Saturday, December 22, 2012

Masculinity and Violence

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut we have seen the usual heated discussion about gun control flare up again. We've also seen some conversation about mental health issues. We need to talk about both of these topics and I certainly have my own thoughts on each of them. But we've seen very little conversation about another key issue: the role of violence in our society and how we socialize ourselves, especially boys, in such a way that violence becomes a natural, even expected, expression of masculinity.

Our culture promotes the idea that being a man means taking charge, getting what you want, exerting power and control. We see this in movies and on TV. I was just at the movie theater and was appalled though not surprised by the predominance of weapons and violence – largely led by men – in current and upcoming films. We see it particularly in video games, where it combines with blatantly misogynistic memes that denigrate and degrade women. (I'm looking forward to Anita Sarkeesian's video on this subject.) We tacitly and even explicitly affirm it in the messages we give to our boys and young men. We condone violence as a solution to problems and yet are surprised when people act violently outside of the ways we deem “acceptable.” As tragic as the killings in Connecticut are, they are only an extreme example of the fact that American culture has embraced and celebrates violence. Among nations with similar socio-economic levels, our country has one of if not the highest level of murder, the majority of which are carried out by men. Domestic violence plagues our society. Men abuse, mistreat and denigrate women and yet we all-too-quickly excuse such immoral behavior saying, “Boys will be boys.” Even worse, we turn the blame back onto the very victims of this abuse and violence, saying that they should have done X differently in order to not stimulate or provoke men. Our concept of masculinity and our devotion to inaccurate and outdated gender stereotypes contributes to the culture of violence in which we live.

Masculinity in our society has come to be defined largely as a rejection of anything deemed “effiminate.” This includes any expression of empathy, gentleness and compassion. We teach boys that physical weakness correlates to moral weakness and inferiority. Boys understand from an early age that the most physically attractive and strong boys are the most respected. Our sports culture reaffirms this not only during school years but into adulthood as well. We affirm certain colors, clothing, and behavioral traits as “feminine,” and we mock and deride any man or boy who should express a liking for or interest in them, once again reinforcing gender stereotypes that have no real basis.

We also train boys that they should expect to be in charge of their world. This has a reasonable side in so far as it promotes personal responsibility for our choices and actions. But in our society we go well beyond that and promote the idea that men are natural leaders while women are naturally passive followers. Unfortunately we hear this particularly in our churches, where we affirm the value of women as long as they remain in their “proper” spheres of activity and influence. But when a young man finds that he cannot control his environment or those around him, we express surprise that he lashes out in violence, seeking to destroy or harm that which he cannot control.
We need to change our whole perception of what it means to be a real man. We must teach our boys and men that expressing themselves through violence is not a healthy outlet, nor does it make them more “manly.” We should encourage them to embrace the value of empathy, gentleness and compassion. We must stop thinking of and referring to these qualities as “feminine” because this gender-labeling only promotes a false understanding of what manhood is all about, as well as continuing to denigrate anything associated with women as inferior. Caring for and valuing others are not qualities that we should expect only in women, nor are they inferior characteristics..

The apostle Paul writing to the Colossian church said:

As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

He didn't write these words just to the women in the community. He wrote them to everyone. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are manly. Well, actually they are neither manly nor womanly, they are godly characteristics. Let's move away from the whole idea that certain qualities as masculine or feminine and affirm those proclaim and uphold the worth and value of all humans.

We men need to radically rethink what it means to be a man. We need a new image and understanding of masculinity that doesn't promote exerting power and control over others, that doesn't denigrate compassion, kindness and humility, that doesn't glorify violence as the solution to problems. Our current limited view of masculinity fails to prepare men to treat others with respect and dignity. It robs us of our own worth and dignity as well by dictating that real men have to act in certain, stereotyped ways in order to not be perceived as “effiminate” as if that in and of itself were somehow bad.

Men, we need to have this conversation. Our response to a tragedy such as the one at Sandy Hook should not be limited just to questions of gun control or even mental health issues. Let's use this as an impetus to redefine manhood, letting go of power, control and violence and embracing humility, compassion and gentleness. Let's stop robbing ourselves of half (or more) of our humanity. Let's teach ourselves and our sons that there is a different, better way to live.

Women, you also have a key role in redefining masculinity. As mothers, wives, sisters, friends and in every other way in which you interact with men, you either affirm and perpetuate the dominant truncated view of masculinity, or you support those who strive to redefine it in healthier, more wholistic ways -- the unguys we might call them. We need you to tell men that manliness does not lie in physical strength, in control and dominance, in the suppression of all emotions other than anger. Many of you are doing this and I appreciate that. But too often the message of false masculinity is proclaimed and upheld not only by the men of our culture, but by the women as well. We must work together to change this.

I recommend this thought-provoking article as well as this one by Soraya Chemaly for further reflection on this topic. She also gives many links to other articles for further exploration of this important subject.

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