This is the second post in a three-part series. Part one appeared last Friday. It dealt with several issues, focusing in particular on the difficulty so many men have today identifying and acting on what it is that really want. Men who long to be “good guys” often have a particularly difficult time with what Robert Bly calls “resolve.”
Anti-feminist male voices play on this lack of resolve, mocking the aspiring feminist man for his apparent passivity. Anti-feminist men claim that they do know what they want: they want to get laid, make money, play Halo or World of Warcraft until four in the morning. They want to watch football instead of talking. They don’t want emotional intimacy, or so they claim; they want to work hard, play hard, and fall asleep after sex. These anti-feminist voices (one thinks of their popular high priest, the talk-show host Tom Leykis, who without any irony tells his male listeners to call him “Dad”) urge young men to give up the quixotic crusade of living a life of justice and self-control.
While the likes of the libertine Leykis urge calculated self-indulgence, traditionalist Christian voices implore young men to “seize back” their leadership roles as head of the family. Thus the feminist man is attacked from two sides: by the buddies that urge him to stop worrying about women’s feelings and give in to his id, and by social conservatives who call him to stop worrying about women’s feelings and take up his God-ordained role as warrior leader.
So many aspiring feminist men give up at this point. The siren songs of irresponsibility and fundamentalism both make the same promise: live this way, and you will have the certainty you lack. Both camps tell the same lie: that biological identity determines destiny.
The secular hedonists (Leykis and a great many MRAs) urge a surrender to impulse: “You’re a man! You’re a simple creature who wants great sex and great food and a few laughs. Stop feeling guilty for your desires, and give into them!”
Traditionalist Christian voices often make a remarkably similar argument: “You’re a man! You’ve been given a special role by God to lead, and you must accept your calling!”
And when the nice young feminist man looks for a counter-argument to these pervasive messages, he finds very little that’s useful. Telling him “masculinity is just a social construct” is a woefully insufficient response, to put it mildly.
Where Robert Bly gets it right is that those of us committed to sexual justice need to come up with a more effective way of raising up strong, resolute, kind, egalitarian men. A key component of that lies in helping young men develop the capacity for deep self-reflection. We don’t do that in our culture, and as a consequence we are left with two kinds of men: those who can say what they want (and what they want is usually selfish, superficial, and destructive) and those who can’t, because deep down, they don’t really know their own hearts.
For many years, I had a great fear. It was only in men’s groups that I discovered, to my amazement, that many other men had the same one: I was terribly afraid that underneath an outer facade of kindness and warmth, I was hollow. I knew I wasn’t malicious or evil, not at my core. What I feared most was that I was nothing — an empty shell, a “whitewashed tomb”. Years of therapy had made me superficially insightful, and like most men, I could “talk a good game.” But I was haunted by the thought that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, deep inside “there was no there there.” At six I had become acutely aware of my mother’s feelings; twenty years later, I was a chronic seducer because I imagined I was “so good” at “reading” women well. But when, usually at the end of another unhappy marriage or relationship, I was confronted by a tearful woman who asked me “Hugo, what do you want? What do you REALLY want?” I could only say “I don’t know.” I wasn’t lying.
Bly notes that this complete lack of self-awareness leads to a depressingly repetitive style of male-female arguing. A couple begins to quarrel. The man progresses quickly from denial to defensiveness to, finally, brutal self-deprecation. He’ll blame his inability to communicate (or even to feel) on a poor relationship with his father, or even on his own gender. He’ll say something like “all men are shits”, or, he may personalize it to “I’m just a piece of shit, I don’t know why you stay with me.” He may be alternately childlike or numb. (Some men only get to the “I’m worthless, I don’t know why you stay with me”) bit after they’ve been drinking. Often, the couple fall into a mother-son dynamic, with the woman reassuring with words like “I know you’ve got real goodness in you, I can see it!” And the man is comforted by the idea that perhaps she can see in him what he cannot see in himself — because, of course, he hasn’t done the hard work of plumbing his own depths and finding that resolution he suspects might not be there at all.
A lot of these numb young men get into relationships with women who say things to them like “Roy, I swear I know you better than you know yourself!” If Roy hasn’t done his work, the line might be true. If he’s terrified that he has “no ‘there’ there”, he may hope desperately that his girlfriend or wife is right; her faith in him sustains him in the midst of his own crisis. But what she thinks she sees in him is usually a projection of her own hopes, determined as she is to find a polished diamond in the midst of coal. There may be a precious jewel in his soul, but the pressure that will turn carbon into diamonds is going to come from the man’s own effort, not from a woman’s fervent wishing. I’m convinced that part of growing up as a man is realizing that it’s never a woman’s job (not your mother, not your giirlfriend, not your sister, not your wife) to see the good in you that you can’t find in yourself. Authentically adult men don’t outsource their own self-awareness to female loved ones.
Neither the “Leykis libertines” nor their Christian conservative counterparts are much interested in having men do “deep inner work.” The former urge men to indulge their impulses in the name of freedom; the latter want men to suppress them in the name of obedience to God’s sovereignty. The former think “inner work” is a load of feminist crap; the latter worry that too much focus on personal transformation might lead a man to reject the traditional gender roles to which his God has called him. But having lived as a bit of a libertine, and having spent a lot of time with conservative Christian men, I am well-aware that neither self-indulgence nor self-denial are effective prophylaxes against the haunting fear of one’s own emptiness.
If resolution and certainty are at least in part based on deep self-knowledge, then how do we get there? Folks who are still reading are surely saying “enough with the glittering generalities, Hugo, how about some specific, concrete steps?”
Specific steps coming in part three. Later this week.