The feminist revolution is decades old and still evolving.  At each stage, men have struggled to respond.  Some have succeeded in ways that have broadened their sense of manliness to include the expression of feelings and the value of sharing of decisions with women at home and at work.  Many others, however, have responded to women’s demands and entreaties by avoiding or resisting the call for equality, retreating into distance and passivity, or imitating what they understand femininity to be.  None of these latter adaptations has worked very well.

This week, David Brooks wrote an article about Jordan Peterson, whose call to arms for men has attracted over 40 million views on YouTube.  According to Brooks’ friend, Tyler Cowen, “Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now…”  This is a sad commentary on the state of our thinking about manhood in America—though it is probably in keeping with the attraction that Donald Trump holds for so many “disenfranchised” men.

Peterson tells us that young men have been emasculated by the feminist revolution—and specifically by the women in their lives.  They feel “fatherless, solitary, floating in a chaotic moral vacuum, constantly outperformed and humiliated by women, haunted by pain and self-contempt.”  Their failure derives from an expectation of a fair and rational world, which Peterson tells us is an illusion.  Rather, the world is ruled by ruthless competition and the drive for dominance, in which “The strong get the spoils and the week become meek, defeated, unknown, and unloved.”

Men have been deceived by the forces of secularism, relativism and tolerance, which have made them indecisive and soft.  To regain their position, men need: to recognize that life is inevitably about struggle and pain; to stop their whining and their sense of victimization; to reject “perverse desires”  (you know what that means); and to turn, instead, to discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice.  In Peterson’s world, this means giving up weak friends and demanding mothers.  It means surrounding yourself with other warriors or going it alone, as Ayn Rand’s ubermench would do. In short, Peterson calls for a warrior’s code of conduct, which requires a domineering response to brutal conditions.

Peterson’s affirmation of toughness and competition is at odds with other philosophies that begin by acknowledging the primary reality of suffering.  The Buddhist response, for example, is to meet this harsh reality with compassion and connection, rather than trying to overcome and dominate potential threats and rivals.  In my view, the Peterson, or Social Darwinian approach, simply perpetuates the harsh conditions it tries to cope with, whereas Buddhism turns people in an entirely different and more humane direction.

Having explicated Peterson’s perspective, Brooks then offers his own, more modulated and contemporary view:  “I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self sacrifice.”  Brooks’ response is fine as far as it goes, and I’m sure it’s only part of a more complex idea about how men should respond to the feminist revolution.  What’s wrong about this view, taken by itself—and about virtually all pop psych-derived theories—is that it ignores or downplays the importance of power in all human relationships.  As the Me Too movement has re-emphasized, we ignore power differentials at a terrible cost.

But acknowledging the reality of power does not require the barbarism that follows from Peterson, Social Darwinism, extreme individualism, Trumpian and fascist populism, and all the other theories that celebrate unbridled male dominance.  Just because I’m stronger than you—physically or psychologically—doesn’t mean that I have the right to dominate.  Not in a society with humane values.  And I believe that any theory of human nature—biological, psychological or sociological—has to be put into a moral context.  Namely, that all of us, men, women and children, should treat one another with dignity and respect.

Now my view.  I think it’s indisputable that men feel weakened at home and in the workplace.  They are no longer kings of the castle and, even if that is a good thing, it creates anxiety.  At home, men still largely accept their own, secondary role—The wife’s probably right; She knows the kids better than I do—and have not fully built and embraced a new one.  This is not to say that many, if not most, contemporary marriages are not more equal than those of mine and, to be sure, my parents’ generation.  But the adaptation to the feminist challenge, the full affirmation of a new place is far from complete.

While biological man, like most mammalian species, may be inclined to seek domination, it seems to me that some of the current violence and predatory behavior can be seen as an almost desperate effort to escape the sense of helplessness created by their loss of place and their subsequent confusion.

There are other ways to achieve strength that need to be emphasized.  As a couple therapist and as a leadership coach, I spent a great deal of time teaching men to be assertive.  That is:

  • Knowing what you want and advocating for it
  • Believing that you are strong and willing enough to negotiate and to accept compromises with others.
  • Working with the negotiated solutions until they guide the relationship

Each of these steps can be difficult to learn for men who are more accustomed to seeing what they don’t like and either opposing it or begrudgingly going along.  Figuring out what you want, independent of what others want, is a skill requiring long and repetitive practice. The same is true about articulating what you want simply and directly.  For  example, I’d like to take the kids to the park today; I’d like to go to the movies, to visit Aunt Sally, to buy this house.  Not, I’ll do this or that if it’s ok with you.

In other words, negotiations are best begun with a declarative sentence, a clear preference, and not a request for permission, which immediately puts men in a one-down position, or a demand, which seeks to put them in a one-up position.

