Violence and Masculinity, Revisited

The topic of male aggression and violence is of deep interest to me. I’ve mentioned before that I was emotionally and physically abused when I was growing up. The bulk of that abuse came from the boys I went to school with. I was expected to embody the degree of aggression and violence that my peers manifested and that expectation was a constant source of stress for me. I’m not very aggressive. I never have been. I’m not all that prone to violence either. In a confrontation, my emotions are generally of the “run away” variety than the “stand and fight” variety. I’ve had to make a conscious effort in teaching myself to be more assertive. It’s something I struggle with even though I’ve walked the planet for four decades now.

I’m not convinced that men’s emotions are much more biologically predisposed toward violence and aggression than women’s emotions. I used to live with the idealistic misconception that women were angelic beings that stood apart from violence. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize that this is far from the case. I’ve witnessed women act on aggressive and violent impulses with great regularity. The contrast lies in the tendency of expressing those impulses through different avenues than men. Those impulses tend to be expressed through social interactions. In men, those impulses tend to be expressed through social interactions and physical violence and intimidation. As far as I can tell, the impulses remain the same. The way in which people express those impulses varies across gender.

In spite of these impulses being shared between the sexes, cultural ideology ties together masculinity, aggression and violence. Aggression and violence are not simply things that men do, they are incorporated into the very sense of what it means to be masculine. Put another way, aggression and violence are incorporated into boys’ and mens’ identities.

Now, I know that some people are going to object to that statement, but let’s take a second look at it. Men are expected to serve in the role of protectors, are they not? What does that bring to mind? Among the roles that pop into your head, do these come to mind: police officer, soldier, knight, and action hero? Those roles are generally viewed positively. Bound up in the roll of protector is the notion that it is men’s duty to protect the weak and bring villainous aggressors to justice. Comparatively speaking, how often are women envisioned in these roles? Even though it’s 2009, how often are little girls taught to see themselves in this light? Take a walk through Toys R Us or spend a few hours watching television. The proof is there if you look for it.

In spite of the positive roles associated with some forms of violence and aggression, we live in a world that is saturated with violence. Violence, be it physical or social, undergirds the way in which power flows in the world. Some say that money makes the world go ‘round, but underneath the veneer of monetary exchange, lies the threat of tanks, bombs, guns, and ultimately, nuclear devastation. As a child of the cold war era, this topic inevitably brings me to contemplate the scary forms of weapon research that governments are engaging in across the globe. Our violence and aggression could very well bring about human extinction.

So, what can we do about this? How can we work toward a future where violence is no longer the default response to so many forms of conflict? When I’ve talked to people about this in the past, I inevitably encounter the frustrating assertion that violence and aggression are the biological outcome of male physiology. That assertion brings forth the notion that there is not much we can do, but accept that these phenomena are the inevitable outcome of nature in action.

Well, OK, let’s run with that notion: males are biologically predisposed toward violence and aggression. The thing is, even if that’s true, why does society do so little to discourage this behavior in boys and men? Other kinds of behaviors receive tons of social sanction and it’s just as easy to argue that they arise out of natural human tendencies. Take theft, for instance. It’s easy to argue that theft is a behavior that arises from a desire toward self preservation and survival. That is, people steal resources that help them to survive out of a desire to continue their existence. It’s also quite easy to argue that greed comes from the same origin. The more resources you have, the more likely you are to survive.

In spite of the very real possibility that these tendencies are natural behaviors bound in our neurobiology, theft and greed are strongly discouraged when we raise children. In contrast, violent play and aggressive interactions are often dismissed as normal, masculine behavior in boys. The operative phrase in dismissing this behavior as harmless is “boys will be boys.” In fact, I remember my father encouraging me to solve conflict through violence. Why is this? Presumably, if you ignore a child’s tendency toward greed and theft—or even worse, you encourage it—your child might very well grow up to be a criminal. So, if you ignore a child’s tendency toward violence and aggression, or you even go so far as to encourage such behaviors, would he not be more likely to grow up to be a violent adult?

Now, think of movies and books. How often is greed and theft portrayed in a positive way? How often is violence—particularly violence as a solution to conflict—portrayed in a positive way?

Why are violence and aggression—behaviors that are widely viewed as the province of men—deemed acceptable when other negative behaviors are not? Could it be that those behaviors have traditionally been used as effective tools in amassing and maintaining power, particularly men’s access to power? This brings the conversation full circle to what I wrote in a previous post addressing masculinity and violence.

I know that these ideas are not popular as they are frequently dismissed as misandry. However, I don’t think this is the case as the victims of male violence are so often men themselves. When I was growing up—male identity and male body still intact—I was one of the victims of this violence. This is quite personal and quite real to me. It is my earnest wish that boys and men would stop preying upon each other. In my heart of hearts, I wish we could create a world in which boys no longer have to face the kind of shit I had to endure. I’m not certain how someone could label that motivation as misandry.

In spite of the cynicism that 40 years of living has brought to my psyche, I still retain threads of the idealism that first captured my imagination 23 years ago. A part of me wants very much to believe that human beings can be better than we currently are. To do this however, we must be willing to turn over a lot of ideological rocks and allow ourselves to see the startling creatures that live under them. That’s a painful process, but change is rarely comfortable. At the heart of this process should remain our concern for how we treat our children, for they are the most vulnerable among us.


~ by timberwraith on June 29, 2009.

