What makes a good man? And how can we make that a consistent goal for men to achieve?
Ever feel like trying to be a good man is almost impossible?
Whenever I write about masculinity, I hear from a lot of men who feel hemmed in by what they perceive as the seemingly contradictory rules and restrictions that surround masculine behavior, particularly when it comes to dealing with women. And in fairness, it can be frustrating at times. It’s hard to feel like you’re being a good man when it seems like every time you turn around, you’ve tripped over another boundary or run up against some seemingly arbitrary rule about how to behave around women. Some men become hypersensitive to making any mistake for fear of being seen as a creeper. Others go the exact other direction, stubbornly insisting that they’ve done nothing wrong and it’s unfair that anyone even criticizes them from doing this and why is being a man pathologized and and and…
But being a good man isn’t quite as complicated as people often think. What makes things difficult is when we miss the forest for the trees and make things much harder for ourselves in the process. Being a good man isn’t about following a labyrinthine system of rules perfectly; in fact, it’s much simpler than people realize.
Get Rid of The Monolith In Your Mind
The first step to being a good man is to stop reacting to things that people aren’t actually saying. One of the most common issues I see is that people have mental constructs that stand in for reality – whether it’s marked WOMEN, FEMINISM, CHRISTIANS, ATHEISTS, YANKEES, SOUTHERNERS, HEAVY METAL FANS, GEEKS or other collective entities. These mental constructs become the all-encompassing embodiment of what we assume others are like.
So while we accept that we men are all complex and multifaceted individuals, we let that imagined hive-mind in our heads represent those others in their entirety… and we react to them accordingly. When we let that monolith occupy our minds, it becomes our de facto filter for interacting with others in reality. When you have a belief about the collective entity known as WOMEN, everything you do involving women gets passed through the filter of those pre-existing beliefs. Confirmation bias ends up kicking in and you discard everything that doesn’t fall in line with the image you believe in already. As a result, you often end up reacting to the entity in your head, rather than to the person right in front of you. By passing that person’s words and behavior through your mental filter you are assuming facts and motivations that may well not be there at all. It’s impossible to relate to somebody when you’re too busy responding to what you think they’re saying. When you’ve decided that all pretty women are snobby, stuck up Queen Bees (because Debbie Harper was an asshole to you in high-school when you asked her out and her friends couldn’t stop laughing about it and screw you Debbie, I bet you peaked in your Junior year and now you’re stuck with your lazy ex-jock no job having husband in Beaumont GOD DAMN IT DEBBIE WHY WASN’T I GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU YOU STUCK UP LITTLE… ahem), you end up coming in on the defensive, seeing everything as a potential slight and insult.
Going in the other direction, you can also end up putting people on pedestals, elevating them to levels of goodness and perfection. When guys fetishize Geek Girls ((As opposed to girls who are geeks…)) they’re reacting to their fantasy of a woman, not to the woman as a person. It’s deeply dehumanizing, even insulting, for people to assume they know everything about you because of the image they have of you in their head rather than who you are.
This is why it’s important to do some soul-searching and start recognizing how many of your beliefs and reactions to others have less to do with who they are and more to do with the stand-ins you’ve invented for them. Until you do, you can’t relate to their reality. Which is important because…
Being A Good Man Isn’t About The Rules, It’s About Respect
A key to being a good man is very simple: having respect for other people, for their perspectives, for their capabilities and for their lived experiences. Acknowledging that people have valid points of view and frames of reference that differ from our own is a relatively small thing to do, but the impact that it can have is immense. The way we behave toward and treat others is based on our beliefs about them. Just as that false mental representation affects how we respond to people, so too does respect. This is one of the reasons why so many women ask men to simply stop and listen; by listening instead of deciding we’re experts in lives we’ve never experienced, we can begin to understand. By understanding, we are able to relate better. We become better.
Many of the problems women have with men revolve around the ways men don’t respect women’s perspectives or experiences – even when understanding and respecting them would benefit us. By not respecting them enough to listen – really listen – we end up shutting down avenues of communication that would otherwise make things easier on everybody. We assume that we know what women really want from men and get angry about it, even when women protest that no, that’s not what they want at all. When men complain about how much easier dating is for women, it’s because they don’t stop to listen to women’s genuine experiences with dating – experiences that actually parallel their own. Just as importantly, stopping to listen and respect women’s experiences means learning to interact with women as people. Many men, especially those who live in fear of being called out for being creepy or harassing, are doing so because they have exaggerated and mistaken ideas about women’s concerns – ones that bear only a passing resemblance to reality. Just as the men who get angry over their imaginary women’s unreasonable expectations, the fearful men don’t respect women enough to pay attention to what they’re saying. Instead of listening and understanding, these men focus on themselves; the so-called “rules” they complain about become about their protection, rather than addressing women’s concerns. Interacting with women and developing respect for them not only demystifies them but helps those fearful men recognize that creep-shaming isn’t a thing.
Have Some Empathy
That important sense of understanding, that ability to actually relate, becomes key to being a good man because it allows actual empathy. Part of respect is learning to empathize with other people’s experiences rather than using your limited understanding to justify your idea of their life.
