I’ve read two essays from this book since I bought it yesterday. One essay, on war and aggression, was okay but patchy and with a rambling quality to it. Believe me, I know rambling. Yet another one on violence was a good read but I came away with the same thing that I do many times when exposed to notions of ‘consciousness raising’ in men, and that is exactly how to do it. There are boatloads of writers, male and female, telling us that men need to have have some consciousness awareness, or probe their emotions, or share their feelings, or any number of other things. They all are likely to say that it is hard to do, unlikely for many to try, and there is generally a pessimistic quality in their writing. At least that is how I perceive it.
It is late and I’ve had a long weekend after a long week with a long week stretching before me. I am unlikely to uncover gold at this late hour. Yet I wanted to get some thoughts out of my headspace and onto ‘paper’ before bed lest my thoughts keep me awake longer than I desire.
One of the things that came up in the article was articulated in the section Anger, Fear and Violence. This connection cannot be understated and is, I believe, a key component in understanding male violence. In talking with and listening to many male military veterans from different areas I hear this phrase come up so often as to be something of a religious mantra. I was disrespected. This reason/excuse to propagate violence is the trump card carried by these men. When all other reasons are systematically shown to be of no importance, the male aggressor will pull out this trump card with all the satisfaction we might imagine a UFO believer on providing an actual UFO complete with living aliens inside it to a reporter. When we try to tackle the validity of this disrespect as a legitimate reason for violence we often times might as well be talking to a wall. The male offers such staunch resistance to ANY attempt of investigating the logic behind this statement as to render the conversation deeply frustrating. Men, who are quick to logically point out emotional failures and beliefs in others (notably ‘non-men’, a category for women, gay men, and men who are not as tough as they ought to be) is ignored when this last defense of violence is questioned.
A paragraph in the essay (Masculinity and Violence, Victor Seidler) is telling:
Masculinity is never something you can feel at ease with. It is always something that you have to be ready to defend and prove. You have to prove that you are as much a man as everyone else. Often this means putting others down, especially girls. It is because feelings of softness, vulnerability and need are so peculiarly threatening to our very sense of ourselves as men, that we fight them off so strongly, but this can give us an ambiguous relation to our anger, especially if we do not feel the confidence of being able to defend ourselves physically. I was scared of getting involved in physical fights. This meant that I could not feel confident in my anger.
In the next section the author opens up with the sentence I did not really want to know that I was angry because this was threatening. I learned to suppress my angry feelings, but I was constantly aware of the threat of physical violence. The last portion focuses the author’s experience of this on growing up as a ‘thin boy’ in a school where boys will hit each other. But it says a lot about current male veterans dealing with aggression and anger. At least it does for me.
Many times I’ve been supremely annoyed at someone around me. Whether a rude person at a bookstore, the loud talker/cell phone texter sitting behind me in a movie theater, or any number of inconsequential people that I meet day to day. I’ve noticed that many people, while irritating the living hell out of me, were beyond my ability to be angry with. I was angry ‘at’ them (and myself) but not ‘with’ them. That is, I never confronted them. In nearly all of the instances I was able to recognize that the incident was of small importance in the universe. Because of this the nuclear bomb of destruction that I carried within me was not something I could bring out. I was walking hellfire and fury, strife and death, and the options that I had before me were to seriously injure someone or to let it go. I had no confidence in my anger. I knew no other ground (a middle way) though it is true that I’ve been in various fights and easily enough choked out the other person and calmly dragged them out the door. But this calmness is more alien now. There was always as a kid the greater fear of being shamed in losing than the actual physical pain. I think this holds for many men still. However now many of us carry the shame of losing our control and going over the edge. It is as though our fear of being shamed has an unholy alliance with our feelings of a love of violence. I have noticed a quicker pathway to over the top aggression… a love for it that at times troubles me. I told someone recently try to imagine doing something terrible to people, causing pain and hardship. She understood and rationalized it but I shook my head, stopping her and telling her to ‘try to imagine doing this and loving doing it.
If you are someone, male or female, and you cannot understand or feel how one could love hurting another person, you do not fully grasp the problem that lies in understanding masculinity and violence. You will be selling snake oil and pipe dreams. It is easy for someone to say ‘just give up the values of the male culture’ or ‘I’m a woman and I’m every bit as competitive and goal driven as men and I abhor war and violence’. If you do (abhor war), you are not ‘every bit’ as competitive as those that don’t abhor war.
What grander scale of proof is there than war to weigh our masculinities against? Yet this brings with it an odd paradox. For while war is (perhaps) the greatest theater of the masculine tragedy of proving one’s manliness, it still exposes the man to the heartbreaks and pain that is found in war. What experience, what imagery, what tortured landscape of the external war-torn land is mirrored in the landscapes of our hearts! We, men, are still, after all, human. And being stunted and confined in how to relate to our own selves, our own bodies, each other, in asking for consolance, for empathy, for understanding, for emotional connection, in being tender with others (all things that are not allowed in our training to be ‘masculine’ as boys and perpetuated later as men in society) we are unable to handle the pains of war. The only ones who seem (to us masculine men at least) war are the greatest men, the men who have effectively rid themselves of emotion and have become embodied gods of direction, purpose, and action. It is like learning that to be a better swimmer one could amputee various body parts that are non-essential to swimming. Likewise, to be a ‘better man’ we amputee parts of our hearts and minds. Or we try to. Most of us end up repressing these aspects that then become our shadow. Jung wrote much on the destructive nature of the shadow self on our lives. The more we ignore it, the more it pervades everything around us to the point that it becomes, as Jung said, ‘Fate’.
Earlier I noted that few people offer any real advice on how to get beyond this pessimistic detailing of the masculine ideal. I am afraid that I am no different. Save one. If there is to be any change it must, or can only, come from men. While courage is not a virtue to be found only in men, it is a virtue that no-one calling himself a man would do without. It is one of the key identifiers for us in trying to live up to this image. So in courage I see other men stand up and speak their histories and stories. I see men come out and say ‘there is another way to voice disagreement over an issue than violence’. I see men come out and proclaim a gay identity. Talk about courage! I see men come out and say, whether they are anti-war activists, or current soldiers ready to fight again, that their experiences were painful and heartbreaking. What sacrifice, to admit to this pain and yet to selflessly shoulder it again. Again… talk about courage!
If courage is something that no ‘self respecting man’ can do without… then it is courage that I call men out on. To show courage and to stand up and proclaim your frailties and weakness, your hopes and fears, and more. Tell your friends, your wives, your fellow soldiers, of your weaknesses. This is supremely hard to do and take a great amount of courage. As I’ve said to my own therapist MANY times in the past… I would rather fight ten men by myself than address my insecurities with my partner.
I hope that I can, someday, learn at the levels of the heart the things that I am learning at the levels of my mind. They both learn and adapt at different speeds.
Spem semper habemus (we always have hope)