Monday, 23 July 2018

What Is The Real Crisis In Masculinity?

A topless white man struggles to open a jar of pickled gherkins.
There are those who talk of a crisis in masculinity. When those terms are used, it seems that it is usually to refer to an erosion of what some see as traditional masculinity – a feminisation of society, or particularly of men.
To some today, it might not be clear what some of those terms mean – particularly “traditional masculinity” or “feminisation”. Gender expectations are shifting, and weakening, in much of the global economic north (and in many other parts of the world, albeit in different ways). This is actually what some of the people who speak of a crisis in masculinity are talking about, though I'll explore what it means in some more detail later on.
I agree that there's a crisis in masculinity, but it isn't what a lot of the people shouting about it mean. Rather, that shouting is one facet of the true crisis.
What this really comes down to is the idea of traditional (western) masculinity. I say “western” because it is with Western society that I am intimately familiar. From what I know of various other cultures, there are similarities in their view of traditional idealised masculinity. There are also differences, and of course there are societies with radically different views of the gender roles and stereotypes.
I struggled sometimes with the idea of what men are meant to do, how we are meant to be. I grew up in a household with somewhat looser gender expectations, and indeed my parents – especially my mother – positively worked to counteract some elements of the mould that society tried to force my brother and me into. I think this was perhaps more successful in my case, but then we had different pressures from our schools and social lives and so on.
Nevertheless, some elements of what society things men should do and be are deeply embedded in my psyche, as they are for everyone who grew up in a society with such expectations. Other elements were made clear explicitly but fought against, and others I have had to pick up as I go later on. The expectations of what women should be are perhaps less embedded in me, possibly due to being male (though men have those expectations internalised is instrumental in the enforcement of such behaviours), possibly due to the abundance of good mould-breaking examples that were available to me from an early age. I could spend at least one post discussing those expectations of women, and how they work to women's disadvantage – and perhaps I will do, though only because I think men might be more likely to listen to me about it than they would a woman. I would generally defer to women's descriptions and explanations in such matters.
However, expectations on women are not what we're talking about here. This is about expectations in men – and how they are bad for everyone.
Now, you probably have some idea of what I'm talking about, and I'm not going to attempt and in-depth and thorough cataloguing of what these expectations are. I'll just summarise a few points. You will note that some of them are practically out of date nowadays, and yet they are still part of the picture that is in so many of our minds. The Quaker commitment to equality doesn't render us immune to their effects; even if you positively reject some or all of these, they will almost certainly still be a part of how you instinctively construct and deconstruct scenarios and characters. Thus this traditional masculinity includes:
Physical strength.
A man should not be frail, except in old age or as a result of injury incurred in some manly, brave activity. That strength should be used to defend women, children, and manly ideals.
Emotional masculinity.
Only certain types of emotional expression are acceptable in a man. Anger, protectiveness, certain ways of showing love – but nothing that shows vulnerability, nothing that shows sensitivity.
Being the provider.
A man provides for his household. Even if his partner also works, he should be the primary breadwinner, making enough for all.
Being the protector.
Putting one's self, one's body and one's resources, between that which you value and harm. Your family, your cause, your country.
Fixing and making.
Working with tools on machines and sturdy materials to make them work, or make new things. Of course, not doing this with things like clothes – that is a womanly task. But fixing – or making – a table, or repairing a car, or even oiling a hinge, those are masculine tasks.
Being a gentleman.
Putting women first (at least, those you are not already closely connected with). Offering a woman your umbrella, holding the door for her, and so on.
Being the one who pursues women, sexually (and sometimes romantically). An expectation that, if this task is followed dutifully, and you act as a man ought, you will be granted the sex that you have shown that you deserve.
Being competitive.
Wanting to get involved in competitions, try to win, and so on. Also extends to supporting teams in sports and similar.
Men seek to dominate all situations, to take up space, to be loud, to be seen to be right.
Now, looking at this consciously, most people will see this as a ridiculous stereotype. No-one really expects men to fulfil this nowadays, no-one even really wants them to, do they?
Well, yes. Some do.
People are sometimes quick to ascribe all the problems of society today to some particular cause (and of course, people can subscribe to more than one of these). Sometimes they might have some semblance of logic to this, though rarely is it well thought-through. However, often even when it is not well thought-through, people have a habit of getting together with other people who share the same explanation, evangelise for that explanation, and build up a considerable theoretical structure behind their explanation. When that explanation is fear of the other – the immigrant, the minority, the disabled – this pattern of behaviour has been the building block of fascism. Even today, it's a major recruiting a PR tool of the more objectionable part of the political right, an effect we can see in British and American politics. Historically, it has covered groups that are politically more difficult to persecute today, such as homosexuals; yet in countries (or sub-national areas) that are less supportive of gay rights, homophobia is still weaponised politically. Persecute those that society will let you persecute, blame them for society's ills, foster and then pander to prejudice, and you can win approval and distract the people from the real problems that you are failing to deal with. In the last 8 years, we have even seen disabled people, a group you might expect to be safe from such treatment today, scapegoated in British politics. The government trumpets their support for us, and makes loud noises about equality and inclusion, while suggesting that we are to blame for the financial circumstances of the government and our support must be restricted.
This post, however, is about a different manifestation of this principle of blaming society's ills on a single group, or social change, or other phenomenon.
There are some, today, who believe that society is going downhill because this traditional idea of masculinity is no longer supported, no longer endorsed by social custom or law, no longer held up as an ideal.
