Monday, October 23, 2006

On Men and Mice?

Sara Robinson on Orcinus has written about the recent school killings of girls and earlier similar shootings, including the Montreal massacre. After listing many of these crimes, she writes:

Something is not right with the boys. Something in the way Americans look at males and manhood has gone sour, curdling into to a rank, toxic, and nasty brew that is changing the entire flavor of our culture. Men everywhere seem to be furious. Some turn it outward against women, against society, against the institutions that no longer seem to nurture them. Some turn it inward against themselves, putting their energies into bizarre self-destructive fantasy lives centered around money, violence, and sex. Some, more disenchanted than angry, check out entirely, abdicating any interest in making commitments or contributions to a family, a profession, or a community to spend their lives as perpetual Lost Boys. Together, all this misdirected, destructive energy has become a social, cultural, and political liability that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Interesting, though I'm not sure what the evidence is of this widespread anger amongst men. But assuming it does exist, what should we do about it? Robinson's answer, after pointing out the feminist-induced changes in the Western society:

But maybe what we are seeing here is a loose end, a leftover bit of unfinished business that hasn't even begun to be addressed yet. Maybe, for the men, the process of re-creating their place in our culture has hardly even started -- and their confidence in the enterprise is far less certain. While the shift has generally worked out well for men who had the education and resources to process and adapt to it, there are apparently a great many men who are still deeply grieving the loss of our widely-shared traditional assumptions about what makes a man, and what men are supposed to contribute to the larger society.

Without those assumptions to give their lives structure and meaning, these guys are drifting -- not sure how they fit in, or what they're supposed to contribute, or what separates the men from the boys in this rearranged new world. And some of them, as we've seen here, are drifting off in very dangerous directions as they try to express a little manhood in a world where it doesn't seem to mean much any more.

The right wing has very aggressively stepped forward with all kinds of answers to salve their souls. The military. NASCAR. Promise Keepers. The Boy Scouts. And, more ominously, the KKK and the militias and the Minutemen. The conservative Cult of Maleness is full of tradition and ritual, conformity and hierarchy, the stuff of which male cultures have always been made. (Social psychologists now think the last two are actually a direct function of testosterone. In other words, men can't help acting that way: it's hormonal.) Say what you will about all this puffed-up patriarchal posturing, but the fact remains: these made-for-men bonding ops seem to be channeling some powerful energy, and fulfilling some yawning emotional needs.

The left, on the other hand, hasn't given them much at all. And we probably won't be able to until we finally come around to admitting that men and women are different -- perhaps not to the acute degree that the traditional sterotypes once enforced so strictly, but also not as superficially as the forced androgyny of liberal culture has tried to pretend. We come equipped with different physiology and different hormone sets; and we still get different messages from the culture about gender expectations. Denying that has led to some widespread assumptions and social choices that have been unfair to both men and women. It has also brought us to this impasse where so many men are disengaging from the common good altogether, because they don't believe there's any upside in it for them.

All sorts of odd thoughts are dancing in my head now. Here's one: Senseless murders of the other sex work, if the intention is to get the sex of the murderers more attention, resources and power. Why didn't feminists figure that out in the 1960s and 1970s? Damn.

And another one: "And some of them, as we've seen here, are drifting off in very dangerous directions as they try to express a little manhood in a world where it doesn't seem to mean much any more." Manhood not mean much? Not much, unless you count making more money and having more power and pretty much running every single country in this world. Not much, unless you count having your birth greeted with great relief that you were not a girl in lots of countries. Not much, unless you live in one of those countries where shariah gives you many more rights than you would have as a female. Not much, unless you count pretty much running every organization of any importance and being an expert in almost every single field, including the fields of child rearing and cooking! Not much, unless you want to be a priest in the Catholic church. And so on.

And here's yet another one: If I can't be on top in this society of ours I'm just going to sign off or buy a gun and start target-shooting in the nearest school. So you better let me be on top. A society that doesn't give me all I want is one in which I see no upside, and I might as well disengage altogether.

And one more thought: Hey, Echidne! Don't forget that this is a patriarchy. Only in a patriarchy can a story start with listing the many deaths of women and end up pretty much blaming it on men not being allowed to be Men, meaning the traditional position of men as obviously more valued and more entitled members of the society than those womb-men down there. (And yes, I know that Robinson didn't actually say that, but that's how my inner feminist reads the conclusions most people will draw from the post.)

So I got a little angry here. My bad. But I haven't gone out and shot anybody, so you can safely ignore my anger. No need to give me adulthood rites or a hierarchy or conformity or traditions or even a gun. Both Shakespeare's sister and Amanda did this much better, by giving good and polite thoughts on the topic. I guess that leaves me with the nasty blogger role. I don't assume it very often and I don't really want to assume it in opposition to Sara Robinson who is a very intelligent and interesting writer. But something in that post pressed my divine buttons as if she had played the accordion on me.