This kind of assertiveness—and the acceptance, even appreciation for your partner’s assertiveness—is not easily internalized.  It takes time, effort, failure and recovery, and eagerness to learn and change.  I have seen many men make the transition.  This is hardly the place to go into this learning process in depth but I hope I have identified its core.

There are false pathways, too.  As indicated, primitive reactions and assertions just distort and enrage the couple landscape.  But a disproportionate amount of male, like female, passivity and compliance, won’t do the trick either.  In all the years that I worked with couples, I found few women who enjoyed mostly compliant men, at least not for a long period of time.  It turns them off.  It leaves them without a partner.  Where, they ask, is the real man in the relationship?

Assertiveness represents an intelligent and mature way to address decision making processes.  Among other things, assertiveness requires self awareness.  You have to know what you want before asserting it.  That kind of awareness brings and animated authenticity to the relationship.

Many, maybe most, of the couple therapies that I facilitated began with women asking or demanding change.  Generally, both gentle requests and demands engendered resistance.  Men took oppositional positions.  The dance would begin: women propose and men oppose—or sometimes comply.

Because so much change begins with the woman’s initiative, the most powerful approach is for men to begin.  I’m in agreement with Peterson here.  But I feel very differently about the approach they must take.  Yes, men must take up the struggle themselves, individually and collectively.  But they must do so with respect and in search, not of dominance, but of reciprocity and intimacy.  If we do, we will meet women halfway—and we will genuinely call ourselves men.




12 thoughts on “Manhood”

  1. I think that men who have not had strong women as their mothers are at a great disadvantage in trying to establish themselves in partnership with women. Unfortunately, with women’s emancipation a new factor, there will be many more years of catch-up before things even out between the sexes. I don’t think this can be achieved without coaching and counselling. That’s why the work you are doing is so important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your support. I agree that knowing strong women, close up, is an important part of our education. I don’t know that it has to be our mothers, since that’s such a complicated relationship. It can be our fathers, for example, who we model ourselves on; and it can be other women in our lives. When I look at people who succeed in spite of hard backgrounds, I’m often amazed at how brilliant they are in their selection and attraction of substitutes–mentors, ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’ and so forth.

      Always happy to be in conversation with you.



  2. Thank you very much for this meaningful piece. At 75 with three sons, seven grandsons, and two former controlling husbands, I see your thorough understanding of men’s fear in our culture. Now married to a confident man who believes in equality for all, my story confirms your piece. As a side, My spouse has been a practicing Buddhist for years—I feel blessed.


  3. So much to respond to here Barry. I feel fortunate enough to have “thread the needle” between overpowering assertiveness and unhealthy passivity as you outlined…atleast I have tried…
    I worry about the scaleability of the complex factors which contribute to our ability to walk that line as men, especially amidst all of this blowback that undermines male evolution.


    1. You are so right. It’s one thing to fight through our own limitations and prejudice; it’s another to do so in the midst of a huge cultural backlash. But people like you and I are used to traveling against the grain and I imagine we’ll keep doing that.


  4. so…as the son of a working single mom –she raised us three boys on her own while working full time–I think I do have and advantage over some. It was never a question–my mom was a strong hard-working head nurse at an ICU, and she took care of us too.

    That said I am SO TIRED of men complaining about this world where they are disempowered and emasculated.

    I recently found a journal I had kept as part of a class my sophomore year at UMASS Amherst, so this would have been about 1979. I was writing then about the way that men talked about women one way when with other men–as objects and targets, and another way in mixed groups, and still another if they were talking about their own moms or sisters. I committed then to confronting sexist nonsense–now perhaps more fully described as the underpinnings of rape culture–in my personal and working life. Not a whole lot has changed, and that is sad. I hear my young nieces and nephews talking about the same things I did, in many of the same terms. Frat culture, all-male clubs, –it’s all still there. Crumbling I hope, but not gone. Especially when reactionaries like Trump, and Bannon and those other monstrous caricatures of masculinity are front and center.

    What it mostly comes down to is that these folks (and there are women among them) want to defend the patriarchal status quo. They talk about “inherent” differences, about “testosterone” being needed to be a “real” leader. None of that BS has a basis in good research. It is all just like the pseudo science of the 19th and 20th century that devised systems to “prove” that whites were superior, and that women were weak, etc.

    Genetics and science tell a different story: That the range of variation is so great among human beings, that sweeping generalizations about gender and race are almost always factually wrong, and ALWAYS go to support the system where white men end up at the top of the chain.

    Makes me angry. Must be the testosterone.


    1. This is a beautiful, passionate defense of an egalitarian belief system. In spite of all the whining and victimization, though, I do believe that there has been a considerable amount of change. I can see it in my children’s generation–not everyone but more–and, already, in my grandchildren’s generation, in which gender identity seems much more fluid.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Barry… I really like the shape and movement of this piece… presentation… critiques…and your own thoughts on the topic… Michael 

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S8, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone


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