A philosopher of mind,
It doesn’t matter who,
But it was Daniel Dennett,
Made a point of describing
To prove that animals might
React physically to pain
Without being conscious of it.
He illustrated this with the case of
Children who dissociate during
Sexual assaults. *
In a seminar, another prominent male
Philosopher turned to another and said,
“I dreamed I raped and murdered your wife.
Do I owe you an apology?”
A female philosopher left the room.
Thought experiments are expected to
Be free and provocative,
But haven’t we experimented enough
With thoughts of violence against
Women and girls to know where they lead?
*(Dennett said the child thinks, “’I’ am not undergoing this pain, “she” is.”)
I don’t like all your self-referential poems and
Confessional narratives where you just go on and
On and on with your boring anxieties and
Insights into a meaningless existence.
I mean, just like the time you said
She floated on an azure sky and
Had lips that made the rain seem dry.
It started as a conventional statement of
A poet who likes women with moist lips,
But then you had to go and address the
Reader directly before declaring how
Much you liked her hair that seemed to
Have been spun from mists of gold or
Some such shit.
It is just the typical male objectification of
Women, and I, for one, am tired of it,
And I’m sure the readers, if you have
Any, agree with me.
And I must here apologize to the reader
For the overall incoherence of this
Of this rant, or whatever it is.
Nobody needs poetry, anyway,
And if you are trying to process your grief, shame, or
Rage, just get out in front of it.
Lay off the self-indulgent,
Pseudo-intellectual clap trap and confront
Your own failings
Then, you can leave your damp-lipped damsel
Alone on the beach to do whatever she wishes with
Her own alabaster thighs as you turn away
I, personally, have no patience for
Anxious but idealised objectification of
Beauty. I would rather turn my attention
To the dry-lipped strength of a messy-haired
Physically strong woman who pulled me
Up, sometimes literally, when I felt I had no
Reason to lift myself.
But that is only some kind of self-interested
Infatuation, too. Idealising a person based on
My own needs.
I guess it is no wonder why so many
Male poets just describe women as flowers.
They never ask, the old ladies.
They just hug, pinch, kiss and
Cuddle at will. Babies are theirs,
You know, and they do love them
So much. I guess it isn’t their fault,
No one ever told them they aren’t
Free to touch at will. I once told
A woman to get her hands out of
My hair, and she said no man
Had ever asked her to stop
Touching him before. As an old
Lady, I’m sure she became another
Of the baby grabbers, the snogglers,
The unwanted snugglers, making
Babies turn away and stretch
For Daddy’s protection and loving
Embrace. And the Daddies will say,
“Don’t touch the babies. They are not
Yours to soil with dry lipstick and crepe
Paper skin. You may have thought your
Hands were never unwelcome, but
My babies know the master of their fate.”
I don’t remember when I first heard the expression “man-flu,” but it has been around a few years now. Generally, it expresses the view of many women that men whine and complain when felled by the flu, but women soldier on undaunted by a little thing like a flu virus. Even women who consider themselves feminists will trot out man-flu as evidence that women are stronger and more resilient than men.
After this went on for some time, men rejoiced when a study published in the American Journal of Physiology claimed that women’s stores of estrogen spared them the worst effects of flu and helped them fight off the virus. Men could stop apologizing for their suffering and just continue whining and demanding attention, because the man-flu was real after all.
But, of course, some researchers pushed back. An article in STAT in March 2017 boldly asserted that the scientific evidence for man-flu was overblown. If women have stronger immune responses, it said, they will have more severe symptoms, as it is the immune system that causes sneezing, coughing and other flu symptoms. More telling, though, is the final statement in the article. The article quoted immunologist Laura Haynes of the University of Connecticut, who said, “Maybe men just get whinier.”
“Whiny” is a rough scientific category to pin down, but in this case I guess “whiny” means a man expressing pain out of proportion to his suffering. For any study to determine whether men suffer from flu more than women, it would have to quantify and measure the subjective experiences of men from across the globe. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I am saying it has not been done.
Given the fact that we can’t actually know who suffers more from the flu and the fact that we actually don’t know who complains about it more (anecdotal evidence from women who just happen to live with men lacks a bit of rigor, I think you will agree), I propose to blame another culprit: patriarchy.
