Monday, December 30, 2013

The Masculinity Problem

So this video is “making the rounds” it seems and for one reason or another I feel compelled to organize my thoughts around it. The subject of masculinity - of which this video is about - is a heading which the Left and Right like to arm wave over each other about and it’s become a major annoyance for me in general. Of course this isn’t anything new as it takes place under all the major headings they spar over, but this one in particular is one in which both sides position themselves in a way that misses the points of the other entirely, not to mention missing the root cause entirely. The video is short (there are a couple main headings supported by random commentary by folks intended to be experts), so understandably it’s not going to be able to give an adequate defense of itself. Nevertheless it’s easy enough to make some reasonable inferences about the various premises they speak under, as well as following various other commitments these thoughts would entail.

After a brief and rather myopic / self-serving introduction staring all the common variants of “man up”, our first expert sets the stage with, “The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to be a man. “ Now the first and most obvious point to make here is that, words and phrases by themselves have no inherent meaning. That is, a historical and present context is required before any meaningful interpretation of what something means can take place; perhaps that’s an arguable point for some. Leaving it as it is, however, the corollary is simply that the major heading under which the video would like to speak contains an obvious presupposition. In this case words are destructive all by themselves, completely outside of the contexts within which they take place. To put that in another way, Mr. Ehrmann closes the door on any interpretation where those words may take on a positive meaning, or one where (suppose a situation between father and son) a positive life lesson might be conveyed. From all of this I think we can make a reasonable inference; what’s being spoken against is not an arrangement, state, or condition of culture (i.e. poverty, education, the state of families), but quite simply the act of speech itself. We’re all to assume from here that the act of speech leads to a perversion of masculinity (which of course goes undefined) and this leads into issues of anger, separation, depression, etc. etc. etc..

There’s really not much of a need to take the polemic any further at this point, given the failing of reason from the start, but I would like to pick away at the major objection I typically hear coming from the Right. Their intuitions are generally correct when it comes to pointing out the attack on speech, although it’s generally never articulated beyond a talking point. What typically comes next is a charge that the Left is attacking masculinity somehow, and/or that the Left (in some cases the feminist Left) is trying to neuter male masculinity. If the Left would admit to the error I’ve pointed to above, I think the confusion from the Right is something like this; the American middle class father knows himself as someone who might tell his son to “be a man”, and has good intuitions about the context he uses it in. He sees an attack on speech and assumes that the left grants his behavior towards his son is destructive. He takes obvious offense, then completely ignores the overall point the Left would like to make about the state of masculinity and we wind up in this battle over political correctness – hence my beginning statement that the Left and Right end up in a game of arm-waving.

To the main point of the video I should say I have no general objections over. I believe we certainly do live in a society where we continue to sell our boys short on the idea of masculinity. The deeper problem is that the Left ignores context and avoids speech that may be interpreted as against the lower class, and the Right appears too selfish to even acknowledge that anything below the middle class even exists; i.e. they interpret the Left as only talking about them, when I don’t think (if they’re being honest) they are. To unpack this let me introduce some context and make the suggestion that a large part of the root cause lies in the state of the American family, poverty, and the education system. More specifically the phenomenon of young boys being raised by single mothers and/or grandparents, daycares, and a failing (in most cases inner cities) education system.  Now those are some big ideas to unfold, but for now I’m just going to leave them as stated. In these sorts of situations, young boys role models simply become other young boys or young adults who themselves might come from similar circumstances. Arising out of this is the interpretive space through which comments such as “be a man”, “man up” or “don’t be a pussy” are understood. I’d hope that without a whole lot of argument on my behalf, and certainly no outside references to “The Lord of the Flies”, one could see for themselves why it would be that “man up” is interpreted to mean something along the lines of “be more aggressive”, or “suppress your emotions”, etc..

Far from being an issue associated with the lower classes, it would nevertheless be a step in the right direction for the Left to start acknowledging these issues, and no doubt create space for the Right to join in for a meaningful conversation. I’m not sure if they think it would alienate their base, be interpreted as “classism” etc., to highlight such ideas. Perhaps they think families and poverty don’t play a role? Maybe they really do think that by changing the way we talk (by controlling speech), they can miraculously change the behavior? I’m not quite sure. What does seem obvious though, is that until we back the conversation up to point of actual root cause, we’re going to see endless arm waving over ideas that won’t change anything and see further division of the political bases.  

Some open questions:
How far does this issue stretch between the classes?
What are some instances of positive language use?
What is masculinity?
What would we mean to communicate, and what are historical meanings of these phrases?

What impact is the modern middle class family having on our conception (2 full time working parents)?