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.