Part III: Where did the talk about “broken boys” come from?
Not normally paying much attention to mainline news sources or social media, I nevertheless was aware when the #MeToo movement burst into public attention in press and on TV screens, in October 2017, although it turns out the Me Too organization was founded by activist Tarana Burke ten years earlier (2006), with no intention to make it a topic for popular media. Indeed, she says that was something she tried to avoid.
Relately, in February of 2018, comedian Michael Ian Black caused another minor frenzy about gender from a different perspective. He connected gender and another frequent topic in news cycles, suggesting that the deeper causes of gun violence were related to immature and perverted concepts about masculinity in our culture. Black feels that women now have effective ways to talk about and show their feminity, while still remaining individuals. But men – especially young men – are bound to traditional attitudes, and to a rigid definition of how they should talk and act, which allows no hint of being soft. Here is his short interview about “broken boys” given on NPR shortly after the flurry of Tweets.
My long career of teaching in a suburban community college confirms, but doesn’t prove, Black’s opinions about masculine attitudes. I often saw a kind of machismo thinking. For instance, when discussion topics turned to traditional societies’ norms about gender relations – say, in a comparative religion class – male students often said something like ‘When I get married, I expect to be the king of my own castle!’ These students in suburban Chicago are not affluent; the latter usually attend universities.
Dreams of marriage and owning a house are getting harder for middle-class people to realize in suburbia, around the country. And visions of male dominance? Hopefully these views will change. The ideas expressed were often challenged, especially by women, many of whom were returning to school as adults and mothers – often divorced and/or needing more income.
No doubt there are still strong divides between city dwellers and those in the countryside – ‘city-slickers’ v. ‘hicks’ – which have existed since pioneer days, romanticized in John Wayne movies. Recent elections in America, and westernized nations around the world, have illustrated this conflict. Historically, the success of agricultural communities depended on knowledge from experience (about weather, when to plant, techniques for preparing soil, planting and harvesting, etc.) which led them to respect elders as guides, and to resist change. (Think of traditional China.) By contrast, city life brings daily contact with new ideas, and capitalism demands change. So in capitalist countries, youth is honored, and the experience of elders is not valued. Aging is looked on as a disease to be avoided or disguised in any way possible (which provides many marketing opportunities). In my neighborhood, old people often feel invisible, or at best tolerated, but certainly not respected.
Returning to gender issues, I can’t say whether or not the mythology of machismo causes young men to act out violently with guns. But I’m sure that American culture includes elements that thrive on the spirit of violence of all sorts, in film and news, in TV entertainment, in bloody fights broadcast on UFC (Universal Fight Club), and even in elementary school sports where fans and mothers shout “Kill him!” Since the Reagan era, any efforts by psychologists and children’s advocacy groups to limit what children experience have been stifled by courts accepting
uncontrolled marketing “free speech” arguments.
We see other forms of aggression growing too, less physical than contact sports or rape, but which also bring great pain, financial hardship, emotional distress and poor health to masses of ordinary people, caused by the the winner-take-all thinking in politics and business, when competitors try to destroy their opponents. Michael Douglas showed this spirit in the film “Wall Street” (2017), which is not just fictional.
Lastly, as discussed in Part I of this essay, America has a long – aparently endless – history of real aggression, and wars around the world, big and little, which often were unnecessary and/or ill planned. These are too easily justified when they happen, or romanticized and glorified later on – another example of disregard for truth and public good.
The men’s movement came from the modern women’s movement. No doubt some men’s groups intended to ‘keep them in their place’, perhaps from fear or prejudice. But most were just trying to counter what they saw as the feminization of boys and men, in a culture they felt had increasingly discounted and erased men’s traditional place as breadwinners, and role models for their boy children, without providing meaningful alternatives. Issues about the role and value of men in society go back at least to the beginning of the industrial age – i.e. when James Watt developed the steam engine (1765) and Adam Smith gave his views about economics (1776).
Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990) deals at length with the role of men in primitive societies (some with mythical origins in prehistory). He concentrates on men’s work and roles in post-industrial society, especially in recent times, claiming they have been demeaned to the point where children no longer respect what their fathers have to offer. After all, what’s respectable by today’s standards, about a man who spent 45 years on an industrial assembly-line, except perhaps his perseverence for the sake of an adequate wage (or what used to be)?
Keeping in that spirit, Bly’s main point appears to be that men are, and have always been, inherently different psychologically from women, and that each gender has its part to play in a healthy society. Not surprisingly, this mytho-poetic view – greatly influenced by Jung – has many critics. Some would say it is indeed mythical. They object especially to what they see as its simplistic binary notion of sex roles, that ignores the great complexity of current ‘gender identity’ social trends and their political expressions. That’s a strong point.
We can find references to wild men (and women) in medieval European literature. Ancient Greeks and Romans referred to goat-like satyrs and nymphs of forests and water. But the oldest known example is Enkidu – the wild man of Gilgamesh – found in ancient (2700 BCE) Iraq.
Wild people may have roots in the ground, be leaf-covered, or have wolf’s skin. Grendel in Beowulf (c. 700-1000 CE) is a wild man. King Nebuchadnezzar became a wild man, eating grass like a beast, as told in Daniel 4:3 (6th c. BCE). The Yeti (abominable snowmen) of Tibet, Sasquatch and other Big Foot forest spirits of America’s northwest are also examples, some only oral. For young men today, a realistic painting of a hairy man might inspire more than these. Or better, a real man who can be a model and give counsel – not easy to find today.
Bly’s thoughts were expanded, critiqued and updated by Moore and Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (1990), Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly (1991), John Gray’s Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus (1992), and others. All these ran into serious, mostly feminist criticism. A common thread expressed among them is the controversial belief that boys need to be initiated into adulthood, and helped to find their proper roles in society. Maturity at puberty is not so obvious in boys as it is in girls. More importantly, boys have societal obligations that are best provided through male role models who are active and present. Lacking this adult help, boys remain puerile, and the idea of masculinity is perverted and abused. Moore and Gilette say this in the Introduction to King, Warrior, Magician, Lover:
“What happens to a society if the ritual processes by which these identities are formed become discredited? In the case of men, there are many who either had no initiation into manhood, or had pseudo-initiations that failed to evoke the needed transition into adulthood. We get the dominance of boy psychology. Boy psychology is everywhere around us, and its marks are easy to see. Among them are abusive and acting-out behaviors against others, both men and women; passivity and weakness, the inability to act effectively and creatively in one’s own life and to engender life and creativity in others (both men and women); and, often, an oscillation between the two — abuse/weakness, abuse/weakness.”
The story of Iron John that Bly quotes from is called Eisenhans in the Grimm Brothers collection of 1812 in Germany. But the oldest know version of the tale was from Italy – in Giovanni Francesco Straparola’s Facetious Nights (1550-1553). For my purposes, having ‘iron skin’ is key to this story’s message. Iron John (Eisenhans) is not wearing armor, which is artificial; it’s his skin that is impenetrable. It’s part of him, part of his manly character (but not the only part). He’s not a monster, in the popular sense of that term – a non-human. (Actually the word monstrum just means something strange, or different – something to point at, as in a freak show.) Iron John (Eisenhans) is not an animal, but a human – a strong, wild, untamed, hard to approach or understand human. He is certainly not ‘civilized’, so he seems to threaten civilization.
Iron John is not supernatural, then, but an archetype of natural man. Aretha Franklin might have had such a man in mind when she sang “He makes me feel like a natural woman!” In some stories (e.g. Gilgamesh), the wild, natural, uncivilized man is tamed with the help of a sacred temple prostitute. Lots of discussion topics there!
A ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ person might easily reject these ‘natural’ qualities, saying humans are meant to subordinate their nature, and be ‘spiritual’. Is Iron John encouraging us to be evil? I think not. On the surface, at least, he seems as good as he is bad. He helps the boy, using his knowledge and strength to teach and train the boy to be courageous, to learn from failure, to separate from his queen mother, and to expose injustice and artificiality among the courtiers of the true king. The boy gains his true manhood. So, perhaps Iron John is not against spirituality, but symbolizes the true ‘spirit of man’, which is different from the true ‘spirit of woman’.
