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.