Thomas Pluck has finally come up with a definition he can live with.
A while back I took the mantra “be the change you want to be in the world” and applied it to manhood. Be the man you want to see next to “man” in the cultural dictionary. But I never thought of actually defining it until I read Alison Nastasi’s article in Flavorwire about 12 Men Who Define Themselves as Masculine (warning, some photos are NSFW).
Not many of the subjects give masculinity a lot of thought; one fellow seems to be trolling, both physically and verbally. For some time, me and my friend Zak Mucha, a LCSW in Chicago, have wrestled with a new definition of manhood to appeal to young men seeking elusive role models. “Protecting the weak” implies value judgments that aren’t always easy to make. Can a strongman be oppressed? Does that make him weak? And so on. It needed to be simpler. I needed to distill my thoughts on masculinity to a single short sentence.
I came up with “applying strength toward justice.”
Because what differentiates man from woman, besides a chromosome? If we strip all cultural conventions and socializations, if we try to imagine Skinner-box grown lab creatures, one is larger and has more upper body strength. The other has lower body strength and a different kind of endurance. I read that farm families who couldn’t afford oxen once had the woman pull the plow and the man steer, using the upper and lower body strength advantages as one. I’m not looking to plow any fields without a roto-tiller, but I like the image that conjures, two parts working as a finely tuned machine, using both sets of advantages equally.
When we distill it down to that, we see men are born with physical power. And with great power comes great responsibility. I’ve always seen that as a duty to protect, but that is an equally feminine trait. Get between a tiger and her cub and see what happens. The difficulty comes with strength leading to a sense of entitlement. As a hulking man-brute, I find myself pondering the shackles of civilization, where intellectual and monetary might have been given a more solid footing than the physical. When someone cuts in line and flips me off because he knows socking him in the face will put me in the hoosegow, for a split second, I think maybe civilization had it wrong. That my strength entitles me to a higher respect. And that is of course, a bunch of grade-A bullshit.
Respect may be earned, but it is not by physical strength. Courtesy should be universal, but in a society that worships personal freedom, we have to accept that some will abuse that freedom to be discourteous, knowing that the law will protect them when in an earlier time, their behavior would earn a black eye. Might makes right sounds great until you realize there is always someone bigger and badder than you. If you abuse your physical strength to get your way, you are on borrowed time until that bigger person comes along. Flaunting that power eventually gets you the lead role in a cautionary tale.
Justice is of course, a debatable topic, but the Golden Rule remains a fine guide. We may not always feel like the stronger one. In fact, with the rules we accept as citizens, we can often feel weaker and disadvantaged when we certainly are not. It is difficult to sacrifice personal gain for the greater good. That’s why we call it sacrifice. It also sometimes chafes to be lumped with men who behave badly, when we would never do the same. Serving as the good example doesn’t always have immediate benefits, but in the long run it benefits us all.
photo: bohman / flickr
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