It just might be true that men seem to complain more because they are expected to never complain at all. Men are expected to be stoic and unaffected by pain and suffering. This may be at least one reason women take 50 percent more sick days than men. When men show any crack in their invulnerability, they are mocked by other men, by women, and even by feminists.
So, the term “man-flu” may just be another way of saying someone failed the test of the patriarchy to fulfill the demands of sacrificial masculinity. If you support gender equality, phrases such as “man-flu” and “man-up” can only hurt your cause.
In a world where a man who talks openly about kissing and grabbing women without consent can be taken seriously as a candidate for leader of the “free” world, you may wonder how toxic masculinity has spun out of control. As an antidote to all the bully posturing, perhaps the wisdom of a famous cross-dressing artist can help explain how we got here and how we can move forward, so it is time to pick up Grayson Perry’s TheDescent of Man and begin to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.
If you have already spent some time pondering feminism, masculinity, and gender, you really have two choices as you read Perry’s screed: You can quietly applaud from the choir loft or utter a mild rebuke that it doesn’t go far enough to liberate us all from the shackles of rigid gender roles. On the other hand, if you have not really examined assumptions about gender and how they affect the world, prepare yourself for a brief but fairly inclusive overview of entertaining and insightful musings on gender, violence, fashion, and injustice.
If you aren’t already familiar with Grayson Perry, he is a celebrated artist, cross-dresser (he refers to himself as a transvestite and sometimes “tranny,” something I decline to do), and host of a television program titled All Man, which was also an exploration of masculinity. At the outset of the book, Perry says that some may think his cross-dressing gives him a better understanding of women, but he insists that it instead gives him a better understanding of men. Though he mentions cross-dressing a number of times in the book, it plays a relatively minor role in this overall thesis, with the exception of his emphasis on fashion.
For a man of a certain means and status, wardrobe options are limited. When doing any kind of business, a fairly bland suit with a fabric “penis,” as Perry says, wrapped around his neck is the default choice for what Perry describes as the Default Man. The Default Man represents all the power and privilege of being male, but Perry acknowledges that not all men share the power and privilege of maleness equally. Still, the Default Man is the assumed cultural archetype for Western society. His clothing is bland, Perry avers, because the Default Man is in a position to observe and objectify others, not to be observed and evaluated himself.
To care about fashion is decidedly unmanly, and, indeed, men who fuss about their appearance are often assumed to be gay by homophobes and self-appointed gender police. Men from other social classes may not be condemned to the prison of the gray suit, but are still considered effeminate in the event that they spend too much time worrying over hairstyles and clothing choices. This is why, of course, cross-dressing is so emotionally and, for some, erotically charged.
While noting that men are responsible for most of the violence in the world, Perry claims that aggressive masculine behavior is entirely, or almost entirely, the result of conditioning that begins even before birth as parents, family, and friends begin choosing clothing, toys, and decorations that “match” the gender of an expected child. Infants and children are treated differently according to their gender, so it would be surprising if boys and girls did not behave differently. Boys learn early to suppress their emotions, be fiercely independent, and solve problems with violence.
Perry gives many compelling and interesting examples of how boys and men experience violence and emotional isolation, but I wish he had spent a little more time talking to the men who seem immune from this conditioning and to people of all genders who fail to fill the role of stereotypical male. For example, if gender is all conditioning, why is it that at least some gay (and some straight) men fail to follow the dictates of the gender binary? What disruptions alter the course of the conditioning? If we are hoping to modify gender roles for future generations, we need to explore alternative paths to non-binary or, at least, non-destructive masculinity.
Though he gives some a passing mention, Perry mostly ignores the experiences of nurturing men such as at-home dads, male carers, transgender men, transgender women, and intersex people. Perry claims gender is a matter of performance in that we all perform behaviors, dress, and emotions that indicate our gender. In other words, we perform masculinity or femininity by taking on the attributes of either gender. In this sense it would seem that anyone would be free to change the mode of performance at any given time.
