The Trouble with Men

Take your mind back, I don't know when
Sometime when it always seemed
To be just us and them
Girls that wore pink
And boys that wore blue
Boys that always grew up better men
Than me and you

from Real Men by Joe Jackson

Balls of Confusion

This is a topic that my mental dog has been gnawing on for quite a while.  And it's a very difficult topic to approach at least in part because of the language we have chosen to employ.  If you delve in and come to understand the term "toxic masculinity", it makes sense as a concept.  However, the term itself is provocative, can easily be misinterpreted as offensive, and when used in a lazy and inaccurate way becomes a broadside attack.  The same could be said of the term "rape culture".  I chose the title of this essay to make the same point.

How a problem is defined determines if and how it will get solved.  When we articulate an issue in a way that provokes a defensive reaction, we run the risk of shutting down dialogue with the very individuals that we should be trying to reach.  So I do get it when some men react to the on-going dialogue around anti-social behavior in our culture as if it were a personal attack.  And maybe... to some extent... instead of chastising those men for their fragile egos, we might want to pay more attention to how the messages are being articulated.

This matters to me because I have a dog in this hunt... several actually.  I have three children:  two boys and a girl.  I worry about how my daughter will be treated and the risks she faces simply because of her gender.  And I want my sons to grow into strong men who know how to treat others with kindness and compassion and set good examples for their male peers.

How to Talk About What I'm Gonna Talk About

The subject matter here is thorny.  It can go from zero to all-out war in 60 seconds.  So I'm going try to keep myself out of the Hurt Locker by breaking things down into bite-sized morsels.  Putting on the kevlar anyway.

Gender roles

I do subscribe to the idea that gender roles in our society manifest from both nature and nurture.  Yes, broadly speaking males tend to exhibit certain behaviors that contrast with behaviors females tend to exhibit (nature).  I am also very mindful of the truth that for every "tends to" there are myriad exceptions.  We all exist on a spectrum of behaviors - not in discreet categories.  Given this "nature" as a starting point, our culture then enforces unspoken (or sometimes spoken) rules that define how we should behave based on our gender identity (nurture).  My position is that the cultural aspect is malleable and open to inquiry.  In other words... there are good and bad elements in how we have chosen to define gender roles in our culture and it is perfectly acceptable for us to discuss those and potentially work to change some of that.  That is in contrast to the idea that "men are men" and "women are women" and that all of the gender-assigned behaviors are innate and just the way things are.

Why talk about men?

One of the pushbacks I've heard relative to discussing male-focused anti-social behavior is that it would be offensive if ANY other demographic was singled out for criticism like this.  Example:  what if it was a racial minority?  I believe I can articulate why this particular discussion is relevant and within bounds.

First, we do live in a patriarchal culture.  It's an interesting question to ponder why that is the case.  In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari spends a chapter wrestling with that question and eventually throws up his hands.  He found no compelling dominate theory to explain why most advanced human cultures have been and are up to this point patriarchal.  One of our nearest genetic relatives, the bonobos, are the exact opposite.  Go figure.

Also the concept of patriarchy is somewhat subtle.  If you view it as men "stealing" power and authority from women, then you've misunderstood the dynamic.  A patriarchy is an unconscious social contract that we ALL more or less agree to.  This is a complex system and to the extent that we wish to enact systemic change, it is counter-productive to point fingers at a specific groups (those men!) and demand that they fix things.  That just perpetuates the status quo.  This is about all of us working towards positive change.  Capisce?

But the nature of a patriarchy is that males are afforded an inordinate amount of influence, power, and responsibility in society.  Ergo, to the extent that influence and power are abused, it tends to be more of a gender-focused issue, broadly speaking.

Second, men tend to exhibit higher levels of aggressive behaviors.  Take that as a value-neutral statement because aggression is a tool that can be used in many different productive and destructive ways.  The net result is that when men exhibit anti-social behavior, it tends to manifest as physical violence.

