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    silhouette of a young boy

    Can Masculinity Be Good?

    Or is it a problem to be eradicated?

    By Samuel Helyar

    April 15, 2024
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    Is masculinity a problem? If so, what would it mean to fix men?

    My wife and I had our one-year-old Labrador, Argos, “fixed” last year after he’d eaten a rock too large to digest. We weren’t sure when or if we were going to solve him, as it were, as he hadn’t seemed too much of a problem, but the doctors convinced us that since he’d already be put under to remove the foreign rock, they should just as well remove his own “rocks” while they were at it. Plus, this way he’d be less likely to show problematic behaviors even if he’d be no less likely to eat another mineral. The solution to a dog who chafes in human society is to denature him, and thus to pacify his natural spiritedness.

    What is the solution to men who chafe at modern society? Although thankfully no one is seriously suggesting that we “fix” men in the way we “fix” dogs, there are any number of reasons to be troubled about the men of today. Men account for the large majority of deaths by suicide and overdose. Their participation in the work force and in community institutions has fallen steadily for decades. Close to half of working-aged men are unmarried, and the majority of working-aged men live in childless homes. Among youths, boys make up the majority of the worst students, are less likely to graduate high school or college than are girls, and are more likely to be diagnosed with behavior disorders.

    A great deal has been published in the wake of such data, and a number of causes have been proposed. An internet search for “crisis of masculinity” will pull up scores of books, podcasts, and academic research papers. (Some of the most-discussed books of the last few years have been Richard Reeves’s Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It and Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition.) There are as many proposed solutions as there are perspectives, but perhaps the popular debate can be described as a spectrum ranging from “modern, too-effeminate society is hostile to men” on one side to “men as we’ve known them are largely to blame for society’s woes.” 

    silhouette of a young boy

    Photograph by Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

    The latter argument is well represented by the institutional position of the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional organization of psychologists in the United States, influential both in the academic world of psychological research and in the ground-level world of therapeutic practice. In 2018, it released a set of guidelines that identifies masculinity as a problem both for human society in general and for men themselves and aims to begin a reconstruction of the character of men.

    These guidelines are a few years old now and have been mocked in many places – so much so that in 2022 the statement was quietly modified to remove some of the more radical elements. Still, the core of the guidelines remains: men are a threat ever looming over society and in need of a radical adjustment for their own good and for the world’s.

    Implicit in the APA’s position that men and society are damaged by traditional masculinity is that to repair those damages requires a new understanding of masculinity to replace the traditional one. The question, then, is whether the problems of men really do call for a revolution in what it means to be men. Is it right that masculinity itself is harmful, and has been harmful all along? Were all the men who came before us bad?

    Historically, the APA insists, men have been treated as the “normative referent for behavior rather than as gendered human beings.” Traditional masculinity “has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental health and physical health.” The main thrust of its research on men has been that traditional masculinity “is, on the whole, harmful.” Rather than being the standard for healthy human behavior, it turns out to have been more bad than good all along.

    That is, until the late twentieth century, the set of characteristics deemed beneficial or necessary for civilized men was in fact harmful to humanity. The “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men” are the result of decades of research following an ideological shift that began in the 1960s. This radical shift seeks to alter the very understanding of what it means to be a normal human being, of the virtues and proper characteristics of men and of humankind in general. The research hasn’t found that masculinity is complicated, posing both dangers and boons that must be navigated with care, but that it is for the most part a bad thing. Now, thanks to science, these concerns can finally be recognized, articulated, and acted on.

    As mentioned above, boys do worse in school than girls, and men are overrepresented in prisons and as violent criminals. Likewise, the APA notes, men are less likely to eat vegetables or to seek out therapy than are women. Because masculinity is a socially constructed ideology, these disparities are unnecessary. This can now be recognized as a tragedy of historical and sociological forces, and psychological and sociological practices can and must resolve these disparities. Women can murder as much as men, and all of us can eat our vegetables and attend weekly psychotherapy.

    For the APA, the characteristics of manliness are understood as part of a Traditional Masculinity Ideology (TMI). This ideology promotes “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” This ideology leads to “Gender Role Conflict,” defined as problems resulting from adherence to “rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization, that result in personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self.” These problems are: “a disproportionate emphasis on personal achievement and control or being in positions of power,” “discomfort expressing and experiencing vulnerable emotions,” and “discomfort expressing care and affectionate touching of other men.”

    Translated into English, the attempt to be manly results in stunted human beings who do damage to themselves and those around them. These troglodytes can be identified by their concern for achievement, their attraction to risk and adventure, their general stoicism, and their dislike of nuzzling their fellow men. Likewise, TMI may contribute to those school-related problems. “Constricted notions of masculinity emphasizing aggression, homophobia, and misogyny may influence boys to direct a great deal of their energy into disruptive behaviors such as bullying, homosexual taunting, and sexual harassment rather than healthy academic and extracurricular activities.” Having been socialized according to the values of TMI, boys can’t focus on schoolwork because all they can think about is bullying the gay kids and sexually harassing the girls in their classrooms. 

