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To say that modern men are confused these days about what it means to be a man has become so commonplace that it hardly needs mentioning. Daily we read about the “crisis” of masculinity: Men seem confused, disoriented. Health, both physical and mental, seems to be deteriorating. Even sperm counts are down! “Deaths of despair,” they call them, those lives cut short by drugs, alcohol, suicide – all overwhelmingly men. At a deeper level, there is a crisis of connection, of meaning. Countless men say they have no friends, and many have given up the search for romantic partners.
It’s no surprise that there are so many false prophets like Andrew Tate who vow to help men restore their manhood, reclaim their dominance in the world. These false prophets blame women, who have “abandoned” their role as mother and homemaker, have “invaded” the workplace, insisted on reproductive rights and sexual freedom, while simultaneously insisting on safety and bodily integrity. Others may blame liberal economic policies that closed the door on manly work while opening the floodgates to immigrants who “steal our jobs.”
Of course, most of these efforts to “make manhood great again” are ridiculous. For one thing, it’s just bad statistics. White men in Europe and America once held 95 per cent of all positions of power. Now it’s more like 90 per cent. It’s hardly the Great Replacement. And does anyone really think that women are going to say, “You know, they’re right, having careers and families, sexual freedom, our own lives and integrity, not being defined by a man, well: Maybe it’s not for us. Okay, ladies, let’s go home.”
But maybe, just maybe, the answer to this new “crisis” of masculinity lies less with women and more with men, or, rather, with what we were raised to believe was the essence of masculinity. Maybe if we looked in the mirror, we’d see that men are constantly pulled in different directions, because of the definitions we have of what it means to be a man.
Being a good man
The current male malaise comes not from outside, but from the different voices we hear in our own heads.
Don’t believe me? Perform this little thought experiment. As you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, you insist to yourself: “You are a good man.” Imagine your funeral where you want attendees to proclaim: “He was a good man.” But ask yourself this: What does it mean to be a good man? Immediately, you are conflicted and draw on a multitude of different answers to that problem.
I have asked this question of several thousand young men and boys around the world, from single-sex schools in Australia to college classrooms in the U.S. to a police academy in Sweden, and former soccer stars at FIFA. It’s part of a workshop I do with them to explore the process of becoming a man, exploring its relevant rules, how they learn them, and how these rules structure their lives.
Their answers rarely vary. Here is what men believe it means to be a good man: Integrity, honor, being responsible, being a good provider, doing the “right thing,” caring, putting others first, sacrifice.
Where did they learn this? Is this not the Judeo-Christian heritage? The Bible? The foundation of democratic societies? Yes. Surprisingly, pretty much everyone reading this understands that this is what it means to be a good man.
Being a real man
Okay, fair enough. Now tell me if those same ideas or phrases occur to you when I say “Man the F… Up!” or “Be a real man!” If you’re like most workshop participants, you’re a bit startled. That’s a completely different sense of manliness!
What, then, does it mean to be a real man? Here’s what ordinary men tell me: don’t cry. Be strong. Never show your feelings. Play through pain. Suck it up. Get rich. Win. Be aggressive. Don’t take no for an answer. Be responsible. As you can see, with one exception – be responsible – it’s a completely different list from the first one extracted from my workshop participants.
So let me ask you this: where did you learn what it means to be a “real man?”
This is what men usually say, in order: (1) Father; (2) Coach; (3) My guy friends; (4) My older brother. My guess is you thought the same thing. If you thought of a woman at all, it was probably your mother. I’ll bet some of you thought of a male priest or teacher before you thought of a woman.
You’ll have noticed that the characteristics of being a “good man” are really the characteristics of being a good person. The adjective “good” is the central word in the phrase, and both women and men can equally be “good.” A good man is, in a sense, an ungendered term; it is synonymous with being a good person, a good citizen, a good parent.
But “real” is another category altogether. It is very specific to men, a most gendered intentional, often emphasized term. It is demonstrated and proven before the evaluative eyes of other men. And for that reason, we often say that masculinity is “homosocial” – that it is other men who judge the effectiveness of our performance of it. We want to be a “man’s man,” not a “ladies’ man.” A “Man among men.”
And here is the lesson I hope we can draw from this, something that pretty much every single male reader of this essay will recognize: There are times in every man’s life when he will be asked by other guys to betray his own values, his own ethics, his own idea of what it means to be a good person in the name of proving that he is a real man. That is, proving that we are “real men” to other men will involve – no, require – that we sometimes do the wrong thing, fail to stand up for the little guy, behave dishonorably.
This is the story we men must tell – tell our friends, our children, and especially our sons. That we have been there, torn between being a good human being and being a “real” man, that we know the pressures they face. We must tell them not only for their sakes because it can help them acknowledge the ways that they, too, may feel pulled between those poles. But we have to tell them for our own sakes, so that we can finally acknowledge the damage done to us, done to our hearts, our souls, by the demands of trying to deny our humanity and be real men.
To prove you are a good person is, however, still to prove that you are good as a man. Masculinity, in the honorable sense my workshop participants meant it, is not a given; it does not happen at a certain age, all by itself. We have to earn it. Many cultures, and several religions, posit such a trajectory, a need to move from “not man” to “man” by means of achievement. You learn a passage of the Torah or the Bible, go on a walkabout, or survive an initiation ritual. Remember what Simone de Beauvoir famously said about women: One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
Well, it’s just as true for men. And if we are going to enable men of all ages to live up to their own definitions of manhood, we must create a culture of support among men, to challenge that relentless pressure to take risks and enact vice, and to finally ease the burdens of proof male peer-pressure exerts.