Let's do a little analysis if the red haze of anger doesn't stop me completely. Take these two sentences:

The left, on the other hand, hasn't given them much at all. And we probably won't be able to until we finally come around to admitting that men and women are different -- perhaps not to the acute degree that the traditional sterotypes once enforced so strictly, but also not as superficially as the forced androgyny of liberal culture has tried to pretend.

My reading of this is that the right is offering young, angry men a return to their golden thrones on patriarchy, while the left is offering them...what? Therapy sessions? Free Brazilian waxing? The opportunity to cry? Is that what androgyny means here? I doubt it, but that's the reason why androgyny is ridiculed: it's seen as femininity, to be forced upon unwilling struggling macho heroes. But a real androgyny would be some sort of a combination of masculinity and femininity, with characteristics of the both. In any case, where I see the need for androgyny is in the laws and rules of the society, as a compromise which allows different types of people to live roughly comfortable lives. Should the left not strive at this?

Robinson wants masculinity to be redefined in a way which would not bring back the old ideas of masculinity as dominance, and she bases this on the argument of inherent differences between men and women. But women and men are not as clearly different from each other as the innateness discussion suggests. I can't think of a single mental or emotional characteristic that a person of either sex couldn't possess. If we take such a characteristic, say, protectiveness, and label it as masculine, what happens to the women who protect others? Are they now seen as masculine? Should we train our daughters to be helpless so that our sons can feel masculine in this way? Where do we draw the line between a human characteristic and a masculine/feminine one?

The main difficulty I have with the whole discussion on the meaning of masculinity is this: It is defined by the absence of femininity. This makes masculinity-definition a zero-sum game, a pushme-pullyou animal: whatever is gathered under the cape of masculinity will not be available for women, and in an extreme case women are left with a very narrow slice of life as theirs, the slice having to do with bedrooms, cradles and kitchens. Courage, independence, honesty, all of these have been viewed as masculine. Or think about what these definitions bring to mind: "A good man". "A good woman." Or how about "Real men don't do dishes?"

See how it is done? This is why I fear the false dualism always introduced by these femininity-masculinity debates. The solution is an obvious one to me, but for some reason very hard to swallow more generally: If we could all first be humans and then secondarily whatever sex etcetera we happen to be, well, this world would be a nicer place, with a lot less tribal exclusions.

The tribal aspect is relevant for these musings even more widely. (See how I have calmed down a little?) I'm beginning to think that quite a few men view being a man as belonging to a tribe of all men, a tribe which leaves women as the outsiders, and that most women don't see being a woman in a corresponding way. That handicaps women, and causes some of us to be stomped down by people we regard as our dearest and nearest.

What is it that the generic "woman" means for these angry (possibly tribal) men of the original post? The source of all their troubles, because she is sexually desirable and yet isn't always willing to spread her legs? The source of all their troubles, because she wasn't a perfect self-sacrificing mother, a perfect self-sacrificing wife? The source of all their troubles, because she's disgusting and bleeds? What is it that makes it so very imperative to define rigidly how not to be one of these frightening creatures called "woman"?

Or is it indeed that the generic "woman" is too powerful, too frightening? She can give birth, so all other powers must be removed from her and labeled masculine? Geez. I'm veering into la-la-land here.

Do you know what I think? I think we shouldn't dive straight into a deep well in search for some rites that would fix the endangered masculinity, not at least without looking at a little more evidence. For example, mass killings of women are rare or nonexistent in Scandinavian countries where feminism is much more rooted than here. Men there don't walk around all angry and tight-jawed. But then those countries haven't lost quite as many blue-collar jobs to outsourcing, yet, and neither do they have a well-funded wingnut party which keeps spouting out stuff about those damned blacks and women getting all the good jobs. They also largely missed out on the Victorian myth-making about femininity and masculinity, whereas we are still struggling with those inherited myths on this continent. More generally, how people "do" masculinity and femininity is very dependent on place and time.

Then there is the media and the images it has created of masculinity as violent. These images are not due to feminism, not even a response to feminism. They are part of the older mythology of masculinity in many cultures. Before we start building jungle drums and boys-only empowerment campsites (however good these might be), maybe we could look into what the media actually teaches about how to be a man, hmh?

Now I'm getting tired, so time to stop. But before I go, notice that hierarchies are listed as an inherent male attribute. Women don't do hierarchies? News to me, though they work a little differently in shedom. Neither men nor women want to be at the bottom rung of a hierarchy, though, and that is the problem with the idea of just letting teenage boys do adulthood ceremonies and get into hierarchical arrangements. The boys at the bottom would then look for something else they could dominate. You can guess who that "something else" might be. Or they might get a gun, and then we'd be back a full circle.
I learned about the Orcinus post from Coturnix who has promised to put together all the posts responding to it.