The use of the word “performance” in this sense recalls the work of Judith Butler, who distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity.” Butler explains here that performativity is about the effects our behavior as related to gender has while performance is a choice to take on a role. If gender were merely a performance, bullying and other forms of gender policing would probably not be such a problem. The shame people feel when they are unable to conform to gender expectations is related to what they are, not what they do. Perry is probably wise to avoid the treacherous philosophical waters of gender identity and deep linguistic analysis, but the question of how deep our inclinations run and can be modified haunts the discussion like the baggage of an old relationship.
In chapter four, he begins by declaring, “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.” If he is correct and gender is not in our genes, is not biologically determined, then we have a much better chance at making changes. We can expand the emotional lexicon of boys and men. We can increase male capacity for empathy. We can end war and violence and finally bring peace on earth.
After declaring that we are free to change our gender expression, he paradoxically says this: “Men, bless ‘em, are tethered to a monster, a demon conjoined twin, a one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag then into bad behaviour. The penis is at once us and not of us.” He says a boy’s sex drive keeps him from understanding the importance of platonic relationships and forming adequate social support networks. Here, near the end of the book, he seems to be speaking of a kind of gender essentialism, which contradicts most of what comes before.
He says, “Men, particularly when young, view the world through a heads-up display of sexual desire.” I’ve never been a young girl or woman, but I have a suspicion that sexual desire also occasionally clouds female judgment and causes them to behave less rationally than they may otherwise hope. And some boys, I am certain, are not so driven by their sexual desires. Regarding biological determinism, Perry clarifies, “We may be genetically predisposed to be straight or gay, identify as male or female or in between, but I think the attitudes, cues, contexts, power relationships, props and costumes are supplied by conditioning.” This clarification is crucial.
While some men “perform” masculinity well and succeed throughout their lives, other boys and men (or people assigned male) find it impossible to “act like a man” and, further, have no desire to join the fraternity. Removing the toxic part of masculinity can make more room for varied forms of gender expression.
In the end, Perry seeks to liberate men from the confines of narrow gender conformity. Once men are freed from shame around weakness and vulnerability, perhaps they can have more compassion for themselves and for those around them. Perhaps, finally, boys who like My Little Pony can say so without fear of bullying. Perhaps, finally, men in the throes of grief can cry openly without being told they need to pull themselves together.
Over the years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time discussing anger, apologies, and forgiveness with therapists and survivors of child abuse and other traumas. Survivors and therapists alike are often passionate in the their belief that forgiveness is the only way to move forward from traumatic abuse. Without forgiveness, they feel, healing is impossible.
Having a typically transactional view of forgiveness, I always held that it makes no sense to forgive when there is no acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the abuser. Asking a survivor to forgive unilaterally and unconditionally is bereft of meaning at best and morally repugnant at worst. Only if the abuser were to apologize and make some effort at amends, at least, could I see then extending forgiveness to the abuser, and I would consider this a charitable act on the part of the survivor.
Others have hastened to tell me that such an exchange is not necessary. They insist that unconditional forgiveness, freely given, is more meaningful and more liberating to survivors than the transactional form of forgiveness. Besides, they say, forgiveness is cleansing and is, indeed, the only way for survivors to rid themselves of the burden of intense and destructive anger.
I have always countered that it is possible to put anger aside without offering forgiveness to someone undeserving and unrepentant. Choosing a somewhat less emotional and inflammatory example, I can point out that I once had a moderately expensive lawnmower stolen from me. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly made me angry. The thief was not caught and, I assume, never suffered any pangs of guilt for the crime. Over time, I was able to get on with my life, though I still remember it 30 years later. I decided to stop dwelling on it and get over it, so I tried to stop thinking about it and focus on things that could improve my life.
My interlocutors quickly countered that losing a lawnmower is nothing like the pain of having your innocence robbed (some described it as theft of a child’s “soul”). I am quick to agree, but I see it as a difference in degree, not kind, and I still cannot see how offering forgiveness to a remorseless abuser can aid healing.
