Lisa Hickey explores the dynamics of men and goodness from where she stands.
The first time I met Tom Matlack was just over two and a half years ago. When we met, all I knew about him was that he was putting together a book. He had asked me to lunch because he had heard I knew something about social media. As we rode down the elevator from his office, he carried the unfinished manuscript in his hands, about a hundred pages, unadorned, double-spaced on white copier paper.
As we walked the block to the restaurant from his office, he told me that the book was “essays”. My heart sank. In my mind, essays were boring, academic exercises. But a few steps later he explained that they were first-person stories held together by the fact that they were all “defining moments” in men’s lives. The moment – Tom explained as we were walking – when a guy woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and everything he knew about being a man – everything he knew about being a good man – seemed to be in question. The story of the guy who wanted to divorce his wife but didn’t want to lose his son, and the only person he could talk to was a janitor in the buildings he had to inspect for demolition. The dad who had watched doctors try to jump-start his son’s heart, after his first son had died of a drug overdose. The guy who had been to Iraq taking photos of the war, had come back to Brooklyn, and realized he no longer knew how to function as a civilian. “You know”, Tom said. “Those moments.”
We weren’t even seated at the lunch table before I realized the brilliance of Tom’s idea.
When I started talking with Tom about what this thing that would ultimately become “The Good Men Project” might look like, it was clear that the word “good” would always be up for debate. Tom was adamant that he, personally, was not about to define good. Not then, not ever. For one thing, he explained, he wasn’t good enough. For another he wasn’t about to play god. I was relieved. The last thing I wanted to do was judge people as to whether their actions were good or not. Or worse, tell someone how to be good. But what was interesting was exploring the space where that happens and why.
For the first time, I started articulating my own ideas about goodness: Goodness is not something you are born with, and it changes over the course of a lifetime. Goodness is not an inherent quality, but a moment-by-moment series of actions and decisions. We each develop our own, internal moral compass that sometimes guides us and sometimes spins wildly out of control. We develop “good” the same way we develop any other strength – by acting in certain ways, and watching the world act back. Practicing. Understanding. Internalizing. But because that moral compass is so individual, so deeply embedded in people and not something often shared, there’s often a “go it alone” feeling in developing one’s own. It is all too easy to have someone shout out from the sidelines “Hey, what you just did sucked.” It is much harder to back up to before that action, and explore how you got there.
As Tom told me the stories about the men he had talked to, he was not villanizing, not heroizing. He was looking at multiple facets of their life, how life forces had shaped them. How their ideas about being men shaped them. It was experiences I had never had. Yet when these men questioned whether what they were doing was good, I was right there with them.
While I knew the word “good” was subjective, what I didn’t realize was that the word “men” would be up for debate as well. What traits define a man that couldn’t also define a woman? Turns out, no one has really been able to define that in a way that makes sense to me. Is gender just a performance? Are the differences between men and women all simply socialized?
And if there is no way to define what makes a man, and no way to define what good is, why on earth would I want to run a company called The Good Men Project?
Paul Elam ran a post recently titled “All this goodness is killing me.” In it he challenged Tom, and I, and anyone else to answer this question:
Please inform us of anything, one single quality, that you think constitutes a part of being a good man – that does not also apply to being a good woman.
Goodness, as I’ve said, is not an inherent quality. Neither are most traits that are either “male” or “female”.
The difference is that men and women are raised to believe different things are “good”, and those differences are often assigned to a gender. For men. And for women. Take the very example used in Paul’s post — how the Costa Concordia cruise ship tried to evacuate “women and children first”. That has everything to do with a society that perceives there to be differences in men and women – a systematized, ingrained perception that a “good man” has to give his life in a way women are not called upon to do.
It is this difference that is worth talking about.
A fellow contributor to The Good Men Project, Justin Cascio, explains it this way: “Men are disposable, the way Elam says, and it’s why we fight wars and go down with ships and work ourselves to death to support children. The rule about “women and children first” is just another manifestation of the patriarchy. The patriarchy hurts men enough that we should want to dismantle it out of enlightened self-interest.”
While there may be nothing inherently different in being a “good man” or a “good woman”, there are plenty of ways in which society tries to trick us into believing there are.
One of the big ways is by constantly portraying men as either villains or heroes. Are there any shades of grey in the portrayal of men in the media?
And guess who is made to feel the most “disposable” in our society? Villains, who get killed off, and heroes, who give up their own life for a cause. No wonder men feel as if they can’t win. It is understanding this dynamic that has opened my eyes as never before, and given me the greatest of empathy to men’s issues and stories.
Another contributor, Nikki B., sees it this way “women have had decades to talk about how they want to define being a woman, and to decide that gender stereotypes and performance don’t always work for them. The genderqueer, etc. movement has brought to the forefront the idea that speaking in the binary like that isn’t really helpful and marginalizes many people — and has asked us to think more broadly about gender and its many expressions. To show the reality that you can switch genders, or blur the lines, if you see fit. Gender rules are not hard, fast, or necessary — and can in fact be restrictive and harmful.
Men, on the other hand, have not had this freedom. Men have not had the space to think about what makes them good — each as an individual. Instead, they’ve had intense pressure to uphold gender performance to prove their manhood, to stay within confined sexual boundaries to keep from being called “gay” or “feminine” etc. To leave all that bullshit behind and just allow men to talk amongst themselves about what Good means to them is what, I think, the GMP is about.”
The difference between a good man and a good women, Paul, is that men have different issues than women have. Issues related to divorce and custody. Around abuse and assault. Around being successful, defining success. Around who gets to fight and who gets to protect. Around parenting — there may not be any differences in the actions between a man or a woman when it comes to being a parent, but there is difference in perception of what is good in each role. And because any definition of good is often defined at the moment where there is an issue, a conflict, a moral dilemma, when an important choice has to be made — there will, in fact, be a difference in what is seen as a good man and what is seen as a good women as long as there are gender differences in the social constructs of the day.
If we can’t figure this out, if we can’t talk about it in open, honest ways – it could quite literally kill us. What we’re trying to do here at The Good Men Project is let people take the parts of masculinity that they *want* to have, and get out of the box on the others.
Just because society has told us how to act yesterday does not mean we have to act that way today.
The Good Men Project is about letting men tell the stories that will give them the chance to define themselves as men. To define themselves, both individually, and collectively, as good. And I see nothing but good in that mission.
photo: spencer77 / flickr