Frederick Marx prefers to look at what is noble and good about being a man.
I don’t want to define men and masculinity in terms of doing right by women. I want socially conscious men to take the lead in defining men and masculinity in our own terms.
I grew up a feminist in a household dominated by a powerful Mom and an older sister. My father died when I was 9. The culturally derived nonsense that my uncle bequeathed me at the funeral a few days later –“Freddy, you’re the man of the house now.” — kickstarted my lifelong quest to define masculinity meaningfully.
Feminism, gender equality and fairness all made implicit sense to me, along with all other forms of social justice — race, religion, sexual preference, class. But in lessons I learned during adolescence from my Mom, like “You need to learn how to be a good husband to your wife,” there was always an implicit if not overt tone of shame. My mother and sister never missed an opportunity to recount parts of the endless list of male crimes against women and girls, against humanity in general — the crimes of patriarchy. Were these statements accurate? Yes. Was I somehow to blame for them? No. Yet I was made to feel that I was somehow to blame by virtue of being born male.
In college I read Susan Brownmiller. “[Rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” I also read numerous other feminists. Partly due to this education in feminism, partly because I projected the worst aspects of my father on to Type A straight males, I shrank from powerful men from my teens through my 30s. I unconsciously sought the company of women, gay men, intellectual men, and “weaker” straight men – projecting on to them an emotional openness, vulnerability, and flexibility I didn’t sense in Type A straight males. But the true bottom line was this — I unconsciously feared any man remotely hyper-masculine. I labeled them as “macho” and dismissed them.
That was the legacy of masculinity I carried until I was 40. In the last 16 years that has changed. I now see weakness and strength in every man I meet, I see fragile, tender hearts in the toughest of men, I accept gruff and inarticulate speech as openly as I do professors’, I see unlimited capacities for love and caring among incarcerated murderers, corporate executives, soldiers, policemen, corner drug dealers, plumbers and roofers… even (and this is the greatest challenge) politicians. I have a much greater understanding and acceptance of how men can be wounded and harmed by women, including by domestic violence, I appreciate how divorce and paternity laws can hurt men as much or more than women. Just as women have been objectified and marketed to, I now see how men’s physical and psychological differences are also marketed as “flaws” that need “fixing” by doctors, medicines, and an unlimited array of products. To some extent, men are also “objects” of history. But saying that patriarchy also screws men is not news.
Though I’ll do my best to combat all forms of crimes against women I’ll not accept personal responsibility for any act I myself did not commit. Though I’ll be there to support any woman as best I can through whatever suffering she may have received at the hands of men, I’ll not take it on emotionally as my own. I will recognize whatever systems privilege me as a white American heterosexual male but I will sharply delineate what is institutional and cultural privilege and culpability from what is personal or interpersonal privilege and culpability. I will not accept personal blame, guilt or shame for 1000s of years of women’s past and ongoing suffering.
Now that I’m unafraid of “measuring up,” I delight in the company of the entire rainbow of human male expression, in whatever context I may find men. Now that I’m less afraid of conflict, I’ll confront men when I think they’re being aggressive. Now that I don’t fear my own tears I can fall more easily into the arms of another man and cry. Now that I don’t criticize my own love of sports I can accept sports on its own terms, rather than seeing them as mindless escapes from real world issues. Now that I don’t take on shaming energy from others and I’m more averse to times when I shame myself my own heart is more open and available to both men and women.
What I will accept is the responsibility to be the greatest man I can be -– to stand with both men and women to resist all forms of sexism and misogyny, to resist sexual abuse and violence against women wherever and whenever it occurs, to resist all lingering forms of exploitation and discrimination against women, to do all this and more. But I will do it not because it’s the right thing to do but because it is part of what is great and noble about being a man.
When I read articles in feminist men’s magazines I feel a haranguing tone. Is there some mother projection going on here? Probably. My mother’s tone was similar. But I don’t think it’s all projection.
Some articles just feel haranguing: “Do this because it’s right. Do this because it’s just. Do this because you should. Do this because it’s good for women.” None of these reasons are wrong of course. But it’s not just an issue of tone. They’re incomplete. They end up speaking to only half of why we as men should join these worthy battles.
The other half, the missing half, is why engaging these battles will serve me and my growth as a man. Why it will help me understand my own limitations and my own greatness. Why it will support me in my mission in life. Why it will link my heart with other hearts. Why it will fulfill me and make me happy. It’s personal rather than political. It’s poetic rather than polemical. It’s psychological rather than sociological. It’s mythic and archetypal and soulful rather than mundane and professional and altruistic.
I want to be invited to live up to my greatest potential, not scolded. I want to be called to my greatness, not made to feel somehow insufficient. I want to be inspired to be that righteous, worthy Knight I’ve always wanted to be, and I want to be celebrated for the heroic measures I already take and will take more of. In Good Men Project, in fact in all “men’s work,” I want to experience some joy at arriving at the future I am co-creating – the joy at recognizing I can and will “Be all I can be” – and have that be as palpable and powerful a motivating energy as the plea, however virtuous, to do the right thing.
Emma Goldman, one of my adolescent heroes, famously said, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I feel the same. If I and all my brothers can’t delight in the men of honor we are now and are still becoming, if we can’t celebrate and be celebrated for the highest virtues of masculinity we demonstrate, if we can’t revel in something sacred that binds us together as men, if we can’t define ourselves meaningfully as men without the necessity to include women in that definition, then what can we be? What will we be?
Women started and to some degree have succeeded at the feminist revolution. I believe men should not define themselves through that revolution. We need to make our own.
To me that means finding a third way. It doesn’t mean patriarchy revisited. It doesn’t mean opposition to patriarchy rehashed. It means accepting the challenge to create new forms of masculinity. Forms that maybe some samurais understood, that maybe some Knights of the Round Table understood, that maybe some warrior monks and priests understood, that maybe the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and Ghandi and Harvey Milk and Malcolm X understood: Men finding the greatest fulfillment in life, the greatest realization for their potential as men, doing service to the realm, fighting for justice, aiming squarely for more harmony and good on the planet.
I call all men my brothers. I stand shoulder to shoulder with all men. But my heart calls out to those men who find that righting social wrongs need not be done because it’s the right thing to do but because it fulfills their greatest potential as men. That is the great beauty in masculinity. I stand tallest when I stand with those men.
photo: hohumhobo / Flickr