Why can fighting and machismo transfix even a cultured and sensitive man?
It was a very unpleasant moment. It felt as if Paul had just confused everyone, and destroyed an enjoyable conversation about inclusion. He seemed to be saying that he preferred training in a violent, macho setting; and would also be content for his training partners to make sexist or homophobic jokes if that was part of the package.
A group of us had been discussing gender issues in relation to martial arts. One woman said:
It’s so important that you challenge people using sexist or homophobic language in the dojo, every single time they do it. That’s how we promote inclusion.
Of course she was right! Others agreed with her sincerely.
Paul cut in: But you can’t always challenge it. If it’s a group of men who use that language to bond, it can be really hard to say anything. Members of the group looked at Paul in surprise. Was he saying that sexism and homophobia were ok sometimes; or that he didn’t mind them too much?
He went on: It’s in my gym all the time; but there’s no way I can be constantly telling them to stop.
Someone said: But why do you train in such a place? Why don’t you just find somewhere else? People looked at Paul expectantly. He said, clearly in some discomfort: Because these guys are really good at fighting. I don’t want to train anywhere else. The conversation had suddenly gone completely off the rails.
I didn’t speak out in this tense situation. But I spoke to Paul privately afterwards; and here’s what he said:
He feels affection and nostalgia for this old-fashioned, beleaguered model of masculinity
Paul is well aware that the traditional “hard” form of masculinity is often said to be obsolete now; and maligned or pitied by more enlightened souls.
But having grown up within this culture himself, seeing it slip away feels like losing part of himself. I can’t get past it. It’s that child who lived in a violent place and can’t let go—something about identity. Being around these men makes me feel more connected with my past; and feel at home.
At the same time, he doesn’t identify with it, and this is confusing
Paul muses: From all I know and value about inclusiveness, I should have nothing to do with this other world. I have one foot in and one foot out. I’m not violent—it’s not me.
My investment in hardness has always been important—but it’s not me. I don’t need it now in my safe, sheltered adult life? But it tests me and still matters to me
He wants to be able to fight like these men do
Paul spent many years training in kung fu and tai chi, which he describes as genteel and philosophical arts. But then one day he visited his current gym, populated by suburban working class men—and his eyes were opened.
The ethos was different—and scary! I was being challenged. I was an instructor—but they could just flick me away—there was nothing I could do to them. It shook my sense of self. I thought: I’ve been lying to myself! I’m not competent at all. I can’t fight.
It’s something to do with his relationship with his father
Just for a moment, Paul says: of course this is some kind of Oedipal complex. I’ve got to be harder than my brothers and dad! And laughs. But doesn’t go any deeper.
The men he trains with are not necessarily as sexist or homophobic as they may appear
It’s all men—they make jokes about each other being gay. I raised it with one of the main instigators. He said: but if someone came here and was openly gay we’d all be fine with it. All that really matters is whether you can train.
The sociologist Eric Anderson argues that this is a valid stage on society’s journey to inclusiveness. It’s a transition from using the language to directly express homophobia; to using it just in play. Although this still doesn’t make it “right”, Anderson sees it as an indicator of attitudes starting to soften and open up(1).
Violent training fills a gap that’s missing from his cultured life
I like the simple, direct, practical approach of escrima—we don’t rely on fancy impractical things like head kicks. I like the anti-intellectual, even pig-headed stubbornness of the club atmosphere—it’s refreshing and attractive.
My life as an academic now is so different from the life I grew up with. So refined and civil. And I wouldn’t go back—but it’s somehow energizing to reclaim parts of my past.
He values the visceral experience of fear
I like it—it’s so challenging and scary. At first I used to feel scared—physically sick the day before.
Now I’m less scared of pain, and of the weapons. But I actually liked it when it was really scary. It felt great to fight through that, and have the confidence to just go anyway. And two years later, I’m much happier—much more confident and open.
He’s come face to face with his own limitations through the training
Paul laughs: It was actually the first time I realized I was small and light! At 13 stone I’d always thought I was reasonably heavy. But I had to learn that I was older, lighter and shorter than the other guys. I can hold my own quite well now, but I know some of those 18-stone guys could still destroy me if they wanted.
At Kung Fu and Tai Chi, I was best in the class. It was humbling, but also somehow important to discover that here I was no threat to anyone.
There’s a spiritual side to encountering violence
Paul says: All that stuff in Japanese about losing your ego—there are different ways to do it. Some ways are more spiritual. But being beaten up is also a great way!
This echoes the Japanese martial arts concept of sutemi: abandoning the body in order to forget the ego.
He feels frustrated when people oversimplify debates about inclusivity
To me, this was the most important point of all, and a fitting place to conclude. Paul says: That conversation with the others was interesting—it got quite fractious. I stuck my neck out because I think it’s important to explore this.
Interestingly, it turns out I’m not the only one who felt some sympathy with his position—but approached him privately afterwards, rather than speaking out in the group. This makes me reflect that the fear of being seen to hold a “wrong” opinion may be as oppressive at times, as the forces of prejudice.
Paul says: We need to look at what’s happening in more thoughtful, less judgmental ways. I know I’m treading a fine line but it needs to be thought about a bit more.
Everyone who was there knows the theory and how we’re supposed to behave. But we need to interrogate the remainders. Things like good people still laughing at sexist and homophobic jokes—what’s it all about?
His account still doesn’t really answer the thorny and emotive questions which made the original discussion so uncomfortable. Is it ever acceptable to ignore sexist or homophobic language? And: Is it ever right to enjoy violence? But by opening them up for debate, his hope is that we might start to understand—and move through—the extreme complexity at stake.
- Eric Anderson. (2012). Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities. Page 96.
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