My view was bolstered by the work and words of Alice Miller, the famed psychoanalyst and child advocate who died in 2010. In her 1991 book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, Miller writes, “Forgiving has negative consequences, not only for the individual, but for society at large, because it means disguising destructive opinions and attitudes, and involves drawing a curtain across reality so that we cannot see what is taking place behind it.” Instead, she tells us, “Survivors of mistreatment need to discover their own truth if they are to free themselves of its consequences. The effort spent on the work of forgiveness leads them away from this truth.”
third way of viewing anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum agrees that therapists should not force forgiveness, but she offers a more nuanced and philosophically grounded way of viewing the work of anger and the way forward from even extreme wrongs and injustices.
While many philosophers have ignored or dismissed the moral relevance of the emotions, others such as Aristotle have noted the importance of anger to a good life. While anger is a negative emotion, it has benefits for people seeking to flourish in life. Namely, anger is said to enable us to recognize injustice when it occurs and then motivate us to action to correct the wrongs inflicted on innocent parties. For Aristotle, anger occurs when someone’s status is lowered without good cause. Indeed, an attack on one’s character or social rank is likely to provoke anger and, in many cases, a wish for revenge. Nussbaum notes that revenge has few or no practical or moral benefits. Other than a temporary sense of satisfaction, payback accomplishes nothing of importance for us.
But if payback isn’t a useful result of anger, then perhaps contrition, apology, and forgiveness are necessary components of a moral and flourishing life. Most of us have grown up in a culture that stresses the importance of apologies and forgiveness for wrongs. Nussbaum traces ancient Jewish and Christian (primarily) texts dealing with the role of forgiveness. The most familiar form is transactional—if someone reduces the status of someone else, the perpetrator shows remorse and asks forgiveness. When the wronged party bestows forgiveness, the proper ranking of the parties is restored, and justice, it seems, is served.
Of course, contrition and apologies are not always forthcoming. Sometimes the perpetrator is simply stubborn and sometimes the perpetrator is no longer alive. This is often the case for survivors of child abuse. In the absence of an apology many therapists, as noted above, advise survivors to offer unconditional forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness is said to release the victim from the shackles of anger and enable a flourishing life to happen. Of course, contrarians such as Alice Miller claim this type of forgiveness traps survivors in a life-long lie that destroys them emotionally.
Nussbaum recognizes these challenges and takes a different approach. She offers several examples of people who move forward without offering forgiveness but in a more positive way than Alice Miller would likely think possible. In the example of the Prodigal Son, the son returns to his father to be greeted with open arms. Although the son has behaved quite badly, his father thinks only of the future with his son and not the past (his other son is not quite so ready to embrace his wayward brother). It is the focus on the future that makes all the difference for Nussbaum.
In an even more painful and poignant example, she describes a father from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, whose daughter becomes an addict and kills several people. The father finds his daughter and realizes he is helpless to change what she has done or her future prospects. He does all that he can do. He loves her and stays with her. Nussbaum says, “There is no apology, and there’s really no question of forgiveness on the agenda, whether conditional or unconditional. There’s just painful unconditional love.”
When anger is useful, Nussbaum says it is useful as a transition from a wrong to a focus on a better future. In the transition, someone would say in anger, “That’s outrageous! Something must be done to prevent this in the future!” Nussbaum applies this model in three realms: the intimate, the middle (public), and the political (social) realm. Simply because of my interest and background, I found her discussion of the intimate realm the most interesting and compelling.
In the middle, or public, realm, I think most of us realize our anger at strangers is rarely helpful. Minor wrongs (e.g., someone cutting in line at the grocery store) are best forgotten as quickly as possible. More serious wrongs are a matter for law enforcement and the court system. Being consumed with anger is only a form of self-torture.
In the political realm, though, anger is said to be a great motivator toward justice, and surely anger has propelled many social movements to success. Again, though, Nussbaum warns that it is easy to get caught up in concern for revenge or payback rather than creating a better world. After great harms, we need to focus on truth and reconciliation, not punishment. Indeed, the most successful social movements have focused on the future and not redressing wrongs.
Nussbaum sees Nelson Mandela as an exemplary role model for looking to the future rather than the past in response to injustice. She says, “Mandela frames the entire question in forward-looking pragmatic terms, as a question of getting the other party to do what you want. He then shows that this task is much more feasible if you can get the other party to work with you rather than against you. Progress is impeded by the other party’s defensiveness and self-protection.”