4 Responses to “Violence and Masculinity, Revisited”

  1. I, for one, think you’re totally right about this. In grad school I stumbled across all this hidden camera research that they did in preschools and daycares which analyzed the body language and facial expressions of the teachers in response to the behavior of boys and girls. When boys played in a vigorous physical manner, running and jumping and yelling, they received positive non-verbal responses, while girls received negative responses. But when the girls played quietly with other girls and acted cooperatively, they got the positive non-verbal feedback, while the boys got slightly negative feedback for these kinds of behaviors. And this extended to mild physical violence. The teachers were less likely to engage in disiplinary action or display negative non-verbal responses when boys hit or pushed each other, whereas this behavior merited immediate negative response, and usually intervention, in girls. And this study was done in many different preschools all over the country in varying socioeconomic groups.

    And I’ve been accused of misandry when talking about this too, which makes no sense. This is a way of pointing out how patriarchy hurts men and boys too. How is that misandry? And noting all the subtle ways we socialize boys and girls to follow these norms really serves to undermine the popular mythology concerning the biological causes of gendered behavior, which is a good thing. And if the essentialist view turned out to be right, why would its defenders have a reason to object to constructionist attempts to change gendered socialization, anyway? According to the essentialist view, no matter how we socialize them, kids are going to embody these gendered norms, since it’s all determined by biology and set in stone, right?

  2. I, for one, think you’re totally right about this.

    We seem to both be “hard core” social constructionists. It’s nice to have a conversation with someone who shares a similar perspective because we seem to be a tiny minority outside of academia. It’s pretty frustrating trying to have a conversation about gender and sexism in the real world and constantly hitting the ideological wall of “Oh, but men and women are just like that. It’s in our biology to be that way.” *sigh*

    Of course, I’m not surprised about the camera research. Do you by chance have a link to an article on that research? I’d like to write about it and maybe put it in my Feminism 101 links.

    And I’ve been accused of misandry when talking about this too, which makes no sense. This is a way of pointing out how patriarchy hurts men and boys too. How is that misandry?

    Here’s why:

    1) Male privilege entails the deeply internalized, yet unconscious sense that your ideas and your ways of doing things are the right way of doing things. It is, by social dictate, the default way of doing things.

    2) Any critique of masculinity is seen as a critique of being a man. People generally don’t understand the distinction between sex and gender and the implications of that distinction. “Being a man” and “being masculine” are so intertwined in our culture, that they appear to be one and the same to many people. In fact, you will often hear boys and men telling other boys and men “to be a man, to man up, to act like a man, etc.” Those phrases conflate gender and sex as one entity.

    3) Critiquing masculinity as being flawed in construction triggers people’s assumption that behaving femininely is the only alternative. Male and female, masculine and feminine—they are seen as being the opposite of each other. Consequently, the critique or negation of one implies that the other must take it’s place. So, anyone implying that masculinity is flawed is assumed to be saying, “Men need to behave like women.” That’s a big no no, since sexism dictates that women and femininity are weak and inferior. Expecting men to behave like women is then automatically portrayed as going against nature.

    4) Challenging masculinity is essentially an act of challenging the basis of male power. No one likes having their basis of power challenged. It’s threatening.

    Now, let’s bring all of this together. People see challenging masculinity as challenging that which is standard, normal behavior and the preferred way of doing things in the world. Challenging masculinity is the same as wanting to take away men’s power (and by extension, men’s autonomy and control over their lives), expecting men to behave like women, expecting men to embrace weakness and inferiority and expecting men to behave in ways that goes against their natures.

    In a nutshell,this is why we hear some men refer to feminists as controlling, power hungry, man-hating bitches. Of course, that’s a bunch of horseshit, but that’s the way some men seem to respond to these matters.

    And if the essentialist view turned out to be right, why would its defenders have a reason to object to constructionist attempts to change gendered socialization, anyway? According to the essentialist view, no matter how we socialize them, kids are going to embody these gendered norms, since it’s all determined by biology and set in stone, right?

    Yup. Absolutely.

    See, here’s the thing. A lot of people don’t want the system to change. They are comfortable with it and feel threatened by the suggestion that something is crucially wrong. Of those people who want change, many do not want too much change. Sex and gender are the foundation upon which the authenticity of many people’s identities are hinged. If you challenge the basis of that authenticity, you inadvertently challenge people’s identities. That act is always going to generate resistance.

    I know that it’s not the intention of feminists and social constructionist’s to say, “your identities are lies, based upon a house of cards,” but that’s the way people interpret it. It’s really, truly threatening to them.

    Is this really surprising, though? Society’s rules surrounding sex and gender generate huge amounts of insecurity and self-hatred in people. Essentially, we’re trying to sow the seeds of change in a mine field.

  3. I can’t find links to any of the specific articles I used, but if I remember correctly they were in journals like Sex Roles, Developmental Psychology, and Child Development. I think they were all early to mid-90s, so I’m not sure why they’re not showing up in the databases I’m searching. It might help if I knew the exact name of the articles, which I could dig out…

    I also get the sense that social constructionism has been “weaponized,” to borrow a phrase from PHB, too many times, so it now garners an immediate negative response. Which is depressing, and unfortunate, given the fact that said weaponization is based on a bunch of implications that simply don’t follow from the theory.

  4. Yeah, that is depressing. I’ve been left with a similar impression, too. Regardless, I’ll keep talking about social constructionism, even if it pisses people off. In some ways, it might be easier for me to broach the topic, since I’m a lesbian and I’m transgender. It’s going to be much harder for people to imply that I’m a behaving like a bigot because I’m discussing these ideas.

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