Manhood

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.

 

 

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The Right to Protest

Dear friends,

I don’t know if you follow sports enough to catch the uproar over Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality.  Kaepernick is a football quarterback playing for the San Francisco Forty Niners.  He’s not great but he generates attention because he began his career so quickly and dramatically.  He’s young and earnest and a little impulsive –like  many young people.

During the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick continued to kneel while his teammates stood at attention.  He did so quietly, with little fanfare.  To me, this gesture did not seem very confrontational but the press made a big deal of it..  Gradually, others have either followed his example or tried other ways to stand for the rights of young Black men, like linking arms or raising their right fists the way that Tommy Smith did in the 1968 Olympics.  Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, among an increasing group of people across American, have joined in common cause with the protesters.

But the general reaction to Kkaepernick’s protest has been negative.  Throughout the country, innumerable politicians, business owners and countless others have offered their often heated objections to Kaepernick’s gesture. The public conversation has not focused on police brutality or equal rights.  It has focused, instead, on Kaepernick’s right to protest versus the “disrespect” he has shown to a patriotic American ritual, the National Anthem.  The challenge to his right has been stunning to me, considering all of the abusive, massively disrespectful behavior we see in local, state, and national politics.  Compare Kaepernick’s behavior to Trump and the outrageous, fact-free Birther challenge to Barak Obama’s presidential legitimacy.  And this is but one sign of disrespect to the dignity of our highest office.  Why should Kaepernick be held to a different standard than the politicians.  In fact, his “protest” was relatively respectful.

On the other hand, the objections that have filled sports pages of newspapers, have, paradoxically, added great fuel to athletes’ desire to protest.  There seems to be a little movement building.  For better or worse, athletes are in the limelight and have some power to influence their fans.  Since so many of these athletes are people of color and have managed to ‘rise’ in one of the arenas most open to them, why shouldn’t they be able to use their success in the service of their values?  Business people certainly do.

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed this issue in his September 16th column.  I found the article smug and misguided and wrote a Letter to the Editor in response.  Given the substantial response that Brooks’ article received, there seems little likelihood that mine will be published.  So I decided to send it to you in the form of a mini-blog post.  This version is slightly changed just in case The Times does publish it. I hope you like it.

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David Brooks’ invocation of American civic religion, “The Uses of Patriotism,” runs much too close to the 1960’s condemnation of Vietnam War protesters.  “Love it or leave it” was the sanctimonious and divisive cry.  Why can’t we love it and protest when our country does not live to its values?  The right to protest is baked into the American tradition and the American Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly, association, and speech.  The Boston Tea Party, a disrespectful protest of British taxation, helped precipitate the Revolutionary War.   In my view, we honor our nation by continuing practices that led to its formation and that guarantee the values on which it stands.

Brooks, himself, notes that “Every significant American reform movement was shaped by” self-criticism.  Protest is self-criticism in protean form.  Should we not have protested slavery when it was sanctioned by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution?  How about the absence of women’s suffrage and discriminatory housing practices that have made it hard for every group of immigrants, from the Irish to the Latinos, to buy their own homes?  Almost all of America’s great social and economic achievements have come on the back of protest.

Every protest is met with resistance and disdain, as though they don’t fit in polite society.  I have written, myself, in favor of a more dignified and restrained presidential politics. (https://barrydym.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/a-call-for-a-more-dignified-and-restrained-presidential-politics/); and I find the current lying, name-calling, and bullying vile.  But, Brooks wants to sanitize protest too much.  He should know that self-criticism is inevitably messy and upsetting; and it does call into question the culture and values of the ruling classes.  In fact, protest, by its nature, arises outside of the halls of power.  It is the means taken by people who lack the institutional power to enact change through formal governmental channels.  In Thursday’s column, Brooks stands with those ruling classes and against the very tradition at whose shrine he asks us to worship.

We must stand with the original Tea Partiers, with the Abolitionists and the Suffragettes, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his call for nonviolent protest, and with all who seek to highlight the need for changes in law and public behavior—even when they are irreverent.  Irreverence towards one set of “values”—standing for the National Anthem—often signals reverence for another set.  In this case, the more hallowed statement of values comes in both the right of free speech and in equal protection under the law, as it is assured by the 14th Amendment.  I believe that we should be proud of young people who speak up in this way.