For years, I have had difficulty clearly delineating exactly what I found problematic with our accepted model of anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum has provided a welcome bit of clarity for a universal yet surprisingly complex human problem. Realistically, we will not be able to let go of useless anger and focus only on transitional anger, but at least we have a better target. When we do succeed it will be because we rely on another human emotion—love.
As a child, I grew up in a culture defined by rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. While I now realize many of the people around me were gay, they were invisible to me at the time. At least, their sexuality was invisible to me. As a teenager, I made an intellectual decision that everyone had a right to equal dignity and expression. Living in a seemingly homogeneous society, though, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience my own implicit biases until later.
I strongly defended the rights of gay people to live, work, love, and express their lovepublicly, but my reaction to actual gay lives was untested. I was probably a bit too comfortable with myself and my choice for equality, for the first time I saw two men kissing, I was horrified to find that I looked away with feelings of discomfort and perhaps even disgust. I was then filled with shame for the latent feelings I obviously had, but I did my best to not turn away.
Over time, I was lucky enough to find many gay friends and to experience their love and affection in ways that seemed perfectly natural because they were perfectly natural. I’m sure I still have many implicit biases, and I keep trying to overcome them all, but at least now I can usually deal with people kissing with no internal conflict. (As I age, I have become painfully aware that many young people feel the same disgust when they see older people kissing.)
Unfortunately, many people react to a man crying in the same way I initially reacted to men kissing men—they turn away in discomfort or even disgust. It is widely assumed that it is men who are disgusted by other men crying (and I’m sure some are), but famed vulnerability researcher Brene Brown found that it is more often women who can’t accept men’s vulnerability. Obviously, being vulnerable means much more than just crying, but I would like to say that I think crying is really the single behavior that sets people stomachs to churning.
We find crying so shameful, in fact, that we often call it “being vulnerable” in order to avoid saying the word “crying.” I don’t mean this to be a criticism of researchers’ use of the word “vulnerability” while they discuss men’s emotional health. Rather, I mean to suggest that the rest of us have adopted the word “vulnerability” as a way of avoiding discussion of crying. Often we will only say that a man “was vulnerable,” because to say that he was “openly sobbing” would be to rob him of his dignity and bring shame to him. Paradoxically, by trying to protect him from judgment, we reinforce the judgment that all men face for being weak, sad, or emotional.
I should qualify that last statement. We don’t judge men so much for being emotional as we judge them for what particular emotions they express. Crying is acceptable for women and girls, but anger is reserved for boys and men. If a man loses his son or father, for example, he may seek revenge in various ways, and he is often honored for doing so, especially if the death was caused by malice or negligence.
Historically, revenge frequently took the form of actual violence, and vengeful violence has certainly not disappeared, but revenge can also take the form of lawsuits, public shaming campaigns, and other legal and socially acceptable forms. But the man who falls into a deep depression or cries uncontrollably for an extended period will face criticism. I once talked to a father who was told he needed to “get it together” at his own son’s funeral.
We pretend that men aren’t in touch with their feelings or that men are incapable of expressing their feelings. If these things are true, it is only because we have conditioned men to suppress their feelings through our own reactions of disgust. Boys are taught in their first months out of the womb that crying is unacceptable. The result is that men must either destroy themselves or destroy those around them in order to process their own feelings.
The price we pay is that the men we are around are emotionally drained, stressed to the breaking point, and prone to anger and destruction over empathy and connection. Of course, this is an oversimplification and is an exaggerated statement of what happens. We all know well-balanced men who are nurturing and emotionally connected. Some men are lucky that their lives have not burdened them with too much grief and sadness. Other men have, in spite of social programming, been lucky to find people who accept them and their emotions. And, finally, some men have the fortitude to find effective means of self-care.
Still, we can and should work to remove the shame and stigma from male weakness, and that begins with removing disgust from the sight of male tears. How do we do it?
Don’t turn away. If a man is crying in your presence, do not avert your gaze. Continue to look at him and let him know that you are with him, free from judgment.
If you are a man, openly discuss your own tears with both women and men. When we remove our own shame, the disgust of others cannot affect us.
