Hand-wringing about masculinity, manliness and what it means to be a man is a popular pastime these days, and an interesting read. It’s very much a sign of the times, and symptomatic of many of the issues highlighted by recent headlines. It’s a complex, messy topic I think is fundamentally misunderstood, and ultimately mislabelled.
For a start, what is manliness? A lot of the problem is that many men define it in terms that very easily become toxic. I would argue that notions of masculinity have been corrupted by a culture removed from the heavy work from which concepts of masculinity arose originally: pioneers and explorers, adventurers and men bravely blazing a path for their family. It was a simple doingness, men willing to take on the challenge without shirking from it, men – and women – who possessed a stoic strength and determination to keep on going. I think compassion sits in there too, kindness, human grace. All that has been lost along the way because the opportunity to live so rawly has become rare. Instead, when some men – not all, and men I would argue less secure in themselves – come to assert themselves as men they choose to do so with bravado, by being aggressive, by being controlling, by imposing their will, not to mention in displays of physical posturing. Above all else, it seems to me such men define themselves by external elements – against other men, certainly in comparison to women, and by ego enhancing proclamations, rather than by inner qualities.
As an outsider it is silly and transparently feeble, but it also false. False to the original ideal certainly, but false also when it’s so narrowly defined as a male attribute.
I have two things to say about that. So-called manliness can be possessed by women too, and often is; and ‘manliness’, in terms I recognise, is about being brave and honest, no more than that. I think it is essentially humble, with no need to assert itself – in fact, any need to assert itself contradicts its existence.
That’s the problem today though, the almost obsessive need to assert itself, the manifestation of which is often ugly.
It’s a curious age we live in. I’m old school because I was brought up in a different time. It seems a simpler time now because there was not the same focus on manliness, probably because it was a more self-reliant age when such true virtues were more prevalent. There was no need to proclaim something that was virtually taken for granted (albeit in an age that was much more basic in other senses too, if not more socially rustic).
It’s become more today because many men are confused and poorly educated about what it means to be a decent human being. We live in a much more fluid time where traditional gender roles have been given a stir, causing some to question their place in society. Rather than accept the fluid dynamics and multiplicity of benefits society derives from it, fragile egos feel obliged to challenge it because it defies their masculine identity. What was muted becomes loud, in inverse ratio to insecurity.
At the same time, the world is crying out for many of the virtues traditionally associated with manliness. There’s no secret that there’s a drastic shortage of real leaders. What we used to term as ‘character’ has become a rare commodity. The only people who act with any decision are the toxic, ugly, and often stupid – the Trumps of this world, and Putin. It’s no wonder they draw a crowd because they mirror the virtues the insecure cherish. (The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity – Yeats, The Second Coming).
Where are the decent, humble leaders who will yet stand steadfast on principle and for just cause? We yearn for that, and so in its place come myths of manliness.
Referenced in the article above is Jordan Peterson. I’m actually reading his 12 Lessons to Live By right now. I’m only a few chapters in and find myself agreeing with chapter headings, but lost in the mumbo jumbo and mysticism he clutters his elucidations with. I think it’s a messy book, and while it has interesting elements it gets carried away. I haven’t read myself some of the comments attributed to him, which I think are nonsense, but symptomatic of a movement these days to elevate such notions of self into mystical realms. I think that’s dangerous and pretentious, but it describes much of modern masculinity as it strives to express itself.
I’ve been saying for years that true strength is in being humble and true, in allowing vulnerability and expressing compassion, in being yourself completely and without shame. I can’t say I’ve yet achieved that, but I believe in it. Unlike exclusive notions of manliness these days, true strength is inclusive. Call it what you will, but I would contend that someone like Obama is much more manly than Trump will ever be – and so too many women.
I’m a proud man, and in ways, I suspect I’m a bit of a throwback, but I think we have lost a lot when we define these qualities purely in gender terms. I’m suspicious of some of the new-fangled ideas, but in the end what we’re talking about are human qualities. Times might have changed, but there’s always a need for strength, fortitude, honesty and courage.
This is the lesson. We need more people willing to stand for something, and boys more capable of understanding the true grace of being a worthwhile human being. We are human beings first, men and women second.