    Clearly, the problems of men and masculinity are legion, and the great tragedy of manhood is that the primary obstacle to solving these problems is masculinity itself. “Research suggests that socialization practices that teach boys from an early age to be self-reliant, strong, and to minimize and manage their problems on their own yield adult men who are less willing to seek mental health treatment.” TMI does not value therapy as a way to solve problems. Self-reliance, strength, and the desire to manage their problems are directly related to the problems of men, and these traits must themselves be overcome in order to solve the problems of men.

    Rather than being engrossed in himself, the righteous man is concerned with his duty to God, and his journey is first and foremost a moral one.

    Lest we grow too hopeful, and believe that the differences between boys and girls, or men and women, are purely the effect of ideological education, the APA tells us that some of these problems have a biological foundation. “Sex differences in risk-taking are largely responsible” for the increased mortality of men compared to women, despite men’s greater socioeconomic advantages. While sex is “largely responsible,” the problems are exacerbated by TMI. What is the connection between TMI and biology? Are criminal behaviors, or violent tendencies, also largely explained by biology? Is a natural taste for risk-taking responsible for men’s socioeconomic advantages? Is a socially constructed image of masculinity the problem, or is the problem in the biological characteristics of men? To the extent that the problems need solving (only look at the statistics on murder to see the urgency, especially given that men still hold the reins of power), and that it is a significantly biological problem, why wouldn’t the discussion turn to biological solutions? Why, then, shouldn’t we fix men like we fix dogs?

    In the meantime, psychologists are encouraged to help men shed restrictive definitions of masculinity and create their own concepts of masculinity, or to help them decline to be masculine at all.

    Now, there is some recognition that masculinity includes “potentially positive” traits such as courage and leadership. One might be forgiven for wondering how courage and leadership can be separated from appreciation for risk-taking, power, and achievement. Thankfully, psychological researchers are “working on a positive-masculinities scale to capture peoples’ adherence to the pro-social traits expected from men, something that has yet to be measured systematically,” as noted in the APA guidelines’ “Continuing Education” entry. Despite the decades of research that purportedly went into the document, “pro-social” masculinity has yet to be systematically measured. On the one hand this reveals the bias driving the research, and on the other it reveals the degree to which the post-1960s generations have rejected any norms that predate themselves. Blindly, having failed to consider positive masculinity in any serious way, they are ready to base the guidelines for therapeutic practice on an understanding of masculinity that treats it as a pathology.

    Is it possible instead that, rather than doing badly because manhood itself is harmful, young men are doing badly because they are taught to do so, and taught this by the same cultural forces that now bemoan the bad outcomes? Young men are taught that the universe is mere matter devoid of purpose, and that there is no higher good or higher order to devote themselves to. Marriage is taken as an optional and breakable contract between two people and the state, while children are financial drains and impediments to the freedom necessary for self-discovery and authentic self-expression. Devotion to country is taken as naïve and unsophisticated at best and immoral at worst. Right and wrong are flexible concepts, while morality is increasingly absent from mainstream culture and politics. The passions and spirited natures of men have been dampened by the common opinions of their surroundings and the spiritually empty philosophies of our times.

    What about the philosophies of other times? Did they have something better to offer?

    What the APA calls Traditional Masculinity Ideology is remarkably like what the Greeks called spiritedness. Spiritedness aims at things higher than material comfort, physical well-being, or self-acceptance. The spirited soul seeks achievement, power, victory, and honors, and it is willing to risk safety and comfort to get them. These can be dangerous forces which require tempering, but they are also ones that drive human civilization and lead us to pursue great endeavors. At its best, spiritedness leads men (and women) to higher ends than mere bodily satisfaction and to sublimate themselves to ideals and missions greater than themselves. At its worst, it drives them to vainglory, belligerence, and the lawless pursuit of gain. The ancient Greeks were quite aware of these dangers. They also understood that the natural spiritedness associated with, but not exclusive to, men can be aimed toward virtue and saw it as necessary for reaching the heights of human existence. How did they manage this? Xenophon, a student of Socrates, a soldier, and the inventor of historical fiction (The Education of Cyrus is a fictionalized telling of the life of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great) offers a possible alternative to the APA.