Stop saying, “boys don’t cry” to anyone, especially a child. Boys hear this almost as soon as people start talking to them. Support the full emotional range of boys.
Stop mocking male tears. Some feminists seem to feel that making fun of male emotions is an acceptable response to centuries of male tyranny, but mocking male tears is a sure way to help perpetuate misogyny and the oppression of women.
Create safe spaces for men. Men need opportunities to talk to other men about crying and weakness. Men need to let one another know that crying is not weakness. You can take care of your family, be a protector, or be a warrior and still take time to cry.
Recognize the varied experiences of men. Adult men are often victims of childhood abuse whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual. Men are victims of domestic violence and abuse. While physical violence is a reality for many men, emotional battery is even more common. The victimization of men is not a joke, so please stop laughing at it.
Many men will reject my suggestions as being absurd and will suggest I should just “man up.” I ask those men to remember those words the next time, and it will happen, they are struggling to force back the knot forming in their throats as they build a dam against the tears threatening to break forth. Whether we choke the tears back successfully or not, the damage is done. We still feel the shame and disgust. We feel devalued and demoralized by our own natural emotions. We can be free and we can be whole. We just have to come out and be honest about what and who we are.
Recently a woman in the UK known only as C won the right to effectively end her life by refusing dialysis treatment. Owen Bowcott, writing for The Guardiandescribed it as a “highly unusual judgment,” but, in making the decision, the judge said, ““This position reflects the value that society places on personal autonomy in matters of medical treatment and the very long established right of the patient to choose to accept or refuse medical treatment from his or her doctor.”
The judge is correct; the right to refuse treatment is one of the bedrock principles of medical ethics. In most medical decisions, autonomy trumps all other considerations, including efficacy of possible treatment. In other words, you are not obligated to accept treatment simply because it will prolong your life. This is the way things work in the world of medicine, but there could be other approaches.
Given the facts of this case, it seems a suicidal person sort of “lucks out” when an unrelated medical issue arises. Unlike C, not everyone seeking death is able to find a legal way out. Those who are so physically incapacitated that they cannot possibly end their lives without help often find too many roadblocks to death to ever carry it out. Even when healthy people try to commit suicide, the rest of us are obligated to prevent it when possible. If we find someone who has taken a drug overdose, for example, we try to save him or her. If someone is trying to jump off a bridge, we try to prevent it. And if someone asks for drugs to commit suicide, only a few places in the world allow them to be prescribed.
It is clear that we do not always respect the autonomy of suicidal individuals. Even in the case of C, the judge said, “My decision that C has capacity to decide whether or not to accept dialysis does not, and should not prevent her treating doctors from continuing to seek to engage with C in an effort to persuade her of the benefits of receiving life-saving treatment in accordance with their duty to C as their patient.” The judge seems to feel that the doctors ought to continue trying to save C, even while recognizing that she has the right to refuse treatment.
Clearly, the law in this case is built around autonomy, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Autonomy assumes a rational and unimpaired person making a fully informed decision. The judge notes that C is fully functional and has no cognitive impairments. At the same time, though, C is facing a diagnosis of breast cancer and a severely damaged self-image. It isn’t clear that she may not modify her view with a little time and, perhaps, psychotherapy.
If her mental health is impaired, she may not be fully autonomous in the first place. If she isn’t, then perhaps she needs care more than freedom. An Ethics of Care would possible guide us to respect her wishes as well as her needs. A little more time may be needed to assess whether her decision, which is not reversible, is truly the decision she wants to make. With a little time and support, she may come to believe that sparkle is still possible for her.
I also think a focus on capabilities might be relevant. An ethics focused on capabilities would try to enable her to have a fulfilling life by maximizing the abilities she still has. Care and capabilities both emerged as feminist approaches to ethics and justice. While on the surface, this may not seem to be a feminist issue, but the judge also said, “It is clear that during her life C has placed a significant premium on youth and beauty and on living a life that, in C’s words, ‘sparkles’.”
It is clear that C has operated under rather sexist values for most of her life. That is her choice, to be sure, but it might be possible to find new values. Many who have experienced crippling injuries have sought suicide only to later find their lives are valuable and meaningful even without the activities and relationships they once held dear.