Is fighting an essential ingredient in manhood? Is violence a part of who we are? Guys weigh in.
One of the big issues surrounding manhood and goodness is the role violence plays in how we express our masculinity. Is violence innate, or is it learned? Even if we could unlearn it, should we?
I grew up in a household of Quaker pacifists. My dad taught me early on that civil disobedience is stronger than fists and guns. Gandhi and Martin Luther King accomplished what no army could. In Amherst, Massachusetts, where I grew up, there was an uncomfortable mix of rural kids and faculty brats—and as a brat who stood head and shoulders above the rest—six feet tall by the seventh grade—I became a natural target for bullies hoping to prove their mettle.
One particularly tough kid started bumping into me in the hall in front of all my classmates. When I wouldn’t respond, he grabbed my books and threw them down the hall, yelling at me for being a sissy. Finally, he figured out my schedule and waited for me outside each of my classes, pinning me up against the nearest locker to spit in my face.
I went to the guidance counselor’s office to use the phone so I could call my father: “Shouldn’t I fight back, Dad?”
As original Good Men Project contributor Steve Almond puts it below, “aggression is the means by which boys learn to share their feelings. Not even the most loving father can protect his son from the playgrounds, bars, and parking lots where bullies lurk, where soft emotions are hunted down and targeted, where fear becomes rage, and rage becomes violence.”
And for men, as much as we may not like it, violence is currency. When words and logic fail, when virtue isn’t shared, violence becomes power—in the schoolyard, among boys, or on the battlefield, among men. But just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean we can’t help create a less violent world for our kids. Does it?
What do you think? Are men inherently violent?
We nerds and sissies disprove the notion.
Testosterone is not destiny, despite what the peddlers of third-rate evolutionary psychology sometimes insist. Manhood, as we practice it in America, traditionally expects violence as an initiation ritual of some sort. But manhood (as opposed to maleness) is an artificial construct. As a construct, it can be altered—if we want it.
—Hugo Schwyzer, gender studies professor
There is no way to prove that violence is innate to manhood. We can’t even define manhood. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that human males are more aggressive and assertive by nature, but that is not always the same as violent. My thinking is that men end up more violent because men have to compete with one another with displays of powerful characteristics in order to compete in the male hierarchy, which is ultimately about being selected by women for reproduction. It makes sense to me that violent tendencies are cultivated in that competition. So it’s a learned behavior, born of our innate reproductive programming.
—Paul Elam, men’s rights advocate
Dave and I are fighting in the TV room. It’s a boy fight: hurled fists and grunting. Our dad is seated on the piano bench, watching this awkward spectacle. He believes we need to “get our aggression out,” and that there’s no other way to do it. He’s even sort of rooting me on, because Dave is bigger and I need to stand up for myself. …
I fight with my twin brother, Mike, too, until he hits a growth spurt and becomes too big to tangle with. Our final fight is especially vicious. We grapple and punch and tumble across the bed. We can smell each other—our skin, our breath. The intimacy is disorienting. Not so long ago, the two of us walked to school pressed together at the shoulder. But the prohibitions of boyhood have torn us apart. These days, the only time we touch is when we fight.
Having pummeled each other to exhaustion, we stand face to face. Our chests heave with adrenaline. We’re confused, not sure how to bring this to a close. My hand flies up and slaps Mike across the face. It’s a loud, clean blow, delivered so quickly neither of us can quite believe it. Mike bursts into tears and runs from the room. I stand, staring down at my hand. My palm stings, but the rest of me feels nothing.
It’s tempting to blame all this on my father. That would be the safe move. Perhaps if he’d encouraged us to share our feelings rather than pummel each other, my brothers and I would have entered the world without fear and loathing. We would have become secure citizens, ready to talk things through. But that would miss the point, that masculinity has always been governed by aggression.
To put it more starkly: Aggression is the means by which boys learn to share their feelings. Not even the most loving father can protect his son from the playgrounds, bars, and parking lots where bullies lurk, where soft emotions are hunted down and targeted, where fear becomes rage, and rage becomes violence.