Empathy is, literally, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Taking time to simply try to understand why someone might feel a certain way – such as why somebody wouldn’t appreciate being approached on the train – makes it that much easier to understand why many of the supposed “rules” exist in the first place. To give an example, let’s take the (seemingly evergreen) topic of harassers, cat-callers and the ever-popular creepers. Whenever the subject of creepers going creepin’ comes up, there are inevitably people (men) who want to contest the unfairness of calling creepers out for being, well, creepy. When it’s pointed out that most women know someone who has been harassed, stalked, or assaulted, these men will challenge the statistics or throw up ones of their own. After all, men are in even more danger from other men and they don’t run around creating rules about when men can talk to each other or live in constant fear of other dudes…
The problem is that the people arguing from the position of “it’s irrational to be afraid” are missing the point entirely. Even if, for the sake of argument, the statistics were completely wrong, you’re trying to logic someone into not feeling something which isn’t how emotions work.
So even if – again for argument’s sake – you managed to convince someone that it’s ok to let a creeper approach her; you haven’t convinced her to not be afraid. So all that’s happened is that she’s stuck in a conversation with someone who creeps her out. Odds that she’s going to give him a number that works? I dunno, do they make numbers that large? There may be some crossover between fear and arousal but skin-crawling is a known panty-dryer… not to mention the fact that some men have a nasty tendency to, y’know, kill women who turn them down. But by recognizing and understanding that women have a legitimate reason to be cautious around men they don’t know1, you are better able to adjust your behavior accordingly. This makes it easier to understand that there are times when approaching someone is just a bad idea, and to adjust your own behavior to make sure you’re not seen as creepy.
“But I’m not dangerous or obnoxious! I shouldn’t be punished for those other assholes!” I hear people cry. That’s nice. It’s equally not fair to insist that women have to put up with behavior from others who believe that they’re entitled to her time regardless of her wishes on the matter.
Being a good man and having empathy for others means that sometimes you give up certain desires and behaviors because you recognize that it hurts other people.
You Aren’t Being Attacked
One of the most important things to remember about being a good man is to recognize when you are and aren’t being attacked by others. God knows it can feel that way at times, especially online — Tumblr and Twitter come to mind — but it’s important to separate yourself from the supposed “attack”. There’s a difference between criticism that’s being directed at you and that’s being directed at a system or societal norm. One of the reasons why Schroedinger’s Rapist is so controversial is because whenever anyone brings it up, people flock to insist that they’re not dangerous and nobody they know behaves like this.
Are you not doing the behavior that people are complaining about? No? Awesome… then they’re not talking about you. Take a deep breath, let it out slowly and skip to the next article/post/tweet/whatever. When you see people complaining about men’s behavior, 9 times out of 10 they’re venting or relating with one another about shared experiences, not singling you out for specific criticism. Even snarky or insulting comments have nothing to do with you. Immediately getting on the defensive and demanding that people acknowledge that you’re the exception is — at best — disruptive and insulting. Part of the reason why #notallmen is so resoundingly mocked is because people are failing to recognize that the complaints are about a system and instead are making it all about their feelings of being offended.
Now there will be times when you screw up and say or do something stupid and people may call you out for it. This has nothing to do with how good of a person you are and everything to do with simply being imperfect, same as everyone else. Nobody expects you to be perfect. Even people who should seemingly know better will put their foot in it on occasion. When this happens, a good man recognizes that he fucked up and simply apologizes. Getting your back up and insisting that it’s stupid for people to be offended is only going to make everyone else even more angry and pour a nice jug full of gasoline on a pile of embers that were well on their way to going out. Own the mistake, apologize and try to not make the same mistake again.
Handle Your Own Shit
Now here’s the tricky part. Being a good man means that you have to learn how to do this on your own. Expecting women to be your maturity Sherpa, guiding you up the Man-tterhorn is, honestly, part of the whole problem. Men have continually put the burden of our emotional betterment on the shoulders of women, demanding that they be our teachers on top of everything else society expects of them. And yet men continue to expect women to do the emotional heavy lifting and teaching, much like expecting the fox to teach you how to tame it.
The thing is: most of the work is already done for you. The resources are out there if you stop and take the time to look for them.
Most of the learning process is incredibly, almost absurdly, simple: it’s merely listening and opening yourself up to other perspectives. Read books by female authors with female protagonists – especially ones written for female audiences. Interact with women strictly as friends and listen to their stories and experiences. Quit using Tumblr reblogs and fourth-or-fifth hand quotes and ideas attributed to Valerie Solanas or Andrea Dworkin as the definitions of what women think. Read those books and posts that keep coming up — The Gift of Fear, Schroedinger’s Rapist, The Missing Stair, etc. – and see what they actually say instead of letting knee-jerk defensiveness interpret it for you.
Don’t get hung up on rules and regulations and executing perfect behavior – understand the underlying reasons why we’re asked to do and not do things and it will come to you naturally. Develop your empathy and your respect for others, and you’ll find that being a good man doesn’t need to be as hard as we sometimes make it out to be.
This article originally appeared on Doctor Nerd Love.
Photo credit: Getty Images