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Men in Quiet Moments
Learning to use strength in ways nobody sees
This is the first of several posts about your recommendations for good writing on men and masculinity.
Other Feminisms is a woman-tilted, but not a woman-only space. The core idea animating this newsletter is that none of us are autonomous. Our understanding of the human person (male or female) must begin with our dependence on each other.
But why Other Feminisms instead of Other Anthropologies?
The assumption is false about everyone, but it’s a lie that’s particularly hard for women to sustain. A world built for autonomous individuals will always be a world particularly hostile to women (while still being bad for men, too).
A few weeks ago, I asked Other Feminisms readers to think about men and masculinity specifically, with these two prompts for comment.
What, if anything, do you see as distinctly masculine (and positive!)?
Where do you find fruitful reading on masculinity?
I’m going to pull out a few of your answers as an ongoing series, starting with two contributions (Phil Christman and St. JPII) this week.
To put it simply: Every social encounter between men is potentially a fistfight.You learn this in elementary school and never forget it. No wonder, as we age, that we ignore each other, let our friendships wither, cancel plans. No wonder there are recurring expressions of concern about a “male bonding crisis.” (Why spend your precious leisure hours among possible enemies?) And no wonder many of us have failed to see grabby men as a serious social problem for women, when an American boyhood consists of little else but unorganized combat drills, unwanted invasions of personal territory. It’s all grabs, punches, towel flicks, fake homoerotic aggression, threats of unspecified but grim—and, as one ages—increasingly sexualized violence. One night in my teenage years, as I was clocking out of my shift at McDonald’s, a guy flicked my balls, decisively and painfully. We weren’t on bad terms. It was a greeting.
I don’t doubt Christman’s experience descriptively, but I find it pretty horrifying! It’s a terrible account of the sexes if women are the sex with the potential to birth new life and men are the ones with the potential for violence.
A different way to tell that story is that a man is more likely to be one of the stronger people in any room he’s in, and needs to conduct himself (and develop his strength) so that he can step into danger on behalf of others.
To an extent, what Christman is describing is the experience of strength without a sense of for what purpose it could be rightly used.
Benjamin offered his account of the good he sees in this kind of behavior:
You are missing out on what makes men men. We like to be in a hierarchy with other men we trust, and a big part of that trust is developed by testing other men to see if they can fulfill their duties when things get hard. […]
Sometimes, it is not really the physical aspect that is lacking, but the authority that accrues from a successful transition into manhood.
Well-formed young men don't want to fight me, because they want to be me. To prey upon the older, who are on average weaker, is a serious violation of honor. When this formation process is broken, you can indeed have problems. The solution I am suggesting is that more struggle, more hierarchy, and more fist fights between young men is part of restoring the brotherhood that allows these aggressive inclinations to be turned to good.
There’s a portrait of the kind of relationship that Benjamin is describing in the (excellent) film Secondhand Lions.
The bar fight is followed by the elderly pugilist patching up the young boys he fought and giving them fatherly advice.
There’s no malice (though some relish) in his physical correction of their behavior. I see what Christman puts at the heart of his essay:
When I try to nail down what masculinity is—what imperative gives rise to all this pain seeking and stoicism, this showboating asceticism and loud silence—I come back to this: Masculinity is an abstract rage to protect.
Christman picks the word “rage” but I also see in his essay a description of an intense desire for self-sacrificial love.
“What is it like to be a cis-gendered, heterosexual man?” a friend, a trans man, asks on Facebook. “What is it like to feel at home in your body?” The only answer I can come up with is that I never feel at home in my body. I live out my masculinity most often as a perverse avoidance of comfort: the refusal of good clothes, moisturizer, painkillers; hard physical training, pursued for its own sake and not because I enjoy it; a sense that there is a set amount of physical pain or self-imposed discipline that I owe the universe.
I was an enormous fan of stoicism as I grew up, so I recognize some of the impulses that Phil is talking about. You can have a longing for doing hard things, and then pick bizarre ones if there aren’t any good challenges on offer.
When I studied aikido for a little while (until I broke my toe), one of my teachers told us, “Power felt is power wasted.” He meant that we should give up that tense feeling of muscles straining if we wanted to use our bodies well. That vibration of effort was the feeling of the body pulling in two directions at once—the goal was a total unity of purpose, which would feel easier and less strong even as it let us do more.
It’s hard to tune into the feeling of power expressed well and subtly. It can require the feedback of a teacher or a mentor to show you how to be attentive to your strengths when you can’t feel them in that straining way my aikido teacher tried to avoid. That kind of education seems to be what many men are hoping for and lacking.