—Steve Almond, from “Here’s the Bad News, Son” in The Good Men Project
In mainstream American culture, we teach boys and men that they should be violent, or at least ready to be violent if it becomes necessary. Among other things, we tell them that “a man never backs down from a fight,” “men protect others (especially women and children),” and that we can “step outside and settle it like men.” When a guy doesn’t follow these dictates, we call him a wimp.
—Andrew Smiler, psychology professor, president, SPSMM.
First I had a daughter. She was sweet and beautiful and seemed to smell good all the time. She lived in harmony with all creatures. Then I had a son. And he started breaking all my shit.
—Chris Zito, comedian and author
I was always big for my age, so guys were trying me all the time—warranted, unwarranted, just all the time. Mom got after me to stop running in the house every time I got chased home from school. One time she met me at the top of our steps when she saw me running away from a fight. She said, “Andre, you turn around. You’re going to fight them. You’re not going to keep getting chased home.” I dove off the top of the steps onto those guys. That was the end of me getting chased home.
—Andre Tippett, NFL Hall of Famer, from “Heart of a Beginner” in The Good Men Project
The greatest problem of every army in world history is, when a battle begins, how do you stop soldiers from running away? In combat, our flight response is far more powerful than our fight response, but if we were naturally violent the opposite would be true.
The myth that human beings are naturally violent is refuted by all of military history, if people look below the surface. Armies must train people to fight and kill, and war is one of the most traumatizing things a human being can experience. Even the people who support war say “war is hell.” If human beings are naturally violent, why would war drive so many people insane?
Most people’s natural reaction when you try to stab them with a sword or shoot them with a rifle is to run away as fast as they can, as far as they can. Ask anyone who has been in combat and they will tell you that it’s terrifying. To make soldiers fight, the Greeks realized that if soldiers believe they are fighting to protect their friends, family, or loved ones, they will not only fight, but they will even sacrifice their lives, because our instinct to protect our loved ones is far more powerful than our instinct for self-preservation. Think about how you would react if you saw your loved one being attacked. Think about how you would rush to their aid and try to protect them.
—Captain Paul Chappell, author of Will War Ever End?: A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century and The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet, and Our Future.
Violence is innate in men. And in women. If we expect men to be violent, we’ll interpret the evidence that way, and this will reinforce our expectation. This confirmation bias is very hard to break.
Think of what it’s like to “act like a caveman.” OK, now remember that there are many highly symbolic cave paintings. Now try to interpret “act like a caveman” to mean painting symbols of self, nature, and community. If this doesn’t make sense, it’s because you really haven’t ever made an attempt to think about what it was actually like to be a caveman. And why should you? The importance of “the caveman” for most of us has nothing to do with a passion for amateur paleontology, it has to do with justifying some behavior as “natural” and criticizing other behavior as “unnatural”—in other words, enforcing stereotypes.
—Dylan Wittkower, ethicist
Answer: No. Anthropologically we know different. Violence in men is a product of years of shift from agrarian to industrialized to modern-day conditioning. Men are not innately violent.
—Matt Yeazel, psychotherapist and social worker
Friday night in Mongolia’s Bulgan City was like the Wild West meeting the 21st century. Men would ride their horses through town—right alongside the cars—tie them up to fence posts, and go into the bars. They’d get drunk and eventually a couple of them would piss each other off and box it out with bare knuckles—no guns, no knives; that was bitch to them. “Who fights with guns and knives?” they’d say if anyone asked. “That’s not how Genghis Khan did it, and that’s not how we’re going to do it.”
Typically during one of these Friday night fistfights, one of the guys would fall, his face all bloody. Then he’d pull himself back up, and he and the guy he’d been fighting would share another bottle of vodka, hop on their horses, and head home.
The Mongolians were big, burly people, and they would say to me, a kid from an East Coast inner city, “You guys are big. Why don’t you fight like we do? Why do you shoot each other?”
Killing did play a part in the Mongolians’ concept of manhood: If you could kill a sheep or a goat and dress it, you were considered a man, even if you were only 12 years old. When you could kill animals you became the breadwinner of your family. You were strong, and you were reliable.
—Curtis B., from “Khan Without the Wrath” in The Good Men Project
—Polina Sergeeva photo/Flickr
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.