Tuesday, January 21, 2014
To Be A Man
Another interesting cultural essay by Stephen Marche. This one deals with the current cultural craze that has men embracing caricatures of manhood, because they feel their manhood is threatened.
Yesterday, during the MLK Cultural Festivity, a young African American woman read a poem noting that whites better be careful about treating minorities as "minorities" since in their lifetimes, they will become a minority, too. The overwhelmingly white, privileged kids reacted defensively in the conversations I overheard.
The thing is, reacting like that is a sign of weakness. When you react to what you perceive is the "War on Men" on Fox News as being already lost and men are about to be legislated out of relevance, then you react with a combination of whining and over-reaction.
But if you know who you are as a man (or a woman, frankly), then you don't react to every perceived slight. I think I know who I am - warts and all - and I am fairly confident in my manhood.
I have defined being a man as putting my strength at the service of others. That's how I define it for myself and my sons. Men have strengths - perhaps physical, perhaps mental, perhaps moral - and those strengths must be used for others. A boy might use their strength for personal advancement, but a man realizes that he advances as his family, friends and community advances. So he uses his strength to carry sticky toddlers on piggy back rides or builds another piece of crappy Ikea furniture for the romper room. He volunteers to coach youth soccer or sit on the Board of Ed. When he sees a friend stuck by the side of the road, he offers a push or a lift.
But if you don't have confidence in your manhood, then you don't have the confidence to serve.
Where I do think we are falling short for boys these days - and why I think we have an over-reaction towards what Marche calls campy manhood - is that we have drained some of the kineticism of youth from boys lives. We don't want fights, because that simply teaches the large and strong to prey on the small and weak, and teaches the small and weak to cower and hide. But at the same time, every boy needs to get punched in the face at least once (preferably more), to know that your life won't end. That blow should not come with a psychological cost though, so you're stuck in a tough spot.
Boys instinctively need to prove their toughness. Toughness is one of the measures of a man, but it can be in the toughness of the guy who absorbs verbal blows from an asshole boss in order to keep his job so his family can eat. That sort of toughness doesn't come across on reality TV. Walter White isn't "tough" as an Aztek driving chemistry teacher, but he's absorbing blows in order to provide for his family. Yet once he gets a taste of being Heisenberg, he's ready for another, more juvenile form of toughness.
I do think we are in a form of manhood crisis, but it's not caused by women or feminism. It's caused by the fact that we are not allowing boys to define their toughness in a way that is appropriate for them. And so they overreact and drive Hummers and get military style haircuts and talk about "bitches and 'hos". This ersatz toughness is a mask.
I don't know what the answer is, because a lot of this I made up as I was writing it. But we need to let boys find their strength and their toughness. Maybe it's in karate class or the hockey rink. Maybe it's in the library or programming for hours on end. Maybe it's in kindness and patience. Each boy and each man will be different. John Wayne toughness is its own mask, its own form of lie, unless you're John Wayne. Bill Gates and Pope Francis are tough and strong, too. When Francis wanders the streets of Rome at night tending to the homeless, what could be tougher or stronger for him?
If we do this right, we can offer a better world for men. Because the "macho" world that beats on the weakling, sneers at homosexuals and finds thrills in driving drunk and power in beating wives and girlfriends is not a manly world, it is a "manly" world, a cheap imitation of strength and toughness. The goal of men should be to help boys find their own strength, their own steel. Not someone else's ideal of what that should be.