It was recently announced that ‘toxic’ has emerged as the word of 2018, which is defined as a word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance. It is worth taking notice of the words it is commonly paired with. Not surprisingly, ‘masculinity’ appears near the top of the list, which reinforces a sense that ‘toxic masculinity’ has appeared repeatedly, to the extent that the two words seem inherently linked. It tends to support the notion that masculinity itself is in some form of ‘crisis,’ another assertion which has become part of the cultural conversation.
So what is this crisis of masculinity? I recently attended a ‘New Masculinity’ workshop run by Rebel Wisdom in the capacity of Production Manager, which gave me an opportunity to observe and reflect on what, if anything, was/is troubling men – if there were any common threads that could be linked to what is being referred to as ‘the crisis of masculinity’ in the wider sphere.
There’s plenty of places to explore, and many of these are touched on within the New Masculinity program. In broad terms, the program pursues an inquiry into men’s sense of themselves: their struggles in work and relationships; their connection with their fathers; the sense of purpose and vision they have for themselves; and their desires to make a contribution to the wider world.
However, it was the entry point to the weekend that struck a real chord and gave some clue as to what may lie at the root of this sense of ‘crisis’. On the first evening, there was an acknowledgment of a universal feeling of ‘dis-ease’ which all men carry, borne of ways in which they feel compromised or conflicted in their lives. It was the starting point of a process to acknowledge and address frustration. An invitation was offered to connect with it, and quite literally, give it a voice.
We are talking about a room full of men, aged from mid 20s to their 60s, from a diverse range of backgrounds, and none of them had any difficulty connecting with this feeling and responding to this invitation. The exercise worked as follows: the men were instructed to move throughout the workshop space, inhabiting the feelings of frustration they felt. They were asked to stop periodically and face other men, and give full voice to this feeling.
The process continued for some time, and the intensity of their expression grew. Some men found it more difficult to fully voice their feelings initially, but eventually all men, without exception, responded fully to the invitation to completely embody this frustration in their voice, and through their bodies.
The discussion that took place afterward revealed that this experience was conflicting for many men. On one hand, there was a palpable sense of liberation at the release provided by taking part in this exercise. And yet, there was also concern about what accessing this emotion meant. Some men were startled at the intensity of the feelings that arose, and how easy it was to tap into this sense of frustration. Was it healthy, or a pathway to more intense feelings (and potentially, expressions) of anger, rage, violence or destructive behavior?
I can only speak of my own experience when completing the exercise. While certainly intense, the experience did not feel like a precursor to violence. I had no urge to harm anyone or anything, and certainly not the man in front of me. On the contrary, my ‘witnesses’ provided vital support in the process, extending an invitation to fully express my frustration, free of judgment or condemnation of whatever I needed to express. Equally, witnessing other men expressing their frustration freely, without judgment, encouraged me to do the same.
There is next to no avenue for male frustration to be expressed in this way, in everyday life. It was apparent in the group discussion that followed, that we all grappled with a life, living in society, where we experience feelings of compromise which lead to these frustrations. Compromise, as a consequence of simply living within a society which has its own agreements, rules and regulations about how a man should ‘be’ – which in varying ways run counter to desires for our own personal freedom and expression. Compromise in how we are living our lives, the work/career lives we are in or working towards, our family and intimate relationships.
The anxiety some men experienced in completing the exercise was reflective of the messages we receive in society, as individuals, that male frustration is not welcome. That it is the first rung of the conveyor belt which leads towards male anger, male rage, male violence. Undoubtedly, male frustration can be uncomfortable to witness, and can certainly occur as a threat to others – to other men, but particularly to women or those in relationship with men, for whom signs of male frustration or aggression can occur as a genuine threat.
And yet, it is the DENIAL of male frustration that is the core issue here. The absence of acknowledgment of this feeling in ourselves, and by others, that can and does lead to unhealthy expressions, and an escalation into far more harmful forms, to ourselves, to others, to society in general. This message is passed on very early on, as boys. Anger or frustration is stamped down on, and any outward displays of it are discouraged. Boisterous behavior is frowned upon. It is not a huge leap to suggest that ‘boy’-sterousnous itself is not welcome.
Male role models
Throughout their lives, boys and men are rarely provided with models for healthy expression of frustration. Their primary role models are sportsmen, celebrities, men whose apparent success in life is largely forged through competition. Quite literally, it’s ‘every man for himself.’ This is a reflection of how our society runs also, which has become increasingly individualistic, less connected through community, family. Relationships with fathers, our primary male role model are often strained or broken. The pressure the predominant nuclear family structure places on the father role, as the primary model for masculinity, means there is often little other access to male role models. There is certainly a dearth of positive male role models in our current global leadership. One could argue the landscape is dominated by a particular embodiment of unembodied, tyrannical, masculine energy. At a personal level, there is little access to a type of brotherhood or support which occurs naturally in the company of other men, in the context workshops like Rebel Wisdom provide, and if so, it is rarely a domain that features any invitation to truly express oneself, to show any vulnerability, or to voice any of this frustration.