Some build a conspiracy out of it, that masculinity has been usurped by feminism, that we have been actively – though perhaps subtly – emasculated by the machinations of scheming women. Some hold that it has happened accidentally, gradually, through the actions of perfectly well-meaning individuals. Whatever they see as the cause, they see the solution as the re-establishment of traditional gender roles.
This then gets expressed in various ways. Of course, it's hard to argue today for any roll-back of equality in rights (though the more extreme examples of this mindset lead to that argument). But suggesting that somehow this has trampled on men's rights leads us to the “men's rights activists”, or MRAs, who argue that a focus on women's rights has led to diminution of men's rights. Examples that are raised tend to include access to children after the end of a relationship, and male victims of crimes that are gendered, and usually perpetrated by men. So, male victims of intimate partner violence and abuse, male victims of sexual assault, and so on. Of course, they don't try to actually get any direct changes to improve the situation of any of these people. They prefer to make noise about the problem, and use it to shut down feminist arguments and argue against feminism itself. The only people, and most of the groups, I've ever seen actually trying to do anything, to make a change for male victims have been feminists.
Then there are the so-called “involuntary celibates”, or InCels. This is an ideology that spreads online, focussed on the idea that women have somehow curbed masculinity by withholding sex from deserving young men. It has its own vocabulary, where most women – or at least, most women they consider desirable – act in a way that earns them the label of “Stacy”. A Stacy is conventionally attractive, but only sexually interested in men who fit the category of “Chad”. Chads are muscular, presumed to sleep with lots of women (all Stacys, of course), and financially successful. Stacys somehow derive financial support from these relationships, without actually going as far as overt prostitution. Other women are mostly “Beckys”, less desirable, financially self-supporting (though usually not doing well), and only of interest to men who have settled for the status of “beta” (Chads being the alphas, obviously). They even construct this as an example of the 80/20 problem – 80% of women are Stacys, or even Beckys that only sleep with Chads, and 20% of men are Chads, and thus these 20% of men sexually monopolise 80% of women. InCels see themselves as involuntarily celibate because they can't even get with a Becky, because the supply falls so far below the demand – 80% of men trying to get with 20% of the women. The policy suggestions they come up with based on this theoretical constructions are particularly horrific, and those either avowedly subscribing to this philosophy or making clearly similar statements have committed mass murder over it.
One of the more baffling subcultures that has developed from this line of thought is the “men going their own way”, or MGTOWs. These refuse to have a woman as a life partner, just use women for sex, refusing to “play the game” and be “used” by women.
Of course, the mindset that leads to these positions can lead to much less extreme positions, and it is usually those who talk about there being a crisis in masculinity. They point to the high rates of suicide among young men, and suggest that this is because of a loss of social role. They point to violent crime between men, or even by men towards women, and say that this is a predictable result of men not having their traditional outlets for natural masculine tendencies. To them, this is all logical, even obvious.
I think it's poppycock. There is no innate nature of masculinity that causes people to need to be violent, to expect sex as if by right, to need to dominate. Those tendencies are the product of our society carrying its generations-old expectations of masculinity as a sort of cultural baggage, even when they have ceased to be useful. They are present in our folk tales, in our literary tropes, in the very narratological structures that we assume, that we are exposed to from youth, that we come to see as underlying reality.
In common usage, “crisis” has come to mean a difficult situation to be overcome, or that we must see through. It's a problem to be solved or lived with. It actually comes from Greek roots, meaning (among other things) a decision, choice or judgement, and until recently – I would guess the change stemmed from its use for political crises – usually referred to a turning point, an unstable situation that might fall out in different ways, or indeed the turning point of some disease after which a patient will recover or die. This is still the definition that most dictionaries focus on, though one need only live in the English-speaking world to see how it tends to be used now.
It is my sense that those who speak, from a masculinist perspective, of a “crisis in masculinity” are meaning it in the vernacular sense. A problem, that should be solved. The reality is that there is a crisis in masculinity – in social gender as a whole – but it is in the proper sense of the word. It is a turning point, a time of change, an unstable situation that might come down in different ways. We are still in the process of moving from a society with relatively clear gender roles to one in which gender is a more nebulous concept with less meaning. We just aren't there yet.
The crisis that we must navigate – not solve – is how to move, as a people, from one state to whatever the new state will be. This isn't going to be resolved in one generation, to be sure, and I think it's hard to predict how we will get to where we're going, much less exactly where that will be. I hope it will be a society in which social gender is, as much as is possible, a thing of the past. I certainly don't think we can safely go back to a time of rigid roles.
So, where are Quakers in all this? We have preached the equality of the sexes for a long time, though not always lived up to it as well as we might. In my experience, gender segregation of roles is unusual among Quaker Meetings, though we are not free of any correlation between gender and certain voluntary positions. Really, we are perhaps further along the path than wider society, including in how we raise children (if I can judge from the Quaker parents and children I have observed).
However, given our low visibility in everyday life, we are not in a position to help things along just by being “patterns and examples”. We need to deliberately get out there and be seen, and to show what we can do differently, show everyone how it can be done. We need to try and show the future, not content ourselves with living a possible future. We need to not be content with being a little further along, but really work on where we are going and help to lead wider society there. We cannot be content with small, private successes.
We must be more than patterns and examples. As in the quotation, what follows that is “answering that of God in every one”. That of God knows the way forward, even if it will not always tell us where it will lead or what we will see on the way. By answering it, it will answer, and it will guide everyone, or at least those willing to be so guided, into the future. We cannot do it alone, we do not have the numbers, the resources, or the skills, but we don't need to. We are not the only ones positioned to be heard on this issue. We, and others, have an opening to be the midwives of this change. Let us answer the call.
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