walden, wrote these words:
“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments?” Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, While we do not subscribe to the classism and the easy and glib segregation of superior and common man, we, with Rousseau, subscribe, however quixotically and unabashedly to the notion that goodness is more defining of the nature of man, including men, than evil. The true key to all the perplexities of the human condition, Rousseau boldly claims, is the “natural goodness of man.” (From the University of Chicago Press website) Ghandi, too, having read Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God in Within You,” in which the ‘love as law of life’ and principles of non-violence base don love for the entire mankind were deeply embedded principles, cured him of scepticism and made him a firm believer in Ahimsa.*
So what is it that drives our (masculine) penchant for power, our volcanic hot pursuit of our enemies? What is it that drives our pursuit of the shame of the other searching, like obsessed gold diggers, for the weakest link ( criminality, unconscious bias, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, bigotry, insouciance) of the other? Why are we, like Joe Biden, my father, millions of humans who struggle with any form of physical, emotional, psychic, intellectual or spiritual deformity?
Is it not, in fact, our imperfections that make us real, interesting, diverse, and obviously “unfinished” as fully developed individuals, not to mention as participants in an unfinished, developing culture? Why then are we so obsessed with the illegal, or sick (or both) categorizations of anything and everything that “we” consider to be abnormal?
Is it our collective cultural anxiety about not understanding what we cannot explain? Why, for example, are we fascinated by the new and as yet unexplained discoveries of the human mind, or the revelations of outer space also as yet unexplained, in a scientific perspective, and yet so revolted by the surprising, or the predictable behaviour of those of our human species that emerges from deprivation, depravity, and the slightest or monumental evidence of abuse?
We all know, at least our better angels tell us hourly, that any evidence of violence can be traced back to previous violence, whether it be on the battlefield, or in the bedroom, or in the schoolyard, or in the courtroom. It is our own deep and hidden and buried angst, anxiety, insecurity, failure, shame, crossing of boundaries, whether consciously or not, that causes pain, insult, offence, violence and even debasement of the other.
Having lived and worked in the United States for four years, I noticed a pronounced dependence on private insurance, law enforcement, the military and the power of money as status. The divisions between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have-not’s’ in each of these four imperatives is a divide wider than the Grand Canyon. And the churches, at least those I observed, remain mute, gagged by the political correctness of their absolute co-dependence on the cheques of those very wealthy patrons whose membership in the establishment guarantees the complicity of the dependent religious hierarchy. Similarly, the political class too, is enmeshed in the same co-dependence with the fat-cats who write their cheques. Just last night, Cory Booker, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination protested the power of money in the campaigns of specific candidates, while he has committed to accepting money only from private, small, independent donors, rejecting money from PAC’s and from the pharmaceutical companies and environmental polluters.
Taking the high road, it seems, is also the road to elimination. And yet, paradoxically, the world sings the praises of a Ghandi, a Mandela, a Tolstoy, a Thoreau, a Rousseau, a Mother Theresa, without seeming to stop to reflect upon how vengeful, vindictive, judgemental, punitive, racist, homophobic, ageist, sexist we each tend to be (and to express overtly). Hypocrisy, dear reader, is a cocktail to which we are all addicted.
Not practicing what one preaches, lacking the willpower to live up to one’s own ideals and behaving in ways one knows are obviously wrong, are all moral failings. There is perhaps a different reason for our contempt of hypocrisy:
“We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication---not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.” (The Real Problem with Hypocrisy, by Jillian Jordan, Roseanne Sommers and /David Rand, The New York Times, January 13, 2017, quoting the journal, Psychological Science)
Having railed against disavowed fear, against the unacknowledged Shadow, against the impunity we compliantly permit to those whose attitudes, behaviours and words deeply and permanently harm us, especially those in positions of power whose decisions have rendered us impotent, silent, and irrelevant, it is time to expose the writer’s deep-seated complicity in a masculine culture of social, political, and even religious “going along to get along”…I have failed myself, my family, my students, and my parishioners for having silently and complicitly navigated through clashing rocks and swirling whirlpools of the appeasement of my mother by my father, the appeasement of supervisors to their superiors, the complicity of radio station managers to the demands of advertisers, the religious bigotry of clergy under the guise of the gospel, the manipulation of supervisors who manipulated professional colleagues out of their jobs through deliberately over-loading their workday, the deceit of bishops who refused to face hard truths in their appointments, and failed to implement requisite supports, and who failed to acknowledge their professional incompetence and unprofessional judgements.
I also failed in my responsibilities to my family, when, without knowing how to navigate what I considered irreconcilable differences, I withdrew from their presence. Without the perception of legitimate and achievable options, I made what were unilateral decisions, thereby betraying the people I most cherished, my daughters.
I witnessed firsthand the impact of suicides of men who, starving for both personal and professional supports, took their own lives, in what can only be discerned as a screaming cry for help. And the number of men who continue to take their own lives grows whether through such serious trauma (PTSD), or a combination of trauma and the inevitable social, political, cultural, and even ecclesial neglect. We all have the blood of their deaths on our hands, for our shared, collective, complicit failure to treat the fragility and the innocence and the dignity and the goodness and the love each of us with the care, the commitment and the discipline we all need. And as men, we also continue to prop up a cultural norm of an addiction to power, to abuse, to indifference to weakness, and to the denial of our own vulnerability.
It is a stance that is both unsustainable and self-sabotaging. Just yesterday, I listened as Anthony Scaramucci, a former press relations officer of the president, for 11 days. He expounded on the self-loathing that eats away at the psyche of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Men, especially, have to be supportive of each other in order that more do not fall into the slough of self-hatred. There are so many influences that would have us fall; and there are so few guard-rails protecting us from sliding. Let’s commit to an infrastructure project that builds more of those guard rails.
*Ahimsa: In Jainism, ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. For the ascetic, ahimsa entails the greatest care to prevent the ascetic from knowingly or unknowingly being the cause of injury to any live soul. (Britannica website)