Where does this frustration go?
One thing is for sure, is that if feelings of frustration are NOT expressed, they become suppressed. We push them down, deny their expression. In doing so, we inevitably set up situations where it comes out sideways, and in harmful ways. It can emerge as passive aggressive behaviors or actions; it becomes projected in the world – we start experiencing anger in the world around us, in people we interact with; we tend to attract or create moments of conflict, we see anger in others. Perversely, and usually unconsciously, we encourage displays of anger in the world, and from others, in the absence of permission we give ourselves, or are given, to express our own.
Suppression of emotion leads to other forms of dis-ease, other than these external manifestations. It is undoubtedly a huge factor in male depression, and the high rate of suicide amongst men of all ages. How many tales have we heard of boys/men who have taken their own lives, where it has come as a surprise or shock to the close ones in their lives, and they have clearly done so having not found any avenues to express their hidden frustrations or concerns?
But males are privileged, right?
Even suggesting that men suffer from frustration is contentious. There is plenty of conversation occurring in the media about the privileges bestowed on men, by virtue of their gender. Simply by being (white, middle class) male, it is assumed that there are certain privileges available to men, which are denied others. By extension, there is no reason or right for men to feel, or to voice any sort of frustration.
Male needs and desires are tarnished with a brush that suggests they are linked with unhealthy, patriarchal traits of male power and dominance. As Jordan Peterson has observed:
‘Our culture confuses men’s desire for achievement and competence with the patriarchal desire for tyrannical power, and that’s a big mistake. Those aren’t the same things, not even a bit.’
Warren Farrell is a pioneer in the field of gender relationships, having been involved in the formative years of the feminist movement in the US, and having worked with men and women exploring gender dynamics in couples counseling and workshops. He’s in a strong position to address the question of patriarchy. He contends that patriarchy as a system places constraints on women and men, assigning certain roles and responsibilities on both genders, that don’t sit comfortably with either, particularly in this day and age. He posits that men can (and often are) placed in compromised positions, by virtue of the roles they are expected to fill in work, in the home, in intimate relationships, and in society in general.
Patriarchy in question
Undoubtedly, there are questions being asked of the patriarchal system at present. The unhealthy and irresponsible behavior of (some) men who operate within this system, brought to light through the #metoo movement, are rightfully being challenged. And yet, the dangers of ‘patriarchy’ being conflated with ‘male power and privilege,’ ‘masculinity’ and by association all men, are plainly evident. Plenty of dialogue makes no distinction between these areas, and I would venture it is creating an environment which is causing considerable dis-ease among men.
Firstly, men feel implicated in the ‘bad behavior’ being called into question, and forced to acknowledge and address their own behavior, often in the absence of positive role models which offer ‘appropriate’ ways of being. In this vacuum, they are left wondering what is appropriate male behavior? They encounter the term ‘toxic masculinity’ without any acknowledgment of what the flipside of this even looks like. Stories are filtering through anecdotally, through parents, of the confusion this is creating in young men, emerging into manhood with little support, encouragement on what it means to be a man, and very little sympathy for the exploration and inquiry this requires, or the mistakes that are made as part of this journey into manhood. This, in a culture that is severely lacking in providing traditional ‘rites of passage’ for this journey by boys and young men into mature, positive masculinity.
Secondly, is the suggestion that ALL men are beneficiaries of our patriarchal system, by virtue of their gender, which I would suggest is a cause of an even greater dis-ease. How does it feel to be implicated or held to account for a system that many men are compromised by, or unhappy with? If men are the so-called ‘winners’ of this system, what do they do with any frustration they feel? Where do they go with it? Are they even allowed to feel it?
So what’s the answer?
Firstly, the challenge for men, is to get in touch with their inner frustration. Find healthy, constructive ways to express it. ‘Own’ these feelings, in order to gain understanding, acceptance, and liberation from them. It is not surprising that the talks and teachings of Jordan Peterson has gained such prominence, and resonated so deeply with many men. He speaks often about the fundamental desire in men to acquire meaning and purpose in their lives, and the acknowledgment of steps they need to take to do so – to harness and embrace the ‘shadow’ sides of themselves, in order to access their power and presence. He suggests this process supports a deeper desire in men to access an integrated power, in order to make more of themselves, and a greater contribution in the world. This is a healthy, constructive, masculine power not to be confused with dominance.
Secondly, for continued debate around patriarchy, as we question ways of being that no longer serve us, as individuals and as a society. Crucially, this is a debate that must acknowledge the constraints and frustrations experienced by BOTH men and women in this system, moving beyond the suggestion that it is a system that favors men as a whole, in order to support the emergence of new possibilities for men and women to find their place in the world. In doing so, new models of masculinity and femininity will emerge, allowing empowered men and women to thrive, benefitting from an equality that comes through an opportunity to become the fullest, most authentic expression of themselves.
Previously Published on kevinhelas.com