This is not needed

Paraphrasing and summarizing the objection here: "Look, I don't mistreat women and you don't either.  I don't associate with men who do.  What I mainly experience in civility in my community and I don't appreciate Mainstream Media / Hollywood / Corporations / Elites pontificating and preaching to me about how to behave.  They're all hypocrites anyway."

Fair enough.  I agree!  I don't engage in bad behavior towards women.  I don't associate with assholes who do.  And I have an inherent mistrust of for-profit corporations and celebrities pushing woke messages on me about how to behave.

And then... reality sucker punches me.  I know too many women who have experienced sexual assault and rape.  Too. Many.  When #metoo broke, it was personal.  Women and men who I knew and loved came forward with their stories.  I had no idea.  It was heartbreaking... and I wept.  Then the Kavanaugh hearings happened.  Rinse, repeat.

So, you may not like how the message is framed or who is speaking it... and that's okay.  But please don't tell me that this is a manufactured problem or that it's something not worthy of discussion.  Don't go on an ad hominem rant about preachy hypocritical liberal elites.  Because I know there are still women and probably some men in my life who have not yet come forward with their story.  And I'm having to steel myself for that heartbreak when they do open up.

But... but... women!!!

Right.  Women are just as human as men as can exhibit anti-social behaviors just as readily as men can.  However those anti-social behaviors tend to be more language-oriented:  malicious gossip, character assassination, verbal abuse, etc.  And I would argue that "weaponized language" in some cases can be just as damaging as physical abuse.  However, it tends to be much more difficult to police and prosecute "verbal assault".

Furthermore, let's remember that our culture, for better or worse, is a system that we all co-create.  To the extend that a prominent man is involved in abuse of power and influence, there is more often than not a women standing beside and/or slightly behind him.  When a man mistreats, abuses, or rapes a women, it is important to be mindful that his first and most important relationship with a women was most likely his mother.

It becomes problematic when we discuss anti-social behaviors and want to isolate out a specific group that is the "cause".  We all own this problem.  And pointing fingers is not very helpful.

What are we good for?

David Fincher's 1999 classic Fight Club will always have a special place in my heart.  It is a wickedly funny dark DARK comedy with a message... or maybe more of a question.  Fincher tweaked Chuck Palahniuk's novel to focus on what it means to be a man in our society today.  What use are traditional male traits and behaviors in an emasculated consumer culture?  And what happens when men aren't afforded productive ways to utilize aggressive energy.  By the end of the movie, our anti-hero Tyler Durden has executed a plan to bring down modern civilization and throw humanity back to a state where men were needed and important.  The premise was over the top, but the questions posed by the film were not.

That was 1999.  Two years later, the planes struck the Trade Towers and the Pentagon.  Suddenly, traditional male qualities were in vogue again.  People wanted a savior and protector.  The two mythic images that have stayed with me from that period are the fireman and the special forces soldier.

As a society, we put ourselves at grave risk when male energy is not directed towards productive purposes... when we have large groups of alienated young men.  That's how we ended up with Unite the Right in Charlottesville.  That's, at least in part, how Germany ended up with the Third Reich.


I wish I had something new to offer... I don't.  Yes, I think setting an example is important.  And being wiling to speak up when bearing witness to inappropriate behavior needs to become more common.  To the extent that group dynamics can lead to mistreatment of individuals, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable.  It saddens me that a productive dialogue about the issues (and yes, there are real issues here) gets lost in bruised egos and people feeling personally threatened and people making it part of the culture war and a total mistrust of "them" that has a different world view... etc,.  Well, I can offer a suggestion for that issue...  grow the fuck up and put on your big boy underwear.

I'll end this where I started.  Joe Jackson released Night and Day in 1982.  It is one of my "desert island" recordings.  Real Men was his contemplation on what it meant to be a man in '82.  He was way ahead of his time because it feels even more relevant today.

Here's a live performance from Sidney in 1991...


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