Carl Jung, who inspired much of Bly’s analysis of Iron John, speaks about a female and a male soul (or mind). Every human, of whatever gender, has both these souls within, but which soul is dominant depends on that person’s gender. This ‘double mind’ was a major principle of Emanuel Swedenborg, who lived two centuries before Jung. Swedenborg strongly influenced Jung, long before the latter met Freud (an atheist). Jung criticized Freud’s atheistic naturalism. Jung and Swedenborg both believed in the spirituality and eternity of human life.
“Men’s Movement 2.0” is my effort to deal with the polarizing viewpoint that has developed over gender issues in recent years, as I said at the start of Part I. I’m not expecting everyone to ‘be nice and try to get along’, as some of our parents used to say. I like to believe that philosophical reasoning can show in what direction the truth lies, but must admit in this case, I haven’t discovered that direction with any certainty.
For me, however, the question is not just academic. It came out of a conversation I had with a person very close to me. (If I reveal her/ his gender, it might prejudice how this post affects readers!) Here is the essence of our conversation, as I recall it.
The topic of #MeToo came up at the time when many recent revelations about rape and obvious abuses of women by men in power positions were in the news. Our conversation turned to other common behaviors that should stop too, like whistling, unsolicited sexual comments, and unwanted attention. At one point I suggested that men (especially young men) are unsure how to react when women (especially young women) dress and behave themselves publicly, in sexually ‘provocative’ or ‘revealing’ ways (my description). The answer I got was an angry ‘I don’t give a damn if she’s stark naked! She should be allowed to look any way she wants!’
[In recounting this, I am imagining a visual collage of women walking on the sidewalk, or waiting for a ride, single, in pairs or in groups, dressed in every possible combination of exaggerated spikes, low-cut, see-through, form-fitting, slit, punctured, shredded, or absent clothing, apparently chosen by each to display what she believes are her best attributes, and will get the effect she desires – be it charm, or jealousy, or simply attention. (Perhaps I should be embarrassed at my age for being charmed too, and amazed!)]
I don’t remember what my response was, if I had one. I do recall feeling it was pointless to stay on that topic. Rationally speaking, such a perspective seems untenable to me now. If there is no accepted social standard to give everyone some guidance on how to talk, appear and behave towards each other as men and women (and other genders on the growing list), what can the result be except chaos and conflict? I also think it’s an impossibly extreme perspective. Obviously there are limits to how people can act without interference. Rape, murder and theft are three examples.
This doesn’t mean that the standard must be absolutely right. Only that it expresses some commonality, which allows comfortable and charitable interaction to go on in our daily public lives (and maybe private lives too). In the theory and practice of American jurisprudence, deciding such a standard should be a matter of enlightened discussion and will always require compromise. Trying to do the right thing is better than an immodest dogmatic claim that “I know!” It’s also better than saying “There is no standard”.
The tension I’ve been musing about is the natural result of a growing societal characteristic which seems to misunderstand the concept of freedom totally. More and more people want to believe freedom means every person should be allowed – even encouraged – to be herself, and do ‘whatever she wants’. That view fits perfectly with, and may result from, the modern business model dominating the current American economy and culture: ‘You can have whatever you want, and we’re happy to provide it for you (and own the debt it puts you into).’ Beyond or within these more easy-to-see causes, I think there is an old, old problem which is still around. It’s our natural tendency to do whatever we think will benefit us as individuals, without regard for ‘our neighbor’. It’s name is old too: evil.
As is evident in this essay and many of its hyperlinks, I believe the trend of people’s thinking about democracy is really unthinking and dangerous. My view may be too ‘conservative’, in some sense. But I do hope we can conserve ideas which are essential to human life and happiness that appear to be fading. These include belief that truth exists (although not easy to find), and it is our friend; love of others is more important than love of ourselves; helping others is better than competing for attention; and long-term spiritual growth is worth more than collecting stuff and impressing those around us.