    In a short treatise on the educational value of hunting, Xenophon describes the characteristics of the good Greek citizen. (The One Skilled at Hunting with Dogs describes techniques of hunting with dogs, presented as the best way to inculcate into young men the characteristics that will let them grow into virtuous men.) The good man is strong, ready to labor, and willing to sacrifice. He puts off ordinary pleasures, for most pleasures are bad and lead men into ignoble deeds. Likewise, although a day may come when men shall learn war no more, that day is not yet come, and therefore a good man must be brave in the face of danger and ready to sacrifice his life and wellbeing for the sake of his community. This requires physical and spiritual strength, and an orientation toward being one who gives help rather than receives it. To withstand toil when necessary, one must be already accustomed to doing so. Xenophon is clear that all of this requires habituation, rather than being the spontaneous products of nature or circumstance. You can’t simply live up to the moment of crisis if your life has been spent pursuing comfort, pleasure, and self-care. Men who have not been educated in toil, discipline, and subordination to ends higher than their own selves are useless to society, and lacking that education they lack access to the life of the good man.

    As Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned the students of Harvard in 1978, “it has become possible to raise young people according to [the pursuit of well-being], preparing them for and summoning them toward physical bloom, happiness, the possession of material goods, money, and leisure, toward an almost unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures. So who should now renounce all this, why and for the sake of what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of the common good and particularly in the nebulous case when the security of one’s nation must be defended in an as yet distant land?”

    Xenophon’s young men are prepared to risk their precious lives in defense of the common good because they have spent their lives tempering the spirited drives in their nature. The very forces in them that might have turned them toward the narcissistic pursuit of low passions and base urges have instead been developed into internal springs of virtue. Those men who have learned to love toil rather than ease are better able to live under laws than those who are dominated by their baser desires, because they are habituated to discipline and to suborning their desires for the sake of a task. Further, every worthy endeavor and object of affection is best placed in the hands of such human beings, just as every good discovery is the product of toil rather than of ease and pleasure. Virtue, wisdom, prudence, strength, and courage all derive from labor and sacrifice. The ability to persevere in the face of difficulty or to neglect personal desires for the sake of good works requires a long habituation in sacrifice, toil, courage, and taking risks.

    While Xenophon and the Greeks have much to say about virtue and noble self-sacrifice, there is an even older tradition that can teach us at least as much about how to direct our passions, and can orient us to even higher tasks and moral responsibilities. While the APA has little to say about hard work – in fact it only mentions the long-term danger which overvaluing hard work poses to the health and wellbeing of African American men – it has even less to say about faith. Psychologists are particularly encouraged to help religious leaders become aware of how their teachings shape and encourage harmful masculinities.

    The Hebrew Bible certainly has much to say about wicked men, but it also has much to say about righteous ones. Where the Greeks saw a struggle to master one’s desires and passions in the pursuit of virtue, the Hebrews see human actions framed between good and evil and thus one must struggle with desire and passion for the sake of goodness. Though sin lies in wait for us, lurking at the door, we have the freedom and the responsibility to master it. By understanding that we have the freedom to choose evil, we also recognize our God-given ability to choose good. Thus, all our tasks can be oriented toward righteousness and devotion to God. Man is tasked with dominion over the earth and its creatures, but not as a tyrant bleeding his subjects dry. Man must be a shepherd or a guardian, mastering the world for the sake of tending to it. Likewise, the Hebrew Bible frames human life, and thus moral life, around the family. In contemporary society, aimed at material comfort and personal liberation, what impels us to sacrifice our wants for the needs of our families? Why would we become fathers if children are the end of adventure, personal growth, sexual freedom, and financial ease?

    For the man of the Bible, his task on earth is a spiritual one. Rather than being engrossed in himself, in the accumulation and consumption of material pleasures, the righteous man is concerned with his duty to God, and his journey is first and foremost a moral one. Where the APA argues that masculinity produces bad husbands and bad fathers, it offers no guidance except to encourage men to let go of masculinity. It is an empty teaching for an empty universe. Men need education to become good husbands, fathers, and citizens, and perhaps they need more education than women need to become good wives, mothers, and citizens.

    What education does the APA offer? Human life must be oriented to more than the reduction of harms and the increase of comforts, but the APA, an institution representative of the modern understanding of human flourishing, has no higher aims. Higher aims won’t be found in its research studies. The obsession with modern methods also means that the APA has cut itself off from the wisdom of the past. Where in its teaching are the good, the righteous, the noble, the triumphant, the indomitable, the resolute, the faithful, the patient? Some of these are in tension with one another, but they are all higher visions than what is on offer here. And they are all found in abundance in ancient texts. Alongside those visions of a man’s highest aims is a clear-sighted awareness of the dangers of the unguided human spirit. The APA has discovered the dangers but, lacking the wisdom to guide men, would rather abolish masculinity. Many of today’s men do need help, but it is better found in a renewal of the spiritual wisdom of our forebears than in a therapeutic revolution.

    Contributed By SamuelHelyar Samuel Helyar

    Samuel Helyar is a PhD candidate at Boston College, and one of Tikvah Fund’s 2022–2023 Krauthammer Fellows.

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